Families brace for change as schools enact Kentucky’s new gender-related law

More by....

This story originally appeared in the Aug. 25 edition of the Weekly LINK Reader. To see these stories first, subscribe here.

When Nancy Bardgett’s daughter came out as transgender, she said she was thankful that Jordan Bardgett was able to receive the care she needed. 

In addition to having a supportive family, Jordan, then a student at Northern Kentucky University, received mental health support. 

“She had supportive friends, and she sought out resources and knew where to look for help,” Nancy said.

Bardgett is on one side of the controversial debate over Senate Bill 150, which she said keeps the community from being able to fully understand what a trans person goes through or how to support them. But the bill’s proponents say it protects parental rights and keeps “LGBTQ ideology” from being forced on their children. 

The bill, which passed in March, bans gender-affirming care for Kentuckians under the age of 18 and establishes new mandates related to sex education, as well as education related to human sexuality and gender identity, among other things, in public schools.

The education portions of the bill went into effect in March due to an emergency clause in the bill. 

As school districts across Northern Kentucky have voted to enact the new mandates – with varying levels of approval – parents, teachers and administrators have shared their thoughts on why they do, or don’t, think the new law is necessary. 

Steve Axtell, Covington resident and pastor at Everytribe Church, spoke at an Aug. 1 Covington school board meeting in favor of the bill, saying that their relationship with one of their children had fallen apart when they revealed their transgender identity to them. 

“Teaching LGBT ideology is not our schools’ responsibility,” Axtell said after stating that he has two children who graduated from Holmes High School. He did not share the students’ names.

“My oldest child, at the age of 23, informed my wife and I that he was identifying as transgender, and that we must fully accept this and call him only by his new name, and failure to do so meant that we were no longer welcome in his life,” Axtell said. “My son made this decision through the encouragement of countless faceless people that I will never know and I will never meet – people who don’t love my son like his mother and I, but people who encouraged his confusion and dysphoria nonetheless.”

The issue of children’s gender identity, and the medical and educational policies surrounding it, has occupied the attention of legislators throughout the country over the past year. 

Bills similar to SB 150 have appeared in other states, such as Tennessee and West Virginia, and institutions have had to adapt to the law’s quick implementation – all while fielding arguments from both supporters and detractors of the legislation. 

Now that the bill has become law, what will it mean for people’s lives, and what will the broader social consequences be?  

What is Senate Bill 150, and how did it come to be? 

Senate Bill 150 bans gender-affirming care for children; prohibits schools from writing curricula to teach students about sexual orientation or gender identity in classrooms; forces transgender students to use the bathroom that aligns with the gender assigned at birth; and allows teachers to “deadname” transgender students, meaning teachers can refuse to use students’ preferred names and personal pronouns. 

In addition, the law pre-empts any school from withholding confidential information about a student’s mental and physical health and development from the student’s parents. 

Sen. Max Wise (R-Campbellsville)  primarily sponsored the bill, and three Northern Kentucky senators co-sponsored it: Sens. Shelley Funke Frommeyer (R-Alexandria); John Schickel, (R-Union); and Gex Williams (R-Verona). 

The legislation first appeared as House Bill 470 in early March, when the House Judiciary Committee passed it. 

Upon leaving that committee, legislators ushered the bill to the House floor and quickly took up a vote.

As advocates chanted outside the House chamber, members voted to pass it, 75-22.

The bill then passed the Senate committee and headed to the floor, where Williams took a central role in the strategy to push HB 470 through the upper chamber of the Kentucky Legislature.

After a night of closed-door strategizing, the Legislature quickly moved to pass the legislation by putting the language from HB 470 into a committee substitute and into SB 150 — a bill that initially gave teachers the option to use the pronouns of transgender students’ choosing.

The move to pass the bill started in the House when a surprise House Education meeting was called during lunch the day before the veto period on March 16. There was one agenda item – the newly revamped SB 150 with the HB 470 added into it.

The move gave legislators on the committee and in the House little time to read and understand the bill.

Republicans then rushed the bill to the House floor, where a vote quickly took place, but not before Democrats spent nearly two hours trying to stall it.

