FRANKFORT, Ky. — Republican lawmakers in Kentucky on Wednesday swept aside the Democratic governor’s veto of a bill regulating some of the most personal aspects of life for transgender young people — from banning access to gender-affirming health care to restricting the bathrooms they can use.
The votes to override Governor Andy Beshear’s veto were lopsided in both legislative chambers — where the GOP wields supermajorities — and came on the next-to-last day of this year’s legislative session.
The debate is likely to spill over into this year’s gubernatorial campaign in Kentucky and could reach the courts if opponents follow through on a threat to mount a legal challenge against the bill.
Activists on both sides of the impassioned debate gathered at the state house to make competing appeals shortly before lawmakers took up the transgender bill.
A few hours before the vote, as transgender-rights advocates rallied outside Kentucky’s Capitol, trans teenager Sun Pacyga held up a sign summing up a grim review of Republican legislation aimed at banning access to gender-affirming health care. The sign read: “Our blood is on your hands.”
“If it passes, the restricted access to gender-affirming health care, I think trans kids will die because of that,” the 17-year-old student said, expressing a persistent concern among the bill’s critics that the restrictions could lead to an increase in teen suicides.
The Senate voted 29-8 to override Beshear’s veto, as chants from bill opponents echoed throughout the Capitol. A short time later, the House completed the override on a vote of 76-23 but not before chanting opponents of the bill were escorted out of the chamber.
Bill supporters assembled to defend the measure, saying it protects trans children from undertaking gender-affirming treatments they might regret as adults. Research shows such regret is rare, however.
“We cannot allow people to continue down the path of fantasy, to where they’re going to end up 10, 20, 30 years down the road and find themselves miserable from decisions that they made when they were young,” said Republican Representative Shane Baker at a Wednesday rally.
Once the rally in support of the bill ended in the Capitol Rotunda, opponents watching from the balconies chanted, “Shame, shame.”
The legislation in Kentucky is part of a national movement, with state lawmakers approving extensive measures that restrict the rights of LGBTQ+ people this year — from bills targeting trans athletes and drag performers to measures limiting gender-affirming care.
At least 10 states have enacted laws restricting or banning gender-affirming care for minors: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, Utah, and South Dakota. A proposed ban is pending before the Republican governor in West Virginia. Federal judges have blocked enforcement of laws in Alabama and Arkansas, and nearly two dozen states are considering bills this year to restrict or ban care.
The debate in the Kentucky Senate reflected the impassioned arguments put forth at the rival rallies.
“We are denying families, their physicians, and their therapists the right to make medically informed decisions for their families,” Democratic Sen. Karen Berg said in opposing the bill.
Berg read what her son, Henry Berg-Brousseau, wrote in advocating for transgender rights shortly before his death late last year at age 24. The cause was suicide, his mother said.
Republican Senator Robby Mills said he supported the bill because of his belief that “puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones, when administered to youth under 18 for the purpose of altering their appearance, is dangerous for the health of that child.”
Transgender medical treatments have long been available in the United States and are endorsed by major medical associations.
Mills said another reason for his support was that “parents and students should have confidence that bathrooms in their school will only be used by the same biological sex.”
The sweeping Kentucky measure would ban gender-affirming care for minors. It would outlaw gender reassignment surgery for anyone under 18, as well as the use of puberty blockers and hormones, and inpatient and outpatient gender-affirming hospital services.
Doctors would have to set a timeline to “detransition” children already taking puberty blockers or undergoing hormone therapy. They could continue offering care as they taper a youngster’s treatments, if removing them from the treatment immediately could harm the child.
The bill would not allow schools to discuss sexual orientation or gender identity with students of any age. It would also require school districts to devise bathroom policies that, “at a minimum,” would not allow transgender children to use the bathroom aligned with their gender identities.
It would further allow teachers to refuse to refer to transgender students by the pronouns they use.
Another trans teenager, Hazel Hardesty, said the potential discontinuation of gender-affirming health care would mean “my male puberty would continue,” which would “cause a lot of mental distress.”
“People don’t even understand how it feels,” the 16-year-old said during the rally. “Going through the wrong puberty, every day your body is a little bit farther from what feels like you. And eventually you don’t even recognize yourself in the mirror.”