By Jules Ogden
Several attempts were made to ban or limit the rights of LGBTQ+ people, and specifically youth, in West Virginia during the 2022-23 legislative session.
One of the bills introduced and passed was House Bill 2007, signed into law by Gov. Jim Justice in March and aimed at banning gender-affirming care for individuals under the age of 18. The bill becomes effective on June 9.
In earlier forms, the bill banned gender-affirming surgeries, which experts say are rare or non-existent in the state, in addition to banning hormone therapy and puberty blockers, a reversible medication that pauses puberty to allow a patient experiencing gender dysphoria to explore other options. This initial version, which passed through the House, made no exceptions for mental health.
However, in the last week of the session, lawmakers in the Senate added a provision that would make an exception for youth at risk of suicide or who experience severe gender dysphoria to explore hormone therapy or puberty blockers.
The bill states that the exceptions can only be made if the patient, excluding prepubescent youth, has been diagnosed with severe gender dysphoria by a minimum of two medical or mental health providers who have training in treating gender dysphoria and who provide written statements indicating that gender-affirming care is needed to prevent self-harm.
Additionally, the patient’s parents or legal guardians and primary physician must give written permission for the use of hormone therapy or puberty blocker, which is also limited to the lowest dose necessary to treat the patient’s psychiatric symptoms and never for gender transition.
Although the bill was amended to include exceptions for severe mental health cases before its passage, mental health is still a problem for LGBTQ+ youth in the state.
About 60% of transgender and nonbinary youth in West Virginia considered suicide in 2022, with 14% attempting suicide in the same period, according to a survey by the Trevor Project.
West Virginia Black Pride Foundation board member Lekili Dean said that there are misconceptions about gender-affirming care, and that lawmakers often focus on the possible negative effects of hormone therapy and puberty blockers as opposed to acknowledging positive outcomes.
“They [legislators] just don’t understand the care for the minors, for the kids. It’s not that they’re going to start offering surgery to five-year-olds … We are just trying to provide a safe space for our kids and to be able to receive health care without being discriminated for who they are inside,” she said.
Dean said that lawmakers might think that they are protecting the state’s youth by restricting their decision-making about their gender identity. However, she believes that this only exacerbates mental health struggles or anger in trans youth.
“They [lawmakers] say their feeling is that being children, that their minds aren’t fully developed … they say that they feel that they’re helping the youth by allowing them to grow and experience life some more before they make those decisions,” she said. “But they’re making other decisions while they’re young that is detrimental to themselves and to the community.”
Dean said that Black trans youth are especially affected by anti-LGBTQ+ legislation because they also lie outside of white heteronormative standards.
“The sad part is that the collateral is the trans youth in West Virginia, especially the Black trans youth,” she said. “Again, there is a lot of mental health issues surrounded by that,not onlyfor them to to sift through and sort out what’s going on intrinsically inside again without any added pressure from their families and community and without any added pressure from lawmakers who are there to create, strike and edit the laws for the people, not for themselves, but for the people.”
She also said that the state’s population could continue to suffer and become less diverse as a result of discriminatory legislation because it encourages people to move and leaves those who can’t move feeling more lonely.
The West Virginia Black Pride Foundation offers mentoring and hosts community events to provide safe spaces for the LGBTQ+ community, including trans youth.
However, Dean said that identifying people and getting them to attend events has been difficult as some fear retaliation and ridicule.
“It’s a lot of individuals out there and we’re trying to bring it together. So we can be one community instead of several different individuals.”
The organization is working closely with the ACLU and now has representation on a board with the City of Charleston. Dean said that she also works with high schools in the state to build Gay Straight Alliance chapters and create safe spaces for children in their schools.
To learn more about the West Virginia Black Pride Foundation and their resources, visit wvbpfoundation.com