“This shouldn’t be a trust exercise,” Gov. Andy Beshear said at the time, criticizing the maneuver. “Every legislator should have the time, as should the public, to read anything that’s coming up for a committee or for a legislative vote.”

The bill had been delivered to the governor’s desk later in the day on March 16. Beshear vetoed the bill about a week later on March 24.

Within five days, the Senate and the House both voted to override the governor’s veto by 29-8 and 76-23 votes.

As it relates to schools, the law has been substantiated in new policies from the Kentucky School Boards Association, or KSBA. The association’s new legal mandates include numerous policy changes, most of which have nothing to do with SB 150, but there are two policies that can be traced back to the bill: one of which deals with sex education, the other dealing with access to bathrooms based on students’ professed gender identities. 

Legal tussling over the law has already begun.

The Kentucky Department of Education kicked things off when it released an interpretation of the law that differed from that of the bill’s sponsors, arguing that the bill’s language granted districts the right to choose how they implemented curricula related to sex ed, sexuality and gender identity.

More news:  Holiday programming at Kenton County Library begins this week

Then, David Hale, a federal judge for the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Kentucky, blocked parts of the bill from taking effect late in June, siding with a lawsuit led by the American Civil Liberties Union that argued the law was unconstitutional.

In response, Kentucky Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Daniel Cameron filed an emergency motion against the ruling in July.

Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial candidate Daniel Cameron has been outspoken about his support of SB 150. Photo by Timothy D. Easley | Associated Press

“Child mutilation is illegal in our commonwealth, and these reckless hormone interventions are based on an irrational ideology that ignores scientific evidence,” Cameron said in a press release. “I will do everything in my power to protect Kentucky kids from this radical agenda, and my office will continue to defend this law at every turn.”

Hale later reversed his decision.

Who is in favor of Senate Bill 150, and why? 

Danielle Axtell, Steve Axtell’s wife and manager of Everytribe’s nonprofit branch called Tribe Community Services, affirmed many of her husband’s points when it came time for her to speak at the Covington board of education meeting in August.

“I promise you that in the best, most open parent-child relationships there are things that your children will not tell you,” Danielle Axtell said. “You could find yourself in the situation where someone who may have the best of intentions – or may not – that they would be sure they’re helping your child in encouraging them to explore transitioning.”

She said that, as parents, even if someone may believe they’re OK with gender transition, “You don’t know how you will respond.”

“No parent should be robbed of the opportunity… to help their child navigate gender dysphoria,” Danielle Axtell said.

Cameron said that the law “protects children from the irreversible effects of experimental chemical treatments like puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones.” 

Cameron said that the procedures aren’t based on science – something those in the trans community say is misinformation as the procedures very rarely happen for those under 18 – and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health guidelines state that patients must be at least 16 years of age. 

As the bill moved through the Senate in the spring of 2023, many out-of-state speakers advocated for it during the legislative session. 

One such speaker was Luka Hein, a Wisconsin resident who travels the country testifying to state legislatures. She said she once identified as transgender, changing her pronouns to he/him. When she was 16, she received a double mastectomy and hormone therapy before detransitioning later in life. 

“I spiraled into a hatred of my body and myself, which ended in me truly believing that I was just a boy,” Hein said. “Professionals ignored my actual issues and instead affirmed me down a path of medicalization.”

She urged legislators to vote in favor of the bill.

“I was affirmed on a path of medical intervention that I could not fully understand the long-term impacts and consequences of, nor fully consent to use it with my age and mental health,” Hein said.

Some proponents of the bill also say it would protect parental rights. 

“As far as the parental rights issue, this is something that is happening all over the country,” Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said during the spring 2023 session. “There is a lot of concern about parental rights in schools. I think it’s partially due to COVID and all the virtual learning, and parents got a front-row seat to what was happening in schools everywhere.”

Kentucky State Senator Damon Thayer reads a document into the record during their session at the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., Thursday, March 16, 2023. Photo by Timothy D. Easley | Associated Press

Who is against Senate Bill 150, and why? 

One of the challenges as a parent, said Nancy Bardgett, was understanding when her daughter, Jordan, came out – something she admits she didn’t handle perfectly as she stumbled over pronouns. 

But she worked on it. 

