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The fight over Kentucky's transgender care ban was long and emotional


This week Kentucky joined at least 10 other states this year in passing bills restricting the rights of transgender youth. Some say Kentucky's is one of the most sweeping anti-trans bills in the country. A warning - this story contains a discussion of suicide. Here's Louisville Public Media's Divya Karthikeyan.

DIVYA KARTHIKEYAN, BYLINE: Kentucky State Senator Karen Berg had to deal with the most devastating thing a mother could imagine. In December last year, Berg's transgender son, Henry Berg Brousseau, died by suicide. He was just 24 and a prominent LGBTQ rights activist who inspired his mother to run for office.

KAREN BERG: This is the last thing my child wrote.

KARTHIKEYAN: She's reading out a press release Henry wrote for the Human Rights Campaign 14 hours before he ended his life.

BERG: (Reading) We must all work to repudiate anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and falsehoods in the strongest possible terms (crying) because our lives are quite literally on the line.

And he went home, and he went out, and he killed himself.

KARTHIKEYAN: Two weeks later, Berg was awash with grief. But she kept her chin up and walked into the Senate chamber, dreading that her legislature, like so many others, would face multiple bills to restrict the rights of LGBTQ people.

BERG: I just quietly said, please, let's not politicize this this session. Please. Let's don't go down there.

KARTHIKEYAN: More than two months later, she watched her Republican colleagues, one by one, vote to override a veto on Senate Bill 150, which bans all gender-affirming medical care for trans youth in Kentucky. For public schools, it restricts which bathroom students can use, puts limits on discussing gender and sexuality. It also allows teachers to refer to students by their gender assigned at birth. It's exactly what her son Henry fought against happening.


MAX WISE: Woke ideologies are creating barriers to students' education.

KARTHIKEYAN: That's Republican Senator Max Wise talking on the Senate floor. He took the lead on anti-trans legislation this session, starting by targeting the state's progressive education commissioner because he'd issued guidance telling teachers to use kids' preferred pronouns. Wise is also running for lieutenant governor.


WISE: And it's time for our governor to listen to parents instead of a commissioner who thinks that teachers should find another profession if they don't subscribe to his woke ideology.

KARTHIKEYAN: The bill gradually morphed into a broader and bigger anti-trans bill, including the ban on gender-affirming medical treatments. And not everyone in the Republican caucus was on board. In the midst of last-minute lobbying and pressure from interest groups, members who were on the fence voted yes, but one Republican pushed back.


DANNY CARROLL: Going against your entire caucus is a very uncomfortable place to be.

KARTHIKEYAN: That's Senator Danny Carroll. He had introduced an amendment that would have exempted puberty blockers and gave doctors more discretion, but it didn't have the Senate's approval.


CARROLL: My fear and my no vote is for those kids that are being left out, those kids that may be contemplating suicide.

KARTHIKEYAN: Kentucky's first openly trans elected official, Rebecca Blankenship, says this is the current obsession among most Republicans. But for the transgender community...

REBECCA BLANKENSHIP: For us, this is Frankenstein. They've created something that is so far beyond their control. And they are no longer able to do anything but vote yes, vote yes, vote yes to everything.




UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: When do we want it?


KARTHIKEYAN: But when Blankenship saw not just activists, but hundreds of Kentuckians rallying in support of trans rights at the state capitol, she knew the next generation will keep fighting for people like her.

BLANKENSHIP: Trans people are going to have to reveal ourselves and be really vulnerable because otherwise there will be other people to define us.

KARTHIKEYAN: For NPR News, I'm Divya Karthikeyan in Louisville, Ky.

FLORIDO: If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Divya Karthikeyan