GOP lawmakers send Ducey bills banning gender surgery, girls’ sports for trans kids

By Gloria Gomez/UA Don Bolles Fellow/AZ Mirror

PHOENIX — Republicans in the House pushed through legislative proposals that restrict transgender children’s access to girls sports and gender-affirming surgeries. 

Republican legislators defended the proposals as necessary legislative protections. Senate Bill 1138, in particular, elicited heated rhetoric. The bill would ban surgeries for minors performed for the purpose of a gender transition. That includes everything from face sculpting procedures, mastectomies, or genital reassignment surgeries. Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, compared the latter to female genital mutilation, and questioned why there was any refusal from the Democrats to unanimously approve the measure in light of that. 

“Genital mutilation is part of an overall procedure that would reassign sex — gender. It’s part of the procedure. What we’re banning today goes far beyond genital mutilation, which is bad enough. More items are removed,” he said. 

Genital reassignment procedures, commonly called bottom surgeries, aren’t undertaken without the express consent of the patient, unlike female genital mutilation. 

Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Phoenix, said that the surgeries are only performed after years of consultation with medical professionals and counseling sessions. This is in contrast to elective cosmetic surgeries, which she said constitute a double standard because the bill bans gender-affirming surgeries but not cosmetic procedures, which are equally as irreversible. 

“Right now a 17-year-old can go get breast implants if they want to. There’s no counseling required to do that. The parent gets to have the freedom to work with their child to decide if that’s the right choice. But this bill is removing parents’ freedom to help their child make that decision if it’s related to gender assignment. This, to me, seems like a really ridiculous double standard,” she said. 

Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, echoed this, saying recent arguments from Republican legislators to defend other bills often cited parent’s rights, but this bill made no attempt to include parental authority. 

“Parents should have the right to raise their children, and use their own money to do it,” she said. 

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, marketed it as in line with leading health standards, but Democrat legislators said that claim is misleading. While it is a close copy of the standards of care for transgender youth authored by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, those standards are a decade old. In fact, a new guide is expected to be published this year. 

Using outdated medical advice is a mistake, said Rep. Melody Hernandez, a Tempe Democrat. 

“We’re going to be putting doctors in a situation where they’re codifying standards from 10 years ago, and we’re going to put them in a situation where they’re now at odds with new standards,” she said. 

This is especially concerning when one of the co-leads involved in the revision of the guidelines has indicated it’s very likely the age recommendation for gender-affirming surgeries will be lowered from 18 to 15, Hernandez said. She said it’s also important to recognize that the decision to undergo surgery isn’t one made from one day to the next. Most children can identify their own gender by three years old according to the Mayo Clinic. 

“This is not a just-on-a-whim decision. This is an intimate part of who they are. This is something that should be respected, and we should absolutely not be allowing government overreach into what should be (a) private medical decision,” she said. 

Minority leader Reginald Bolding, D-Phoenix, also described the measure as government overreach.

“The idea that we know what’s better for people better than they know what’s best for them is a theme that we’ll see,” he said. 

Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, fed up with Democrats’ allegations of overreach, said other Arizona jurisdictions already stepped into family medical decisions. He accused the Pima County Board of Supervisors of prohibiting psychiatrists from providing counseling for “gender confused individuals”. 

This earned a heated rejoinder from Rep. Alma Hernandez, D-Tucson, who clarified that the board banned the paid conversion therapy, a practice which has been denounced by several major medical associations as lacking evidence and for causing harm. 

Rep. Walt Blackman voted in support of the bill, but the Republican from Snowflake appeared to join Democrats in censuring his fellow party members. He said that while he had to vote in deference to his conscience, he had previously met with 13-year-old Skylar Morrison, a trans rights advocate who has spoken at hearings for the bill, to learn more about the challenges anti-trans legislation poses for kids like her. 

“I would ask the members that are getting up and saying some of the things that they are saying: If you have not met these people, you might want to do it before you start getting up and saying comments,” he said. 

Voting in support of the bill while touting his meeting with a young trans teen outraged Bolding.

“The idea that a member would say, ‘I see this young woman as a woman’, but you won’t allow them to be a woman is hypocritical,” he said. 

SB1138 was supported by all 31 Republicans, sending it to Gov. Doug Ducey’s desk for his signature or veto.

A bill to prohibit transfeminine students — meaning kids born male but who identify as female — from participating in girls sports in public or private schools also met with unanimous approval from the Republican-majority House. 

“This bill denies children the opportunity to participate in a wholesome sports process, and in a journey with a team,” said Butler. 

Rep. Shawnna Bolick, R-Phoenix, however, felt differently. She grew up playing sports on co-ed and girls-only teams and said that she would not have qualified for the all-boys team because biological males have physical advantages over biological females due to the benefits of testosterone. 

“In my opinion, it’s unfair to allow biological males to compete in biological girl sports. The advantages bestowed by biological male puberty are so big that no amount of training or talent can enable biological female athletes to overcome them,” she said. 

Rep. Sarah Liguori, D-Phoenix, disputed this opinion, saying that before puberty, girls and boys don’t differ significantly in height, muscle or bone mass. Puberty, she said, begins from 8 to 14, but even then the development of muscle mass doesn’t start in earnest until 18. Senate Bill 1165 bans trans girls from participating in girls athletics from elementary all the way through college. 

The perception of testosterone as increasing competitive advantage isn’t exactly correct, Liguori added. Studies on testosterone as a benefit to athletic performance are mixed, and one study of female championship runners even found it to be a disadvantage

Rep. Jennifer Pawlik, a Chandler Democrat, shared testimony from Dr. Kristina Wilson, a chairperson for the Arizona Interscholastic Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, which governs high school sports across the state, and a pediatric sports medicine physician at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. The committee oversees around 277 high schools, with a combined student body of roughly 170,000 students. 

Since 2017, only 16 appeals from trans youth to join high school sports programs have been reviewed and supported. The perception then, Pawlik concluded, that trans youth are dominating sports to the detriment of non-trans children is incorrect, and legislation seeking to address a nonexistent problem is cruel and unmerited. 

“It’s critical that we treat all people with dignity and respect. All people should be treated fairly,” Pawlik said. 

Speaker Rusty Bowers said that sports programs which allowed biological men were inherently unfair, because they put women at a disadvantage. He said the legislature could enact other league opportunities for people who don’t prize competition, but in the end winning is the goal of most sports teams, and promoting unfair competition sours that triumph. 

“When someone … wants to participate, and has such a huge advantage, that destroys the dreams of many, many, many striving young women. I, like others, will not stop fighting for women. I will not stop standing for women. I will not stop speaking for women, especially my daughters who wanted to win, and wanted it fair and square,” he said. 

SB1165 was also sent to the governor’s desk with full support from the 31 Republican legislators. 

Gloria Gomez, a senior at the University of Arizona, is the 2022 UA School of Journalism’s Don Bolles Fellow working with editors from the Arizona Mirror. Gomez has interned at the Arizona Daily Star and worked at the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She is a dual major in journalism and political science, with a Spanish minor. She’s a member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors and National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The UA School of Journalism started the fellowship in 1977 to honor Don Bolles, an Arizona Republic reporter killed in a 1976 car bombing.

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