Transgender youth reemerge as statehouse focal point in Utah


SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers wasted no time this week before returning to an issue that has become a popular topic in GOP-led statehouses: Trying to limit medical options doctors are allowed to provide transgender youth.

On the second day of the legislative session, a committee begun considering a policy that would stop minors from receiving gender-affirming health care — including surgery or puberty blockers — and another that would prohibit schools from letting kids change which pronouns they go by without parental consent.

The proposals reflect how lawmakers in red states are continuing to make matters related to gender, sexuality and youth central to their legislative agenda. As LGBTQ Americans have become increasing visible throughout popular culture and media, social conservatives have rallied around emerging issues such as the bathrooms that transgender kids are permitted to use, the sports teams they are allowed to play on and the health care their doctors can prescribe.

Though some laws have since been challenged in court, at least 12 state legislatures, including Utah, have passed legislation restricting transgender kids from playing in girls sports. This year, 11 states have introduced proposals that would enact various restrictions on doctors from prescribing puberty blockers or hormones to transgender kids and teens. Republicans in South Dakota on Tuesday introduced a transgender health care proposal.

The proposals have widened a chasm between conservative bastions and progressive strongholds like California, which has passed legislation to protect parents and doctors who provide transgender youth gender-affirming care a safe haven from subpoenas. It has also awakened a corps of transgender activists in red states such as Montana, where two were elected to the statehouse last year.

State Sen. Mike Kennedy, a Republican family doctor sponsoring the Utah proposal, told reporters on the opening day of the Legislature that it didn’t make sense that health care policy related to gender and youth, which is at times irreversible, would be subject to no government oversight.

“At this point, we have no regulation whatsoever,” Kennedy said on Tuesday. “I could call myself a transgender expert and start practicing in this area without any regulation, credentials, or special certification.”

In Utah, where a majority of residents and politicians are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, lawmakers have for years focused heavily on social issues, including pornography and alcohol. Last year, the Republican-supermajority Legislature enacted a ban on transgender kids in girls sports. It was subsequently challenged in court and put on pause. While the case is under review, a commission of experts will make eligibility decisions for transgender youth.

Greg Walker, a Utah parent whose daughter has identified as transgender “since she could talk,” said it was disheartening to see the health care decisions his family and their doctors have made politicized.

At each juncture – before she went on puberty blockers or estrogen, for example — the Walkers and their doctors thoroughly deliberated and relied on experts like the American Academy of Pediatrics to understand “the risks of doing it and not doing it.”

Walker said he was particularly concerned about the disproportionately high suicide rates for transgender youth and of the potential harm that could result in the absence of treatment.

“As a parent my first priority is to take care of my child and make sure my child’s safe,” Walker said.

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