Tennessee Is Considering Banning Gender-Affirming Care As Child Abuse. Doctors, Parents, And Advocates Are Speaking Out.

"I'm very lucky my child is alive today," a mother of one trans teen said.

A mother of a trans kid testifies before the Tennessee Senate

Doctors and parents gave powerful testimony on Wednesday in opposition of a Tennessee bill that would ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth and criminalize any violation as “child abuse.”

In spite of their testimony, the Health and Welfare Committee in the Tennessee Senate voted to move forward with the bill, which would be the first time a state has attempted to create criminal penalties for gender-affirming healthcare of minors. 

The bill known as SB 1 would not only ban trans minors from accessing puberty blockers and hormone replacement therapy and undergoing surgery, it would also ban the use of telehealth and force all children currently undergoing treatment to stop by March 2024. The bill and its equivalent in the Tennessee House of Representatives are scheduled for more committee meetings next week. 

Heather Thomas, a Tennessee mother, told the eight Republicans and one Democrat on the committee about her transgender son’s agonizing experience of going through the wrong puberty. She said her son had become suicidal after five years of being bullied by other students  — before he understood that he was trans. 

“Every morning, I’d pray that when I opened the bedroom door, he’d be alive,” Thomas said. She said her family tried therapy and antidepressants, but nothing helped until her son’s junior year of high school, when he came out as transgender. She said her son asked his dad to give him a new first name, and his demeanor completely changed. He spent seven months talking with doctors and his parents — and another year doing therapy — before he started hormones. 

“I’m very lucky my child is alive today. I’m very lucky that the stab he put in his leg with a kitchen knife didn’t kill him and I was there to take him to the hospital. I’m lucky the night he ran out of Target to the interstate, I was able to stop him and find him,” she said. “Now that he has hormones, he’s great, he’s fine.” 

Republican senators questioned why trans youth couldn’t just wait until they were 18 years old to medically transition.

Dr. Allison Stiles, a Memphis-based primary care doctor who works with transgender patients, also testified before the committee that delaying treatment for children — and taking it away from those who have already started — would be “terrible,” as youth who have started to experience the secondary sex characteristics of their gender identity would find themselves “stuck in between.” 

She cautioned that a bill like this would essentially cause trans youth to detransition — by stopping their hormonal replacement therapy and forcing their bodies to revert back to the characteristics of their sex assigned at birth. 

The American Medical Association and other major medical associations have repeatedly opposed restrictions against care, which they deem as medically necessary for transgender youth. 

In a new report on LGBTQ residents of Tennessee by the Campaign for Southern Equality, 58% of 381 respondents said they’ve contemplated suicide in the last year. 

Democratic state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, the lone dissenter against the bill, gave a passionate speech in opposition. “Typically when we write laws, we outlaw conduct,” he said. “Right now, we are outlawing people.”

He applauded Thomas as a loving mother who is trying to do right by her child.

“What we’re saying is that what she did — being that kind of mom — is guilty of child abuse in this state is just wrong,” he said.

The committee voted 8–1 in favor of the bill after it sailed through the House Health Committee on Tuesday. 

“I cannot think of a greater intrusion into the fundamental rights of parents than the prospect of losing custody of one’s child,” said Chase Strangio, the deputy director for transgender justice at the ACLU, during Tuesday’s meeting. 

In a statement to BuzzFeed News, the ACLU of Tennessee described the bill as harmful not only to trans youth, but their parents as well.

“This bill puts parents following the medical advice of doctors and established best medical practices at risk of losing their children. We should not be punishing parents for trying to help save their children’s lives,” Henry Seaton, a transgender justice advocate at the ACLU of Tennessee, said in the statement. “This bill is not only vast government overreach that undermines the fundamental right to parent, it’s dangerous.”  

Last year, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott directed his state’s Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate parents who allow their kids to medically transition for child abuse. A judge has temporarily blocked those investigations, and a lawsuit is ongoing. 

You can reach the Trevor Project, which provides help and suicide-prevention resources for LGBTQ youth, by texting START to 678-678, via chat at TheTrevorProject.org/Get-Help, or by calling Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386.

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