The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against Arkansas state officials seeking to overturn a recently passed law that bars health care professionals from providing gender-affirming care to transgender minors.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of four transgender youths and their parents, as well as two physicians who specialize in treating gender dysphoria, also seeks a preliminary injunction to block the state from attempting to implement the new law. The ban on gender-affirming care also prohibits Medicaid from paying for any transition-related procedures on minors, and allows private insurers to deny coverage for transgender policy holders, regardless of their age.
“This law would be devastating to trans youth and their families, forcing many to uproot their lives and leave the state to access the gender-affirming care they need,” Holly Dickson, the executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, said in a statement. “We’re suing to stop this cruel and unconstitutional law from taking effect and inflicting further harm on these children and their families.”
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs claim the law is unconstitutional, violating the children’s right to equal protection, infringing on parents’ rights to raise their children as they see fit, and violating the speech rights of both transgender minors (in terms of how they identify) and physicians, who are prohibited from prescribing treatment or referring the families of transgender minors to medical providers well versed in transgender health care.
The bill was approved by lawmakers and vetoed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), who called the bill a “vast government overreach.” State legislators then overrode Hutchinson’s veto, making Arkansas the first state to restrict trans youth from accessing treatments like puberty blockers or hormone therapy. The law is expected to take effect at the end of July.
Similar bills to restrict transition-related health care have been introduced in more than 30 states, particularly as Republicans have seized on divisive social issues — ranging from political correctness to the use of anti-bias training and from cancel culture to misrepresentations of transgender people as threats to cisgender individuals — as the cornerstone of their party’s agenda, in the hope that channelling voters’ outrage over such issues will allow them to win back Congress and amass veto-proof majorities in state legislatures in the 2022 midterm elections. Thus far, however, only Arkansas and Tennessee have passed laws limiting transition-related care.
Defendants in the lawsuit include Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and members of the Arkansas State Medical Board.
Rutledge, parroting the same standard-issue talking points put forth by Republican lawmakers in Arkansas and other, has claimed that the bill is needed to protect transgender children from seeking to transition, based on the assumption that minors are too young to know their identities and may regret undergoing “irreversible” gender transitions in the future (despite the lack of scientific evidence to support such claims). She told NBC News in an email that she would “aggressively defend Arkansas’s law which strongly limits permanent, life-altering sex changes to adolescents.”
“I won’t sit idly by while radical groups such as the ACLU use our children as pawns for their own social agenda,” Rutledge said.
The Arkansas State Medical Board said it does not comment on pending litigation.
One of the plaintiffs, 15-year-old Dylan Brandt, who is currently receiving gender-affirming treatments, says the law will take away the care he’s already receiving and potentially exacerbate his feelings of gender dysphoria when he’s forced to develop female characteristics due to lack of access to care.
“This is who I am, and it’s frustrating to know that a place I’ve lived all my life is treating me like they don’t want me here,” Brandt said in a statement. “Having access to care means I’m able to be myself, and be healthier and more confident — physically and mentally. The thought of having that wrenched away and going back to how I was before is devastating.”
Another set of plaintiffs, Amanda and Shayne Dennis, say they’ve seen their 9-year-old daughter, Brooke, become much happier and well-adjusted after they affirmed her female identity. But they fear that being unable to access health care when Brooke starts puberty may reverse some of that progress, and have even said they plan to leave the state, uprooting their entire family — even Brooke’s grandparents — if the law isn’t overturned.
Even other families with transgender children who aren’t plaintiffs in the lawsuit are considering similar moves. The Spurrier family, who had lived in Arkansas for more than 15 years, told Little Rock NBC affiliate KARK that they recently relocated to New Mexico in order to ensure that their 17-year-old son, Cas, can access the medically necessary care he needs to treat his gender dysphoria.
Just a few months ago, Cas started testosterone treatments, which his father, George, says has increased his confidence and helped him be more comfortable in his identity.
“We’re looking forward to [New Mexico] being a place where he can flourish,” George Spurrier said.
Chase Strangio, the deputy director for transgender justice with the ACLU’s LGBTQ & HIV Project, said in a statement that the ACLU and its various state affiliates will be filing “several lawsuits” over the course of the next few months to challenge laws that restrict transgender people’s right to access health care.
“Trans young people should not have to fight so hard to live,” Strangio said in a statement. “Even with supportive families, these bills have devastating consequences. Our work will not be done until every law that targets transgender people is struck down as unconstitutional and all transgender people are able to live without fearing discrimination and violence because of who we are.”
North Carolina's largest private insurer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, has announced it will cover gender-affirming facial surgery and voice therapy for transgender individuals who challenged its past denial of coverage for those procedures.
Transgender advocates with the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund challenged the existing insurance exclusion after two transgender policyholders were denied coverage for facial surgery and voice therapy. Following negotiations with those advocates, Blue Cross and Blue Shield updated its policy to allow coverage for those treatments if they are allowed under a patient's health benefit plan.
The U.S. Department of Justice has filed statements of interest in two cases stemming from lawsuits challenging recent laws restricting transgender rights.
The first case in which the DOJ has filed a statement of interest is B.P.J. v. West Virginia State Board of Ed., in which an 11-year-old transgender girl is challenging a recently passed law that would prohibit her from joining her middle school girls' cross-country team.
Instead, under the law, because she was assigned male at birth, she can only join the boys' team. Her lawyers argue that the law discriminates against her, and other trans youth, based on their sex and gender identity, making it unconstitutional under both the Equal Protection Clause and Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex-based discrimination.
A federal judge has blocked a West Virginia law barring transgender student-athletes in K-12 schools and state colleges and universities from competing on sports teams that align with their gender identity.
On Wednesday, U.S. Circuit Judge Joseph Goodwin, of the Southern District of West Virginia, issued a preliminary injunction blocking state and local officials, including the West Virginia State Board of Education, the Harrison County Board of Education, the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission, and Attorney General Patrick Morrissey, from attempting to enforce the law by restricting transgender students to playing on teams matching their assigned sex at birth.
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