Parents urge lawmakers to reject bill aiming to punish doctors who treat transgender youth

Jeanette Jennings with her two sons. Her daughter, Jazz, is the focus of the TLC show "I am Jazz." Credit: Lloyd Dunkelberger

Parents of transgender youth came to the Florida Capitol on Monday to urge lawmakers to reject legislation that would make it a crime for doctors to provide medical care to youths seeking gender-reassignment treatment.

Jeanette Jennings, who lives in Broward County and has a 19-year-old daughter headed to Harvard University in the fall, said those medical treatments saved her daughter’s life.

“When people criticize and question me and my husband, Greg, for allowing our child to live as her true self, the answer is simple: We’d rather have a happy living daughter than a dead son,” Jennings said at a press conference.

The Jennings’ family is the focus of a TLC television show, called “I am Jazz,” that has followed the path of Jazz Jennings over the last five years, including her hormone treatment and surgery.

Under a bill (HB 1365), which was reviewed in a workshop by the House Health Quality subcommittee on Monday, any doctor who performed those procedures on a minor could be charged as a felon, facing up to 15 years in state prison. A similar bill (SB 1864) has been filed but not heard in the Florida Senate.

“Kids like her face discrimination, bullying, cruelty, on a daily basis, so they looked to all of you for help,” Jennings said. “But instead they’re up against HB 1365 which will only cause them more pain.”

Sally Hogshead and her son, Asher, also spoke in opposition to the legislation.

Asher, a high school sophomore in the Orlando area, recalled how he felt when he began going through female puberty as an 11-year-old.

“I remember looking in mirror, and I just felt so disgusted and ashamed,” Asher said. “And it was this tangible kind of hatred that I could feel in my throat, in my hands and this hot, swirling heat in my cheeks. I didn’t transition because I wanted to. I transitioned because I had to, to survive.”

Sally Hogshead said she did not understand her daughter’s depression until she realized it was related to her child’s gender dysphoria.

“I found out that I didn’t have a daughter. I had a son. And his name is Asher,” Hogshead said. “This wasn’t a transition. This was a transformation. The moment…Asher came out as my son, it was like the light came back on in his eyes. I had my child back, and so we put a family plan together.”

“Asher is going to change the world, and he didn’t have to change who he is. Asher became who he is. He didn’t change who he is. He became more of who he was, and is, and always will be,” Hogshead said.

Rep. Anthony Sabatini, the Lake County Republican who is sponsoring the legislation, said he filed the bill because he perceives there is a “wild west” atmosphere surrounding the growth of gender-reassignment treatment. He said many minors experiencing gender dysphoria may have it resolved once they go through puberty without undergoing hormonal treatment or surgery.

“This bill is trying to cease untested, radical, experimental, harmful medical operations on children,” Sabatini said.

He said the measure, called the “Vulnerable Child Protection Act,” is “just trying to pump the brakes on something that’s untested, and it’s going to have long term consequences on Florida children. It’s something that we need to be watching a little bit more carefully.”

Sabatini said he is open to removing the felony provision in the bill, saying he could accept imposing a civil citation on doctors who perform the procedures on minors, such as the loss or suspension of a medical license.

But Dr. Janet Silverstein, a professor of pediatric endocrinology at the University of Florida who has overseen a clinic aimed at helping transgender youth, said the threat of sanctions would put doctors in an ethical bind.

“This bill really compromises our ability to do our jobs and follow the Hippocratic oath,” Silverstein said. “It would force us to choose between saving the lives of our patients by following standard medical protocols that have been in place and are evidence-based and do not harm patients, or facing jail time. This is an absolutely untenable and unethical position to put us in.”

Rep. Amy Mercado, an Orange County Democrat with a transgender daughter, came to the Health Quality subcommittee to offer her personal testimony against the bill.

Mercado, who has a been an advocate for LGBTQ issues, said for a long time she did not realize her daughter was experiencing gender dysphoria.

“These are real people. This is happening to real parents. And one of the things that I felt when my daughter came out was grief, grief because I felt like a failed parent,” Mercado said. “I felt like I allowed her, allowed her to not be her authentic self, to not live the life that she should live.”

In the five years since, Mercado said her daughter is now a happier and more outgoing person.

She urged Rep. Colleen Burton, the Lakeland Republican who chairs the Health Quality subcommittee, not to bring the bill up for a future vote.

“Please don’t even hear these things,” Mercado said. “Let them (the transgender youth) do the things that they need to do with the medical professionals they require.”

At the end of the meeting, Burton said her subcommittee is not scheduled to meet again, which means a vote on the bill is not likely in this session, although it could be revived procedurally.