ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The Minnesota House was moving Thursday toward strengthening the state's protections for children and their families who come for gender-affirming care by making Minnesota a “trans refuge state,” bucking a national backlash against transgender rights.
Democratic Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order two weeks ago to protect the rights of people from Minnesota and other states to receive gender-affirming health care in the state. The bill on which the House was slated to begin debate Thursday night covers much of the same ground, but supporters said a statute would provide stronger, more permanent protections. Passage was expected.
The chief author of the House bill is Democratic Rep. Leigh Finke, of St. Paul, the state's first openly transgender legislator. She was named Woman of the Year for Minnesota by USA Today on Sunday for her activism on behalf of trans youth. Her bill is meant to protect trans people, families and care providers from a range of legal repercussions for traveling to Minnesota for gender-affirming care.
“Gender-affirming care is lifesaving health care," Finke said at a news conference before the debate. "Withholding or delaying gender-affirming care can have a dramatic impact on the mental health of any individual who needs it. Rates of depression, suicide, substance abuse are dramatically higher in transgender and gender-expansive individuals who lack access to care.”
“To all those families across the United States that are afraid and wondering where they can go for help, Minnesota is saying, ‘We see you, we love you and you belong here,’” Finke said.
Hundreds of protesters chanted for and against the bill outside the House chamber before the debate. Black signs with white text said “Protect Kids” as dozens yelled, “Vote no!” Others shouted back, “Vote yes!” and held signs with colors from the trans flag -- baby blue and pink -- that read, “You belong here.”
Cries of “No!” and “Yes!” echoed through the halls of the Capitol as security personnel guarded the locked doors of the chamber.
Gender-affirming care includes a wide range of social and medical interventions, including hormone treatments, puberty blockers and gender-reassignment surgery, though doctors who work in the field say such surgeries on minors are very rare.
Whether such care is right for minors has become a major flash point in the culture wars across the country. The unicameral Nebraska Legislature gave preliminary approval earlier Thursday to a ban on gender-affirming care for minors. Georgia's governor, Republican Brian Kemp, signed a ban Thursday. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, another Republican, did so Wednesday. The Missouri Senate gave preliminary approval to a ban Tuesday. Bans were enacted earlier in South Dakota,Utah and Mississippi.
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd, medical director for the Gender Health Program at Children’s Minnesota, said her pediatric health system gets calls regularly from frightened parents in states with bans.
“Bans on gender-affirming care are creating geographical disparities where the most privileged become domestic refugees, fleeing their home states to access health care, and those families who already struggle to access health care due to racial and socioeconomic barriers, they’re left without any care at all,” Goepferd told reporters.
House Republicans held their own news conference before the debate to denounce the bill as misguided. Rep. Peggy Scott, of Andover, said the bill “undermines parental rights, and most concerningly, has zero guardrails to protect our kids.”
Minnesota's Catholic bishops, who were at the Capitol Thursday to lobby the governor and lawmakers on a variety of issues, strongly oppose the trans refuge bill. Bishop Robert Barron of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester said in an interview he told Walz that Pope Francis instructed bishops to “stand against the gender ideology.” He said they worry about the long-term repercussions of young people making decisions that could permanently affect the rest of their lives.
“Making Minnesota basically a sanctuary state for those that want this kind of surgery, we think that's moving it way too fast,” the bishop said. He added that they worry that Catholic doctors, nurses or health care institutions could be obligated to provide gender affirming care.
A similar bill is awaiting further action in the Minnesota Senate after getting a hearing last month. The chief Senate author, Sen. Erin Maye Quade, of Apple Valley, said in an interview Wednesday that she expects a floor vote there soon. But she said she’s still working to make sure it has the necessary support in the Senate, where Democrats hold just a one-seat majority.
Trisha Ahmed contributed to this story. Ahmed is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow her on Twitter: @TrishaAhmed15