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Transgender rights activists and families await end of tense legislative year

The Alliance for Full Acceptance billboard campaign
The Alliance for Full Acceptance
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The Alliance for Full Acceptance, a Charleston nonprofit, promotes love for transgender children as part of a statewide billboard campaign.

As more than a dozen states pass bans on transgender healthcare for minors, South Carolina activists hope they've won the battle here another year

The red lettered, yellow billboards mimic religious messages scattered along highways nationwide. Only these bright banners express love for a group that often feels far from embraced, transgender children.

The signs are the brainchild of theCharleston nonprofit the Alliance for Full Acceptanceand they sprung up last month as families hit the road to fight a proposed ban on gender affirming care for transgender minors at the state capitol.

Mike Merrill made the trip with his 15-year-old transgender daughter, Emily. As a gay man who married a rabbi and fought to adopt children, Merrill thought he’d grown numb to the sting of discrimination.

“The Jewish part or the gay part, that’s who I’ve always been so I’m used to it,” says Merrill. “But when you come after my kid, then I get mad.”

Born a boy, Emily says she feels like a girl. The small, soft- spoken teen with long, dark hair has lived quietly that way until now.

“It’s kind of hard coming out to my friends,” she says. “I don’t know if they will accept me, but I think they will.”

She has the support of her family.

“They’re still the same person,” says sister Alayna. “It's just now people know one thing that could completely change their view and that can be hurtful.”

Emily decided to come out, in part, to appear before lawmakers last month who despite her testimony advanced a bill banning the gender affirming careshe gets.

Bans for minors

“These laws seem like they could be dangerous for people like us who are just trying to raise our families and keep them healthy and safe,” says Emily’s dad Rabbi Greg Kanter.

But keeping kids safe is what state lawmakers like Republican Sen. Josh Kimbrell say they’re trying to do by banning hormone therapy, puberty blockers and surgery for minors.

“I believe at the age of 18, there needs to be a boundary to protect these children from frankly the whims that they may not be able to reverse later,” Sen. Kimbrell told fellow lawmakers during a subcommittee hearing last month.

Emily says her desire to live as a girl is not a whim but who she is. Her family consulted therapists and doctors who prescribed gender affirming puberty blockers which are consideredthe standard of care for transgender children by major medical associations.

For years, Emily saw physicians at the Medical University of South Carolina.But when she recently went back for a follow up, her family was stunned to learn the hospital no longer provides gender affirming care for patients younger than 16-years-old because lawmakers passed a budget proviso last summer that threatens state funding.

In a statement, a hospital spokesperson said MUSC has “taken steps to operate in compliance with the Appropriations Act” and never offered transition surgery for pediatric patients or hormone therapy before puberty. The statement also said MUSC “does not direct patients or families to pursue certain courses of action but rather works to support them.”

Teens without healthcare

At the age of 15, Emily was suddenly left without a doctor and expiring treatment. Her family called endocrinologists across the state.

“Nobody returned our calls, nobody,” says Merrill. “I think that they were scared.”

The family finally learned Planned Parenthood South Atlantic does provide gender affirming care with parental consent as well as referrals at its Columbia and Charleston clinics.

“I see on a daily basis how life-changing and life-saving gender affirming care can be for young people who need it,” says program director Natalie Frazier.

Frazier has also seen an increase in the number of transgender patients since MUSC stopped providing care for minors and surrounding states like Florida and Georgia passed transgender healthcare bans.

She says gender affirming care is important because studies show transgender people experience much higher suicide rates and theflood of anti-LGBTQ legislation in Republican lead statesis crushing their mental health, even as it’s challenged as discriminatory in federal courts.

The bills in South Carolina not only ban gender affirming care for minors but force schools to out transgender students to parents and make it nearly impossible to change birth certificates.

The consequences

“It is intolerable for me to live in a place that so clearly doesn’t want me,” says Eli Bundy, who’s transgender and moving out of state to attend college after fighting these bills for two years.

“The idea that people would impulsively seek care I think is ridiculous,” says Bundy. “Because even when everything was working in my favor, it still took a long time.”

Bundy recently underwent transition surgery and did so out of state. Bundy says healthcare for transgender people in South Carolina is so hard to find the group Campaign for Southern Equality put together a directoryof friendly providers inspired by the Green Book Black people used to find services in the face of discriminatory laws.

“I think the average person on the average day couldn’t care less about someone’s gender,” says Bundy’s dad, David.

“It’s not on the top 50 problems that they have to face.”

David Bundy is a pediatrician who believes medical decisions for children are best left to doctors, parents and patients. He points to theAmerican Medical Association which calls gender affirming care necessary for transgender people. And he says the issue goes beyond a small percentage of the population.

“Because the issue is not about transgender people. The issue is does the legislature decide what the medical standard of care is in the state of South Carolina.”

Transgender rights activists are hopeful the bills in South Carolina will go nowhere as the state’s legislative session quickly winds to an end. But they worry next year is an election year.

Victoria Hansen is our Lowcountry connection covering the Charleston community, a city she knows well. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms and has worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 20 years. Her first reporting job brought her to Charleston where she covered local and national stories like the Susan Smith murder trial and the arrival of the Citadel’s first female cadet.