Trans people know it’s an election year because suddenly state legislatures around the country take notice of us and attempt to do something about the trans menace. In 2016 the debate was whether we should be allowed to use bathrooms. In 2020 the strategy has shifted from painting us as deviant predators to imploring voters to “think of the children.” Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Dakota, South Carolina and Oklahoma are among the states that saw legislation introduced to either criminalize transgender medical treatment for minors or ban transgender student athletes from competing in sports.
In Colorado, Shane Sandridge, representing Colorado Springs House District 14, introduced two of six anti-LGBTQ bills put forward by Republicans this session. Sandridge’s HB20-1114, the “Protect Minors from Mutilation and Sterilization Act,” and HB20-1273, the “Equality and Fairness in Youth Sports Act,” took aim at trans youths, while the other four bills ran the gamut from banning same-sex marriage and preventing same-sex couples from adopting to removing existing anti-discrimination protections in the name of religious freedom. Daniel Ramos, executive director of LGBTQ advocacy organization One Colorado, called the bills “the most aggressive slate of anti-LGBTQ legislation introduced in the past decade.”
The good news is these bills all failed. And South Dakota’s HB 1057, which attempted to criminalize medical care for trans youths, was killed when it was sent to the senate.
It’s easy to see these bills merely as acts of political theater right before the Republican party could be facing off against Pete Buttigieg in the presidential election. These bills turn trans people into political footballs to be punted every four years. Trans people constantly have to defend our humanity and our right to exist, to seek medical care, and to just participate in society. It is exhausting.
When asked why, exactly, he felt the need to introduce a bill like HB20-1114, Sandridge pointed to his constituents in what he describes as “probably the third most conservative district [in Colorado].”
“Similar bills have started being introduced in different states” notes Sandridge. “I think that caught some attention of some of my constituents who reached out to me and had some concerns about certain paths we’re taking, especially in this state.” HD-14 comprises most of northern Colorado Springs, from Dublin Boulevard to Northgate Boulevard, and is home to Focus on the Family.
“This is definitely not an anti-transgender bill,” Sandridge is quick to add, without a trace of irony. “It’s more a bill that’s against the misuse of puberty blockers and having kids wait until they’re past puberty to make these life-changing decisions. It’s a combination of what’s going on in the country and some requests from constituents.”
What’s going on in the country is a lot of misinformation. Concerns about transgender children grew nationally after the publication of a 2018 study by researcher Lisa Littman at Brown University. Littman coined the term “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” to describe instances where children develop gender dysphoria due to “social and peer contagion.” The paper was widely criticized by academics and scientists. Biologist and author Julia Serano described the concept of Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria as “scientifically specious.” PLOS One, the journal that published Littman’s original paper, issued a correction and an apology. That didn’t stop journalist Jesse Singal from writing a cover story for The Atlantic titled “When Children Say They’re Trans,” which received widespread condemnation from trans activists and anyone who has actually worked with trans youths.
“There’s research that shows if you allow these kids to go past puberty, about 80 percent of them decide not to have the surgery or have the puberty blockers,” says Sandridge. What Sandridge is referring to is the concept of “desistance,” or the idea that gender dysphoria just goes away with age. This idea was championed by Canadian psychologist Kenneth Zucker, who was in charge of Toronto’s Centre for Mental Health and Addiction. Zucker was fired in 2015 after a review found that his methods were “out of step” with prevailing research on treating trans youths. Many trans activists have compared Zucker’s work to conversion therapy, a practice Canada banned in 2015 and which Colorado banned last year. Singal also wrote a defense of Zucker for New York magazine titled “How the Fight Over Transgender Kids Got a Leading Sex Researcher Fired.”
[pullquote-1] Additionally, the 80 percent figure often given by opponents of gender-affirming care for minors is woefully inaccurate. Serano, who is the author of Whipping Girl and who has written extensively on the subject of trans people, notes in her essay “Detransition, Desistance, and Disinformation: A Guide for Understanding Transgender Children Debates,” that “when it comes to marginalized populations, we should be very suspicious of who is generating these statistics, and how they are being used.” Zucker’s work has been touted by groups like Focus on the Family, Alliance Defending Freedom, Liberty Counsel and the Family Research Council.
Bryn Tannehill, board member of the Trans United Fund and a HuffPost contributor, has noted that “the most cited study which alleges an 84 percent desistance rate … treated gender non-conformance the same as gender dysphoria. Worse, the study could not locate 45.3 percent of the children for follow-up, and made the assumption that all of them were desisters. Indeed, other studies used to support this also suffered from similar methodological flaws.”
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry notes that “research consistently demonstrates that gender diverse youth who are supported to live and/or explore the gender role that is consistent with their gender identity have better mental health outcomes than those who are not.”
Sandridge also expresses concern about the use of puberty blockers in treating transgender youths. “There’s also significant research the puberty blockers were not made for sex changes. Puberty is not a sex or ‘gender’ specific problem that needs to be solved. What puberty is is a developmental stage. A lot of puberty has nothing to do with your sex so when you halt puberty you halt brain development, spine development, bone density development. You halt mental development. You halt things that have nothing to do with your sex. And these are developmental milestones that you’ll never get back.”
It’s incredibly frustrating when cis people demonstrate how much they understand about exactly how damaging it can be to be forced to go through the wrong puberty, but still insist on that for transgender people. The use of puberty blockers, the most commonly prescribed of which is histrelin acetate, which is usually used for the treatment of hormone-sensitive tumors, is not intended to delay puberty indefinitely or to stop trans youths from experiencing puberty completely, but rather to make sure they go through the correct puberty. After initiating hormone blockers, trans youths who have asserted a consistent gender identity will generally begin cross-sex hormone replacement therapy. If they’re lucky, they will get to avoid developing undesirable secondary sex characteristics that would require surgical interventions later in life. Additionally, a recent study in the journal Pediatrics found “pubertal suppression for transgender adolescents who want this treatment is associated with favorable mental health outcomes.”
“We’ve had people complain that ‘Hey, you’re making these drugs illegal to kids.’” says Sandridge. “No, we’re not. We’re making them illegal to use for this specific purpose. We’re just asking you to be the age of majority so that you make that decision yourself instead of your parents.”
It should also be noted that the number of transgender youths who are accessing this kind of treatment is incredibly small. The Pediatrics study noted that out of the 20,619 transgender adults surveyed, only 2.5 percent were able to access puberty blockers as minors. Which means that most transgender people end up going through puberty twice. All those developmental milestones we had to go through as teens turned out to be useless as we find ourselves transitioning later in life.