Photo by Ted Eytan via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
A bill introduced in the Wisconsin Legislature last month that would ban transgender children from receiving gender-affirming care is still harmful to the mental health of those children, even though neither the Senate nor Assembly version of the bill was acted upon before the Assembly adjourned for the year, advocates say.
The bills were introduced in early February and were referred to the relevant committees, but no further action was taken as Republican legislators focused on election bills that are sure to be vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers rather than anti-LGBTQ legislation sure to be vetoed by Evers.
Megin McDonell, executive director of LGBTQ advocacy organization Fair Wisconsin, says that even without the legislation becoming law, the mere presence of a debate over the lives of some of Wisconsin’s most vulnerable children is having a negative effect on mental health.
“That does give some comfort that the bill would not likely be signed,” McDonell says. “But that said, just this debate happening has a really negative effect on the mental well-being of many trans people. My friends, my loved ones, my chosen family who I care about who are trans, including my son who is a teenager who has received care like this, just the fact this debate is happening has a real negative effect. It makes them feel under attack, it makes them feel not worthy, it’s very harmful.”
First introduced in the Senate by Sens. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls), Andre Jacque (R-DePere) and Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville), the bill would prohibit any gender-affirming care for a person under 18 and prevent such care from being covered by insurance policies in Wisconsin. The prohibition would extend even to treatments that are reversible, such as puberty blockers, which are far more common for younger transgender children.
“Youths have a journey of figuring it out, that’s normal human development,” McDonell says. “One kind of care that is pretty typical is the use of puberty blockers, which essentially are pressing pause on puberty. It allows a youth to press a pause on puberty starting so they can have more time to figure out who they are and all of this is in conjunction with the parents, health professional, these kinds of decisions aren’t entered into willy nilly. It’s considered the best care standard.”
“It allows the youth a little more time to figure out what they want, what they wish for to feel more like their authentic selves who they know they are to be,” she continues. “They’re totally safe and reversible, if a kid felt like that wasn’t the path for them, puberty would just start at that point. This is the standard of care that has been established.”
McDonell adds that care such as surgery most often occurs in a person’s late teens or after they’ve become an adult.
Wisconsin’s proposed legislation against gender-affirming care for minors is one piece of a broader nationwide effort by Republican politicians against transgender people. Last year, Wisconsin Republicans passed a bill — which was vetoed by Evers — that would prevent transgender women and girls from competing on women’s sports teams. Texas recently passed a bill that would allow the parents of a transgender child who received medical care to be investigated for child abuse.
An Arkansas bill similar to Wisconsin’s legislation that prohibits gender-affirming care was vetoed by Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson because he saw it as “overbroad and extreme.”
“It is undisputed that the number of minors who struggle with gender incongruity or gender dysphoria is extremely small,” Hutchinson wrote in the Washington Post. “But they, too, deserve the guiding hand of their parents and the counseling of medical specialists in making the best decisions for their individual needs. H.B. 1570 puts the state as the definitive oracle of medical care, overriding parents, patients and health-care experts. While in some instances the state must act to protect life, the state should not presume to jump into the middle of every medical, human and ethical issue. This would be — and is — a vast government overreach.”
The Arkansas Legislature overrode Hutchinson’s veto.
McDonell says she’s alarmed by children being used as a political wedge across the country.
“The one thing that is important to know is that these bills, if you compare the texts of the bills to each other, just like the trans athlete bills, these bills are cookie cutter bills, they’re coming from national organizations,” she says. “They’re not unique to the states they’re being introduced in. They’re trying to use our children as a wedge issue in their so-called culture war. I think it’s important, these bills are not coming from a good place that is based on science and reason and compassion. They’re just meant to divide and they are doing harm.”
Alyssa Mauk, a spokesperson for the ACLU of Wisconsin, which registered its opposition to the bill, said in a statement that even the consideration of the bill has harmful consequences for the state’s transgender children.
“2021 set a record for the most anti-LGBTQ bills passed during a legislative session,” she said. “Over 100 anti-LGBTQ laws were proposed in 35 states around the country and these bills overwhelmingly targeted trans youth. Denying medical care and support to transgender youth has been shown to contribute to depression, social isolation, self-hatred, risk of self-harm and suicidal behavior, and more. In short: it’s life-threatening. Medical decisions belong to trans youth, their parents, and their doctor. Not the government.”
Not a single group registered its support for the Wisconsin bill and aside from the ACLU, opposition came from across the state, including the City of Madison, the Wisconsin Public Health Association and the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, among others.
Overwhelmingly, the medical community sees gender-affirming care as the best action for transgender children. In an April 2021 letter to the National Governors Association, the American Medical Association (AMA) took a stand against the bills being introduced across the country. The letter states that transgender children have some of the highest rates of suicide and depression among minors and that receiving care is the best way to counteract that.
“We believe this legislation represents a dangerous governmental intrusion into the practice of medicine and will be detrimental to the health of transgender children across the country,” the AMA’s CEO James Madara wrote.
McDonell says that for transgender children, support and recognition from family members — in addition to gender-affirming care — can greatly improve the child’s mental health.
“One other thing I would share is, a very common experience that I hear from other parents and grandparents and family members of trans youths when they are supported is that support and recognition, regardless of the medical care they might be seeking or receiving, the acceptance and affirmation of that child’s gender identity alone has a really positive effect on their well-being,” McDonell says. “Everyone’s experiences are really unique but that recognition and people being allowed to have access to lifesaving health care lets them live as who they authentically are. It’s so personal and not entered into lightly. That’s the science of it.”
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