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Families Sue Arkansas Over Transgender Health Care Ban

Dennis family
Dennis family photographed by Rana Young/ACLU

"This law stands in the way of our child getting the medical care she will desperately need," says Amanda Dennis, mother of a trans daughter.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the new Arkansas law banning gender-affirming health care for transgender minors.

The ACLU filed the suit Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, on behalf of four trans young people and their families as well as two doctors, according to an ACLU press release.

Arkansas legislators overrode Gov. Asa Hutchinson's veto last month to pass House Bill 1570 into law. It bars doctors from providing gender-affirming care to people under 18 or even referring them for such care. It also bans the use of state funds or insurance coverage for gender-affirming health care for trans minors and allows private insurers to refuse coverage for gender-affirming care for people of any age. It is scheduled to take effect July 28.

Arkansas is so far the only state to enact such a law; similar legislation has been proposed elsewhere, and Tennessee recently adopted a more limited measure, banning the administration of hormones and puberty blockers to children before they reach puberty -- but those medications are not prescribed for prepubertal children anyway. The Arkansas law bans those medications for anyone under 18 for the purpose of gender confirmation, along with banning gender-affirming surgery for minors (doctors do not recommend genital surgery for people under 18, in any case, although some minors undergo chest surgery).

The ACLU suit contends that the Arkansas law violates the U.S. Constitution. "It violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because it discriminates on the basis of sex and transgender status by prohibiting certain medical treatments only for transgender patients and only when the care is 'related to gender transition,'" the suit says. "This discrimination cannot be justified under heightened scrutiny or any level of equal protection scrutiny. In addition, by preventing parents from seeking appropriate medical care for their children when the course of treatment is supported by the child and their doctor, the Health Care Ban interferes with the right to parental autonomy guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Lastly, the Health Care Ban violates the First Amendment by prohibiting healthcare providers from referring their patients for medical treatments that are in accordance with the accepted medical standards of care to treat gender dysphoria."

"This law would be devastating to trans youth and their families, forcing many to uproot their lives and leave the state to access the gender-affirming care they need," Holly Dickson, ACLU of Arkansas executive director, said in the press release. "Gender-affirming care is lifesaving care for our clients, and they're terrified of what will happen if this law is allowed to take effect. No child should be cut off from the medical care they need or denied their fundamental right to be themselves -- but this law would do both. We're suing to stop this cruel and unconstitutional law from taking effect and inflicting further harm on these children and their families."

The families in the suit are Dylan Brandt and his mother, Joanna Brandt; Brooke Dennis and her parents, Amanda and Shayne Dennis; Sabrina Jennen and her parents, Lacey and Aaron Jennen; and Parker Saxton and his father, Donnie Saxton. Dr. Michelle Hutchison and Dr. Kathryn Stambough are also challenging the law on behalf of themselves and their patients. Their lawyers are from the national ACLU, the ACLU of Arkansas, and the law firms of Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, Gill Ragon Owen, and the Walas Law Firm.

The named defendants are Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge; Amy E. Embry, executive director of the Arkansas State Medical Board; and the members of the board.

The Dennis family may move out of state if the law takes effect, according to the release. "Our child has known exactly who she is since she was 2 years old," Amanda Dennis said. "She was a happy child and felt comfortable expressing herself but when she began to feel pressure at school to pretend she is a boy, she began to really struggle. It was painful to watch our child in distress. Last year, when she told us she is a girl and would like to be called 'Brooke' and referred to using she and her pronouns, we supported her immediately and the cloud of sadness lifted and her smile came back. ... We have told all of our children that we will always protect them, but this law stands in the way of our child getting the medical care she will desperately need."

"These attacks against trans youth in Arkansas and in states around the country will not go unchallenged -- not while they are debated in legislatures, not after they pass, not when they are discussed in public conversation," Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice with the ACLU's LGBTQ & HIV Project, said in the release. "The ACLU and our partners will be filing several lawsuits over the course of the next few months to make it clear that there is a robust movement of trans people and allies fighting for trans justice. Trans young people should not have to fight so hard to live. Even with supportive families, these bills have devastating consequences. Our work will not be done until every law that targets transgender people is struck down as unconstitutional and all transgender people are able to live without fearing discrimination and violence because of who we are. To all the transgender people who are fighting each day, please know that you are not alone and that we will continue to build movements for justice that center your needs, your experiences, and your beauty."

Rutledge said she will defend the law, the Associated Press reports. "I won't sit idly by while radical groups such as the ACLU use our children as pawns for their own social agenda," she said in a statement.

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