Georgia Legislature sends bill to limit transgender care for minors to governor

Georgia State Capitol on mostly sunny day

by Ross Williams, Georgia Recorder [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]

March 22, 2023

A bill limiting the care Georgia doctors could provide to transgender children awaits Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature after passing the state Senate for a second time Tuesday.

Senate Bill 140, authored by Cordele Republican Sen. Carden Summers, would prohibit doctors from performing gender-affirming surgeries or prescribing hormone replacements to Georgians under 18. Children who are already taking hormones when the law goes into effect will be able to continue.

“I want you to understand where I come from with SB 140 and I want to tell you honestly how compassionate I feel, that we are truly protecting the lives of children by not offering the life-altering drugs and of course the surgeries that are completely irreversible,” Summers said.

Advocates say a very small number of transgender minors get top surgery – masculinizing or feminizing the patient’s chest – and bottom surgery is even more rare.

“They have shouted, ‘castration, mutilation and sterilization,’” said Elizabeth Wagner, a Gwinnett mom of a transgender child. “That is their rallying cry to target the kids. It is not fact-based.”

While the bill would prevent minors from taking testosterone or estrogen, it would allow drugs which delay the onset of puberty.

Summers and supporters say that will allow children to put off making a decision on more permanent treatments until they are older.

“What we’re doing here is we’re preventing minors under 18 years old from having irreversible changes in their lives,” said Republican Sen. Ben Watson, chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. “These changes, whether surgical, which could be done and can be done here in the state of Georgia, or whether it’s hormone replacement therapy, i.e. testosterone or estrogen, those give irreversible changes to the minor’s or the child’s body.”

Senators reaffirmed their support for the bill on a party line vote after a House committee removed language protecting doctors who prescribe from civil or criminal liability, the top item on the wishlist of conservative lobbyists supporting the bill. Doctors could also be stripped of their licenses for providing hormones to children.

Advocates argued that medical associations recommend a supportive approach for children struggling with gender dysphoria, which could include hormone therapy, and said the bill could force doctors to choose between doing what they believe is best for their patient or complying with the law.

Watson, a Savannah physician, said that amendment did give him pause.

“I certainly have angst or have challenges related to that, but I think that in the end, I think that from a criminal or civil standpoint, we should never be above the law by any means,” he said.

Watson offered the example of Conrad Murray, the private doctor of Michael Jackson who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for inadvertently giving the pop icon a lethal overdose.

“That was not malpractice. That was criminal,” Watson said. “And indeed, he was convicted. Indeed, he served time for that. I think he may still be serving time for that. That is what we’re discussing when we’re relating to that. Physicians should not be above the law by any means.”

Senate Democrats took turns delivering fiery invectives against the bill, arguing that lawmakers have no right to tell doctors how to practice medicine or to tell parents how to raise their children.

Atlanta Democratic Sen. Elena Parent pointed to other Republican bills enshrining parental rights when it comes to mask-wearing or classroom discussions of sensitive issues.

“This is the definition of hypocrisy,” she said. “The rule does seem to be that we are for parental rights when those parents make decisions we agree with, and when we don’t like the decisions they make, then we intend to outlaw those decisions.”

In an unexpected legislative maneuver, Democratic Sandy Springs Sen. Josh McLaurin motioned for the Senate to adjourn, after which lawmakers rushed into the Senate chamber from side rooms to vote to keep going. McLaurin then castigated his colleagues for not listening to the testimony.

“We come running back in because of a motion to adjourn,” he said. “We’re ready to show up when it’s time to keep our grip on power, but we’re not ready to show up when it’s time to let those messages in, when it’s time to listen to people in the hallway.”

McLaurin was referring to LGBTQ activists gathered outside the chamber to urge lawmakers to vote against the bill. Transgender people and advocates also came out in large numbers to committee meetings where the bill was discussed, but many did not get a chance to testify because of Republican-set time limitations on meetings.

Among those hoping to speak with lawmakers were Ellie Nease and Magnolia Poeling, high school seniors from Savannah and activists with the Deep Center, a youth-focused nonprofit.

Poeling said she wanted to speak to lawmakers on behalf of her friends and family.

“At my school, I’m actually president of the Gay Straight Alliance, so I hear stories from people who are close to me, but I also have a family member who’s trans,” she said. “And he’s an older person, and I’ve lived hearing his stories of neglect and of hatred that he’s faced living in the South as a trans person. So I feel like that’s why I’m here today, because he hasn’t had the opportunity to live his life in full.”

Nease said it was a challenge getting through to the senators outside the chamber

“We tried that with some Senators, they refused to come out,” she said. “It was frustrating because you sign a slip that says, like, this person is requesting your presence to speak to you about something they find important, and then you send the slip into the Senate floor, and then the senator has the option to either come out or not.”

Wagner said she has been reaching out to senators since shortly after the bill was introduced, and she feels similarly ignored.

“I used to send them emails that said, ‘this is my kid, we’re a good family,’ but then I realized they don’t care,” she said. “So the email I sent them last was, ‘you will be on the wrong side of history.’ I’m just letting you know that history has shown us what happens when people become convinced that people who are different are undeserving of life and respect. That’s what they will answer to. That’s how they will be remembered.”

Last year, Kemp championed a bill that opened the door to ban transgender student athletes from playing on girls’ school sports teams. He has been largely silent on this year’s bill, and his office did not say Tuesday whether he plans to sign it.

“Once the bill reaches the governor’s desk, it will undergo a thorough review process,” said press secretary Garrison Douglas. “An announcement will be made once a decision has been made.”

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