Alabama Trans Teens and Families Celebrate Legal Win, ‘but We Will Never Stop Fighting’

Julie Bennett/Getty Images
Julie Bennett/Getty Images

On Saturday morning, Jeff Walker woke his 15-year-old daughter Harleigh up with some news. In return, “she gave me the biggest hug,” Jeff told The Daily Beast.

Late Friday night, U.S. District Judge Liles Burke issued a temporary injunction on a new Alabama law that made it a felony for doctors and parents in the state to provide gender-affirming medical treatment to transgender youth under 19, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Judge Burke left in place a provision banning gender-affirming surgeries on trans minors. Another part of the law left intact by Judge Burke insists that teachers and school officials tell parents if a child discloses to that official or staff member that they feel they are transgender.

On Saturday, trans teenagers, their parents, and doctors were both celebrating, while also eyeing the injunction cautiously as a momentary reprieve; Governor Kay Ivey said it was a “temporary legal roadblock,” while the state attorney general indicated he would appeal.

Alabama Trans Teens, Parents, and Doctors Fight Against ‘Hell’ of Health-Care and Bathroom Bills

For now, trans teens, their doctors, and their supporters are celebrating a rare moment of victory. The so-called Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act officially came into force last weekend, after being signed into law by Ivey in April, leading to deep worry and concern for trans teenagers on medication and receiving gender-affirming care, their parents, and the doctors who care for them who suddenly found themselves criminalized.

Harleigh Walker, who lives with her family in East Alabama, told The Daily Beast her dad had woken her up at 6 a.m. to tell her about the injunction.

“I felt it was such a release of stress,” Harleigh said. “The past three weeks have been a constant battle with stress and anxiety regarding my transition and this legislation. Trying to balance just being a 15-year-old and fighting for my constitutional rights isn’t ideal. Now that this injunction is granted and the fight is on hold for now, and I can focus on moving forward with my transition, it makes me so happy. I can go back to being Harleigh, the 15-year-old girl from Auburn, Alabama who is just living life how I was meant to live it.”

Jeff told The Daily Beast: “We are ecstatic at the results. We really feel like this had lifted a huge weight off our shoulder. Not only do we get to continue the care, but we also can continue with the doctors that have been with us since the beginning.”

In a strongly worded ruling, Judge Liles wrote that most major medical associations had endorsed “transitioning medications as well-established, evidence-based treatments for gender dysphoria in minors,” adding it was in the “enduring American tradition,” that it was parents, not the states or federal courts, who played “the primary role in caring and nurturing for their children.”

Judge Liles reserved special scorn for one expert witness called by the state, clinical psychologist Dr. James Cantor, who admitted to having little experience in treating young trans people. “Accordingly, the Court gave his testimony regarding the treatment of gender dysphoria in minors very little weight,” Judge Liles wrote.

Dr. Morissa Ladinsky, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, who oversees the care of “several hundred kids” aged from 5 to 20 from Alabama, southern Tennessee, the Florida Panhandle, and the western edge of Georgia, told The Daily Beast: “I’m thrilled by the outcome of the decision. This is a huge relief for transgender children and their families. The Court’s decision recognizes this is well-established care that has been endorsed by 22 major medical associations.

“This decision will ensure transgender children can continue to receive this life-saving care—not just in Alabama, but hopefully the entire nation. I am also relieved for my physician colleagues nationwide. The untenable placement of physicians in a space to breach our Hippocratic Oath or face a felony conviction, is abhorrent. This fear weighed heavily throughout these weeks. I'm elated to see it put to rest.”

Dr. Ladinsky told The Daily Beast it was “strange” for the judge to keep the provision forbidding gender-affirming surgeries on minors, as at her institution no such surgeries are performed on minors.

“It is a colossal reprieve,” Dr. Ladinsky said, in relation to her continuing to be able to provide gender-affirming care, and prescribing hormone treatments and puberty blockers to patients. “We now return to providing 100% of our services.” The judge’s injunction will not only hold for the duration of the appellate process as it continues, but its emphatic wording, Dr. Ladinsky feels, will make it hard for the 11th Circuit to grant an appeal to the state.

“There is a sense of relief, elation, and peace—at least for a while, knowing that the health care and medication our patients and future patients hoped to receive is not going away.” Dr. Ladinsky told The Daily Beast. “There just aren’t words. Tears of fear have become tears of joy across the state. Parents and kids haven’t slept for weeks. They finally now have the peace they need to get the sleep they need.”

The granting of the injunction “means that parents of transgender children in Alabama will continue to be able to make the healthcare decisions that are best for their families. It is an extraordinary relief. Parents should not be punished for wanting to do what’s best for their kids,” said Jennifer Levi, director of the transgender rights project for GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Jeff and Harleigh Walker.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">The Walker Family</div>

Jeff and Harleigh Walker.

The Walker Family

A father of a trans son, who requested anonymity, told The Daily Beast: “Each morning, I quickly scan my emails, in hope of finding a Google alert that might have some news that wasn’t already repeated in other emails or the same story in other outlets. To my surprise, there it was—an alert about the Judge making his decision, late last night. I read with glee, then saw an email from one of our doctors, sent at 11:15pm last night, joyfully exclaiming the news. I was in the bathroom, which has double doors to the bedroom. I burst through them both, yelling, ‘WE WON!!!’ My wife jumped up in bed. ‘WHAT!!!’

