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Florida bill limiting medical treatments for transgender youth loses support

The bill would have carried a maximum penalty of a $10,000 fine or 15 years in prison for doctors to provide minors with hormone therapy or perform sex reassignment surgery. It stalled in a House committee Monday.
Jeanette Jennings, mother of transgender teen advocate Jazz Jennings, speaks at a press conference in the Florida Capitol on Monday, February 3, 2020, against a bill that would make it a felony for doctors to provide minors with hormone therapy or to perform sex reassignment surgery. [SAMANTHA J. GROSS  |  Times/Herald]
Jeanette Jennings, mother of transgender teen advocate Jazz Jennings, speaks at a press conference in the Florida Capitol on Monday, February 3, 2020, against a bill that would make it a felony for doctors to provide minors with hormone therapy or to perform sex reassignment surgery. [SAMANTHA J. GROSS | Times/Herald]
Published Feb. 4
Updated Feb. 4

TALLAHASSEE — After lively and emotional debate on both sides of the issue, a bill that would make it a felony for doctors to provide minors with hormone therapy or to perform sex reassignment surgery will likely not see its first hearing.

The bill would have carried a maximum penalty of a $10,000 fine or 15 years in prison.

The House Health Quality Subcommittee on Monday held a workshop filled with hours of testimony both for and against the bill. Chair Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, announced at the end that it would be the last time the committee meets.

Because the committee is the bill’s first stop and the bill has not yet been heard, it would be “very rare” that it be referenced for a hearing in another committee.

“For it to move forward there would have to be additional committee stops,” Burton said. “[Speaker José Oliva] would make that decision.”

The bill, sponsored by one of the Legislature’s most conservative lawmakers Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills, was originally supposed to be heard and voted on in the committee Monday. It was reassigned to be heard as a workshop, not to be voted on.

A workshop serves as an information gathering session where a bill is heard but not voted on.

The Senate version, filed by Ocala Republican Dennis Baxley, has not yet been heard.

Sabatini said he filed the legislation because of the “explosion of interest” in gender reassignment surgery, which he says Florida should show some skepticism toward. There are two designated facilities that specialize in this field in Florida, Sabatini said.

“It’s the wild west ... there’s no real guidelines, laws, no real valid diagnoses given to a child before they go down the path of changing their gender,” he said. “This bill makes sure that a young person waits until they are 18 years old before they make an irrevocable decision to change into the opposite sex.”

Speakers against the bill ranged from transgender young people to pediatricians to Rep. Amy Mercado, an Orlando Democrat raising a 17-year-old transgender daughter.

Speakers in support of the bill such as marriage counselors and family therapists questioned the science behind hormonal therapy, calling it “child abuse” and “chemical castration.”

Democrats on the House committee challenged those notions, particularly Orlando Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith. Smith questioned the science and motivation behind the bill, particularly questioning a key group that has endorsed the legislation, the American College of Pediatricians.

He told the Times/Herald that he was glad the bill was not voted on Monday, and hopes lawmakers will reconsider their stances before the bill goes to a committee vote.

“The fact that the bill was turned into a workshop and the vote was canceled says a lot about what happens when Republican lawmakers started to open their eyes to really understand the dangerous consequences of this bill,” Smith said.

Advocates referred to research that found that transgender youth face a greater risk of suicide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They also repeatedly referred to a new study from the American Academy of Pediatrics that found that if transgender youth have access to puberty blockers, their chances of depression and suicide decline.

Broward County mother Jeanette Jennings knows the effects of gender reassignment surgery and hormone therapy on a transgender child.

Jennings, who uses a pseudonym, recalls her daughter’s recurring suicidal thoughts and nightmares of growing facial hair before she went through puberty.

Her daughter, Jazz, a 19-year-old advocate and star of the TLC show “I am Jazz,” “is only alive today because she received life-saving medical care,” Jennings said.

She said despite criticism she and her husband faced for supporting Jazz’s treatments, “we’d rather have a healthy, living daughter than a dead son.”

Vanessa Nichols, of Venice, faces a less certain future than Jennings. Her son Dylan is just 10 years old, and has not yet gone through puberty. She said that before her son came out and started transitioning at 8 years old, he was depressed and harming himself.

“As soon as we put some language to it he became a new kid, a kid I never met before,” she told the Times/Herald Monday.

Nichols fears what will happen when he does go through puberty. She cited statistics that 51% of transgender boys attempt suicide before they are 18.

Puberty for transgender boys, Nichols says, is the most dangerous time of their lives.

“These bills, to me, are creating a fear monger for the medical professionals interested in treating trans kids,” she said. “This is desperate.”

Ginny Grimsley, 53, of Tallahassee, said her son would have benefited from puberty blockers had he come out sooner. Sam, who is now 19, came out four years ago after he had already gone through puberty.

Sam, who is a junior a Florida State University, suffers with depression “a great deal” because of his gender dysphoria brought about by puberty. He often feels “outed” in public because of his higher-pitched voice and breasts, which Grimsely says could have been prevented with hormone treatment at an earlier age.

While her son does not want any medical intervention now, she says, she fears what would happen if he changes his mind in the future.

“It troubles me that in his future that he would be disallowed and doctors would not be able to help,” she said. “He doesn’t want to be hyper-feminized.”

At a news conference ahead of the workshop Monday, advocates, parents and medical professionals talked about the benefits medical intervention has had on the quality of life for transgender youth.

Pediatric endocrinologist Janet Silverstein, who founded the University of Florida’s Youth Gender Program, said if she were a doctor deciding on where to practice, she would never move to a state that penalized doctors for treating transgender minors.

“When we graduated from medical school, we took a Hippocratic oath: do no harm,” she said. “This is an untenable and unethical position to put us in.”

The bill would certainly affect her clinic, she said, and others like The Teen Health Center at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando or the LGBTQ Wellness Center at the University of Miami Hospital.

Lawmakers in Colorado, Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma and South Carolina and have filed similar bills that would penalize doctors who take part in treating transgender youth.

In South Dakota’s Republican-dominated House, lawmakers passed a bill last week that makes it a misdemeanor for doctors to provide hormones and sex reassignment surgery for children under 16. It carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a fine of up to $2,000.

The Florida legislation is one of a flurry of bills advocates in the state say are anti-LGBTQ, and one of the bills that sparked a firestorm on social media with politicians accusing GOP lawmakers of targeting the LGBTQ community.

Advocates say other bills would do away with local conversion therapy bans and prevent local governments from enforcing anti-discrimination policies at local businesses.

LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida sent a news release denouncing the bills. NBC News picked up the news release and labeled the bills “anti-gay.”

Massachusetts senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren later weighed in, tweeting that the bills would cause “immense harm” to LGBTQ Floridians.

Republican lawmakers say the legislation is not anti-LGBTQ.

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