Students gathered at the Capitol to protest SB 150, which removed access to gender-affirming medical care for trans minors. (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)
Ysa Leon is questioning their future in the commonwealth. The outcome of Kentucky’s gubernatorial race this November will be a deciding factor.
“I’ve told my family: Be prepared in November because that might change where I’m staying after I graduate in May,” said Leon, a 20-year-old nonbinary student at Transylvania University, where they are president of the Student Government Association.
Leon and other transgender Kentuckians have been concerned for much of the year as Kentucky politics filled with heated discourse on the rights of trans people, specifically over what gender-affirming medical care for youth should be permitted in the state.
After the Kentucky General Assembly passed one of the strongest anti-trans bills in the country, Senate Bill 150, Ray Loux, 17, decided to enroll in Fayette County Public Schools’ Middle College program for his senior year. He did not want to worry about which bathroom he should use, what pronouns his teachers will use and “not being able to talk about who I am with my friends in school.”
Ray is considering going to a college out of state.
“I had a panic attack the other day because I wasn’t sure what my health care situation would look like going forward,” Ray said, as he must taper off his hormones while he is underage.
Now, the issue of trans rights has reached the governor’s race.
Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who is seeking a second term in office, has released a 15-second ad called ‘Parents.” It focuses on claims made by Republicans, including his opponent Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron, that the governor supports “sex change surgery and drugs” for kids.
Wearing basic dad attire — a blue button down under a red quarter zip pullover — Beshear stares into the camera and says: “My faith guides me as a governor and as a dad.”
He then repeats a familiar line — “all children are children of God” — before saying Cameron’s attacks are not true, adding: “I’ve never supported gender reassignment surgery for kids – and those procedures don’t happen here in Kentucky.”
GOP backlash was swift, and rhetoric uplifting culture wars reached the annual Fancy Farm Picnic in West Kentucky earlier this month. Among his jokes for the day, Cameron riffed that come November Beshear’s pronouns will be “‘has’ and ‘been,’” and criticized the governor for protecting “transgender surgeries for kids.”
In a press conference last week, Cameron highlighted a letter from a University of Kentucky health clinic, stating it has performed “a small number of non-genital gender reassignment surgeries on minors who are almost adult,” but stopped after Kentucky’s ban on gender-affirming medical care for youth went into effect.
Hours later, Beshear said in his press conference the letter was new to him, and added that had a bill that only banned gender reassignment surgeries for minors made its way to his desk, he would have signed it.
“At the end of the day, how has this race gone here? Daniel Cameron’s taken this race to the gutter in a way that I’ve never seen,” Beshear said. “I mean, right now, I think if you ask him about climate change, he’ll say it’s caused by children and gender reassignment surgeries.”
As politicians put a spotlight on gender-affirming medical care, advocates say the lives of trans Kentuckians — especially those of the commonwealth’s trans youth — are on the line.
‘It’s hard to be a trans child anywhere’
Transgender youth are already vulnerable, and the way that politicians talk about trans people in general is “really dehumanizing,” said Oliver Hall, the director of Trans Health at Kentucky Health Justice Network. They work directly with transgender youth, a demographic that Hall said is being used as a “political football.”
“It’s hard to be a kid. It’s hard to be a teenager in general,” Hall said. “And then it’s additionally hard to be a trans teenager. It’s hard to be a trans child anywhere.”
Leon, who came out as queer in 2020 and then as trans and nonbinary in 2021, said it took a lot of therapy to find themselves. At first, only their roommates and close friends referred to them with they/them pronouns in private.
“When I heard it the first time, I felt like I took the biggest breath ever — this exhale that I’d been holding in for so long. All of this pent up anxiety was gone and I felt so good,” Leon said. “And it’s not that that fixed everything for me, but accepting yourself and having other people accept you changed my life. It changes everything for some people.”
Kentucky’s trans youth no longer have access to gender-affirming medical care because of Senate Bill 150, which went into effect in July.
