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Protecting the children: Missourians clash over transgender care, gun rights

Republican state lawmakers are moving to pass legislation that would ban transgender health care for minors, while balking at an age limit on carrying guns in public without parental supervision.

ST. LOUIS (CN) — Protecting Missouri children has become a rally cry for the state’s Republican-dominated Legislature as it pushes through measures that would ban transgender medical treatments for minors, but that cry rings hollow to some.

Two weeks ago, the state Senate passed a pair of comprehensive bills that would ban biological males from playing in female sports, prohibit gender transition surgeries for minors in Missouri and ban the use of hormones for the purpose of gender transition for minors. The bills, which are expected to become law with passage from the House and the signature of Republican Governor Mike Parson, do allow a provision for minors who are already undergoing such treatment to continue their care.

At the time, Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden lauded his party's efforts, tweeting, “There is no cause more important than standing up for Missouri kids.”

But LGBTQ advocacy groups and Democratic lawmakers claim these laws are actually hurting kids.

Others see hypocrisy in the GOP’s decision earlier in the session to strike down a provision in a public safety bill because it prohibited minors from carrying a gun in public unsupervised, claiming it violated their Second Amendment rights.

Contrasting Agendas

House Bill 301 is a public safety measure sponsored by Representative Lane Roberts, a Republican from Joplin.

But his party members balked at a provision in the measure that would ban minors from carrying a firearm in public without parental supervision. Currently, there is no age limit to carry a gun unsupervised in Missouri.

“I knew that it was going to be a challenge on my side of the aisle regardless,” Roberts said in an interview. “Any time you say guns, people tend to become wary right away with concerns about whether or not we're going to infringe on the Second Amendment.”

Roberts argued against his own party that minors don’t have the life experience to carry a gun in the streets.

Ironically, that is the same logic state Republicans are using to defend their prohibitions on transgender treatment.

Democratic Senator Greg Razer said it is a hypocritical stance.

“I've heard it said that Missouri Republicans here in the Capitol should change their logo from an elephant to a pretzel because they can find ways to twist anything,” Razer said. “It's gotten to a point where we allow 8-year-olds to walk down the street with AR-15s. And we're legislating health care decisions on kids, and we don't understand what the health care needs are.”

Razer said this isn’t the only time this session that Republicans have contradicted themselves on parental rights versus government overreach.

“A few weeks before we pass this anti-trans bill that usurps the power of parents in making these decisions, we passed a bill that they called the parental bill of rights, which essentially said parents know best always about their child's education, not the educators, the parents, always, in every circumstance,” Razer said. “This time [with transgender health care], they said parents never know best, we need to limit their power.”

Roberts, who calls himself a staunch proponent of the Second Amendment, said the issue of prohibiting minors from carrying guns unsupervised is more complicated than it appears on the surface, with rural needs being much different than urban needs.

“Particularly in the urban areas where there really is no place to hunt, the question of why a 12-year-old has a 40-caliber Glock in his waistband...probably not for something good,” Roberts said. “Finding language that somehow mitigates that concern without treading on the Second Amendment has just been kind of an elusive thing.”


He said there is a key difference in the issues of minors carrying guns and providing gender-affirming care to minors.

“The difference, however, is that the Second Amendment is very clearly spelled out in the Constitution and the issue involving transgender is kind of an emerging issue,” Roberts said. “So, I guess in the minds of many people, it is probably less established, but I do see how that would be a disconnect.”

Razer wants to see some common sense used in both issues, especially since firearms have overtaken vehicle accidents as the No. 1 cause of death for children and teens.

The Democratic senator, who grew up with guns, does not want to take hunting rifles from responsible citizens.

“But also, I'm tired of living in a state where we have dead bodies in the streets in our cities,” he said. “I mean, surely, we can come together and find a happy medium where we try to address both issues. And instead of legislating health care, let's stop, take a breath, and understand the science first.”

The New Hot Button

Traditionally, the issues of abortion and gun rights have driven conservatives to the polls, but now that Missouri became the first state to outlaw abortion since Roe v. Wade was overturned, some have wondered what will replace abortion as a GOP rally cry.

Republicans seem to have found it in attacking transgender treatment.

“I think that's what they are hoping,” Razer, the only openly gay member of the Missouri Senate, said. “The Missouri Republican Party has put an anchor down on abortion and guns. And they've loosened gun laws so much there's really nothing else they can do.”

He said that Missouri’s extreme abortion laws, which provide no exceptions for rape or incest, no longer provide a motivating factor to drive the state’s conservative voters to the polls.

“They need to find a new issue, and I think they thought they struck on trans issues, because I bet if you polled Missouri right now, 80% of Missourians will say that they're against me and my position,” he said. “The question is, how much do they care?”

Teresa Folds cared enough to start the St. Louis Gender Critical Alliance. Created on Feb. 1, the group has grown to over two dozen members in two months.

