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Targeted by politicians, trans youth struggle with growing fear and mental health concerns

By SANDY WEST Feb 24, 2022

Charlie Apple had experienced people calling into question his humanity, suggesting he was just a confused kid or even a moral aberration. As a transgender teen, he had accepted that his future could include discrimination, verbal abuse, and violence. The sense of peace he said he felt in transitioning physically, however, was worth the risk.

Still, it was especially painful last year, Apple said, when Texas lawmakers used the same sort of dehumanizing language he’d heard on the playground as they debated whether to deny trans kids everything from participation in sports to gender-affirming medical care.

“Seeing these people who are supposed to protect you, who are supposed to make laws to protect children, say all these horrible things and make it clear that you are not worth fighting for?” said Apple, 18, who testified with his parents against several anti-trans bills in Texas. “That’s a whole different thing.”

During the 2020 legislative session, Idaho passed the country’s first law barring transgender athletes from competing on women’s and girls’ sports teams at the high school and college levels.

Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, sponsored the bill that became law. She worked with the Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based conservative group in crafting the bill, the Idaho Falls Post Register reported.

In 2021, Ehardt traveled to both Montana and South Dakota to testify in person in favor of their respective transgender sports bills. Her travel expenses were paid for by “pro-family groups,” the Post Register reported.

In addition to Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida and West Virginia have either passed some version of a law or imposed an executive order banning or limiting transgender students from participating in school sports, the Associated Press reported. Legislators in another 20 states have considered similar laws, the Post Register reported.

Court cases challenging the law are underway in at least four of those states, the AP reported.

State legislators across the country introduced a record number of anti-transgender bills in 2021, many specifically targeting trans youth. Texas lawmakers proposed nearly 50 such bills, including an unsuccessful bill that could have sent parents to prison and placed their children in foster care if they approved gender-affirming treatments. In the first week of 2022 alone, legislators in at least seven states proposed bills targeting LGBTQ+ youth. On Feb. 3, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem signed a bill banning transgender girls and college-age women from playing on female sports teams. It becomes the 10th state to pass such a ban.

The debate isn’t limited to the United States. In 2020, three judges from the United Kingdom’s high court ruled against the use of puberty blockers for those 16 and younger, saying it was unlikely youth could give informed consent. The decision was overturned in September 2021.

As health care providers continue to discuss best practices, the larger debate outside of medicine amid these legislative efforts to restrict access to care is having a detrimental impact on transgender youth, said Dr. Aron Janssen, vice chair of Lurie Children’s Hospital’s psychiatry and behavioral health department in Chicago.

“These are kids who are already quite vulnerable. We know that suicide rates among transgender youth are incredibly high,” Janssen said. “We would anticipate that legislative efforts that are created to reduce access to lifesaving care are going to have negative consequences.”

In a survey from the Trevor Project conducted last fall, 85% of LGBTQ+ youth reported that recent debates about anti-trans bills have negatively affected their mental health. In a survey conducted in 2020, the nonprofit that serves LGBTQ+ youth and focuses on crisis intervention found 42% of LGBTQ+ youth reported seriously considering suicide in the previous year, including more than half of transgender and non-binary youth.

“What I am concerned about is that something that is doing significant and documented harm to the health and well-being of LGBTQ youth is being seen as a highly effective political tactic and means of fundraising,” said Casey Pick, a senior fellow for advocacy and governmental affairs at the Trevor Project. “It scares me that LGBTQ youth are being sacrificed to a political process.”

In the past year, Pick said, the Trevor Project’s lifeline and digital crisis services had more than 200,000 calls, emails, and texts from across the country — about 14,500 of them coming from Texas.

Mary Elizabeth Castle, a senior policy adviser for Texas Values, a faith-based advocacy organization that has worked to advance legislation banning gender-affirming care, said more bills are coming.

“Our position at Texas Values, and with our research, is that kids should not have access to any puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, or any gender transition surgeries,” she said. “A lot of these kids claiming they are going through gender dysphoria are dealing with the normal problems preteens face, just realizing themselves and finding their identity.”

On Tuesday, a bill was introduced in the Idaho Legislature that would make it illegal to perform gender confirmation surgery on juveniles.

Numerous medical associations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the Pediatric Endocrine Society, and the American Psychiatric Association, have endorsed gender-affirming care.

The amped-up political heat has caused repercussions. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services removed from its website a resources page for LGBTQ+ youth that included information about suicide prevention and the Trevor Project hotline after criticism from a conservative Texas gubernatorial candidate. At least one Texas school district reportedly also blocked access to LGBTQ+ resources, such as the Trevor Project, but reinstated some of them after students protested.

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