ATLANTA — Sam Schexnyder may be just 15 years old but he wants a serious sit down with state Rep. Ginny Ehrhart about his health care.
The Republican Marietta lawmaker is proposing legislation that would ban trans-related health care for minors in Georgia — leaving transgender youths and their families reeling.
At 12 years old, Sam approached his mother, Clare Schexnyder, and told her he “felt like a boy.”
The confession was unexpected, Clare said. Sam never presented as if he was a different gender as a child like some transgender youths. He came out at the time that President Donald Trump was calling for rollbacks for transgender bathroom rights, but it didn’t deter him from transitioning to male name and male pronouns when he reached eighth grade.
Sam was always happy and confident, Clare said, but the change in his disposition after he transitioned was noticeable.
“It is amazing and remarkable to see that he is happier and more confident as Sam and as a boy,” Clare said. “And I would have never understood it from day one, but now two years in, I can’t see anything else. I think anybody that spends time with Sam feels the same way.”
Sam is one of an estimated 4,950 youths in Georgia who identify as transgender, according to a 2017 study.
“The reality is, not giving kids the therapy and hormone treatment and puberty blockers to kind of give them a pause to see if they want more time to make up their mind about what their gender identity is — all those are life saving,” Clare said. “And not giving children access to that and parents access to that option for their children, it can kill kids and it can cause them to be suicidal.”
The legislation, she said, is blatantly "unconstitutional."
Chanel Haley, gender policy manager of Georgia Equality, said it should be the responsibility of parents and medical professionals to decide medical treatment a child should receive.
“Parents in conjunction with health care professionals," she said, "over time making decisions for a child is absolutely normal and what every parent does.”
Not only in Georgia
Ehrhart is among GOP lawmakers in three states targeting trans related health care for minors including treatments like puberty blockers, hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery.
Conservative lawmakers in Texas and Kentucky announced on social media their intent to introduce legislation blocking medical treatment like puberty blockers and hormone replacement therapy.
The legislation has followed a custody battle in Texas between two parents who disagree regarding whether their 7-year-old is transgender and should receive treatment — the debate extended into the state’s politics.
Some transgender advocates speculate that the sudden appearance of similar legislative agendas in three states is a tactic to rally a conservative base of voters ahead of the 2020 election.
Ehrhart’s bill, titled the “Vunerable Child Protection Act” for the upcoming 2020 session, would make it “ a felony to perform radical surgery on, or administer drugs to, a minor child for the purpose of attempting to change a minor’s gender.”
“This form of child abuse is becoming a serious problem in Georgia and is evolving into a national crisis,” Ehrhart said in a statement. “We are talking about children who have not reached the legal age of consent yet are being subjected to life-altering, irreversible surgeries and drug treatments that render them sterile and permanently disfigured. The psychological damage this does to innocent children must come to an end. This legislation makes such abusive actions criminal.”
It’s not about the rights of adults, she said, it’s about protecting children from abuse by adults.
Dr. Quentin Van Meter, a pediatric endocrinologsit based in Atlanta, supported the bill in a prepared statement tagged to the proposal release.
“This bill is of the utmost importance, because it will put a stop to the process of trying to convert a child’s physical appearance to that of the opposite sex, resulting in irreversible, medically harmful changes,” Van Meter said. “There is no valid scientific, longterm evidence that this is either safe or effective, while there is ample evidence that it is harmful. Children should be protected from medical experimentation based on wishful social theory. These children are suffering from a psychological condition without biologic basis. Using the bludgeon of threatened suicide as justification is first of all cruel, and secondly, not supported by valid published studies.”
However, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association and countless other medical organizations have called for increased support and medical services for transgender youth.
Kathie Moehlig, executive director of TransFamily Support Services — a transgender youth and family support organization that works across the country — said that families in the other states that are proposing similar legislation are already talking about the possibility of moving.
“The conversations going on in the community of parents of young trans people is that this is going to be very harmful ...” Moehlig said. “Trans kids already have so much to overcome in their world and then to have a law be passed that they cannot get access to medically necessary treatment is devastating. I hear parents talking in terms of ‘we will have to leave the state.’”
Moehlig wants to believe the bias of conservative GOP members proposing this legislation comes from a place of good intentions, she said. But she added legislators are not experts on medical conditions.
“It’s a very disturbed world if legislators get to be doctors,” Moehlig said.
Sam Schexnyder told his mom that Ehrhart needs to meet a young transgender person. She’s going to have to hear from him, Clare said.
Protection for some, harm to others
When Sean Saifa Wall read Ehrhart’s legislation, he was shocked by the language — not as it related to transgender issues, but as it related to intersex issues.
Intersex individuals are born with characteristics of both male and female sexes and are often subject to harmful and unnecessary surgeries as children.
“So much of what she is proposing in the ‘Vulnerable Child Protections Act’ is literally language that could be used to protect intersex children,” Wall said. “Talking about unnecessary surgeries, these surgeries that cause sterilization, vasectomies, all these things that actually happen to intersex children. Whoever wrote that language is using that to punish trans children.”
Wall was born with an intersex trait — born with ambiguous genitals and raised female. A doctor told his mom that his internal testicles he was born with were cancerous and needed to be removed. At 13 years old he was castrated.
The surgery made him reliant on synthetic hormones for the rest of his life.
Now, Wall, co-founder of the Intersex Justice Project based in Atlanta, advocates for intersex rights. Most surgeries to intersex children are unnecessary and harmful, he said, and done without consent — different from the actual medical treatment transgender individuals need.
“People who want to manipulate and really discriminate against trans people will use the plight of intersex people to legitimize prejudice of transgender people ...” Wall said. “Most intersex children are often subject to forced sex-reassignment surgery which is problematic because transgender people actually want those surgeries that intersex people receive without their consent.”
Riley Bunch covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites.