‘We Love Her’: The Parents and Trans Teens Who Will Fight Arkansas Health Care Ban in Court
The ACLU just announced a legal challenge to Arkansas’ trans teen health-care ban. Parents and children who are part of the lawsuit talk about why the fight is so personal.
The ACLU has so far filed two lawsuits against a panoply of anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ bills passed in Republican-controlled state legislatures.
On Tuesday, it filed a lawsuit on behalf of four transgender youth and their families as well as two doctors, challenging a law passed in April that meant Arkansas became the first American state to ban the provision of gender-affirming treatments and surgery for transgender youth, despite every major medical association speaking out in support of the treatments.
In April, as reported by The Daily Beast, Arkansas’ legislature voted to override Governor Asa Hutchinson’s veto of House Bill 1570, which bans transition care for trans minors, prohibiting doctors from providing gender-affirming hormone treatment, puberty blockers or surgery to anyone under 18 years old, or from referring them to other providers for the treatment. (Hutchinson did sign Senate Bill 354 into law on March 25, preventing trans girls and women from playing school sports consistent with their gender identity. He also signed a law allowing doctors to refuse to treat someone because of religious or moral objections.)
On Wednesday, the ACLU announced a second lawsuit, this one against West Virginia’s ban on trans girls playing school sports, on behalf of 11-year-old Becky Pepper-Jackson who hoped to try out for the girls’ cross-country team, before she started middle school. “I just want to run,” Pepper-Jackson says.
Below, Arkansas families talk about why they cannot wait to challenge their state in court over the health-care ban—and have their say on why trans teenagers need this kind of medical support.
The Jennen family—Aaron, an attorney, mom Lacey, and their 15-year-old trans daughter Sabrina—live in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Tim Teeman: How have the last few months been?
Sabrina: It’s been crazy to say the least. I have truly felt like there’s a disconnect between how people feel about this bill, which is that it isn’t fair or representative of what they feel, and what the legislature did. It made me angry. It’s also really scary for me to think about, because now that I have started taking medication I don’t know what will happen with it. It’s become such a boost to my own personal happiness, it’s not pleasant to think about not having it. The actions of the legislators feel extremely hypocritical and frustrating. They’re trying to meddle with things that they will never fully understand or grasp. It just makes me furious.
Aaron: It’s been very difficult. Lacey and I contacted the legislators to oppose this legislation, telling them it’s necessarily life-saving and life-changing treatment that has done amazing things for Sabrina and our family. Unfortunately, we did not get a single response from legislators who supported the bill, which was, to put it politely, very frustrating. To have someone who refuses to even acknowledge you and then turn around and pass a law essentially telling you that you don’t know how to parent your child and that they know what’s best for your child—you can imagine what that feels like.
Lacey: I emailed these legislators on a regular basis really pleading with them to show mercy and compassion, to reconsider when they looked into the medical evidence, and asked them to have some understanding. Not to get a single acknowledgment of these emails left me feeling very hopeless. It was scary-feeling. You felt very powerless, especially when it comes to your child. It got to the point where I was watching all the committee hearings online, and watching the testimonies of doctors and trans youth and parents. Watching the legislators dig their heels in, it didn’t look like they were going to show any mercy or compassion. It was plain cruel. They were so relentless, not even listening to the medical doctors who testified.
I will say our governor, Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, vetoed this bill but was overruled. From what I understand he took the time to listen, so I greatly appreciated him for trying. I have lived in Arkansas my entire life, and I never witnessed anything like this last legislative session before. It’s been unbelievable. I think the legislators who voted for this were getting their information from lobby groups, not the doctors.
Aaron: We find it absurd and obscene that we as parents of a wonderful and amazing daughter have to consider going out of state to get Sabrina the care that we, her doctors, therapists and every medical association say is the best for her.
TT: Would you ever consider leaving the state?
Lacey: It’s really not an option for us. We would if we had to; it has to be considered if this law is not overturned. But Arkansas is our home. We were all born here, and we have lived here our entire lives. We went to university here. Our professional lives are here. Our church is here. Our kids are involved in various activities. I mean, we would have to uproot everything. Our extended family is here. I have two elderly grandmothers that live nearby who I help when they need it. We want to be here. I love my family. I want to be around them. I don’t like being far away from them and. We’re very proud to live here in Fayetteville. It’s a little blue dot on very red map.
