During a hearing Monday for a bill that would block gender-affirming care for transgender minors, supporters and opponents gave dramatically disparate testimony about what the legislation would mean for Montana children.
Senate Bill 99 is carried by Sen. John Fuller, R-Whitefish. It would also penalize any doctors who provide the care with fines and license suspension. Additionally, it would not allow state property, facilities or buildings to be knowingly used to promote or advocate social transitioning and stop Medicaid from covering care.
In advocating for his bill before the House Judiciary Committee on Monday, Fuller, a former high school teacher, said his legislation is designed to protect children. The bill is similar to ones passed in a handful of other states by Republican legislators and under consideration in roughly two dozen more.
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“Children live under the guardianship and guidance of adults precisely because they lack the maturity, prudence and experience to make safe and responsible decisions for themselves,” Fuller said.
The bill has already passed the Senate after a five-hour hearing with public comment in the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this session where about 100 people spoke against it and about 45 supported it. Monday’s hearing lasted about three hours and saw a closer ratio of support to opposition, with about 33 for it and 39 against.
Fuller's opening arguments for his bill predicted how opponents would address it, including concerns it would block parents from deciding what's best for their families.
“For those that claim this bill is injecting the government into the sacred relationship of a family and their health provider, I would argue that is a false premise,” Fuller said.
Fuller also said he thought concerns the bill is discriminatory or would be indefensible in court are “red herrings.”
“The real issue is that subjecting children to irreversible cosmetic and life-changing surgery before they are an adult and responsible for their own future is what the opponents are advocating,” Fuller said. “The state of Montana has the responsibility and the right to protect children from such tactics.”
During lengthy debate before lawmakers on the committee, bill supporters who identified themselves as parents or grandparents offered views of fear over indoctrination or harm they said could come from medical procedures.
"Parents need to have your support in fighting this indoctrination, and I believe this bill is a good first step. Parents need to recognize the dangers of this transgender fad that's sweeping the country," said Butch Barton, of Three Forks. Others who backed the bill equated medical care to child abuse or mutilation.
But doctors who treat trans kids and parents of trans children who spoke against the bill sharply rebuked the claims, offering their experiences as examples and pointing out surgery is not performed on minors.
Dr. Kathryn Lowe, a pediatrician from Bozeman who spoke on behalf of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said the bill prohibits evidence-based, best-practices health care that is endorsed by all the major U.S. medical organizations.
Lowe also clarified there’s not medical therapy for adolescents prior to puberty.
“I want you all to understand that is the truth from a medical professional,” Lowe said. “After puberty has started, a medicine to pause puberty can be considered.”
Those medications have been used for decades and are safe, effective and fully reversible, Lowe said, countering claims from supporters of the bill.
Phoebe Cross, a trans kid from Bozeman, started taking testosterone four months ago. Cross said testosterone brought about a dramatic change that helped ease depression.
“I am the target demographic for this bill. This bill is going to be taking away my right to health care and essential medical care," Cross said.
Cross told lawmakers about going though many medical professionals, and needing the approval of multiple therapists, gender-affirming care specialists and general physicians, in addition to six months of gender-affirming therapy, to even be considered for testosterone.
"That has saved my life," Cross said. " ... It would be much easier if I wanted to get a boob job or a nose job if I was cisgender. That is the truth of this bill."
Supporters, however, made claims of medical professionals or others pushing children to be trans.
"Leave the children out of this, Montana. First do no harm. Protect these children from the predations of their schools, counselors, doctors, hospitals, groomers and their misguided parents," said Elizabeth Barton, who is from Three Forks.
But Callie Hamilton, a Manhattan parent of a transgender child, said her lived experience "has not been at all the experience of what the proponents of this bill have come up."
“Nobody in the medical field has ever told my child the only way to get better is go through surgery,” Hamilton said. “That doesn't happen.”
Lawmakers also heard from Joshua Whetstone, who spoke in support of the legislation and told the committee about still feeling the pain of gender dysphoria years after transitioning at age 22, which is past the age the bill would address. After six years of living as a trans woman and a name change, Whetstone testified to lawmakers about being in the process of reversing that to Joshua.
“I came to realize that no amount of drugs, no amount of pretending and acting like your opposite sex could cure the deep hurt that comes from the pain of dysphoria,” Whetstone said.
Matt Sharp, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom in Atlanta, offered a counter to the argument the bill tramples parental rights.
“The Montana Legislature has both the legal and constitutional authority to set policy that best protects the health and safety of children,” Sharp said. “ ... Parents may have the right to decide which lawful medical procedures their child receives. They do not have the right to expand the menu of legally available options."
But Jessica Van Garderen, of Belgrade, said puberty blockers were the only thing that helped after her child began to withdraw from life and the legislation would remove her ability to make that choice. Her family decided on that route after multiple other options and a lot of research, Van Garderen said.
"If you vote for this bill, you will be taking away the only treatment we have found that has offered any sort of relief for my daughter."
In speaking against the bill, SK Rossi with the Human Rights Campaign predicted litigation if the bill passes.
Rossi pointed to past rulings, including the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 Bostock order that held laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation also protected against discrimination based on gender.
Fuller's bill cleared the Senate, where it saw sharp debate, on a 30-20 margin in February and will be debated by a GOP supermajority on the House floor if it passes the Republican-majority House Judiciary Committee.
After several supporters of the bill made reference to “slicing up children” or “mutilation” in reference to surgeries, Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, repeated a previous objection made by a fellow Democrat on the committee.
“There are members on this committee who have had procedures that are being described here,” Zephyr, the first openly trans legislator in Montana, said.
However, Chair Amy Regier, a Kalispell Republican, said she would allow people to use the term because it was “some peoples opinion as to what’s happening."
Holly Michels is the head of the Montana State News Bureau. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org