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Judge blocks Ark. anti-trans youth health care law from taking effect

Hormones, transgender surgeries prohibited under measure

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A federal judge has blocked an Arkansas law from taking effect that would have criminalized providing transition-related care to youth, including hormones and gender reassignment surgery.

U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr., an Obama appointee, enjoined the law from taking effect on Wednesday after hearing oral arguments in a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. The law was set to go into effect July 28.

Holly Dickson, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, said in a statement the decision “sends a clear message to states across the country that gender-affirming care is life-saving care, and we won’t let politicians in Arkansas — or anywhere else — take it away.”

“Today’s victory is a testament to the trans youth of Arkansas and their allies, who never gave up the fight to protect access to gender-affirming care and who will continue to defend the right of all trans people to be their authentic selves, free from discrimination,” Dickson said. “We won’t rest until this cruel and unconstitutional law is struck down for good.”

The Arkansas law would have banned doctors from providing gender reassignment surgery, hormones or puberty blockers to any person under age 18. Doctors who provide the treatment in violation of the ban could be sued for damages or professionally sanctioned. The measure contained no grandfather clause for minors who were already undergoing treatment.

The law is but one of several measures enacted against transgender youth amid a wave of bills advanced by state legislatures this year, many of which are geared toward school sports or health care.

It’s also the second law to be enjoined from taking effect. Another court has blocked a Tennessee law from going into effect that would have required public accommodations to post signs if they allow transgender people to use the restroom consistent with their gender identity.

The Arkansas Legislature enacted the law, known as House Bill 1570, in March by overriding the veto of Gov. Asa Hutchinson. (Hutchison, however, had already signed into law this year two measures seen as anti-transgender, one barring transgender youth from sports, another allowing medical providers to opt out of offering procedures over religious objections.) The Arkansas law was set to go into effect on July 28.

Sam Brinton, vice president of advocacy and government affairs for The Trevor Project, said in a statement the ruling was “a huge victory for transgender and nonbinary youth in Arkansas.”

“Thank you to our friends at the ACLU and to all the brave families and doctors involved in this case,” Brinton said. “Gender-affirming medical care is associated with positive mental health outcomes and reduced suicide risk. All trans youth deserve access to this best-practice care regardless of where they live.”

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in May against the law on behalf of four transgender youth and their families as well as two doctors, contending it violates equal protection and due process under the Fourteenth Amendment and the freedom of speech under the First Amendment.

Arkansas Attorney General Lisa Rutledge pledged in a statement in the aftermath of the ruling to appeal the decision, making dubious claims the law was “evidence-based.”

“This evidence-based law was created because we cannot allow children as young as 9 years old to receive experimental procedures that have irreversible, physical consequences,” Rutledge said. “I will aggressively defend Arkansas’ law, which strongly limits permanent, life-altering sex changes to adolescents. I will not sit idly by while radical groups such as the ACLU use our children as pawns for their own social agenda. As the Attorney General of Arkansas, I will be appealing today’s decision.”

The Biden administration has also weighed in on this litigation, filing last month a Statement of Interest before the court assessing the Arkansas law violates equal protection and due process under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Tony Perkins, president of the anti-LGBTQ Family Research Council, said in a statement his organization is “disappointed but not surprised” by the judge’s ruling.

“The legal challenge to this law is being mounted by a political movement that advocates for using off-label drugs and experimental procedures on minors,” Perkins said. “Yet a growing number of individuals are coming forward to share their stories of being permanently disfigured and/or sterilized from procedures such as puberty-blocking drugs, cross-sex hormones and irreversible surgeries. The truth about the dangers of these life altering procedures cannot be ignored.”

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Federal Government

Department of Education to investigate Nex Benedict’s Okla. school district

Nonbinary student died last month after students assaulted them

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Nex Benedict (Family photo)

On Friday the U.S. Department of Education informed Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson that the department will open an investigation in response to HRC’s letter regarding Owasso Public Schools and its failure to respond appropriately to sex-based harassment that may have contributed to the death of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary teenager of Choctaw heritage. 

This investigation was triggered by a formal complaint made last week by Robinson, who wrote to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and asked his department to use the enforcement mechanisms at its disposal to prevent similar tragedies from taking place in the future and to help hold accountable those responsible for Benedict’s death.

The letter from the Department of Education reads: “the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR), is opening for investigation the above-referenced complaint that you filed against the Owasso Public Schools (the District.) Your complaint alleges that the District discriminated against students by failing to respond appropriately to sex-based harassment, of which it had notice, at Owasso High School during the 2023-2024 school year,” said Robinson.

“Nex’s family, community and the broader 2SLGBTQI+ (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex+) community in Oklahoma are still awaiting answers following their tragic loss. We appreciate the Department of Education responding to our complaint and opening an investigation — we need them to act urgently so there can be justice for Nex, and so that all students at Owasso High School and every school in Oklahoma can be safe from bullying, harassment and discrimination,” Robinson added.

