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“Destroying the trust between students and school staff:” New Ohio bill targets transgender students

House Bill 68, or the Ohio Save Adolescents from Experimentation Act, which bans gender affirming care for minors and restricts transgender students’ participation in sports statewide will go into effect on April 23.

Transgender Ohioans have experienced a roller coaster of emotions the past couple of months, as DeWine vetoed the bill on Dec. 29, and the Ohio Senate subsequently overrode his veto on Jan. 24.

The bill has been subject to copious amounts of criticism from trans advocates and civil rights groups, both for the contentious content and for the process of its creation, as it combines two separate acts into one bill.

“This was not actually one bill, this was two bills illegally put together as one,” Minna Zelch, a volunteer and media spokesperson for Trans Allies of Ohio said. “This is not allowed, the legislature voted not to allow it, but they still are doing it, and that’s how they were able to pass both laws.”

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The first component of HB68 primarily affects mental health professionals. After the bill goes into effect, they will be forced to get permission from their patient’s parents to talk to minors about anything related to being transgender.

“[The bill] will directly impact any school counselors, psychologists and social workers and nurses because they are not allowed to provide mental health services to transgender youth,” Zelch said. “If a youth happens to come to them and say: ‘I think I might be transgender, I’ve been questioning,’ they are not allowed to speak to that child without getting permission from one of their parents or guardians. It’s forcing people to go against their ethical codes and out children to their parents who may not be ready for that.”

The second component of HB68 restricts transgender women from competing in sports for female teams.

“The athlete ban in the bill has a significant impact on high schools because it prevents transgender girls from playing sports on female teams,” Zelch said. “The OHSAA already had one of the strictest policies in the country for transgender athletes, and there have only been 21 individual girls who had ever been approved to play out of about 200,000 girls who play yearly.”

In addition to the OHSAA rules in place for transgender athletes, Ohio legislators hope to go further with a private right of action, allowing anyone to accuse a female athlete of being transgender and hold schools directly responsible.

“What we’ve seen in other states where this has happened is people whose daughters are beaten by another athlete end up accusing that athlete of ‘not looking feminine enough’ or saying’ no girl could ever be that good so they must be transgender.’” Zelch said. “It creates an incredibly challenging situation for any female athlete.”

Due to the potential legality of the bill, the ACLU is currently preparing a lawsuit to defend transgender youth’s access to healthcare. Gary Click, the bill’s primary sponsor, believes the lawsuit is ridiculous and that there is nothing in the constitution defending the right to gender affirming care.

“Gender affirming care is a slogan, not a science,” Click said in an official statement regarding the ACLU lawsuit. “Sex changes for children and counseling without parental consent are not the types of civil rights embedded in our constitution.”

Solon’s Gay Straight Alliance is a club that provides a safe space for LGBTQ+ individuals. According to GSA’s Advisor Sophia Viglione, Solon High School has taken steps in being more inclusive towards their transgender student population in recent years, but Viglione said she can envision ways in which the bill will have a negative impact on Solon’s culture of acceptance.

“I know we have a gender-neutral bathroom, and I’m generally aware of most teachers being open to using preferred pronouns and names to the best that they can or leaving those for their subs,” Viglione said. “Solon is accepting as an employer as well. They are not discriminatory in their hiring process, which can be supportive to their students when they see LGBTQ+ representation in their teachers. I can foresee ways in which [the bill] will affect my job in the future. I’m nervous for the overall wellbeing of my students. Legislation like this tells them that they aren’t okay to be who they are.”

Transgender advocates are worried that the law is antithetical to the concept of equal rights and protections under the law, but politicians do not seem to share this concern.

“Just before the senate vote, Senate President Huffman gave a press conference where he said that he didn’t care if families of transgender youth left the state, and it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t impact their numbers,” Zelch said. “They are saying they are perfectly happy with legalized discrimination against this population.”

Transgender students at Solon are already envisioning how day-to-day life at school will change. SHS student and GSA President Chris Walters, who uses he/they pronouns, attests to the potential danger the bill could put students in.

“If [the bill] was introduced earlier, it would have affected me a lot because I was not out [as transgender] to my parents at the time, and that was a huge fear of mine, something happening or them finding something on social media or a friend slipping up and saying something, which would cause them to find out something I was not ready to tell them,” Walters said. “Now that they know, it’s not that big of a deal, but a couple of years ago it would have been pretty scary. A lot less kids are going to be open with their teachers about their preferred names and pronouns, and we will start to see a bigger gap in the trust between transgender students and their teachers.”

On the contrary, some view the bill as a means in which to protect children from making a decision they will regret later in life. Kristina Roegner, an Ohio senator and one of the bill’s co-sponsors, believes that people are pushing expensive surgery onto impressionable minors.

“This is quite a profit center for those hospitals pushing these procedures to teenagers, children,” Roegner said to NBC news. “They’re not capable of making life-altering decisions.”

For parents, a large cause of anxiety around the bill is the prospect of their transgender children having to leave Ohio to get the care they need.

“A lot of our families have young children and are in a horrible position where they are basically political refugees,” Zelch said. “They need to make a choice about how they can escape and either move out of state, which some of them are doing, and a lot already have done, or find care outside of the state.”

Viglione believes that the Solon staff deeply values the transgender population within the school, and she is unnerved at the prospect of that having to change.

“When I heard the legislature overrode DeWine’s veto, I was disheartened,” Viglione said. “LGBTQ+ folks bring a lot of heart to Ohio, and the idea that our state may not feel safe to them or support them makes me nervous about the overall future of Ohio.”

This story was originally published on The Courier on March 1, 2024.