“One of the things that is so horrible about this bill is it’s just this effort to not let anybody understand,” Bardgett said. 

Bardgett also said that people think trans parents indoctrinate their kids, but she and her husband, Mark, didn’t necessarily want this for their daughter. They felt it might put her in harm’s way. But they also wanted their daughter to know they support her no matter what. 

In Fort Thomas, where the Bardgetts live, Nancy feels SB 150 is not what Kentucky residents stand for.

“This isn’t the people of Kentucky,” said Bardgett, who volunteers with the Campbell County Democrats, Brighton Center and in her church. “This is certain people in the Kentucky Legislature.”

After SB 150 passed the House Judiciary Committee in March, Northern Kentucky Rep. Kim Banta (R-Fort Mitchell) said with tears in her eyes that she’d worked hard to prevent conversion therapy in the LGBTQ community, and that this was another step backward. 

“I’m really upset for families right now,” Banta said. “I’m upset because I feel like we denigrated the medical profession. I feel like we’re making people feel ‘less than,’ and I don’t like that.”

During testimony in Frankfort in spring 2023, Christopher Bolling, a pediatrician from Northern Kentucky, said that “gender-affirming care is the standard of care and is supported by the preponderance of research.” 

He also said this type of care is supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine, the Pediatric Endocrine Society, the National Adult Endocrine Society, the American College of Physicians, the World Health World Professional Association for Transgender Health, the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

“What do I mean by gender-affirming care?” Bolling asked. “Because I have a feeling that’s a little bit of a hot-button issue for certain people. Gender-affirming care means comprehensive care screening for mental health of all sorts – anxiety, depression – as well as gender identity issues. And it means being able to be open to all the possibilities for these families and patients who are suffering.” 

Kentucky state Sen. Karen Berg, left, speaks with Sen. Morgan McGarvey during the last day of the state session at the Kentucky state Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., on March 30, 2021. Photo by Timothy D. Easley | Associated Press

Did gender reassignment surgery happen in Kentucky before the new law? 

A new letter dated from March from University of Kentucky Healthcare, but not released until early August, says that a small number of gender reassignment surgeries were happening in Kentucky before the new law banned the procedures.

More news:  St. Vincent de Paul Northern Kentucky to distribute winter coats for those in need

But, some have argued over the letter that shows a small number of “top surgeries” occurred before the new law – not “genital gender reassignment” surgeries – an important distinction for Emma Curtis, a trans person who spoke out against the new law in the last legislative session and ran to become the state’s first transgender legislator.

“You would be hard-pressed to find a transgender person who thinks top surgery is quote-unquote gender reassignment surgery,” Curtis told LINK nky’s content partner, Lex18.

The issue of gender reassignment surgeries has been a major talking point in the gubernatorial race between Democrat Andy Beshear and Republican nominee Cameron. 

Cameron and Republicans have argued that Beshear supports the surgeries, but Beshear released an ad last month saying that he does not and the surgeries aren’t happening in Kentucky. 

“These attacks on me by Daniel Cameron are not true,” Beshear says in the ad released in July. “I’ve never supported gender reassignment surgery for kids, and those surgeries don’t happen here in Kentucky.”

Cameron, however, said in a press conference that Beshear was deceiving Kentuckians. 

“Andy Beshear looked directly into a camera and lied about his record on gender reassignment surgeries for minors,” Cameron said, referring to Beshear’s veto of SB 150 – an omnibus bill that banned gender-affirming care in Kentucky. 

The letter, which was released by Rep. James Tipton (R-Taylorsville) states that a small number of surgeries were performed by Transform Health – the branch of UK Health that serves LGBTQ+ members that are transgender or gender-nonconforming. 

The letter says that “Transform Health has, in recent years, performed a small number of non-genital gender reassignment surgeries on minors, such as mastectomies for older adolescents. Like any surgery at UK HealthCare, these are performed only after careful medical evaluation, discussion, and the consent of patients/guardians.” 

It further says that “Transform Health does not perform genital gender reassignment surgery on minors. Indeed, these types of surgeries on minors are not considered best practice in the United States and are performed in this country very rarely.” 

Republicans celebrated the letter as proof that gender reassignment surgeries were happening in Kentucky before the passage of SB 150.

