Guest columnist Anna Dragunas: Arkansas’ SAFE Act — keeping youth unsafe

Published: 5/17/2021 1:50:59 PM

“No amount of therapy will help them when they realize that the government seems to oppose their existence,” said Joanna Brandt, mother of a 15-year-old transgender boy in Arkansas.

Her words fell on deaf ears as the Arkansas Legislature passed the SAFE Act (Save Adolescents From Experimentation) in late March. Her son, currently on puberty blockers and hormone therapy, has had his life suddenly turned upside down by Arkansas lawmakers who have no interest in helping transgender children.

Guided by bigotry and hate, lawmakers consistentlypush transgender children’s rights aside. With a simple sweep of a pen, the lives of transgender children in Arkansas are devastated. The SAFE Act forbids doctors from providing lifesaving, gender-affirming medical care (hormone therapy and puberty blockers) to transgender youths.

Why are these treatments lifesaving? According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, “Blocking access to timely care has been shown to increase youths’ risk for suicidal ideation and other negative mental health outcomes.” And, since the pandemic began, there has only been a worsening in transgender children’s mental health.

“Affirming health care can literally be life or death for anyone but particularly for trans youth,” says Raquel Willis, former national organizer for the Transgender Law Center. Laws like the SAFE Act will cost lives, and, seemingly, the government does not care.

While Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson vetoed the bill, both the Arkansas House and Senate voted in favor of an override. The act will take effect this summer.

Besides the gravity of the situation in Arkansas, the SAFE Act speaks to a larger argument about who gets to control bodies our society deems as non-normative. Since the start of 2021, legislation has passed in Tennessee, Texas and South Carolina to block medical care for transgender youth — a new record, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David stated, “These bills are not addressing any real problem, and they’re not being requested by constituents. Rather, this effort is being driven by national far-right organizations attempting to score political points by sowing fear and hate.”

Bills like the SAFE Act are part of a larger cultural crisis that shifts focus from people’s individual bodily autonomy and civil liberties to state-sanctioned control. Despite right-wing lawmakers espousing civil liberties for gun rights and property, they are avent supporters of restricting civil liberties to almost all marginalized groups.

In 2018, FOSTA-SESTA, a law intended to curb onlinesex trafficking, made sex work more dangerous and more restricted for sex workers, an already marginalized group. As of Feb. 23, over 60 bills have been introduced or passed to restrict abortion access and chip away at Roe v. Wade. As of March 7, over two dozen states have introduced bills that would ban transgender women from participating in sports that coincide with their gender identity.

These are just a few examples of how the government is trying to control freedom of choice, and autonomy. The new Arkansas bill is not surprising, given the American government’s history of passing legislation that gives the government more control over people’s bodies than the individual themselves.

Limiting the bodily autonomy of marginalized groups isn’t new. It’s American history. We see this history in the fight for federal legalization of gay marriage, which was only recently legalized in 2015, after years of grueling activism.

We see it in the fight for Roe v. Wade, and states continued attempts to attack its very foundation, through personhood laws and antiquated wait times and restrictions.

We see it in the historical legalization of Jim Crow laws, and its continued ramifications that affect Black people in America to this day. It should not come as a shock that states are now desperately searching for ways to undermine transgender youth’s freedom and autonomy.

Transgender youth have been the target of governmental ridicule and regulations for years, beginning in 2013 with Arizona’s attempted, but ultimately failed, bathroom ban. These bans would prohibit transgender students from using the bathroom at school that corresponded with their gender identity. These bans started appearing more frequently during the 2017 and 2018 legislative cycles, with 30 states in those years attempting to pass bathroom bans.

For Massachusetts, the state has a significant track record of protecting transgender rights. Transgender advocacy also has a historic past — on April 13, demonstrators marched on Beacon Hill in Boston to protest the high amount of anti-transgender legislation that has been passed throughout the country this year. This included protesting Arkansas’s SAFE act.

Former Massachusetts state representative and chair of the House of Representatives Trans Equality Task Force even spoke about the bill, reprimanded Arksansas’s SAFE act, saying, “Too many people with privilege that marginalized communities will never know believe that they are the ones under attack. So they fight with the desperation of someone whose back is against [a] wall, paying little attention to who isreally in peril — even when it is a child.”

When President Biden was elected in November 2020, many Democrats thought that the political sphere would go back to normal — that, suddenly, the American government would become an ally to the American people once again.

The SAFE Act proves this is not the case. No matter who is in power, homophobic, transphobic, racist, misogynistic lawmakers will continue to dominate state and federal government positions until we force them all out.

And to protect children like Joanna Brandt’s son, and countless others, we must.

To help fight Arkansas’ SAFE Act, here is a link to donate to the ACLU, to raise money for an impending lawsuit.

Additionally, here are other LGBTQ organizations to support that help the transgender community in Arkansas: nwaequality.org/donate/luciesplace.org/donate-money.html and secure.actblue.com/donate/intransitive

Anna Dragunas is a senior at Smith College and Quigley Fellow who writes articles for Ms. Magazine.



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