Blair Miller

(Daily Montanan) House Democrats pleaded with their Republican colleagues Thursday to stay out of other Montanans’ health care decisions and reject a bill that would ban gender-affirming care for minors and punish providers.

After addressing her colleagues, Rep. Emma Kerr-Carpenter, D-Billings, looked directly into the camera mounted at the front of the chamber, broadcasting the hearing to the world online.

“For the folks outside listening, know that you are beautiful and you are loved,” she said. “Please stay alive.”

After two months of hearings and discussions on the bill, Democrats spoke as much to the transgender community watching in Montana, the U.S., and around the world about the impacts of Senate Bill 99 as to their Republican colleagues, who have largely supported the bill through its progression.

“I know how harmful and painful these bills can be to listen to, how much hurt this debate causes us. I feel it every day in this building as I walk through – whether it’s indifference or cruelty to our community,” said Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula. “But please, to my trans siblings, stay alive.”

After 40 minutes of discussion, cloture was called to end debate and the House voted on SB99, sponsored by Kalispell Republican Sen. John Fuller.

Three Republicans – Sens. Greg Frazer of Deer Lodge, Mike Hopkins of Missoula, and Tom Welch of Dillon – joined 32 Democrats in voting against the bill, which passed a crucial second reading 65-35.

The measure is expected to pass its third reading in the House Friday before it goes back to the Senate, where it passed 28-21 in February, for concurrence with amendments made in the House Judiciary Committee earlier this week.

Those amendments made slight tweaks to wording in the bill about public funds being prohibited for the purposes of performing gender-affirming care and for when a person can bring a civil action for “suffering an injury” because of gender-affirming care.

As has been the case over the past two months of discussion on one of the legislature’s most controversial bills, Republicans said SB99 was about protecting children. They said children’s brains are not fully developed enough to make life-changing decisions surrounding hormones and transition surgeries, and claimed that children are being pressured into what they described as a herd mentality to transition when they are confused about or questioning their gender identities.

A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll of more than 500 transgender Americans released Thursday found that 78% of respondents said they were happier living as a gender different than the one they were assigned at birth. The poll found 66% of respondents started to understand they had a different gender than the one assigned at birth before they turned 18.

But it also found that among the respondents, only 31% had received hormone treatments or puberty blockers, and just 16% had undergone gender-affirming surgery.

Rep. Kerri Seekins-Crowe, the Billings Republican carrying the bill in the Senate, said opponents of the bill had repeatedly talked about how without gender-affirming care, suicide rates for transgender people increase. Saying she had permission to tell the story, Seekins-Crowe said her daughter had suicidal ideations for years, and she, as the parent, had to make decisions she felt were best for her daughter.

“I was not going to give in to her emotional manipulation because she was incapable of making those decisions, and I had to make those decisions for her,” she said. “I was not going to let her tear apart my family and I was not going to let her tear apart me, because I had to be strong for her. I had to have vision for her life when she had none.”

Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, said when he was in high school just a few years ago, he never saw “anything happening like this whatsoever.”

“My biggest concern is what I’ve seen, the vast majority of these kids don’t actually feel this way and are following a national trend that’s being pushed by left-wing activists, children’s book authors, social media influencers, and other groups and organizations that are quite literally pressuring kids to be transgender,” Mitchell said.

He and other Republicans cited a rise in children seeking gender-affirming care, testimony from a handful of people who detransitioned, and a study that opponents of the bill widely say has been debunked regarding regret among transgender Americans as reasons to support the measure.

“This boils down to one word: wait,” said Rep. Terry Falk, R-Kalispell. “Gender confusion is confusion. So, what can we do? We need to love well. We need to listen to our kids. Our kids are our future; everybody knows that. They need our protection. Let’s be the adults in the room. Let’s support 99. Let’s love them well.”

“In my opinion,” he added, “this is what compassion looks like.”

Democrats felt much differently.

“Everybody else seems to be worried about what’s going on in everybody else’s lives. Let people live and let live,” said Rep. Donavon Hawk, D-Butte. “I’m so sick and tired of people worrying about what everybody else is doing. Let parents and let children worry about health care between their doctor, the parents, and their child.”

Hawk talked about a young man with Addison’s disease, a hormonal disorder, whom he said he has known for nearly the 19-year-old’s entire life. The young man started receiving hormone therapy because of the disease in seventh grade, but Hawk said by that time, the damage to his body was “already done.”

“So these ‘waiting until you’re 18’ comments don’t hold any water for the damage that’s done to these bodies and the people that are growing up having to wait until they’re 18,” he said.

Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, said she lamented what she called the loss of Montana’s “live and let live attitude.”

“Our state was a kind and welcoming place, but here we are. We’ve come to this, Senate Bill 99, and it’s sad. And I wonder — when is this going to stop, and I wonder what’s next,” she said. “I truly miss the old days when we didn’t have to fit into a certain mold or parameters. And I miss the old days when Montana was Montana.”

Rep. SJ Howell, D-Missoula, noted that some children and parents seek things like breast reductions or enlargements for sports or pageantry purposes, and other children who are not transgender also receive hormone therapy – all things under the purview of the bill.

Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, said the bill flew in the face of lawmakers’ sworn oaths “to secure the blessing of liberty for this and future generations.”

Zephyr noted that not only is she transgender, she is left-handed – a group that also saw increases in numbers after people stopped forcing children to be right-handed, she said.

“There is an important thing that this bill does not and cannot do. It cannot stop us from existing,” she said. “It will not get rid of trans people, and long after this body has reached sine die and legislation like this has stopped coming forward, trans people will exist.”