Rebecca Blankenship, executive director of BanConversion Therapy Kentucky and Kentucky’s first openly elected transgender elected official, said there’d been a lot of “hubbub” around the letter and questioned why the letter was just now released. 

“When HB 470 was first introduced, we had informal conversations with a number of providers that led us to believe absolutely no gender-affirming surgeries were happening in Kentucky,” Blankenship said of the bill that eventually became part of SB 150. 

But, Blankenship said that after further looking into the issue, a gender-affirming mastectomy did occur on an older teenager in May 2021. 

“The reality is this: When legislators passed SB 150, these surgeries were not happening in Kentucky,” Blankenship said. “The most revelatory facet of this whole story is that the majority caucus’s allergy to transparency extends not only to the public but even their own members.”

Whom does Senate Bill 150 affect, and how will it affect them? 

Opinion polling on the issue offers some insight into Kentuckians’ opinions on gender-affirming care and issues related to gender identity.

One oft-cited poll comes from Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy and the Fairness Campaign, a Louisville based LGBTQ+ advocacy group. It surveyed 625 Kentucky voters across demographics and political affiliations and suggested that most Kentuckians were against legal bans on gender-affirming care: 83% of registered Democrats, 62% of registered Republicans and 67% of independents answered that they would oppose such a law.

The poll did not ask respondents about their attitudes on gender identity, bathroom access or transgender rights more broadly.

Polls from other organizations that surveyed national attitudes went more in-depth with people’s attitudes but also provided a more ambiguous picture.

One March poll from Marist Polling, a legacy nonpartisan research group, suggested that 54% of Americans opposed legal bans on gender-affirming care but pointed out that support for such bans had been growing since they last polled people in April 2021, when 65% of respondents said they opposed bans.

Furthermore, a 2022 poll from Pew Research Center that polled over 10,000 people on a variety of topics related to gender identity suggested that 64% of Americans were in favor of laws that protected trans people from discrimination, even though 60% of Americans (a percentage that had increased since 2017) believed that gender identity corresponded to sexes assigned at birth.

Bolling said that SB 150 will make it nearly impossible for pediatric medical providers to provide gender-affirming care in the state, as the legislation is punitive for doctors and threatens the potential to lose their licenses. 

“It labels medical treatment, that is the standard of care for patients with gender dysphoria, as unprofessional and unethical,” Bolling said. “It mandates the revocation of the license of any provider who provides or refers to the care and criminalizes not reporting to minors who are referring to this care.”

At the local level, many Northern Kentucky educators said that despite the controversy surrounding the bill and the politics that proceed from it, districts that voted on the policies don’t believe it will have much effect on how they provide services for students. 

Ludlow Superintendent Mike Borchers said that the implementation of new state mandates won’t change much about how district staff help students experiencing distress related to their sexuality or gender identity.

“I really feel like if you keep the focus on what’s best for the kid, regardless of what the policy is, you’re going to do what’s right by them,” Borchers said.

In Covington, school board President Tom Haggard said he had fielded a lot of questions from parents. 

“I’ve had several parents, staff members, concerned members of the community reach out about these particular policies,” Haggard said. “It’s just general concerns that we continue to target a particularly vulnerable community, and policies like this just continue to exacerbate differences between students, which we really don’t need to do.”

More news:  Next NKY Chamber Eggs ‘N Issues to focus on health and wellness

Questions arose about how the new policies would be enforced, as some feared that the rules would constrain students from going to school teachers, counselors and staff members for help if they had questions about their own gender identity, sexuality or their pubescent development, such as the onset of menstruation among girls.

Likewise, there was discussion among Covington board members about how the new state policies would conflict with Title 9, a federal law passed in 1972 that forbids schools receiving federal funding from discriminating based on students’ sex. Under current Title 9 provisions, schools are required to grant access to bathrooms that correspond with students’ professed gender identities.

Moreover, the pronoun guidelines and bathroom guidelines under the bill could potentially violate a law against sex stereotyping, according to guidelines issued by the Kentucky Department of Education in mid-April.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit wrote in Dodds v. United States Department of Education that, “Under settled law in this Circuit [which includes Kentucky], gender nonconformity as defined in Smith v. City of Salem, is an individual’s ‘fail[ure] to act and/or identify with his or her gender … . Sex stereotyping based on a person’s gender non-conforming behavior is impermissible discrimination.”

