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Kentucky lawmakers pass major anti-trans law, overriding governor’s veto

The new law bans access to gender-affirming health care for trans children and imposes several other restrictions

Kentucky state Sen. Karen Berg speaks to protesters in Frankfort on Wednesday on a bill on transgender issues. (Timothy D. Easley/AP)
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Kentucky lawmakers passed a sweeping bill Wednesday that restricts how doctors and schools treat transgender youths, overriding the governor’s veto and forceful objections by state medical associations, education officials and parents with trans children.

The law — which sparked protests inside and outside the Capitol and takes effect this summer — bans access to gender-affirming health care for trans children, restricts which bathrooms and lockers they use, prohibits discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, and allows teachers to use students’ birth names and pronouns against their wishes.

“We are denying families, their physicians and their therapists their right to make medically informed decisions,” said state Sen. Karen Berg (D). She noted that the bill was introduced just weeks after her own trans son killed himself. “To say this is a bill protecting children is completely disingenuous. And to call this a parents’ right bill is an absolutely despicable affront to me personally.”

She lost her trans son to suicide. Can a Kentucky lawmaker make her colleagues care?

State Sen. Max Wise (R), who introduced the legislation, defended it, saying, “The goal is to strengthen parental engagement and communication in children’s education while protecting the safety of our children.” He argued that the law “reinforces a positive atmosphere in the classroom and removes unnecessary distractions in mandating the use of specific pronouns in our schools.”

The law’s passage comes amid a record-breaking number of anti-trans bills appearing across the country. Republican officials in many states believe it is a culture war issue that could play to their advantage in upcoming elections.

More than 470 pieces of anti-LGBTQ legislation have been introduced this year, including more than 190 bills that are specifically anti-trans, according to the Human Rights Campaign. While in previous years conservatives have focused on bathroom bills and restricting trans athletes from sports competitions, the majority of bills this year have centered on banning gender-affirming health care.

In Kentucky, the law’s passage — overwhelmingly on party lines — came at the end of a tumultuous and emotional two-month legislative session. It was just one of several anti-trans bills introduced in the wake of the suicide of Berg’s son Henry Berg-Brousseau, who was a spokesperson for an LGBTQ civil rights organization at the time of his death.

On Wednesday, Berg recalled how Henry, 24, called her during his last days and talked about the flood of anti-trans legislation he saw coming and told her, saying, “Mom this is getting really scary.”

From the senate floor, she detailed the final news release written by her son the day before he killed himself. In it, her son warned about surging anti-LGBTQ extremism and violence, and noted how it was being driven by the rhetoric and laws of conservative lawmakers. “We must all work to repudiate anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and falsehoods in the strongest possible terms. Because our lives are quite literally on the line,” her son wrote.

National statistics show almost half of trans teens experienced suicidal thoughts, and that more than a third try to kill themselves.

Parents with trans children said they fear the law will only increase the harassment and hostile environment they’re encountering. Many said their families are already grappling with its wide-ranging restrictions.

Brian Wells said his trans daughter Fischer, 13, met with her endocrinologist Tuesday to figure out how they would handle her treatment going forward. Fischer is currently on puberty blocker medication, but once the law goes into effect this summer, it will be illegal for her doctor to continue that treatment.

“We’ve started looking for doctors we can drive to out of state. The closest would be in Cincinnati,” Wells said. “We’ve been talking about whether we need to move. It’s stressful, exhausting.”

They’ve also talked of joining a legal effort being mounted by LGBTQ advocates to overturn the law in courts.

“But it’s important to not let this take over our whole lives,” Wells said. “She’s still a teenager and needs to have normal life. We shouldn’t have to constantly fight just for her right to exist.”

Christopher Bolling, a pediatrician in northern Kentucky, said the legislation defies the recommendations of all major medical associations. Speaking as a representative of the Kentucky Medical Association and the Kentucky chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, he said the law could worsen existing medical shortages in the state: “This is only going to make it harder to recruit and retain doctors and nurses. There’s a chilling effect from laws like this when you threaten the licenses of doctors just for giving people the care they need.”

In Kentucky, the anti-trans legislation has come amid an election year and a Republican effort to defeat Gov. Andy Beshear (D).

Wise, who championed the legislation, is a Republican running for lieutenant governor. After weeks of debate and last-minute political maneuvers, it was rushed through the legislature in a space of a few hours March 16.

Kentucky state Sen. Max Wise (R) on Feb. 8 attacked a state school policy requiring teachers to use students’ preferred pronouns. (Video: Kentucky Educational Television)

Within days, Beshear vetoed the bill, warning it could lead to an increase in youth suicide. “My faith teaches me that all children are children of God,” he said, “and Senate Bill 150 will endanger the children of Kentucky.”

Republicans, who control both the state Senate and House, attacked his veto. “Today may very well be remembered as the day Andy Beshear lost his bid for reelection,” Republican Party of Kentucky spokesman Sean Southard said in a written statement.

Wise also issued a statement painting the veto as a sign “Governor Beshear cares more about woke ideologues and D.C. bureaucrats than parents and students here in Kentucky.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky said it is already preparing to file legal challenge to the law. “To all the trans youth who may be affected by this legislation: we stand by you, and we will not stop fighting. You are cherished. You are loved. You belong,” the ACLU said in a statement. “To the commonwealth: we will see you in court.”

As has happened with health-care-related legislation in the past, such as abortion bans, Kentucky courts could issue an injunction that would stop the law from going into effect while it’s constitutionality is debated.

“We think this bill is unquestionably unconstitutional,” said ACLU of Kentucky executive director Amber Duke. “Trans kids have a right to exist as they are. We’re particularly concerned about how the bill prevents parents and providers to make medical decisions on behalf of their children. That goes against decades of medical advice and best practices.”

As for Karen Berg, now that the legislative session is coming to a close, she said she will finally begin the difficult work — that she has been putting off throughout the legislative session — of grieving her son.

Still sitting in her basement are 30 boxes from his apartment waiting to be opened and dealt with. Final bills and forms from his death have been arriving in her mailbox.

“I still need to visit his grave,” she said — something she’s avoided since his funeral, afraid it would leave her an emotional wreck and unable to carry out her duties in Frankfort.

Last weekend, LGBTQ groups in Louisville held a fundraiser in honor of her son and raised more than $250,000. At the event, she explained to those attending how important it felt to continue the work of her son defending LGTBQ rights.

With anti-trans rhetoric still on the rise, she suspects there will be more bills to fight in coming legislative sessions.

“As despairing as it seems now, there has to be a turning point,” she said. “I know my work isn’t over.”

If you or someone you know is transgendered and are transgender and need help, or know someone who does, call the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860. You can also reach crisis counselors at The Trevor Project for LGBTQ youth by calling 866-488-7386 or texting “START” to 678678, and by calling the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.