Kentucky legislature passes controversial transgender bill

Published 2:30 pm Friday, March 17, 2023

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Kentucky Lantern

Staff Report

The Kentucky General Assembly passed legislation Thursday night that would, among other things, ban gender-affirming care for transgender minors.

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The vote came after language from the controversial House Bill 470 was slipped into another bill, Senate Bill 150.

As the vote hit the pass threshold around 6 p.m., Sen. Karen Berg, D-Louisville, reached for a tissue to wipe tears from her eyes.

Henry Berg-Bousseau, a trans man and Berg’s son, died by suicide in December and advocated for LGBTQ+ rights. She has spoken in committees and on the floor against bills targeting the LGBTQ community all session.

The anti-trans legislation had surprisingly stalled in the Senate Wednesday night when Republican Danny Carroll, R-Benton, successfully proposed an amendment that significantly scaled back restrictions on transgender health care contained in the original bill. A maneuver in the House Thursday brought the harsher restrictions and penalties on medical professionals back to the Senate for a vote, and this time Republicans with the exception of Carroll were united  behind it.

Before SB 150 passed, Sen. Cassie Chambers Armstrong made an unsuccessful motion to instead take up Carroll’s pared-down version of House Bill 470 that the body voted to lay on the clerk’s desk Wednesday night.

Republicans pushed for the restrictions despite outcries and protest from physicians, mental health professionals, parents and transgender Kentuckians who testified in front of multiple committees.

The final Senate vote was 30-7. When the bill passed, people in the gallery yelled at legislators and were removed.

“Jesus was wearing drag,” one said. Another cried: “You’re all murderers.”

The bill will now go to Gov. Andy Beshear who is expected to veto it. At his weekly press conference in the Capitol, he said he believes decisions about the transition of minors should be between parents and their kids.

“I believe the medical decisions for all of our youth, including our transgender youth, ought to be made by their families,” said Beshear.

He also said “we owe it to” Berg to not take up this issue at this time.

“I wish everybody would respect her and her loss enough not to be doing this either at all or during this session,” Beshear said.

Other legislators opposed to the legislation – and community advocates – have pointed to a February Mason-Dixon poll that showed 71% of Kentucky registered voters don’t want lawmakers making the decisions about trans youth’s health care.

Interviewers polled 625 voters this year for the poll. Of those polled, 21% — about one in five — Kentuckians did support legislation like HB 470, with 8% undecided, the Fairness Campaign previously reported.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky quickly condemned SB150 as the “worst anti-trans bill in the nation.”

“This dangerous bill and others like it across the country are nothing more than a desperate attempt to score political points by targeting people who simply want to live their lives,” Amber Duke, interim executive director of the ACLU of Kentucky, said in a statement. “True democracy requires meaningful and informed debate and engagement from the public. The shameful process on display in the Kentucky House undermines the public trust in government.”

After Thursday’s vote Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said “the genesis of this measure springs from a national agenda of fearmongering.”

“This final measure transforms the Republican super-majority caucuses from a historic commitment of small government and personal liberty into a party pushing an agenda of a wildly expanded government intrusion,” said Brooks. “It means that in Kentucky, neither medical practices nor deeply personal decisions around sexuality and gender-identification are the purviews of doctors and parents but instead are under the ever-watchful eye of state government.”

How did 470 and 150 join?

With time running out in this session, House Republicans added the language of HB470 to SB150 in an effort to revive anti-trans legislation that had stalled in the Senate.

In a hastily called committee meeting, provisions restricting health care for trans youth were grafted onto Senate Bill 150, described by sponsor Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, as a “parents rights” measure, which imposes new anti-LGBTQ restrictions on public schools.

The House approved the hybrid bill  75-22.

Senate Bill 150 initially garnered pushback for language that prohibited school districts from punishing school staff if they misgendered a student. Senator Max Wise, the primary sponsor, has framed the bill as about protecting the First Amendment rights of school staff and said the bill didn’t prevent school staff from using a student’s correct pronouns.

The Senate passed SB 150 last month despite pleas from Democrats and opponents of the bill who said it would harm vulnerable children. Republicans said the legislation was broadly needed to strengthen parental rights.

But the bill expanded broadly in scope in a committee meeting that caught many off guard, drawing harsh criticism from Democrats that the additional language was a last-ditch effort to pass such provisions that had stalled in the state Senate and doing so in an anti-transparent manner.

