MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — The tiny clinic where physicians prescribe hormones and other medications to transgender teenagers shares the same campus where West Virginia kids travel to receive treatments for rare cancer, heart surgery and other health care difficult to get anywhere else.
In a rural state purported to have the highest number of transgender youths per capita and some of the nation’s worst health outcomes, West Virginia University Medicine doctors say transgender health care is just as essential as the other lifesaving services they provide.
But it could soon be banned. Ignoring doctors' pleas, lawmakers are preparing to vote this week on a bill that would outlaw certain health care for transgender minors, including hormone therapy and fully reversible medication that suspends the physical changes of puberty, buying patients and parents time to make future decisions about hormones.
"There's a lot of anxiety and fear in our exam rooms right now," said Dr. Kacie Kidd, medical director of WVU Medicine Children's Adolescent Gender and Sexual Development Clinic.
State lawmakers and West Virginia's largest health care provider are at odds over how and when to treat adolescents with gender dysphoria — the severe psychological distress experienced by those whose gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth.
WVU's classification among the highest level of American research universities is often lauded by the same state leaders who have been unwilling to listen to experts when it comes to gender-affirming care. During a meeting last week at which Kidd testified before lawmakers, Senate Finance chair Eric Tarr described the treatments as “child abuse."
“I was caught off guard to see that WVU Medicine has a clinic to change the sex of children in West Virginia," the Republican said, leading a charge to reject amendments that would have allowed some care to continue. Two physicians on the committee — both Republicans — expressed concern, saying “medically uneducated” people shouldn't be making such decisions.
Lawmakers in West Virginia and other states advancing similar legislation often characterize gender-affirming treatments as medically unproven, potentially dangerous in the long term and a symptom of “woke” culture.
Yet every major medical organization, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychiatric Association, supports gender-affirming care for youths.
The legislation in West Virginia also includes a ban on gender-affirming surgery for minors, something medical professionals emphasize does not happen in the state.
Lia Farrell, a WVU medical student from New York, said it was clear to her that lawmakers have "no idea what providing this care actually entails."
"It’s really cutting off your nose to spite your face," she said. “This isn’t going to accomplish anything except harming people and preventing us from doing our jobs."
Opened in 2021, WVU Medicine Children's Adolescent Gender and Sexual Development Clinic looks like any other health care setting — animal-shaped stickers cover the walls, examination rooms, machines to check blood pressure and heart rates. But providers wear lanyards with colorful buttons displaying pronouns and jackets decorated with a rainbow heart and stethoscope — something Kidd calls “visible reminders" of support.
Some families travel for hours on mountain roads to meet with providers, including therapists. While they talk, young people draw to calm their nerves. Kidd has several patients' creations displayed in her workspace, including one favorite, a unicorn.
A West Virginia native, Kidd was training to be a pediatrician at WVU when she began meeting transgender kids hospitalized after suicide attempts.
Patients have described gender dysphoria to her as a profound, deeply rooted frustration — even sometimes anger — that the person in the mirror “isn’t who they are."