Elinor Smith from the University of Montana School of Journalism is providing New Media Broadcasters with reports form the Montana legislative session. This is one of her reports:
HELENA — There are several bills moving through the 68th Legislature that would dictate how medical and educational professionals can treat transgender people — particularly trans children.
Two of the bills pertain to healthcare: House Bill 303 would allow medical providers to object to providing care if it goes against their personal or religious beliefs, including gender affirming care for gender dysphoric patients and Senate Bill 99 would bar any doctor from providing gender affirming care to a child under the age of 18 and stop any facility that provides those services from receiving money from the state of Montana. The most recent bill, House Bill 361, speaks to the school system, and would classify using the wrong name or pronouns for a child in school as nondiscriminatory and protect children from disciplinary action if they use the wrong name or pronouns for a peer.
Rep. Amy Regier, R-Kalispell, is the sponsor of HB 303. She said the bill would protect doctor’s rights to practice in Montana and address the healthcare crisis by encouraging more healthcare workers to come to Montana.
Proponents of the bill made the argument that the bill would not be discriminatory. They said it has nothing to do with the individual seeking care but the treatment they are asking for.
“This bill would not give the right to refuse to serve a person. It would only apply to the narrow circumstances where a nurse or physician cannot conscientiously perform a specific procedure,” Regier said.
Opponents of the bill said that some treatments cannot be separated from the patients who receive them. Democratic Representative Zooey Zephyr from Missoula, who is a trans woman, spoke for those with her lived experience, saying that refusing a person gender affirming care is discrimination because only gender-diverse people seek gender affirming care.
“What is actually going to happen is it will be a denial based on diagnosis. Something like, I am diagnosed with gender dysphoria. And the thing is that is inherently discriminatory because you cannot parse my diagnoses from who I am. To deny me based on my diagnosis of gender dysphoria is to deny me based on my being a trans woman,” Zephyr said.
The bill passed the House February 7 with a vote of 63 for and 33 against. It will now move on to the Senate.
Sen. John Fuller, R-Kalispell, is the sponsor of SB 99. He said the bill would protect children from making permanent decisions about their body before the age of consent — an action he said would be unconscionable. The hearing for SB 99 took five hours as the 45 proponents and the 92 opponents sometimes stood in line outside the doors of the Old Supreme Court Chambers waiting for their turn to testify.
Proponents of the bill said that kids can’t know what is right for them before the age of consent. They said providing gender affirming care to children could cause them serious harm in the future should they come to regret receiving that treatment.
“We do not allow children to make all kinds of decisions and unhealthy choices. Smoking, drinking, child pornography, sex with adults, illegal drug use, just to name a few. The freedom to make decisions does not allow us to determine the consequences of those decisions. And so children should be free from either parental, peer or cultural pressure to deal with their gender dysphoria by starting down a one-way road to a lifelong of medical intervention,” Fuller said.
Opponents of the bill said that legislators cannot know what is right for all Montanans, and legislating based on what politicians in the state think about gender dysphoria or proper care for children would be unconstitutional. They said gender affirming care is crucial to the health and happiness of children experiencing gender dysphoria and refusing that care could worsen serious mental health issues in these kids. Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, spoke out against the bill.
“It is not the state’s place to decide what the appropriate medical care for minors with gender dysphoria should be. The state lacks medical expertise to determine whether medical procedures are appropriate, nor is it the place of the state to coerce parents into foregoing medical treatment for a certain condition,” Morigeau said.
The bill passed the Senate after an hours-long debate with a vote of 30 for and 20 against. The bill will now move on to the House for consideration.
Rep. Brandon Ler, R-Savage, is the sponsor of HB 361, the school bill. He said children should be protected from punishment for using the wrong name or pronouns for a peer and kids shouldn’t be punished for what they don’t understand. The committee passed an amendment on the bill that would allow schools to intervene in the case of bullying.
Proponents of the bill agreed with Rep. Ler. Republican Rep. Jennifer Carlson spoke out in favor of the bill before the committee took executive action.
“This is protecting against kids who are getting in trouble for doing something that can be handled in a way other than discipline,” Carlson said.
Opponents of the bill said that the bill is dangerous, and that students who genuinely make a mistake and use the wrong pronouns or name don’t get in trouble for it. They said adding protections for kids who misgender a classmate would open the door for discrimination and bullying against gender-diverse kids. Rep. SJ Howell, D-Missoula, spoke in opposition of the bill before the committee took executive action.
“We are carving out one specific thing that some individuals find objectionable and exempting it from, from policy — from school board policies that they’re allowed to address. I think that that is not a good way to legislate, I think it is both reactionary and discriminatory,” Howell said.
During the initial House Judiciary hearing, many of the opponents of the bill were friends of or gender-diverse kids themselves. They spoke about being bullied and harassed for who they are, and they worried that if that treatment were protected it could get worse. Representative Donavon Hawk, a Democrat from Butte, told the committee he saw some of them crying outside of the hearing room after the committee heard their testimony.
The Committee voted to pass the bill onto the House floor with a vote of 13 for and six against.
Another bill making its way through the Legislature would prohibit kids from attending some drag shows and ban publicly funded libraries and schools from holding drag events.