Transgender youth reemerge as statehouse focal point in Utah

Jan 18, 2023, 7:30 PM | Updated: Jan 19, 2023, 11:26 am

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — 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. They also began considering a proposal to require schools to notify parents when kids want to change which pronouns they go by and another that would limit when transgender people under 18 can change the gender listed on their birth certificates.

Each measure advanced through the committee on a 5-2 party line vote.

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

This year, 11 states have introduced proposals that would enact restrictions on doctors from prescribing puberty blockers, hormones or surgery to transgender kids and teens. Republicans on Tuesday introduced a transgender health care proposal in South Dakota, where one supportive lawmaker called puberty a “natural cure” for gender dysphoria.

In Utah, three transgender bills were up for discussion in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, Senate Bill 16, 100, and 93.

SB16 puts a ban on puberty blockers for minors and prohibits sex-characteristic surgical procedures or sex changes. SB100 prohibits school districts from changing the identity of students’ gender without permission from parents, and SB93 prohibits a name change or gender change on a birth certificate.

State Sen. Mike Kennedy, a Republican family doctor sponsoring Utah’s proposal, said it didn’t make sense that health care policy related to gender and youth — which is at times reversible and other times irreversible — would be subject to no government oversight.

He acknowledged the topic was emotional for the families of transgender youth, yet said it was the government’s responsibility to address issues of children’s consent and development.

“Caring for our children does not mean riding the latest radical wave,” he said. “We must ask questions: Does the child understand the long-term ramifications of their decision?”

“We can’t allow social policy to outpace science,” he added, arguing for more research on gender dysphoria and noting how medical fields in countries such as Finland and Sweden have tightened regulations governing transgender youth health care.

Kennedy invited two witnesses to speak about their experiences and to support SB16, Chloe Koles from California, who had gender-affirming surgery and said it was the worst decision in her life.

“The doctors coerced me into making a horrible decision and my child was destroyed for the sake of medical experimentation; I went off hormones and I wanted to be what I always was and will forever be a woman,” Koles said.

The second witness was Dr. Leor Sapir of the Manhattan Institute, who thinks children should be getting mental health care instead of physically changing their bodies.

“There is no good evidence of the superiority of hormones and surgeries over psychotherapy in treating minors with gender dysphoria,” Sapir explained.

He cites studies and “course corrections” from countries in Finland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

However, State Sen. Jen Plumb, a Democrat with a Master of Public Health and MD degrees at the University of Utah, questioned Sapir about his qualifications and the Manhattan Institute.

Plumb stated that she was unfamiliar with the Manhattan Institute and asked Sapir if he could clarify his background in clinical care and the institute.

“The Manhattan Institute is a public policy think tank,” Sapir said.

“Oh, it’s not medical,” Plumb responded.

“No, no it’s not a medical no,” Sapir said.

“When you say doctor, are you clinical?” Plumb continued with the question.

“I am a Ph.D. No, I am not a medical doctor,” Sapir answered.

According to the Manhattan Institute website, Sapir graduated with a Ph.D. in Political Science from Boston College.

Questions about transgender youth and their health care dovetail with another growing Republican priority: parental rights. Jeri Brummett, a transgender woman and member of the Salt Lake County Republican Party, said the proposal was excessive governmental intervention into individual medical decisions.

The bill, she said, “purports to protect transgender minors from their doctors and parents, yet its real effect is to place this Legislature and our state government between parents, their children and their doctors.”

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.

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 undergoes review, a commission of experts is making eligibility decisions for transgender youth.

One concern that arose during discussions about eligibility decisions was birth certificates and how transgender people routinely apply to change them. The Utah Supreme Court affirmed their right to make the changes two years ago.

State Sen. Dan McCay, a Republican who led the charge for last year’s youth sports ban, said limiting the changes would help Utah enforce its youth sports policy and only affect minors. Opponents who testified at the hearing said birth certificate changes were an individual liberty issue and deeply emotional for transgender people who don’t want to out themselves on a daily basis.

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Transgender youth reemerge as statehouse focal point in Utah