Families with transgender kids are increasingly forced to travel out of state for the care they need

CHICAGO (AP) — On an early morning in June, Flower Nichols and her mother set off on an expedition to Chicago from their home in Indianapolis.

The family was determined to make it feel like an adventure in the city, though that wasn’t the primary purpose of the trip.

The following afternoon, Flower and Jennilyn Nichols would see a doctor at the University of Chicago to learn whether they could keep Flower, 11, on puberty blockers. They began to search for medical providers outside of Indiana after April 5, when Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a law banning transgender minors from accessing puberty blockers and other hormone therapies, even after the approval of parents and the advice of doctors.

In this photo provided by Dirk Bolle, the Rev. Pat Langlois, senior pastor of MCC Church of Christ of the Valley, speaks at an interfaith rally in Pasadena, Calif., on March 31, 2023, protesting the wave of anti-transgender bills being enacted in numerous Republican-governed states. “These bills are the most vitriolic and cruel legislation I’ve seen,” she said. “I have a non-binary teenager, so I take this really personally, not just as a person of faith and as a lesbian, but as a mom.” Langlois, whose LGBTQ activism spans several decades, described the current situation as “probably the scariest time” because of the array of hostile bills. (Dirk Bolle via AP)
Wave of anti-transgender bills in Republican-led states divides US faith leaders

At least 20 states have enacted laws restricting or banning gender-affirming care for trans minors, though several are embroiled in legal challenges. For more than a decade prior, such treatments were available to children and teens across the U.S. and have been endorsed by major medical associations.

Opponents of gender-affirming care say there’s no solid proof of purported benefits, cite widely discredited research and say children shouldn’t make life-altering decisions they might regret. Advocates and families impacted by the recent laws say such care is vital for trans kids

On June 16, a federal judge blocked parts of Indiana’s law from going into effect on July 1. But many patients still scrambled to continue receiving treatment.

Flower Nichols, middle, watches the Pride Parade with her parents Kris and Jennilyn Nichols, Saturday, June 10, 2023, in Indianapolis. Families around the U.S. are scrambling to navigate new laws that prohibit their transgender children from accessing gender-affirming care. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Flower Nichols, middle, watches the Pride Parade with her parents Kris and Jennilyn Nichols in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Jennilyn Nichols wanted their trip to Chicago to be defined by happy memories rather than a response to a law she called intrusive. They would explore the Museum of Science and Industry and, on the way home, stop at a beloved candy store.

Preserving a sense of normalcy and acceptance, she decided — well, that’s just what families do.

Families in Indiana, Mississippi and other states are navigating new laws that imply or sometimes directly accuse them of child abuse for supporting their kids in getting health care. Some trans children and teens say the recent bans on gender-affirming care in Republican-led states send the message that they are unwelcome and cannot be themselves in their home states.

For parents, guiding their children through the usual difficulties of growing up can be challenging enough. But now they are dealing with the added pressure of finding out-of-state medical care they say allows their children to thrive.

In the Nichols family alone, support took many forms as they traveled to Chicago: a grandmother who pitched in to babysit Flower’s 7-year-old brother, Parker, while their father Kris worked; a community of other parents of trans kids who donated money to make the trip more comfortable.

“What transgender expansive young people need is what all young people need: They need love and support, and they need unconditional respect,” said Robert Marx, an assistant professor of child and adolescent development at San José State University. Marx studies support systems for LGBTQ+ and trans people aged 13 to 25. “They need to feel included and part of a family.”

In Indiana, rancorous legislative debates, agitated family relationships and exhaustive efforts to find care have drawn families to the support group GEKCO, founded by Krisztina Inskeep, whose adult son is transgender. Attendance at monthly meetings spiked after the state legislature advanced bills targeting trans youth, she said.

“I think most parents want to do best by their kids,” Inskeep said. “It’s rather new to people, this idea that gender is not just a binary and that your kid is not just who they thought at birth.”

The perceptions of most parents, Marx said, don’t align neatly with the extremes of full support or rejection of their kids’ identities.

“Most parents exist in a kind of gray area,” Marx said. “Most parents are going through some kind of developmental process themselves as they come to understand their child’s gender.”

On June 13, Flower and Jennilyn set off on their trip, unsteady but hopeful. They brought a care plan from Indiana University’s Riley Children’s Hospital, the Hoosier State’s only gender clinic.

At the time, the pair worried whether Chicago providers could meet their request for full-time support or as a backup if Indiana’s ban went on hold. They considered whether they could make the drive every three months, the necessary interval between Flower’s puberty blockers.

The decision for Flower to start puberty blockers two years ago wasn’t one the family took lightly.

Jennilyn recalled asking early on whether her daughter’s gender expression was permanent. She wondered if she had failed as a mom, especially while pregnant — was it an incorrect food? A missed vitamin?

Panorama Hispano is the regional news and information newspaper for Hispanic and other diverse communities.

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