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After Arkansas passes its trans ban, parents and teens wonder: Should we stay?

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) speaks during a news conference in Little Rock last year. Last month Hutchinson signed a law banning transgender women and girls from competing on school sports teams consistent with their gender identity. (Staton Breidenthal/The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/AP)

Kris Vaughn’s great-grandparents were born in Arkansas, and she was raised on barbecue and the Razorbacks.

But ever since Arkansas banned gender-confirming treatments and surgery for minors, she spends most evenings poring over websites that rank the states most welcoming to transgender teens like her son.

“It’s heartbreaking, because it’s the state where my loved ones are buried, where I got married, where my husband returned home from serving in Afghanistan,” said Vaughn, 37. But “it’s just not home if my child isn’t welcome.”

More and more families are struggling with the same dilemma, as Republican lawmakers push a raft of bills that would limit the right of transgender children and teenagers to receive gender-affirming medical care, use certain bathrooms and play on school sports teams.

A few would extend penalties to parents and doctors who seek ­gender-affirming medical care for their children or patients.

Republicans across the country have proposed more than 117 pieces of transgender legislation this year. About 30 measures limit access to gender-affirming medical care, impacting an estimated 45,100 transgender children, according to the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law.

Many of the bans contain the same language, crafted by conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation, the Eagle Forum and Alliance Defending Freedom. The Human Rights Campaign says it’s part of a“fast and furious and coordinated effort” to limit support for transgender rights on the state level.

Republicans, meanwhile, have argued that the bills protect children and teenagers from making big health decisions before they are fully equipped to do so.

FAQ: What you need to know about transgender children

The Republican effort to limit the rights of transgender people has been brewing for years. Lawmakers in other states have filed dozens of bills to scale back legal protections. That effort has only intensified since President Biden took office promising a sweeping embrace of transgender rights.

On his first day in office, Biden issued an executive order making it clear that gay and transgender people are protected against discrimination in schools, health care, the workplace and other realms of American life. His administration includes Rachel Levine, the first openly transgender official ever confirmed by the Senate.

Those moves fired up many conservatives, said Don Haider-Markel, who teaches political science at the University of Kansas.

Haider-Markel said that overall, Americans have become more supportive of transgender rights. But conservatives are able to make arguments that appeal “to a lot of folks that don’t have an understanding” of the issue, he said.

Supporters of the ban on gender reassignment, meanwhile, argue that the bills are designed to protect children and young people. “Our laws should protect every child’s opportunity to have a natural childhood,” Christiana Holcomb, legal counsel for ADF, said in a statement.

During the Arkansas Senate vote, one of the bill’s Republican sponsors, State Sen. Alan Clark, described gender-affirming treatments as “at best experimental and at worst a serious threat to a child’s welfare.” He argued the bill would “protect children from making mistakes that they will have a very difficult time coming back from.”

But experts say there is no evidence that gender-affirming hormones harm children. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry supports access to puberty blockers and hormone treatments for children diagnosed with gender dysphoria, defined as the distress caused by a mismatch between one’s sex assigned at birth and one’s gender identity.

As senators debate her rights, a transgender teenager gives a confident testimony

Pediatricians and therapists say the real danger is that these measures will further stigmatize transgender children and limit their access to medical care. Transgender children are at a higher risk for depression and suicide.

Michele Hutchison, who runs a clinic for hormone therapy and other medical support for transgender adolescents at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, said since the bill passed, four young people in her program have attempted suicide.

Hutchison has spoken to families of transgender children who worry they will have to buy hormones on the black market, without monitoring or a support system.

Every family and transgender child goes through several years of therapy and exams before starting any hormones, Hutchison said. And young people typically don’t undergo surgery until they are 18.

Brandi Evans, an Arkansas parent of a transgender teen, said that before her son Andrew started taking hormones, he wouldn’t come out of his room and couldn’t eat because he was “feeling like [he] didn’t have a way to express who he was. He was a kid just angry at the world.”

When Evans’s son was 14, he, his parents, therapist and their endocrinologist started him on hormones that stopped his menstrual cycle, deepened his voice and redistributed his weight.

He takes an injection every Sunday and sees his endocrinologist every six months to get his blood drawn and make sure his liver and kidneys are functioning well.

Today Evans’s son finally feels like himself. He is now a happy kid who plays in his school’s marching band, draws his friends as anime characters and loves video games, his mother said.

“Outside of being trans, which is just a label that society puts on him, he’s a very average teen boy,” said Evans, 40.

Under Arkansas’ new law, Andrew will have to travel outside of the state to get his hormones, much like those seeking abortions do.

Since the legislation has put him and his friends on high alert, Andrew has turned his anger into activism, going to protest. His mother said she is really proud of him, but also concerned for his safety.

“While it’s my job to make sure I raise a decent human being, it’s also my job to keep him safe until he’s an adult,” Evans said.

Experts and parent advocates said the legislation threatens not only the emotional health of their kids, but also their physical safety.

“My brain is swimming. It goes to ‘will he be assaulted or killed?’ ” said Evans, who says her son’s journey has inspired her to become a therapist for LGBTQ kids in more rural parts of Arkansas. “Why can’t they just let these kids live their lives and stay out of our business?”

Evans’s concerns for her son’s safety are not unfounded.

In 2020, at least 44 transgender or gender nonconforming people were murdered, including Brayla Stone, 17, a Black transgender woman who was shot and killed in Little Rock.

Parents of transgender youth say they just want what any parent does: for the children to be safe and happy.

In Little Rock, Vaughn said that when Biden was elected, she “started” to feel hopeful, “like we were moving towards being better people as a nation,” she said.

She and her son watched with pride as Biden announced that he would nominate Levine as his assistant secretary of health at the Department of Health and Human Services. Levine is the highest-ranking openly transgender official in U.S. history.

She said when her son came out to her, she went through a learning curve. She had to practice not calling him by his birth name, which doesn’t align with his gender.

She learned about using “they,” for nonbinary people whose gender is not male or female but gender fluid.

She wishes her politicians could do the same.

“It’s not a joke if you care about human life. We have done everything. We home-schooled. We have gone to support groups,” she said. “But there’s just so much hatred here in the Deep South. If it’s your child, would you stay?”