The law, which Cameron’s office is defending against a legal challenge brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, bans gender-affirming medical care for anyone under 18, including forcing those already taking puberty blockers to stop. It also allows teachers to misgender trans kids, regulates which school bathrooms kids can use and limits the sex education students can receive.
Beshear vetoed the legislation, but the Republican supermajority in the General Assembly easily overrode it. In his rejection of the bill, Beshear wrote that he was doing so based on the rights of parents to make decisions about how their child is treated and that the law would allow government interference in medical care.
“Improving access to gender-affirming care is an important means of improving health outcomes for the transgender population,” the governor wrote in his veto message.
What someone’s gender-affirming care looks like is different for each transgender person, Leon said. They did not use puberty blockers because they came out as an adult, but socially transitioned with support from their friends and family. Gender-affirming medical care is also not always covered by health insurance companies.
Having such laws on Kentucky’s books mixed with support from politicians running for the highest state office in the Commonwealth has “a detrimental effect on the physical and mental health of trans people,” Hall said.
Some in the trans community fear that, eventually, gender-affirming care for adults could be banned as well, said Ray’s mother, Shavahn Loux. While her son is in a “better situation than a lot of kids” because he will be an adult in a few months and could regain access to health care, she said “it’s scary” to think Ray’s access to hormone treatment in general could end completely.
“I know a number of people who were thinking about coming here and are now no longer considering it because of this,” she said. “That’s true for trans individuals and non-trans individuals.”
When asked recently if he thought gender-affirming medical care for adults should be banned in Kentucky, Cameron told reporters that he supported “what our legislature did in protecting our children.”
“Adults can make different decisions but this is about protecting kids and making sure that we don’t rob them of youth and innocence,” Cameron said.
‘The right buzzwords’
After a federal judge reversed a temporary block on the health care part of the new state law Cameron issued a statement calling the treatments “experimental” and vowed that his office would continue to “stand up for the right of children to be children, free from the influences of leftist activists and radical gender ideology.”
Rebecca Blankenship, the executive director of Ban Conversion Therapy Kentucky and the first openly transgender person ever elected to public office in the state, noted that Cameron’s defense was initially “rebuked” by the judge in the injunction, who noted that the drugs “have a long history of safe use in minors for various conditions.”
This shows, she said, that “Attorney General Cameron is willing not only to lie to voters, but even to the courts to advance these political talking points.”
People think they can say whatever they want, and not realize the harm that it does.
– Ysa Leon, Transylvania University student
Alexander Griggs, the community outreach coordinator for the Fairness Campaign, said such messaging argues “trans people shouldn’t have autonomy over the decisions they make over their bodies” and that their medical needs are “wrong.” With that constant messaging, transgender youth may internalize it, Griggs continued.
“The more of that language that’s used, the more damage is being done,” he said.
Leon agreed, saying that “people think they can say whatever they want, and not realize the harm that it does.”
As a teenager, Leon said they tried their best to fit in with their cisgender peers. They turned to their church, but were presented with the option of conversion therapy, a practice that seeks to change a person’s sexual or gender identities. It has been rejected by leading medical and mental health organizations. They did not undergo the practice.
“My mental health and my self-love improved more than I could have ever imagined after I came out as nonbinary,” Leon said.
Beshear has taken a more moderate stance on gender-affirming medical care. Bobbie Glass, a transgender woman who testified before lawmakers against Senate Bill 150, said Beshear’s recent ad used “very specific” language to discuss his position, pointing out that he did not discuss his position on puberty blockers.
Beshear is using “the right buzzwords” that people in the transgender community will understand, she said, adding that people who don’t understand the terms could interpret the ad to mean “he believes the same thing” they do.
“But then, Daniel Cameron’s going to turn around and try to exploit that stuff with the language he used in his veto,” Glass said. “And so it’s still going to have the effect of just making life miserable.”
Blankenship appreciates Beshear’s ad for “advancing the conversation, in that he’s lowering the temperature of it, and focusing on the truth.” Ban Conversion Therapy Kentucky does not endorse or oppose political candidates.