“We all have this same idea that men aren't women, and don't belong in women's spaces and places,” Folds said of her group. “And we don't believe that children should be given harmful medications or surgeries that are irreversible and extremely harmful to their overall health.”

That view is something PROMO Missouri, the state’s major LGBTQ advocacy group, is trying to change through education.

“All the data and statistics that we see that come out of leading medical research partners, like the Mayo Clinic, have understood from decades and decades of research that children know what their sexual orientation is and what their gender identity is from a very young age,” said Shira Berkowitz, PROMO’s senior director of public policy and advocacy.

Protesters hold signs in support of transgender care for minors at the Missouri State Capitol on March 29, 2023. (Credit: Be Lovely Photography)

Berkowitz said children as young as 3 or 4 have an understanding of what their gender identity is and even what their sexual orientation is.

“We don't like to think of children as sexual in any ways, so I think that's where the misunderstanding of who is LGBTQ comes from, but we all have an orientation and a gravitation that is inherent and known to us,” Berkowitz said. “We don't need to act on it. You don't act on your sexual orientation in any way until you're adolescent age appropriate for it. But that is innate to who we are and science tells us that.”


The War on Transgender Care

Missouri’s Republican Attorney General Andrew Bailey in March called for a moratorium on the use of puberty blockers and hormone therapy at St. Louis Children’s Hospital's Washington University Transgender Center while his office investigates claims by former case manager Jamie Reed that patients were rushed into treatments and parents were not properly informed about the nature of the treatments.

Bailey doubled-down by announcing March 20 that he was filing emergency regulations, marking the first time a state’s attorney stepped in to limit gender-affirming care. The restrictions include an 18-month waiting period, 15 hourlong psychiatric assessment sessions and a requirement that any mental conditions are “resolved” before Missouri doctors can provide gender-affirming care to minors.

The regulations would be moot if the bills passed by the Senate just a day later become law.

Razer said the allegations against the Washington University Transgender Center are flat-out false.

“Let's say an 11-year-old comes out to their family,” the lawmaker said. “They are going to go seek out a doctor, who is going to refer them to a clinic, who's going to refer them to a mental health professional. Six months to a year of pretty intense therapy, let's make sure that you're right. And then when after that six to 12 months [passes] and that kid hits puberty, they will put the young person on puberty blockers which are safe for a few years.”

He said the puberty blockers buy time to allow the kids to make sure that is what they want to do. He said the blockers are especially important for males looking to transition into females.

“It keeps their body from forming into a male body, a grown male body, which later in life when you're going out for a job interview or trying to get through security at the airport, you don't look like a man in a dress,” he said. “You look like a woman that you are.”

Razer said at age 16 or 17, those still wishing to transition switch from puberty blockers to the appropriate hormone therapy.

But Folds said critical thinking is in order to find the truth.

“There's lots of medical groups out there that stand opposed and a lot of people don't do their research to find out who those groups are,” Folds said.

Both Berkowitz and Razer are adamant that the transgender treatments in question are not only safe, but are also approved by all reputable medical groups.

“All of the leading medical associations, there's 10 of them, have agreed upon a standard of care that is necessary for providing to transgender youth,” said Berkowitz, the PROMO director. “And all of that care is not standardized. It's personal to the individual going through it.”

Mirror on America

The school shooting on March 27 in Nashville, Tennessee, brought the issues of transgender and guns together in a tragic circumstance.

Predictably, President Joe Biden led Democrats in calling for more gun control, while Republicans blamed the shooter and not the gun. The fact that the shooter identified as transgender fueled attacks from some on the right, including U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Children from The Covenant School, a private Christian school in Nashville, Tenn., hold hands as they are taken to a reunification site at the Woodmont Baptist Church after a deadly shooting at their school on Monday, March 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Jonathan Mattise)

So, is Missouri simply a microcosm of the growing debate in America?

“What's disheartening is they've used gay and lesbian people as a wedge issue for decades,” Razer said. “And that's bad enough, but at least I'm an adult. Attack me as an adult and I can defend myself. They're taking children and the health care that children need on an issue that they don't understand. And they will admit they don't understand. So why are we legislating health care decisions over the advice of every major medical organization in the country, over the advice mental health professionals and over the objection of these good parents?”


Berkowitz said opponents are already using the Tennessee shooting as a political weapon against the transgender population while ignoring the common thread among these tragedies, guns.

“The most unfortunate statistics in our country are the number of school shootings and gun violence that we have already,” Berkowitz said.

The debate has been sparked in part by an increase in children and adults who identify as transgender throughout the country.

Razer said there are several reasons behind the surge, but being part of a fad is not one of them.

“I have some colleagues that think, you know, it's just a cool thing to do now,” he said. “I dare somebody to find a high school in Missouri where it's cool for a 16-year-old boy to show up wearing girls clothes.”

