No matter where you sit on the ideological spectrum, it’s hard not to acknowledge that it can’t be easy to be transgender– that is, be a biological female that identifies as a man or vice versa. From the time they are small children, transgender individuals are plagued with the feeling that they just don’t belong in the body that they’re in, and often have to put up with abuse or bullying from family and strangers alike on the basis of their gender identity. As if that wasn’t bad enough, puberty usually comes with considerable challenges for transgender youth, as the changes that accompany it have the potential to further heighten any preexisting gender dysphoria, which is a fancy term for a feeling that someone’s body does not match the gender that he or she identifies with. If someone that was born with a male body but identifies as a female begins experiencing a deepening of their voice or the development of facial hair, for example, the result can be psychological devastation.
To ease this dysphoria, many doctors prescribe “puberty blockers,” which are essentially medications that block certain hormones associated with the development of secondary sex characteristics, such as body hair or menstruation. But there are some who claim that these drugs can come with harmful side effects for children and teens. To that end, according to Vox, eight U.S. states have introduced legislation that would ban health care providers from prescribing puberty blockers to transgender youth as well as performing gender-confirming surgeries, and would allow the courts to prosecute providers for doing so, leading to fines and potentially even time behind bars. It should be obvious that this is going way too far. Although puberty blockers do have the potential to cause side effects, the same is true of all medications, and in many cases, the benefits of taking puberty blockers clearly outweigh the drawbacks.
Of the eight states considering legislation to ban puberty blockers, only South Dakota has passed the law in its House of Representatives. Last week Vox reported that the bill, which would impose a $2,000 fine and up to one year in prison for doctors convicted of prescribing puberty blockers or cross-sex hormones, passed the South Dakota House, which is comprised of a considerable Republican majority, by a vote of 46-23. When asked to comment on the legislation, The Washington Post quoted Fred Deutch, a member of the South Dakota House of Representatives and the bill’s primary sponsor, who said “the legislation would protect vulnerable children who are being chemically castrated, sterilized, and surgically mutilated.”
But this ignores that the vast majority of transgender youth do not actually undergo gender confirmation surgery until after they become adults. That said, it is true that puberty blockers come with potential side effects; according to the Mayo Clinic, these can include weight gain, headaches and loss of bone density. However, puberty blockers are reversible and are only taken temporarily as a way of allowing transgender youth to delay puberty until they are ready to begin officially transitioning to their preferred gender. As of now, the law is set to be held to a vote in the state’s senate chamber, and if it passes there, medical professionals across South Dakota could be put behind bars just for helping transgender youth make a more seamless transition to adulthood in what could otherwise be a very rocky one.
The teen years especially can be a very vulnerable time for transgender people, as they grapple with their gender identity while trying to cope with all the physical and emotional changes that come with growing up. Unfortunately, this translates into a risk for developing a mental health condition that is three to thirteen times higher than the general population, and a markedly increased risk of suicide among transgender teens, as Vox reports. According to a study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, over 40 percent of non-binary teens have attempted suicide at some point, compared to about seven percent of the general teenage population according to Child Trends, a non-profit organization. But there is a considerable amount of evidence, as reported by NBC News, suggesting that the use of puberty blockers may decrease the risk of suicidal ideation in transgender youth, meaning that the drugs could be helping to save lives. Advocates of the South Dakota bill as well as similar bills that are pending in other states say that the laws do not truly ban puberty blockers because even if they were passed, people over a certain age, which is 16 under the South Dakota bill, would still be able to access the medications. But that point is totally moot, since the whole point of puberty blockers is to stop puberty from progressing and cannot actually reverse any changes that have already occurred, such as facial hair or breast development. This means that the earlier on in puberty that the drugs are started, the better the results will be, and by 16, most teens have already developed to the point where the drugs would be totally useless.
The fact that most supporters of the bills that are being considered across the country are Republicans is certainly no coincidence. Members of the party have a long history of passing and trying to pass laws that discriminate against the LGTBQ+ community, and the transgender community in particular. Case in point: as reported by NPR, in 2016, North Carolina, a heavily conservative state, passed its infamous “bathroom bill” which stipulated that people, including transgender ones, were only allowed to use public restrooms that corresponded to the sex that was assigned to them at birth, meaning that a person who was assigned male at birth but identified as a woman would be forced to use a men’s restroom. Although most provisions of the law were repealed three years later, other discriminatory legislation is currently pending in other states. According to Vox, South Dakota (yes, again) is considering another bill that would require school employees, such as teachers and guidance counselors, to notify parents of students that they suspect may be suffering from gender dysphoria, even though the decision to inform others of one’s gender dysphoria should always be left solely to the individual.
According to Tylt, Republicans often argue that they are proponents of “smaller government” but a government that dictates what medications that doctors can prescribe, especially if it is one that has been shown to be reasonably safe, and attempts to take the decision to consume them out of the hands of citizens represents the very definition of “big government.” But what if banning medication is in the public interest? After all, puberty blockers aren’t considered “medically necessary,” in the strictest sense of the word, and even proponents will admit that they come with potential side effects. But in the end, these laws aren’t really about protecting children from side effects of the medication. They are actually about lawmakers punishing transgender youth for not conforming to a very narrow definition of what they consider to be “normal,” and because they believe that challenging traditional gender roles is dangerous for society. Every drug carries a risk of side effects, yet children and adults are prescribed medications every single day, so long as the benefits of taking the drug outweigh the risks. In these cases, it is up to the patient, family and doctor to decide whether or not a medication is worth taking, not lawmakers. Why should it be any different with a drug to block the effects of hormones?