According to the letter, OCR is opening the following issues for investigation:

  • Whether the District failed to appropriately respond to alleged harassment of students in a manner consistent with the requirements of Title IX.
  • Whether the District failed to appropriately respond to alleged harassment of students in a manner consistent with the requirements of Section 504 and Title II.

HRC sent a second letter to the Department asking it to promptly begin an investigation into the Oklahoma State Department of Education, as well as the current State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Ryan Walters. In addition:

  • Robinson wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking the Department of Justice to begin an investigation into Nex’s death.
  • Robinson wrote to Dr. Margaret Coates, superintendent of the Owasso School District in Oklahoma, calling for the superintendent to take advantage of HRC’s Welcoming Schools program — the most comprehensive bias-based bullying prevention program in the nation to provide LGBTQ and gender inclusive training and resources — and offering to bring experts to the district immediately.

The full text of the letter from the Department of Education in response to HRC can be found here.

The full text of the initial letter from Robinson to Cardona can be found here.

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District of Columbia

Judy and Dennis Shepard discuss Nex Benedict, anti-LGBTQ laws at DC event

Nonbinary Okla. high school student died last month after fight

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Dennis and Judy Shephard speak at the Raben Group’s D.C. offices on Feb. 29, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Amber Laenen)

Judy and Dennis Shepard on Thursday reflected on Nex Benedict’s death and the proliferation of anti-LGBTQ laws across the country during a discussion the Raben Group hosted at their D.C. office.

The discussion, which MSNBC host Jonathan Capehart moderated, took place less than a month after Benedict died.

Benedict, who was nonbinary, passed away on Feb. 8 after students at their high school in Owasso, Okla., assaulted them in a bathroom. 

Vice President Kamala Harris, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt are among those who have publicly responded to Benedict’s death, which took place after they endured months of bullying. More than 300 advocacy groups have demanded Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters’ removal and called for a federal investigation into the Oklahoma Department of Education’s “actions and policies” that have facilitated a “culture where rampant harassment of 2SLGBTQI+ students has been allowed to go unchecked.”

“Parents are doing whatever they can to protect and encourage and support kids, and you have these what I call evil, evil people around the country pushing these laws,” said Dennis Shepard.

He noted lawmakers around the country are pushing anti-LGBTQ laws and other efforts that include the elimination of diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Dennis Shepard also highlighted an effort to defund gender studies programs at the University of Wyoming.

“[It is] the old white male, Christian geezers who want to go back to the days of the 50s when they had that superior arrogant attitude,” he said. “They’re losing it and they don’t want to, so they’re passing everything they can.”

“What happened to Nex is a result of that,” added Dennis Shepard. “They feel like Henderson and McKinney felt when they took Matt out on the prairie.”

Matthew Shepard died on Oct. 12, 1998, after Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney brutally beat him and left him tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyo. Then-President Barack Obama in 2009 signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which added sexual orientation and gender identity to the federal hate crimes law.

“If you’re considered different, you’re in fear of your life right now because you don’t fit in and it’s got to stop,” said Dennis Shepard.

Judy Shepard echoed her husband, noting this moment is “the last gasp of the fight against the community.” 

“In my heart, I know this is a moment in time, and it’s going to pass. But also in that time, all these young people, everyone in the community is afraid, but young people are being terrorized,” she said. “It just shouldn’t be happening.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

N.Y. AG joins multi-state brief in Colo. anti-trans discrimination case

Letitia James and 18 other attorneys general support plaintiff

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trans health care, gay news, Washington Blade
New York Attorney General Letitia James (Photo public domain)

New York Attorney General Letitia James on Wednesday joined a brief by 18 other Democratic state attorneys general urging the Colorado Supreme Court to uphold a lower court ruling against Masterpiece Cakeshop for anti-trans discrimination.

A customer, Autumn Scardina, sued the business over claims that it refused to provide her a cake upon learning that it was for a celebration of her transition. The case is not the first in which owner Jack Smith has faced claims of anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

In 2012, Masterpiece Cakeshop refused to fulfill an order for a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, which led to the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission — and a narrow ruling that did not address core legal questions weighing the constitutionality of First Amendment claims vis-a-vis the government’s enforcement of LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination laws.

“Denying service to someone simply because of who they are is illegal discrimination, plain and simple,” James said in a press release. “Allowing this kind of behavior would undermine our nation’s fundamental values of freedom and equality and set a dangerous precedent.”

She added, “I am proud to stand with my fellow attorneys general against this blatant transphobic discrimination.”

The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Scardina, noting that Smith objected to fulfilling her cake order only after learning about her intended use for it “and that Phillips did not believe the cake itself expressed any inherent message.”

The fact pattern in both cases against Masterpiece Cakeshop resembles that of another case that originated in Colorado and was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court last year, 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis.

This time, the justices did not sidestep the question of whether the state’s anti-discrimination law can be enforced against a business owner, Lorie Smith, a website designer who claimed religious protections for her refusal to provide services to a same-sex couple for their nuptials.

The court’s conservative supermajority ruled in favor of Smith, which was widely seen as a blow to LGBTQ rights.

Joining James in her brief are the attorneys general of Connecticut, Delaware, Hawai’i, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and D.C.

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