ACLU voices concerns over transgender laws passed by legislators

Hear concerns of affected Arkansans, governor asked

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (left) and Holly Dickson, executive director of ACLU of Arkansas, are shown in these undated file photos. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photos)

ACLU of Arkansas officials recently expressed concern in a letter to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders over four bills -- two of which have been signed into law -- that the organization says unfairly target transgender teens and adults and physicians who provide gender-affirming medical care.

Senate Bill 199 -- signed into law on March 13 as Act 274 of 2023, the Protecting Minors from Medical Malpractice Act -- targets gender affirmation care for minors by allowing malpractice claims to be filed at any time up to 15 years after the minor turns 18 years old. State law sets a two-year statute of limitations on malpractice claims for other medical procedures. SB199 was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, and was co-sponsored in the House by Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville.

House Bill 1156 -- signed by the governor on March 21 as Act 317 of 2023 -- requires students to use school restrooms, shower rooms, changing rooms and locker rooms designated for their birth gender regardless of whether those facilities correspond to their gender identity. The bill affects all public schools and open-enrollment charter schools in the state. The bill was introduced by Bentley and sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro.

Senate Bill 270 -- scheduled for a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday -- would make it a crime of sexual indecency with a child for transgender adults to enter a public restroom not corresponding to their birth gender where a minor is present. The bill was introduced in the Senate by Sen. John Payton, R-Wilburn, and sponsored in the House by Rep. Cindy Crawford, R-Fort Smith.

House Bill 1468 -- scheduled for a vote on the House floor Monday -- the Given Name Act, would require parental consent for an employee of any state-supported K-12 school or higher education institution to address a student under the age of 18 by their preferred name or pronoun if different from their birth certificate. The bill was introduced by Rep. Wayne Long, R-Bradford, and sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Little Rock.

On March 9, ACLU of Arkansas sent the letter to Sanders asking her to hear concerns of Arkansans who would be most affected by the bills moving through the General Assembly before making a decision whether to sign the bills into law but said this week there was no response.

"They did not ... tell us to go pound sand or anything," said Holly Dickson, executive director of ACLU of Arkansas. "We've heard nothing."

A law passed two years ago banning gender-affirming care in Arkansas for anyone under the age of 18 was blocked by a federal judge in Arkansas before it could go into effect and is still tied up in federal court. Dickson said the Medical Malpractice Act appears to be an end run attempt to circumvent the court's injunction.

"I think it is an attempt to take a back-door way to do what they've been told they can't do directly," Dickson said. "They've singled out providers of this care for this purpose ... It's pretty laser-focused on gender affirming care."

The parents of two of the minor plaintiffs involved in the litigation currently blocking the 2021 law spoke recently to what they have gone through as the current legislative session has progressed.

Joanna Brandt, a small-business owner living in Greenwood and the mother of 17-year-old Dylan Brandt, described her state of mind over the past two years as she has watched the current drama play out on the legislative stage.

"It's been awful," she said. "I don't always enjoy the person I feel like I've become. It leaves me scared and angry and bitter and frustrated, sometimes all within the span of an hour."

Much of her frustration, she said, has come because she believes the impact of the laws on transgender youth and their families is not being considered and the families themselves have not been consulted.

"They want to talk about us but they don't want to talk to us," she said. "We're not data. We're not statistics. We're people."

Her son Dylan, who begins his high school senior year in September, described his experience at school as mostly positive with supportive administrators and teachers but said the current wave of legislation is troubling.

"There's a lot to think about when it comes to stuff like this," he said. "I'm weighing out my options on what to do."

Lacey and Aaron Jennen, and their daughter, Sabrina, said they are also weighing their options.

"It's kind of like fight or flight for me," said Lacey Jennen. "We've been fighting the best we can ... just trying to have a dialogue ... you see Arkansans like us lining up begging and pleading with them not to do this and they do it anyway."

Aaron Jennen expressed frustration with lawmakers, saying a rare opportunity to address serious problems in the state is being squandered. He cited statistics ranking Arkansas 49th in the nation in health care with the highest maternal and third-highest infant mortality rates in the nation, second only to Mississippi in the teen birth rate and second-highest in hunger.

"These are real problems," he said, "and when you have a budget surplus like we do, these are solvable problems, right? But instead, they take up all this time, all this energy, all this taxpayer money to legislate a fraction of a fractional portion of Arkansans out of existence.

"Imagine what those rankings would be if they took all the time and effort they're spending on this issue and redirected it to those issues," he continued.

According to the Arkansas House of Representatives, the state ended fiscal year 2022 with a $1.682 billion budget surplus. According to the UCLA Williams Institute, there are 13,500 transgender adults aged 18 or older in Arkansas and up to 1,800 transgender youth under 18 in the state, comprising an estimated 0.7% of the state's population of 3 million people.

Attempts to contact sponsoring legislators and the governor's office regarding the current wave of anti-trans legislation were met with little success. Stubblefield, Payton and Bentley did not return messages seeking comment on the bills they introduced. Long responded in an email saying he did not wish to be interviewed.

The governor's office responded with a prepared statement but did not respond to a follow-up email.

"The Governor has said she will sign laws that focus on protecting and educating our kids, not indoctrinating them and believes our schools are no place for the radical left's woke agenda," said spokeswoman Alexa Henning in an email. "Arkansas isn't going to rewrite the rules of biology just to please a handful of far-left advocates."

Both families said that lately, leaving Arkansas is an option never far from their minds.

Every day after work, Aaron Jennen said, he checks two alerts on his home computer. One is a daily update and digest of pending legislation. The other is a list of Department of Justice job postings in other states that protect transgender rights.

Sabrina, who will begin college in the fall, said she received a generous scholarship offer from Hendrix College in Conway but said the current political climate is a concern.

"I wanted to stay in state because I really, really like [Arkansas]," she said, "but [Arkansas] really doesn't like me."

"We love this state," Aaron echoed. "We've lived here all our lives and we don't want to leave but as parents, we have to do what is best for our children ... I'm not going to live in a place where my daughter can't go to the bathroom."

"If we need to leave it's not going to be easy," said Dylan. "We'll make it work but it's definitely not going to be easy."

Both families said the difficulty is because their home communities, Greenwood and Fayetteville, have been supportive of their families. But they said whether the laws being passed reflect the sentiments of their home communities or not, passage of those laws will endanger their children's health and futures regardless of where they live in Arkansas.