Republican lawmakers in Kentucky on Wednesday swept aside the Democratic governor’s veto of a bill regulating some of the most personal aspects of life for transgender young people — from banning access to gender-affirming health care to restricting the bathrooms they can use.
The votes to override Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto were lopsided in both legislative chambers — where the GOP wields supermajorities — and came on the next-to-last day of this year’s legislative session. The Senate voted 29-8 to override Beshear’s veto. A short time later, the House completed the override on a vote of 76-23.
As emotions surged, some people protesting the bill from the House gallery were removed and arrested after their prolonged chanting rang out in the chamber. The protesters, their hands bound, chanted “there’s more of us not here” as they waited to be taken away from the Capitol.
Nineteen people were arrested and charged with third-degree criminal trespassing, Kentucky State Police said. Officers gave each person “the option to leave without any enforcement action or be placed under arrest,” said Capt. Paul Blanton, a police spokesperson.
Republican House Speaker David Osborne later said it was a decision by state police to remove and arrest protesters.
“I think it’s unfortunate that it reached that level and certainly they were given, as I’ve been told since then, multiple opportunities to either quiet their chants or to leave voluntarily,” Osborne said.
The bill’s opponents framed the issue as a civil-rights fight. Democratic Rep. Sarah Stalker declared: “Kentucky will be on the wrong side of history” by enacting the measure.
The debate about the transgender bill will likely spill over into this year’s gubernatorial campaign, with Beshear's veto drawing GOP condemnation as he seeks reelection to a second term. A legal fight also is brewing. The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky reaffirmed that it intends to “take this fight to the courts” to try to preserve access to health care options for young transgender people.
“While we lost the battle in the legislature, our defeat is temporary. We will not lose in court,” said Chris Hartman, executive director of the Fairness Campaign, an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization.
In praising the veto override, David Walls, executive director of The Family Foundation, said the bill puts “policy in alignment with the truth that every child is created as a male or female and deserves to be loved, treated with dignity and accepted for who they really are.”
Activists on both sides of the impassioned debate gathered at the statehouse to make competing appeals before lawmakers took up the transgender bill following an extended break.
At a rally that drew hundreds of transgender-rights supporters, trans teenager Sun Pacyga held up a sign summing up a grim review of the Republican legislation. The sign read: “Our blood is on your hands.”
“If it passes, the restricted access to gender-affirming health care, I think trans kids will die because of that,” the 17-year-old student said, expressing a persistent concern among the bill's critics that the restrictions could lead to an increase in teen suicides.
Bill supporters assembled to defend the measure, saying it protects trans children from undertaking gender-affirming treatments they might regret as adults. Research shows such regret is rare, however.
“We cannot allow people to continue down the path of fantasy, to where they’re going to end up 10, 20, 30 years down the road and find themselves miserable from decisions that they made when they were young,” said Republican Rep. Shane Baker at a rally.
The legislation in Kentucky is part of a national movement, with state lawmakers approving extensive measures that restrict the rights of LGBTQ+ people this year — from bills targeting trans athletes and drag performers to measures limiting gender-affirming care.
At least 11 states have now enacted laws restricting or banning gender-affirming care for minors: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, Utah, South Dakota and West Virginia. Federal judges have blocked enforcement of laws in Alabama and Arkansas, and nearly two dozen states are considering bills this year to restrict or ban care.
The debate among Kentucky lawmakers reflected the impassioned arguments put forth at rallies.
“We are denying families, their physicians and their therapists the right to make medically informed decisions for their families,” Democratic Sen. Karen Berg said in opposing the bill. Berg read what her son, Henry Berg-Brousseau, wrote in advocating for transgender rights shortly before his death late last year at age 24. The cause was suicide, his mother said.
Republican Sen. Robby Mills said he supported the bill because of his belief that "puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones, when administered to youth under 18 for the purpose of altering their appearance, is dangerous for the health of that child.”
Transgender medical treatments have long been available in the United States and are endorsed by major medical associations.
The Kentucky measure will ban gender-affirming care for minors. It will outlaw gender reassignment surgery for anyone under 18, as well as the use of puberty blockers and hormones, and inpatient and outpatient gender-affirming hospital services.
Doctors will have to set a timeline to “detransition” children already taking puberty blockers or undergoing hormone therapy. They could continue offering care as they taper a youngster’s treatments, if removing them from the treatment immediately could harm the child.
Parts of the bill dealing with gender-affirming medical care will take effect in about three months.
The bill will not allow schools to discuss sexual orientation or gender identity with students of any age. It will also require school districts to devise bathroom policies that, “at a minimum,” won't allow transgender children to use the bathroom aligned with their gender identities.
It will further allow teachers to refuse to refer to transgender students by the pronouns they use and require schools to notify parents when lessons related to human sexuality are going to be taught.
Another trans teenager, Hazel Hardesty, said the potential discontinuation of gender-affirming health care would mean “my male puberty would continue," which would “cause a lot of mental distress.”
“People don’t even understand how it feels,” the 16-year-old said in an interview at a rally. "Going through the wrong puberty, every day your body is a little bit farther from what feels like you. And eventually you don’t even recognize yourself in the mirror.”