Fort Thomas Independent Schools passed the policies without discussion at its meeting on July 10. Although the board members did not discuss the policies before casting their votes, board Chair Anne Meyer did offer her thoughts on the matter after the meeting.

“I’m a former counselor, so we feel really strongly that we’re on the journey with every child,” Meyer said. “We’re taking care of our kids in the buildings. That’s all I can tell you. Someone will come every once in a while to the board and talk about things and wants us to be very aware. But we’re gonna take care of all of our children.”

Walton-Verona Independent Schools also approved the new policies this month.

Prior to the approval, superintendent Matt Baker said that Walton-Verona did not have any sort of bathroom policy in place for its students, nor has its schools had any instances in which students wanted to use a restroom that didn’t align with their biological sex.

“We’ve never had any complaints,” Baker said. “The Legislature kind of put some teeth in things. Through the policy update, the Board of Education is now involved in making some decisions. That is a change in course.

“I respect the fact that everybody has a right to their opinion,” Baker added. “But at the end of the day, we are bound to follow policy, and that’s what we push.”

What’s next? 

While many consequences of the bill are yet to be seen, political battles are likely to continue. 

Kentucky Commissioner of Education Jason Glass announced Aug. 1 that his last day would be Sept. 29, in part because he didn’t want to implement what he called “dangerous and unconstitutional, anti-LGBTQ” legislation. 

Education Commissioner Jason Glass addressed the House Education Committee earlier this year. Photo by McKenna Horsley | Kentucky Lantern

“For anyone considering education, it remains a great field, it remains a great profession, and it’s a great way to spend your life,” Glass said, according to a LEX18 story. “At the same time, I need to say to the policymakers in Kentucky – you’re making it really hard, and it’s starting to show. Again, we all have an interest in having great schools in our communities and in our states. We want to protect them, we want to grow them, we want to support them, and we need to take direct steps to do those things.”

Beshear said it would be difficult to replace Glass. 

“It does have an impact on our ability to get the very best education commissioner for the people of Kentucky,” Beshear said. 

Further, Beshear said that the politics of the day are not just about the attack on Glass, but accusing classroom teachers around the state of doing things they’re not doing, such as those things leveled in Senate Bill 150.

“It was attacks built on lies towards all of our educators, and it’s just not right,” Beshear said. “And after this, it’s going to be much more challenging to find a good commissioner of education.”

“I can’t imagine being a K-12 educator right now and being forced to change the way that I would interact with my students,” said Bonnie Meyer, president and co-founder of the Northern Kentucky Pride Center in Covington.

Meyer spoke out publicly against the new legal mandates at the Covington Independent Schools Board of Education meeting on June 22, encouraging the board members to vote down the new policies.

Meyer said she had been talking with parents, teachers and community members about the new policies and what it would mean for people’s lives in the upcoming school year, although she said she had not been talking with students.

“What will be interesting this fall is to see what actually comes out of this over the course of the next school year,” Meyer said. “Will we see community members or parents raising issues with teachers who are supporting LGBTQ kids?”

Meyer feared that teachers who oppose the new policies or are LGBTQ+ themselves will end up fleeing the state.

“I fear that we will see an exodus of good teachers from Kentucky because not only are you not able to offer the same sort of support, but if you’re an LGBTQ educator yourself, they’ve just thrown you way back in the closet,” Meyer said.

Elementary and high schools aren’t the only ones affected by the law, either. Many colleges and universities in the region, including Gateway and NKU, offer dual credit programs for high school students, meaning the law compels them to also adhere to the new policies. 

“KCTCS (Kentucky Community & Technical College System) colleges will follow the students’ home school districts’ policies that prohibit students from receiving instruction about gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation per Senate Bill 150,” said the KCTCS System Office in a statement. 

“We are working with our local school districts to help them meet the spirit of the law,” the system office also said. 

Emma Balcom also contributed reporting to this story.

More articles

More by...

Latest articles

In Case You Missed It