Harleigh Walker, a 16-year-old transgender girl from Alabama, testifies before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary about how the Equality Act would protect transgender kids. (Screenshot from Senate Judiciary Committee webcast)
WASHINGTON — Harleigh Walker wants U.S. senators to understand she is a typical 16-year-old girl.
She likes Taylor Swift. She enjoys being on her school’s debate team. And she listens way too loudly to music in her room.
“I’m just trying to be a teenager in America,” she told senators on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee during a Wednesday hearing.
But while her friends are on vacation during their spring break, Walker is spending her time “lobbying for my right to exist” as a transgender girl. Her home state of Alabama has banned gender-affirming care for transgender kids like herself.
“The laws preventing people like me from having access to the health care that our doctors and parents agree is necessary to keep us healthy don’t keep us safe,” she said. “They do the opposite.”
Democrats on the U.S. Senate panel discussed the need for the passage of legislation to protect LGBTQ people like Walker from discrimination, given the rise in hate crimes against the LGBTQ community and a tide of legislation in the states aiming to curb their rights. Most recent FBI data from 2020 has found that 1 in 5 hate crimes are motivated by anti-LGBTQ bias.
The chair of the committee, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, said that Congress needs to pass the Equality Act, especially after more than 500 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced this legislative session by state lawmakers. The Equality Act would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.
“All of them are part of the same concerted effort, exercising the power of government to target children,” Durbin said of the state measures.
Dozens of states with Republican-led legislatures have passed bills banning transgender children and adults from using bathrooms and competing in sports that align with their gender identity. Some states are now moving to ban gender-affirming care for transgender children.
Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday after the hearing reintroduced the Equality Act. They include Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, as well as Equality Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Sharice Davids of Kansas, Rep. Mark Takano of California, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York and Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi of California.
Senate Democrats would have to reach the 60-vote threshold to overcome a filibuster and pass the act. A Republican-controlled House is unlikely to bring it up.
Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said during the hearing that the Equality Act is needed because only a patchwork of states have protections for the LGBTQ community.
“Half of LGBTQ adults still report experiencing workplace discrimination based on their identity,” she said.
Walker said the main reason she wanted to testify was to dispel much of the misinformation that has been repeated by Republicans in Alabama and by her own governor on the issue of health care for transgender children, referred to as gender-affirming care.
“One of the falsehoods I hear all the time out of those who would keep me from getting my health care is that these doctors pressure or rush you, and they pull you in and start filling you full of hormones, puberty blockers or wanting surgeries — and I want to tell you that none of that happened,” she said.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey in late May signed a ban on transgender college athletes participating in sports that correlate with their affirmed gender. “Look, if you are a biological male, you are not going to be competing in women’s and girls’ sports in Alabama,” Ivey said in a statement at the time.
In 2022, in signing two other bills aimed at transgender people, Ivey said, “I believe very strongly that if the Good Lord made you a boy, you are a boy, and if he made you a girl, you are a girl.”
Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff of Georgia said he was concerned about the mental health of transgender youth in his home state. He cited a survey from the Trevor Project — an organization that provides a 24/7 crisis hotline for LGBTQ youth – that found 72% of Georgia LGBTQ youth were experiencing severe anxiety and 59% were experiencing depression, with 46% considering suicide.
Ossoff asked Kelley Robinson, the president of the Human Rights Campaign and one of the Democratic witnesses, about the impact on transgender youth “when they’re made political targets.”
Robinson said “the ways that we’ve put a target on the back of trans youth” has reminded her of the AIDS epidemic, and how by the 1990s “we had lost a whole generation of gay men.”
“I don’t want us to repeat that story with our trans youth,” she said.
Another Democratic witness, Dr. Ximena Lopez, is a pediatrician who has been providing health care for transgender youth for more than a decade. In Texas, where she lives, she said because of the state laws there and general rhetoric toward health care for transgender people, her patients are considering fleeing or going into hiding.
“The general public should know that a campaign of misinformation has falsely demonized health care for transgender adolescents, which is based on more than two decades of research and clinical practice and is accepted as established medical care by every leading medical organization in this country, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, and many others,” she said.
“There is no professional medical organization involved in the care of transgender youth that opposes this care.”
Durbin asked how common it was for gender-affirming surgeries to take place for minors.
Lopez said that surgeries are not recommended for minors and that any treatment has to be approved by a parent.
“At the end of the day, it is the parents that consent to the treatment,” she said.
Most Senate Republicans focused on transgender athletes and a proposed rule from the Biden administration to amend Title IX. The proposal is meant to protect transgender students’ participation in school sports, but it’s been met with caution by transgender legal experts.
The proposed rule, once finalized, would invalidate the 21 state laws that bar transgender students from participating in sports that align with their gender identity. Legal challenges are expected from states.
Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee said the rule would harm women. She asked one of the Republican witnesses, Riley Gaines of Gallatin, Tennessee, about her thoughts on the new Title IX proposed changes.
Gaines said she opposed the Biden administration proposal, arguing that transgender girls should not be able to compete in sports that align with their gender identity.
“That’s why this issue has become political for me because I realized that legislation is the way you curb these things,” she said.
Since Gaines tied with University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas, the first openly trans woman to compete in the NCAA women’s division, Gaines has launched campaigns across the U.S. lobbying against letting transgender women compete in sports that align with their gender identity.
House Republicans in April passed a bill to amend Title IX to bar transgender female students from competing in the sports that align with their gender identity, essentially sports at all public schools and universities.
One of the amendments attached in the House bill that bans transgender girls from competing in sports that align with their gender identity was dedicated to Gaines. The amendment by South Carolina Republican Rep. Nancy Mace would allow for a study on the “adverse effects” on women for allowing transgender women to compete in sports that align with their gender identity.
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