Amid a nationwide conservative effort to chip away at transgender rights, Arkansas lawmakers passed an extremely restrictive piece of anti-trans legislation last week. HB1570 — the Save Adolescents From Experimentation (SAFE) Act — denies transgender youth access to essential gender-affirming care, which prompted the ACLU’s deputy director for transgender justice, Chase Strangio, to label it “the single most extreme anti-trans law to ever pass through a state legislature.” And despite a veto by Governor Asa Hutchinson, the bill is still set to become law: Both the Arkansas House and Senate voted to override the governor’s decision on Tuesday.
With a 72-25 vote in favor of an override in the House and a 25-8 vote in the Senate, the measure is currently scheduled to take effect 90 days after the legislative session ends on April 30. The ACLU, however, plans to challenge it in court.
“Attempting to block trans youth from the care they need simply because of who they are is not only wrong, it’s also illegal,” Holly Dickson, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, said in a statement confirming the impending legal action. “We are hearing from concerned families all over the state who are afraid about the impact of this bill and others like it. We are committed to doing all we can to support these families and ensure they know how to continue to fight for their rights and get the care and resources they need.”
The SAFE Act would ban doctors from providing gender-affirming care, including puberty blockers and hormones, to trans people under the age of 18 or risk losing their license. The legislation is rooted in a host of misinformation about gender-affirming care, with proponents of the bill arguing for its necessity under the guise of protecting kids. One of the bill’s Republican sponsors described gender-affirming treatments as “at best experimental and at worst a serious threat to a child’s welfare.”
But LGBTQ advocates and major medical organizations agree that denying trans youth access to this type of crucial, comprehensive care poses a much more serious threat to their health. “Affirming health care can literally be life or death for anyone but particularly for trans youth,” Raquel Willis, a Black trans activist and writer, told CNN. “People think that’s an exaggeration. It’s not. People think you can just discipline identity out of someone, and that is not true and in many ways is torture.” Following the bill’s passage, Dr. Lee Beers, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, decried the “dangerous” effort to “politicize medical care.” She continued, “This is discrimination by legislation, and transgender children and all children deserve better,” adding that such measures put “politicians, rather than pediatricians, in charge of a child’s medical care.”
Even before the bill made its way to the governor’s desk, trans-rights advocates and medical professionals in the state said they had already seen a preview of the policy’s devastating effect. Testifying before the state senate, Michele Hutchison, a pediatric doctor in Arkansas, said that after the bill passed the house, there were “multiple kids in our emergency room because of an attempted suicide.” Rumba Yambú, director of Intransitive, an Arkansas-based group that provides support to the trans community, told NBC News that the legislation “will cost lives” and that legislators “don’t seem to care about that.”
When he vetoed the bill, Governor Hutchinson reportedly nodded to this testimony, acknowledging concerns that “denying best medical care to transgender youth can lead to significant harm to the young person from suicidal tendencies and social isolation to increased drug use.” Across the country, the available data bear this out, showing a lower risk of suicide among trans youth who wanted and received gender-affirming care. Saying he expected an override, Hutchinson also noted that signing the bill — which he called both “well intended” and “a product of the cultural war in America” — would create “new standards of legislative interference with physicians and parents as they deal with some of the most complex and sensitive matters involving young people.”
Arkansas’s bill comes amid a wave of anti-trans legislation across more than two dozen states, according to the ACLU, all crafted to restrict the rights of trans people. Alabama and Tennessee are currently advancing legislation similar to Arkansas’s. Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers across the country have proposed legislation banning trans women and girls from participating in sports teams consistent with their gender identities; the legislation has been signed into law in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee.
“No matter what these politicians do or say, one thing has not changed: Trans youth are loved, they are seen, and we will never stop fighting to defend their dignity, their rights, and their lives,” Dickson said in Tuesday’s statement. “To everyone who spoke out against this bill: Now is the time to stay loud, not only for trans lives but for all the fundamental rights that politicians are hell-bent on attacking.”
This article has been updated.