An estimated 1,800 transgender-identifying youths living in Arkansas face a dilemma following a wave of anti-trans legislation that passed through the Arkansas General Assembly in recent weeks -- legislation which its opponents say endangers their health, their mental well-being and even their lives.
In Arkansas in 2023, nine separate bills affecting gender-affirming health care, speech and education have either passed or are currently advancing through the General Assembly.
Supporters say the bills protect kids from harmful therapies and sexually deviant behavior. Opponents of those bills say transgender teens and adults are being singled out for discrimination.
Senate Bill 199, enacted as Act 274 of 2023, extends the statute of limitations for anyone receiving transgender care as a minor in Arkansas to file a malpractice suit to 15 years after the minor turns 18. State law restricts all other malpractice claims to a two-year statute of limitations.
House Bill 1156, enacted as Act 312 of 2023, requires public school and open-enrollment charter school students to use a restroom that corresponds to the gender listed on their birth certificate or to use a single-occupancy restroom.
Senate Bill 270, currently advancing through the Legislature, would make it illegal for an adult to enter a public restroom designated for the opposite gender from their birth gender "for the purpose of arousing or gratifying a sexual desire," an amendment that was added after concerns were raised that the bill was too broad. As originally written, the bill would have made it a crime of sexual indecency with a child for an adult to enter a public restroom designated for the gender opposite of their birth gender for any reason if a minor is present.
Other bills would prohibit teachers and other school employees from using transgender students' preferred pronouns or referring to their proclaimed gender identity without written parental consent. Most of the bills signed into law or that have cleared most of the committee hearing hurdles have received approval despite much opposition voiced during public hearings.
Some parents of transgender teens have said that if necessary, they will leave Arkansas to find a more inclusive and welcoming place for their families, which is an option for those who have the means to do so. But with an estimated 30% of transgender people nationally living below the poverty line and job insecurity a reality for many others, for many picking up stakes and starting over isn't an option.
Population estimates in Arkansas set the adult transgender population at 16,200, accounting for .7% of Arkansans 18 and older, according to the UCLA Williams Institute. Transgender teens between ages 13 and 17 are estimated to number 1,800 people, making up .88% of the population in that age group. No estimates for transgender minors younger than 13 were available. According to the Human Rights Campaign, a pro-LGBTQ organization, nationally, 30% of the estimated 1.6 million transgender teens and adults live in poverty.
Individuals and groups in Arkansas are working to identify available resources and support for transgender individuals and their families that can help with everything from emotional to financial support.
Max Calabotta, development coordinator and organizer for Intransitive, a transgender-led organization that maintains a community center in Little Rock, said their organization puts on community events and helps provide direct support to members of the trans community in the form of financial assistance, food assistance and even help paying bills.
"We try to provide support funds in general since trans people tend to be under resourced," Calabotta said.
Intransitive maintains several support funds to assist transgender people in Arkansas, according to the intransitive.org website. Two funds assist with general support; the Arkansas Trans Support Fund and the Brayla Stone Microgrants program. Both funds provide assistance with rent, utilities, groceries, temporary emergency housing, medical expenses and transportation. Named for a 17-year-old Black transgender teen from North Little Rock who was murdered in Sherwood in June 2020, the Brayla Stone Microgrant program provides funds for Black transgender women and girls.
Intransitive also has funds set up to provide gender affirming gear to trans youths, to assist incarcerated transgender people, and to help undocumented transgender immigrants who don't qualify for other types of financial assistance.
Information on Intransitive and the programs it offers may be found online at this link.
Catie Hartling, the president of PFLAG NWA, said the LGBTQ advocacy group has a three-pronged mission; to support members of the LGBTQ community, to advocate for LGBTQ rights, and to educate the community at large. PFLAG, which bills itself as "the nation's first and largest" LGBTQ advocacy group, was founded in 1973 and has had a chapter in Northwest Arkansas since the early 1990s.
"We run support groups for anybody in the community so they're open to at-large," Hartling said. "For trans adults we run a trans-specific support group that's run by trans folks for trans folks, so as kids get older they can join that support group ... We also run a trans meet-up for trans and queer youth in Northwest Arkansas."
Hartling said for security reasons PFLAG does not publicize details of its meetings but those interested may go to the group's website at this link for more information or to sign up to be notified of meetings.
"We do that just to help keep people safe," Hartling said. "We don't want anything to happen or to have any bad actors visiting. We want to keep these kids safe and we encourage families to come with their kids to that."
Hartling said PFLAG also presents educational programs on request from businesses or civic organizations and also keeps a list of LGBTQ affirming faith-based organizations as a resource.
"Unfortunately, when a person comes out, sometimes their faith congregation isn't affirming and they can lose a big part of their lives but their faith is still really important to them," she said. "It's important to them to be able to find communities where they can practice their faith and feel like part of a faith community while also affirming and loving their family."
Hartling said PFLAG, which is run and staffed by volunteers, has limited funds for direct assistance but the organization keeps a list of resources and entities that offer assistance.
"If we have the capacity to help someone, depending on what they need, we'll help them but we don't always have the capacity," she said. "But folks can always reach out and we'll do what we can or get them to someone who can help them."
Gwen Herzig, a Little Rock pharmacist and owner of Park West Pharmacy, is a vocal critic of the legislation making it more difficult for transgender people to find gender-affirming care or penalizing them or others over use of restrooms or preferred names and pronouns. Herzig, a transgender woman, said she understands and has experienced some of the difficulties facing transgender patients in finding care and to help with that, she maintains lists of LGBTQ affirming providers and resources at this link.
When Herzig made the decision to transition, she said, reliable information about the process was difficult to come by.
"It just was not clear, and I'm a health care professional," she said. "I'm someone who's supposed to be able to navigate the health care industry a little bit faster and easier, and to me it was the most horribly complex and convoluted thing ever."
Herzig gained international notoriety last February following an exchange during a legislative committee hearing for Senate Bill 199 in which Sen. Matt McKee, R-Pearcy, asked her a question about her genitalia. A video of the exchange was widely shared and news reports appeared all over the world. Herzig said the resulting furor died down after a while but for a time her pharmacy and her employees were subjected to a stream of harassing and threatening phone calls and communications.
"That hit TikTok, Twitter and everything else so it was like I was getting hit from everywhere, not just the United States," she said. "We get the occasional call, but that was a very unique situation."
Braelyn Smith, a 26-year-old transgender man living in Central Arkansas, said because he didn't begin to transition until after he reached adulthood, the 2021 health care ban for minors didn't directly affect him but this year has felt different.
"It's been really heartbreaking and demoralizing ... to watch these bills, to hear the rhetoric, and then this year we've got nine anti-transgender bills moving through the Legislature," Smith said. "They haven't all passed yet but none have been defeated either."
Watching the committee hearings and tracking the bills as they have progressed, Smith said, has been "scary."
"I'm used to people not understanding," he said. "I'm even used to people being hateful, but it's different when my rights are being threatened, when I'm not so cautious of individuals but I'm afraid of the government. It's a very different feeling."
Smith said he knows people who have left Arkansas and has considered leaving, himself, but he said for now he has chosen to stay.
"We're actively doing things to fight the legislation and to raise awareness," he said. "We're fighting."