“He has been unwilling to bow to pressure from radicals to hurt us,” Blankenship said of the governor. “But at the same time, it’s difficult to point to anything that he’s done since maybe 2020, that was clearly designed to help LGBT people.”
At least 15 laws banning gender-affirming care for transgender youth have been enacted across the country, according to the Human Rights Campaign, along with at least seven laws that require or allow the misgendering of transgender students. HRC also found that more than 220 bills specifically targeting transgender and non-binary people were introduced in state legislatures this year. The Trevor Project, which aims to end suicide among LGBTQ+ youth, also reported in 2022 that 59% of Kentucky’s transgender and non-binary kids considered suicide, and 24% tried to take their own lives.
The legal landscape
At least 15 laws banning gender-affirming care for transgender youth have been enacted across the country, according to the Human Rights Campaign, along with at least seven laws that require or allow the misgendering of transgender students. HRC also found that more than 220 bills specifically targeting transgender and non-binary people were introduced in state legislatures this year.
The Trevor Project, which aims to end suicide among LGBTQ+ youth, also reported in 2022 that 59% of Kentucky’s transgender and non-binary kids considered suicide, and 24% tried to take their own lives.
Members of the LGBTQ+ community have asked the governor’s administration to direct the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to track suicides within the community or where conversion therapy is happening in the state, Blankenship added.
If Beshear is reelected, Hall hopes Beshear “will acknowledge the support that trans Kentuckians have given him” and enact executive orders to ensure policies like anti-discrimination protections for transgender people statewide.
Leon said they saw Beshear’s recent ad as “appropriate.” Ray called Beshear’s first term “empowering” for trans Kentuckians.
“It was really nice to be able to see somebody in a position of power in Kentucky who was accepting of people like me and welcoming of us and embracing us to live in this state,” Ray said.
A February Mason-Dixon poll released by the Fairness Campaign showed 71% of Kentucky registered voters don’t want lawmakers making the decisions about trans youth’s healthcare. But how harmful rhetoric is spread could impact public opinion, Blankenship said.
“What the consequences will be will depend upon … the radicals’ ability to spread their message far and wide and will depend on the LGBT community’s ability and willingness to stand up for ourselves and tell the truth,” she said.
Hall also highlighted increased rhetoric that has grown “even over the past couple of years.” According to the Trevor Project’s 2023 U.S. National Survey on the Mental Health of LGBTQ Young People, 27% of transgender and nonbinary young people reported being physically threatened or harmed in the past year because of their gender identity.
“It’s radicalizing people, and people are treating trans people even worse than we have been treated historically,” Hall said.
The politics, Griggs noted, feels like a tactic to distract the public from other issues. Transgender people having autonomy over their lives shouldn’t be a partisan issue, he said.
“If we let them get away with any of it, like we give them an inch, they’re going to take a mile,” Griggs said. “Before we know it, no one will have rights.”
Ray has embraced being openly trans because of the political spotlight on the community. He said he has “the privilege to be out and be safe at home in my life,” so that’s why he’s spoken openly with media outlets and friends.
Ray’s friends who are trans in Kentucky’s more rural areas have “experienced a lot worse than I have since the passing of this bill,” he said. Because of that, they are not visible.
“Ray’s quiet and unassuming and a good kid, but you never know who’s just going to have it in their mind that that’s wrong and that people like that shouldn’t exist,” his mother said.
She’s seen some of Ray’s friends who are trans and were open about it have since “shrunk back and are not as willing to put themselves out there because they’re worried about what might happen.”
“You’re not going to eliminate trans kids,” Shavahn said. “You’re just going to make them a lot more scared to be themselves and to let people know that they’re trans.”
Both Leon and Ray say the outcome of the November election will impact their future in Kentucky. Ray is prepared to leave the state for college if he has to.
“If Beshear loses, I think Kentucky is going to become a lot less welcoming of a place,” he said.
Leon hasn’t decided.
“I’m kind of weighing: Do I stay here and fight for people like me and make it a better state for people like me or do I protect myself and go somewhere where I am safe?”
Correction: We have updated this story to reflect that Ysa Leon did not go through conversion therapy.
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