“The thing is that if you’re right, if the legislation is right, then let’s do it in the light of day, not under the cover of darkness,” said Rep. George Brown Jr., D-Lexington on the House floor. “Not in secrecy.”

“This final measure transforms the Republican super-majority caucuses from a historic commitment of small government and personal liberty into a party pushing an agenda of a wildly expanded government intrusion,” said Brooks. “It means that in Kentucky, neither medical practices nor deeply personal decisions around sexuality and gender-identification are the purviews of doctors and parents but instead are under the ever-watchful eye of state government.”

What happened in the House?

When Senate Bill 150 reached the floor Thursday, House Democrats stalled for more than an hour while giving floor speeches against the measure. Some cried, some spoke directly to LGBTQ youth and told them they are “perfect” the way they are.

Rep. Pamela Stevenson, D-Louisville, gave an impassioned speech in which she said: “How dare you use my God for things against his people?”

“If you don’t want to have an abortion, don’t have one. If you don’t want to bother with trans kids, don’t,” said Stevenson. “But how dare you tell other people, other parents that bear the responsibility for their children, what they must do according to your wishes and God’s wishes?”

The newly changed SB 150 passed the House by a vote of 75-22 and was sent to the Senate. Two Republicans joined Democrats in opposing the legislation.

But not before Democrats criticized the speed with which the bill was changed and what they called “hate” toward transgender youth.

“You cannot erase a group of people,” said Rep. Tina Bojanowski, D-Louisville. “These children will be transgender. They may not get puberty blockers to allow them to have a more fulfilling adulthood, but they will be transgender.”

Rep. and Speaker Pro Tempore David Meade, R-Stanford, carried the bill on the House floor for Wise.

He said electoral repercussions of this legislation didn’t matter because he believed it’s “the right thing to do.”

“If we’re going to protect children,” Meade said, “we need to ensure that surgery or drugs that completely alter their life and alter their body is not something we should be allowing them until they’re adults and can choose that for themselves.”

Meade mentioned a “statewide broadcast poll” that he says showed Independents, Republicans and moderate Democrats supported such legislation.

He declined to say where it came from when a Lantern reporter asked him about it, except to say it was from a private organization.

Rep. Keturah Herron, D-Louisville, the first openly LGBTQ representative, called the bill “disrespectful.”

And, she said: it’s “very harmful and very sickening.”

“I’ve heard individuals say that they have been oppressed,” Herron said. “How dare you — as a Black, queer masculine-presenting woman — how dare you use the word ‘oppression.’ Not only myself, but other LGBTQ individuals in this state have been impacted and continue to be impacted by the ridiculousness of the words that have been coming out of this body.”

What did the Senators say?

The Senate talked about SB150 for less than an hour before passing it – easily.

Carroll voted against the bill, condemning the divisiveness around the topic.

“Why can’t we trust our doctors, as we do for every other issue, to guide us through these things?” asked Carroll. “When are we going to get past all of this extremist, all the radicalism?”

Carroll successfully narrowed the scope of HB 470 this week via a floor amendment that passed 19-17 Wednesday. His version proposed giving parents more leeway than the original bill to make healthcare decisions for their transgender children.

Parents or guardians could provide written consent for their trans children to get nonsurgical care, like reversible puberty blockers, under Carroll’s version.

LGBTQ+ community organizations said Carroll’s revision of the bill was an improvement, but still “heinous.”

“Can I say that if we allowed the (puberty) blockers to be prescribed and utilized,  would it…save hundreds, thousands of lives? I can’t say that. But you know what? If it saved one kid…one…what does it hurt?” Carroll asked. “I don’t understand.”

Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Fruit Hill, voted for SB150 despite saying, while explaining his vote, “I’m not crazy about this bill.”

But he reiterated his position that he doesn’t “agree with transition” and “I don’t understand it.”

Sen. Stephen Meredith, R-Leitchfield, called it hypocritical for anyone who supports abortion access to condemn the bill.

Meanwhile, Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, said he believes the body “can do better” and said he had “rage in my body” over the issue.

Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-, said Kentucky is joining the “don’t say gay” movement and creating “bathroom police.”

In her testimony, Berg said the body is “failing miserably” when it comes to this issue.

“It’s not that you haven’t had time to learn,” she said. “My child came up here 10 years ago. You had time to understand the science. You had time to get yourself educated on this subject. This is absolute, willful, intentional hate – hate for a small group of people that are the weakest and the most vulnerable among us.”