Berkowitz believes increasing social acceptance from peers, parents, educators and the media have emboldened minors to speak out to who they are.

Medical advancements and a shift from the traditional “children should be seen and not heard” to a more affirming parenting style have also contributed.

“So, like, me coming out as a kid, there was no option,” Berkowitz said. “It was like, ‘OK, you can be a tomboy and you can dress however you want, but there's no medicine that's going to help you be who you are.’ And now there is that foundational guidance to help kids come out at a younger age and affirm them at a younger age.”

Razer claims many of the arguments dismissing the increase in transgender people mirror the anti-gay arguments made in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

“We're seeing more trans people come out because they can,” the senator said. “They've always been there. We just didn't allow them to admit it.”

Protecting the Children

The Trevor Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to LGBTQ+ youth suicide prevention, last December released state-level data from nearly 34,000 queer and trans youth ages 13 to 24, showing alarmingly high rates of suicide attempts, depression and anxiety across liberal and conservative regions.

The numbers don’t come as a surprise to transgender rights advocates.

“I can tell you my own personal experience hiding the fact that I was gay for 20 years, by the time I was 17, I was a suicidal gay teen in the closet,” Razer said. “You learn how to act your way through life. You have to pretend to be someone that you know you're not to make everyone else happy. And that takes a toll. And that was just me being gay. I can't imagine if I was born in the wrong body. I just can't imagine the toll that takes on someone.”

The argument doesn’t hit on the right side of the political aisle.

“It's difficult for me and I think most of the people on my side to understand how you could allow somebody who has no life experience to make a life-changing decision that virtually can't be undone,” said Roberts, the GOP state representative. “It just seems unfair to the child.”

The Missouri Capitol building, with the Missouri River in the background. (KTrimble at English Wikipedia, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Roberts believes most parents want to protect their children.

“But there are those who, for one reason or another, seem to want to abdicate to the child,” he said. “I don't understand that. We’re supposed to be guiding our children, not minding our children.”

Roberts, for his part, says the same logic applies to the question of firearms rights for children. The rest of his party, though, has made any restrictions on firearms a non-starter.

“Our laws no longer respect the gun and I think people like Representative Roberts understand that...and these aren't anti-gun people,” Razer said. “These are people that want to make sure that guns aren't in the hands of 8-year-olds walking around on the street, in the hands of people who are mentally ill who are dangerous.”


Berkowitz said the Republican Party has failed Missouri children in more areas than transgender care and gun rights.

“I think our state stands behind this idea that we are protecting children, that we are putting children in everyone's best interest, but at the end of the day they're defunding early childhood education, they're cutting raises to teachers, they're censoring curriculum and books that can be taught in schools and they're putting more gun access in the hands of younger and younger people,” Berkowitz said.

The Fallout

Razer is worried not just about the accessibility of gender-affirming care in Missouri, but for the safety of families with members who are transitioning.

He pointed to a measure passed in the Idaho House of Representatives last year that would charge parents of trans children as child abusers. He fears he is seeing the future for Missouri.

“I would hope that enough common sense would come to the chamber that fellow members on the other side of the aisle would stand up against it, but I'd hoped that would be the case when it came to banning medical practices and I didn't see anyone standing up,” Razer said. “I don't know when the other side of the aisle stands up against this extremism. It has to happen at some point.”

Folds, the St. Louis Gender Critical Alliance founder, said such a measure would be harsh because she believes that parents seeking gender-affirming treatment for their children are being misled by the medical community, and in some cases may have mental illness themselves.

“From what I understand, parents are told, ‘What would you rather have? A dead daughter or a living son?’” Folds said. “So, the parents are being gaslit here, fear is being used to get them to use these surgeries and these medications.”

Folds also believes liberal parents are convincing their children to be transgender as part of a social justice movement.

Berkowitz pushed back on the idea that transgender is a mental delusion or political stance.

“I would say that most of the transgender youth that we interact with at PROMO, they're accepted by their families, they're accepted by their schools, they're accepted in their neighborhoods, and the only realization that they are not believed in who they are and do not feel valued is coming from elected leaders and state governments,” Berkowitz said. “And so, the danger of whether these bills pass or not, is that these kids are being sent a message that they are not valuable. And I think that once these bills do pass, if these bills pass, the danger is exponential from kids feeling like they can't live in Missouri and their families feel like they can't live here.”

It's a feeling that Razer knows all too well having grown up in a small town in the state’s bootheel.

He worries that other families will be forced to have conversations similar to the one he had with his mother if Missouri continues on its current path.

“One of the first things my mother said to me when I came out to her, she made me promise never to move back,” Razer said. “Not that she didn't want me there, but she said I'm going to be afraid for your safety every time you walk out of the house, and you're never going to be happy here. No moms should have to say that to their kid.”

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