DOJ sues Tennessee, alleging it discriminates against transgender youth with new law

Politics

Activists for transgender rights gather in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on April 1, 2023.
Andrew Caballero-reynolds | AFP | Getty Images

The Department of Justice is suing Tennessee for allegedly discriminating against transgender youth with a new state law banning the use of puberty blockers, hormones, and other medical procedures that affirm a child’s gender identity.

The DOJ asked the U.S. District Court for Middle Tennessee on Wednesday to declare that the law violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and to prohibit state authorities from implementing the statute.

Tennessee’s law is set to take effect July 1.

“No person should be denied access to necessary medical care just because of their transgender status,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division.

“The right to consider your health and medically-approved treatment options with your family and doctors is a right that everyone should have, including transgender children, who are especially vulnerable to serious risks of depression, anxiety and suicide.”

The lawsuit originally was filed April 20 by the parents of transgender children in Tennessee who are undergoing gender-affirming care. The DOJ joined that action.

Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti and Health Commissioner Ralph Alvarado must respond to the suit by May 8.

DOJ attorneys said in a court filing that the law clearly targets transgender minors by banning medical procedures to treat gender dysphoria, while allowing the same treatments for conditions such as congenital defects, physical injury and delayed or early puberty in children who identify with their biological sex.

Under Tennessee’s law, a doctor could prescribe testosterone to treat delayed puberty in boys who identify with their biological sex but would prohibit the same treatment to affirm the gender identity of transgender boys, the government’s lawyers said.

“The law thus discriminates against transgender minors by unjustifiably denying them access to certain forms of medically necessary care to treat a diagnosis of gender dysphoria,” the Justice Department lawyers wrote in a court filing.

“All people, including transgender youth, deserve to be treated with dignity and respect,” the government said.

The law forces doctors to choose between withholding necessary medical care for transgender kids or facing a $25,000 penalty from the state, according to the Justice Department.

Seventeen Republican-led states have laws that ban gender-affirming care for transgender children, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a nonprofit that advocates for LGBTQ rights.

Those states are: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and West Virginia.

Courts have blocked the laws in Alabama, Arkansas and Texas.

Nearly 30% of transgender children live in states that have banned gender-affirming care, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

More than 300,000 high-school-age kids are transgender and may need gender-affirming care, according to the organization.

The DOJ’s intervention in the Tennessee case is the latest effort by the federal government to enforce transgender rights under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which contains the equal-protection clause.

The Biden administration last year sent a letter to state attorneys general underscoring federal protections for transgender youth.

In April 2022, the DOJ intervened in a case challenging an Alabama law banning gender-affirming care. A court blocked that law from going into effect.

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