Alabama bill would force schools to out trans students to their families

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Policy experts say the bill is 'particularly draconian and cruel' to transgender youth.

If Alabama Republicans succeed, transgender youth in the state will face barriers to necessary medical care and risk being outed to their families if they tell school staff they are transgender.

Alabama lawmakers will hold committee hearings in both the state Senate and House on Wednesday afternoon on a bill that would restrict health care for transgender children and tell school officials to out these young people to their families.

The bill would make it a Class C felony, which carries up to a 10-year sentence of imprisonment, for health care professionals to prescribe puberty blockers or hormone treatment for transgender youth or to keep information from families that their child is transgender.

According to the bill text, any "nurse, counselor, teacher, principal or other administrative official at a public or private school attended by a minor" also can't "withhold from a minor's parent or legal guardian information related to a minor's perception that his or her gender is inconsistent with his or her sex."

When asked whether the criminal penalties apply to teachers and other school staff, Kaitlin Welborn, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Alabama, said the legislation doesn't clearly answer this.

"Because it's ambiguous, it can absolutely be read that those felony penalties would apply to teachers and that's part of what makes this bill so concerning, is the lack of clarity around who is going to be penalized for what," Welborn said.

"If you read the felony penalty as only applying to medical professionals and there's no penalty for teachers and school counselors, then why include the information, if there's not a penalty?" Welborn added.

Welborn said this bill is "particularly draconian and cruel" compared to the many bills being introduced across the country that have targeted transgender youth's health care or participation in sports.

Paul D. Castillo, counsel and students' rights strategist at Lambda Legal, a civil rights organization that focuses on LGBTQ issues, said the bill will put transgender students' well-being at serious risk.

"Here we have a government entity trying to take away [schools'] discretion and put transgender students at particular at risk," Castillo said.

A 2016 study found that family rejection of transgender children increased the odds that the child would attempt suicide or misuse drugs or alcohol.

Alabama state Rep. Wes Allen (R) is sponsoring the Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act in the House and Alabama state Sen. Shay Shelnutt (R) is sponsoring the bill in the Senate. They sponsored legislation of the same name last year. The bill died in late February.

According to the ACLU, more than 12 states have introduced legislation targeting transgender young people's health care, and 16 states have introduced bans on transgender students playing on the team of their gender.

Four states are considering other anti-trans bills, including an Iowa bill that regulates how school staff can ask students about their pronouns and a bill creating employee protections for public employees who "express opinions regarding gender identity or gender dysphoria" in Kentucky.

Last year, a number of similar state bills were introduced and many of them failed to pass. Experts say that anti-trans legislation is often blocked by the courts.

But regardless of whether the Alabama bill and others like it pass the legislature or meet the same fate as last year, policy experts say that the effect of introducing this legislation and having these debates is harmful to transgender youth.

Castillo said, "It shows that there is animosity directed at trans people by simply introducing these types of bills that would bar them from receiving life-saving medical care or exclude them from equal opportunity in education because they have to worry a school official will out them when they go to them." 

Ultimately, the goal of this bill and others is to "try to exclude LGBTQ people from public life," he said.

Welborn said that it's possible that Alabama lawmakers could spur a larger legal battle over transgender rights through this bill: "They know that these are controversial bills. They know the ACLU will sue the state of Alabama if this law passes and we will take them to the court and they hope that some judges on the 11th Circuit or in the Supreme Court — that the case will go their way." 

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.