If we ended up having to seek care for Sabrina out of state, we will. If we end up having to uproot our entire lives, I guess we will. But is that really what is expected of our family, and families like us? It’s crazy.
Sabrina: If the law isn’t overturned and is still in place when I turn 18, I am seeking a college out of state. I would probably want to live out of state, however much it pains me to even think about that. It is truly the only option. Either I live in a state that accepts me and brings me happiness, or a state which literally doesn’t allow me to be the person I want to be. I wouldn’t want to be around that.
Aaron: Our friends, our family, the people in our community who we have routine contact with, the people we work with, are all 100 per cent supportive and our allies as we do this. Sabrina’s school has been supportive. Every single major medical association supports trans young people having access to health care. It really feels like there’s a disconnect between all that and our legislators. There’s a gigantic chasm. It actually makes no sense.
TT: How was coming out, Sabrina?
Sabrina: Around this time last year I had come out to friends. I started experimenting with different names and trying out pronouns. I realized, “Yeah, you’re in the wrong body.” It was tough to come to terms with, but I came out to my parents the day after my 15th birthday. They were extremely supportive. They were a little shocked to begin with, but gave me the support I needed, and slowly I came out to the rest of the family. They were all perfectly fine. They didn’t care as long as I was happy. They were fine.
I did a lot of thinking afterwards. There were clear signs back in my childhood, but I had no clue about any of this stuff back then because it was not a subject we talked about.
TT: How has the last year been?
Sabrina: Coming out truly saved me. At the very beginning of last year, it was an extremely difficult and dark time for me. Being able to come to terms with my identity put into words all the emotions I was feeling. Literally, to understand, “Yes, this is me,” meant I knew what I should do to be happy.
Then, learning about the legislation gave me one of my first senses of fear, of “What am I going to do? How do I get through this?” It was a big time of uncertainty, and I had a hard time dealing with it. But it didn’t stop me from pursuing to be my authentic self, and trying to push harder for people who can’t come out.
Aaron: It’s all relatively recent. It’s been a year since she came out to her friends and then us. In the grand scheme of things it’s a short period of time. But the decision to seek gender-affirming medical care was not rushed, or a rash decision. When she first came out to us, once we got over the initial news, we immediately sought professional counseling for her. Only after several months of therapy did Sabrina ask about seeking gender-affirming hormone therapy. We prayed about it. (The family belong to an LGBTQ-affirming church.) We had many serious discussions about it. We googled everything there is out there, what are the best practices, side effects—it was a months-long process.
Ultimately it resulted in us seeking a consultation with a gender-affirming doctor, who answered our questions and concerns. Then we decided gender-affirming medical care was right for Sabrina. That was in January. That’s when her hormone therapy began. She was thrilled about it. Our family was in a good place with her transition. And then the rug was pulled out from under us when all this anti-trans legislation started being introduced. We had made the decision about the best course of action for our child, and it is something we think all parents should have the right to do. Legislators are trying to take that from us.
Lacey: One happy moment for me that I really enjoyed was when Sabrina had started some of her medicine and she became more confident in figuring out her aesthetic and style. We went shopping. She picked out a super-cute pair of white platform Doc Martens that we paid a whole lot of money for. As soon as she bought them, she told us she was really excited to go to school the next day. (Lacey laughs) That was, like, the best 180 dollars I have ever spent.
TT: How are you all feeling about the future?
Sabrina: There’s hope. I can finally see myself getting older. I can see myself having a future now I am out. It’s amazing to think about. I have a lot of confidence this bill won’t last long whatsoever.
Lacey: I feel hopeful and excited. I think changes are going to be made. The light in all of this is that all the pain over this issue may show and teach people to be a little bit more compassionate and merciful towards other people. I hope the bill is overturned. I hope people see that we are families trying to be families. We realize we are in extremely unusual circumstances in having all our family be on our side. Family support is huge, so I feel like we can do anything because we have that. I’m at the “mad mom” point, where I am mad we have to deal with this. It is utterly appalling and ridiculous.