“So, where are we now, right? So, WE won, meaning our kid and kids like our kid. There are three components to SB 184 (the bill that was passed into law). Judge Burke wisely struck down the part regarding medical care, HRT, etc., due to insufficient evidence that these treatments were ‘experimental.’ WOOT! Assuming that goes unchallenged, we get a win for that part. Regardless, for now, my son, wife, and I can continue to work with his team of doctors on his therapy, as can all of the other kids like him.”

“So many trans kids and LGBTQ kids are going to lose their safe space”

Ivey has signed into law another bill that prevents trans kids from using the bathroom of their choice at their K-12 schools, and­—echoing Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill—preventing “classroom instruction or discussion on sexual orientation or gender identity” for grades K-5.

“Adults are free to do what they want to do, but this is to protect children,” Rep. Wes Allen, the Republican sponsor of the original bill outlawing gender-affirming health care, said.

In a previous interview with The Daily Beast, Republican Representative Andrew Sorrell said he “rejected the premise” that his and other legislators’ actions amounted to bullying an already marginalized group for political gain, and went on to blame trans youth and their families for the need for legislation.

“We’re not the ones who made the decision to have transgender surgery,” Rep. Sorrell said. “They’re the ones who put us in this position, not the reverse. They’re the instigators, we’re responding.” He appeared to advocate for conversion therapy for trans youth, who he said should have counseling to be told, “they are what God created them to be, not confuse them by encouraging them to have surgery and puberty blockers.”

“I don’t believe people are transgender at all, I believe you are born with the gender you really are,” Rep. Sorrell told The Daily Beast. “You can do things to yourself, but that’s not really changing you.”

Rep. Sorrell, who co-sponsored the bathroom bill, told The Daily Beast: “If you’re an adult in America and you want to have transgender surgery, have at it. It’s a free country. What you don’t have the right to do is infringe on my daughter’s right to privacy in a bathroom.”

Given how focused Ivey and Republican legislators are on passing anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ legislation into law, there remains much concern over the provision insisting educators and officials tell on trans students who may have confided in them.

Harleigh Walker told The Daily Beast, “I remember when I was early on in my transition I would look to my teachers and counselors for advice. They would always be there for me if I needed them or had questions or just needed a safe space. But with this legislation in place, it would force teachers to out so many trans and LGBTQ children and that’s not OK. I know so many teachers that would hate to abide by these laws, but they would risk their job and that’s not a good line to cross. So many trans kids and LGBTQ kids are going to lose their safe space—and that’s extremely dangerous for the kid and everyone else involved.”

“This one does still stick in my craw, because this is way too heavy a burden to put upon these people,” the father of the trans son told The Daily Beast about the teachers-telling-on-trans kids provision staying intact. “Not only that, this can literally put these kids in danger—either from disapproving parents or by their own actions, feeling outed against their will. In my mind, I can easily imagine kids going to school and changing clothes and being themselves during the day, then going home as their parents expect them.

“What could happen from abusive parents to these kids scares me the most. I always imagine the drunken dad at home burning a cigarette into a kid’s arm or something awful like that. Or, just kicking them out. Whatever. My imagination runs wild. So, while those who backed the law probably can’t even imagine the damage this could cause to a kid, that one is still on the books for the moment.”

Maria, mom to a trans son, Rhydian, told The Daily Beast: “I am very happy for our doctors and for us to be able to continue with treatment, it’s definitely positive. But Rhydian really needs top surgery to finish his transition, and to feel good with his own body. Dysphoria is real. And that is on hold right now. I don’t understand why you can go fight for our country and even vote at 18, and yet trans teens are treated as children when it comes to making a decision to have their much-needed surgery until 19. This still puts us on a limbo again. But we will take the positives.”

Her voice breaking with emotion, Maria said she wanted Rhydian to be happy. Rhydian himself wants to know if the Alabama legislators pushing the anti-trans legislation “feel like they’re doing something productive. What do they see their mission as? Do they see the damage they’re doing to trans kids, their families, and the community?”

“What if it was your kid?” Maria wants to ask the legislators. “Do you want them to live their fullest lives, and be happy—to thrive?”

The trans teens, their families, and physicians like Dr. Ladinsky are poised for the battle to go on.

“Our hope is that the first part around gender-affirming medical care is over with and won’t be challenged,” the father of the trans son told The Daily Beast. “Just strike it out and set a precedent for other states. I don’t doubt that there will be appeals and/or other attempts to reword bills and try again. For now, my boy is safe. I have no doubt that the other components will be challenged, and I hope the ratting-on-trans kids part takes plenty long enough that the powers-that-be have the wisdom to realize that it is not an underpaid teacher’s responsibility to put a kid into harm’s way.”

The father also noted that Judge Burke was appointed by President Trump. “His decision gives me hope that there really are people out there in positions of power who are willing to make the hard decisions and stick their necks out to do what’s right—not just by conscience, but by the laws of the land; and for all of us—not just for the people who voted for or appointed them.

“This could very well kill Burke’s career, especially around this part of the country,” the father noted. “Today, I’m proud of him and overjoyed by his decision. There’s still hope that there are people like him and our amazing doctors who don’t just take the easy way out. They do what’s right. I’m sure there are plenty of other jobs available to our doctors, where they could just walk in and see patients and be done for the day. But they don’t. They stick it out and do what’s hard, because they believe in their calling. That’s pretty rare these days.”

“We will never stop fighting this fight,” 15-year-old Harleigh Walker told The Daily Beast. “As long as trans youth are being attacked by the state I will not stand down. It is a step in the right direction and now there is finally time to breathe. However, we are far from done.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Harleigh Walker.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">The Walker Family</div>

Harleigh Walker.

The Walker Family

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