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Photo courtesy of Jimmy Emerson, DVM / Flickr

Arkansas Takes a Massive Step Backward with Anti-Trans Healthcare Law

[CW: transphobia, suicide]

Arkansas is moving backward. Last month, the state’s Republican-dominated legislature launched an attack on transgender kids’ rights with a bill preventing Arkansas doctors from providing gender-affirming healthcare to trans youth under age 18. On Monday, Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson vetoed the bill, saying it “would be and is a vast government overreach,” as it creates “new standards of legislative interference with physicians and parents as they deal with some of the most complex and sensitive matters involving young people.” The next day, the House voted 71-24 to override his veto, with the Senate following suit by a vote of 15-8. 

The bill, HB 1570, is named “The Arkansas Save Adolescents From Experimentation (SAFE) Act,” and bans youths’ access to puberty-blockers, which are reversible hormone treatments that suppress the body’s release of sex hormones at puberty (thus slowing or preventing physical changes such as menstruation, breast and penis growth, and body hair growth). Several of its provisions restrict medical care for trans and nonbinary people of all ages, including transition-related surgeries and cross-hormone therapy, a gender-affirming treatment that uses estrogen and testosterone to change one’s physical appearance in accordance with one’s gender expression. Further, HB 1570 makes it illegal to use insurance or state funds like Medicaid for transition care, which is especially harmful given LGBTQ+ folks’ increased rates of economic marginalization. 

This is not the first encroachment on trans rights in Arkansas. Even if Hutchinson’s veto seems like a step in the right direction for a conservative governor, it comes less than a month after he signed two other anti-trans bills, one preventing trans girls from playing on women’s scholastic sports teams and the other allowing medical professionals to refuse LGBTQ+ people on religious or personal moral grounds. In advance of his veto, however, he did meet with both Evelyn Rios Stafford, the state’s only openly trans elected official, and an unnamed 18-year-old trans woman, to discuss their concerns about the recent bills. During his press conference, he expressed a sentiment rare amongst southern Republican officials: "I want people in Arkansas and across the country that whether they're transgender or otherwise, that they're loved, they're appreciated, they make part of our state, and we want to send the message of tolerance and diversity."

HB 1570 positions the outcomes of gender transition procedures and gender-affirming treatment as dangerous and irreversible. One of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Alan Clark, claimed the bill would “protect children from making mistakes that they will have a difficult time coming back from.” But the transphobic ideology inspiring this legislation is not meant to protect trans children. Considering that transgender youth are at a higher risk for suicidal thoughts and attempts, gender-affirming treatment can be life-saving. A study published last year in the journal Pediatrics found that access to puberty blockers is linked to lower rates of suicidality for trans people seeking it.

Who is this legislation meant to protect? Certainly not transgender youth. Natasha Lennard of The Intercept calls the right’s fixated target the “mythic child in need of protection.” Conservative lawmakers across the country have created a fictionalized narrative of a child vulnerable to the perceived threat of being trans, which they’ve weaponized to convince people that their own children might be in danger. Representative Robin Lundstrum, the lead sponsor of HB 1570, has referred to hormone treatment and puberty blockers as “gender mutilation.” However, The Intercept reports that “the vast majority of medical experts support access to gender-affirming health care for children, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Medicine.” Treatments that allow trans youth to live openly and as their authentic selves aren’t dangerous. Repression and discrimination are. 

TikTok creator Ellie (@girlsnightfightclub) uses her platform to shed light on her own life as a trans woman without sugar-coating anything. But for the time being, her bluntly humorous tone has shifted to a more somber one. “I want to make it very clear that people are going to die because of it [the law]. You don’t know what it’s like to be trans, especially during puberty, where your body betrays you just a bit more every day. Before I transitioned, I was on the precipice of suicide for a very long time. And with this bill, Republicans are basically saying that they hate trans people so much that they would rather have cis bodies than trans kids,” she said in her latest video about the Arkansas legislation

The ACLU has already announced its plan to challenge HB 1570. “Attempting to block trans youth from the care they need simply because of who they are is not only wrong, it’s also illegal, and we will be filing a lawsuit to challenge this law in court,” said Holly Dickson, Arkansas ACLU executive director.

Chase Stangio, an attorney for the ACLU, assures trans youth in Arkansas, “We will continue to fight for you. The ACLU is preparing litigation as we speak. ACLU supporters from around the country spoke out against this bill. We will always have your back and will be relentless in our defense of your rights.”

States across the country have proposed similar bills limiting healthcare for trans people, and 2021 has seen more anti-trans legislation than any other year. Alabama is another state that recently proposed anti-trans legislation, making it a felony for doctors to prescribe transgender minors puberty blockers or hormones, which could potentially result in jail time or loss of employment.

Lawmakers supporting these bills are failing their constituents and causing irreparable harm on the basis of exclusionary ideology and pseudoscience. Trans people should be free from discrimination in all walks of life, but especially in healthcare. This isn’t a matter of choice—it’s a matter of life and death.