Aaron: I’m sad that we have to fight this bill. I’m sad that there is so much revulsion and hatred for trans people that is not only spoken out in the open but is resonating loudly and clearly and has a lot of support in the halls of our state legislature. That just makes me really sad. Because of the support have from our community, church (which will hold a “queer camp” this summer), family, and friends, like Lacey and Sabrina I’m very optimistic not just for trans people as a whole going forward but specifically for our wonderful, amazing extremely brilliant daughter who’s going to do amazing, great things! She and her generation are going to change the world, and that’s really exciting.
Lacey: Humans mess things up. Humans are the ones who get in the way of my faith. Humans are the ones who right now are really tarnishing, twisting, and weaponizing Christianity, and using it for political gain, and how patriotism became part of it I have no idea. It’s very embarrassing honestly. I am thankful we have a church home that affirms, appreciates, and loves our family.
Sabrina: I’m not particularly religious in that way. My faith is more a private thing I am still working on and workshopping. But to see the support and acceptance from this church, when so many religious people are very outspoken against people like me, has been very refreshing.
TT: Are all of you looking forward to your day in court?
Lacey: Yes, I am. I feel like our voices weren’t loud enough with our emails. Now they’ll hear us because they have to.
Aaron: I echo that. They ignored us, and did what they wanted to do and now they have to hear from us. It’s one thing to have an opinion and position that affects other people when not having to face those other people. My hope is when they actually have to face and listen to us, just like with Governor Hutchinson their hearts and minds will be changed. That is my true hope.
Sabrina: Going to court is one of those things I am really looking forward to. It’s what happens when you don’t listen to the people you’re trying to hurt. If you don’t listen to their opinions, it’s going to come back on you. This is how democracy is supposed to run. They didn’t listen to us to begin with, and like my mom says now they’re going to have to.
TT: What would you say to Arkansas legislators if you could?
Aaron: I would thank Governor Hutchinson for listening, and being willing and open to changing his mind, and then changing his mind. That is the mature, responsible thing to do. I find it absurd that the legislators think they know better than we do about what Sabrina needs. I find it infuriating that they refuse to listen to us. I think it is ridiculous that every single major medical association said that this bill is going to hurt people, and they did it anyway.
I would ask them why they are doing this to us. Why do they want to hurt people? Why are they being so mean? (His voice clots) Because it is absolutely crushing to live in a state your entire life, graduate from a flagship college as an undergraduate, graduate from a flagship college for law school, spend your entire life in public service in both state and federal government, and then for them to do this to you without hearing from you one little bit—it’s absolutely devastating. It makes you feel that the legislators really don’t care about you.
Lacey: I would ask what I asked in the emails. What is the intent of these bills? And please don’t give me some lame excuse about “trying to save the children.” What was your true intent? Because you’re not listening to science, the doctors, or people this directly affects. What’s the reasoning here?
Sabrina: I would ask them plain and simple, why did they feel the need to do this? Why try and force their own beliefs on to group of people who don’t believe those things or feel that way? There is such hypocrisy here. They were so against mask regulations, but here they are trying to get into people’s health care.
TT: Is there anything else you want people reading this to know?
Aaron: We are parents who love our daughter, who want nothing but the best for her. We want her to have the best of everything, including medical care. Sabrina not receiving this treatment is not an option. This treatment has made her happy, confident, and has helped her become the thriving child we love. The thought of her not being able to receive this care is terrifying. Sabrina is really amazing, really smart, and beautiful. (Aaron pauses, his voice clots) We love her.
Donnie Ray Saxton is the father of a trans son, Parker, 16, who did not want to be interviewed. Donnie Ray, who is part of a family-run plumbing business, lives with his family in Central Arkansas.
Tim Teeman: Tell us about Parker.
Donnie Ray Saxton: Parker is 16. He is pretty much your average kid. He likes to do all the things, play the games, just enjoys life. We have pretty much always known Parker was headed in this direction. He never took to the feminine side of activities. There was no nail polish, make up, dolls, and things like that. He steered away from dresses pretty early on. He was always drawn to blue jeans, T-shirts. He’s always been my little dude, so we’re standing up for him.
TT: How was his coming out?
Donnie Ray: Until he did it, I never really understood it. I wasn’t a big supporter. It’s not that common where we’re from, but we weren’t surprised. It was pretty gradual. I really think when Parker came out to me it was more of a relief because it answered a lot of questions for me as a parent. He came out at 13, but he had cut his hair short quite a bit earlier than that, and navigated his way towards a more masculine look.
TT: How do you feel about the trans health care bill that passed, and you are now going to court to fight?
Donnie Ray: We all want our kids to be happy and live their best, most productive lives and this has really put up a roadblock for that to happen for Parker. He just wants to live his best life. Gender-affirming health care is clinically proven to help with the behavioral and mental aspects of transition. You look into the mirror and see the person who is on the inside looking back at you. That’s what is so hard about them dictating what he should be able to do with his body and his life. This crosses several boundaries for me that I’m really not comfortable with.
TT: What has it been like to join the fight in Arkansas?
Donnie Ray: We’re not activists, or anything like that. Parker just wanted to quietly transition and go about his life, but this really gave us something to fight for and we really felt we needed to do that on Parker’s behalf and trans youth everywhere. We can’t let this spill out into other states and affect all these beautiful, talented, and amazing youth. The only person who could ever say this bill is right would be somebody who has never spent any time with trans people.
They’re an amazing group. They’re so talented and think so far outside the box. (Donnie Ray’s voice clots) It’s really emotional for me, because I “transitioned” you could say with this group of youth. It changed my life. I see things from a completely different perspective that I would never have seen the world from. Quite honestly, it saved my life. It saved my heart, it really did.
TT: How would the withdrawal of gender-affirming affect Parker directly?
Donnie Ray: He has started on a hormone. I’m very OK with this. His whole outlook on life has changed. It’s one thing to have your child say they’re depressed and anxious, and to say, “Let’s work through this.” And then you see something that helps bring your child out of that dark place. The medication was life-changing for him. This bill is threatening the mental and emotional health of these youth, it really is.
TT: How do you feel about Arkansas legislators, and the passage of this and other trans-related bills there?
Donnie Ray: I’m angry. I’m hurt, and at the same time I know there’s no way the legislators could have passed this bill, if they actually understood what it is like to be part of a trans person’s life, to see how this is affecting them, and still go forward with this legislation. I would hope they would take a little time and meet with some of these beautiful people and really get the opportunity to understand better where they coming from. It’s not a phase, or something you talk people out of.
TT: How has Parker been doing, with the bills passing here, and all the discussions around them?
Donnie Ray: He’s a lot like a duck. On the surface, he’s very calm and collected, but really he’s battling hard underneath. It’s starting to show. We’re holding out hope and prayers, and we’re not backing down from this. These last few weeks have been really scary. This state and our community is our shelter. The thought of having to leave our shelter for the unknown to do right by my son is really hard. A lot is also going on emotionally for me, and Parker’s other siblings and family members, that this is directly affecting.
TT: Would you ever think of leaving Arkansas if the law stays in place?
Donnie Ray: We are going to do what we have to do to get Parker where he needs to be. We can’t go back at this point. We still have this obstacle to deal with. Ultimately, we’re going to whatever we have to do for him. We owe him that. I was born here, yes sir. I lived here my whole life. I always thought we were fairly progressive for a southern state. It really caught me off guard, took me by surprise, to see that our legislature would be as so into our personal lives as it has been.
TT: How optimistic are you about the case?
Donnie Ray: I’m very optimistic. The bill is full of really blatant discrimination towards the trans community. You know what they say: “Love will win in the end,” and that’s where we’re at.
In our amazing community we are very supported. This is our shelter. If we are forced to leave our shelter for the unknown, that’s the hardest part of this whole thing. We could go somewhere else, but if we do, we are not guaranteed the safety and support of the community that we have here. This is Parker’s home. Parker should not have to leave his home to get his health care. I would hope everyone takes a moment to understand those who are not necessarily like themselves. It will change their world, it really will.