Despite recent protections for gender-affirming care signed into Minnesota law, advocates say the wave of legislation sweeping the nation limiting the rights of transgender people is hitting LGBTQ youth hard.
“Across the agency we have seen a rise, especially in the past few years, of kiddos who identify as LGBTQ who are going through some of our highest levels of care,” said Libby Haight, director of community-based programs for the Minneapolis-based Washburn Center for Children. “It’s a disturbing trend.”
Nationally, a recent poll conducted by the The Trevor Project, a national nonprofit focused on ending suicide among LGBTQ young people, found that 86% of transgender and nonbinary youth reported that recent discussion around anti-trans bills has harmed their mental health, and 72% of transgender and nonbinary youth polled say that policies that will ban health care professionals from providing gender-affirming care make them feel angry.
Haight noted that she and her colleagues have seen an increase in requests for mental health care from LGBTQ youth and their parents. Last week, I asked Haight about her young clients’ struggles and the ways the adults in their lives can help them feel safe and supported despite widespread discrimination. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MinnPost: There has been an increase in legislation eliminating access to gender-affirming care for trans youth around the country. How are your young clients reacting to this news?
Libby Haight: We’ve seen some fairly intense depression and anxiety. There is also more almost trauma-related symptoms that appear to be coming from the discrimination that these kids feel they’ve been facing. Trans kids or gay kids are essentially just kids: They are facing all the same stressors that any normal teen would face but on top of that there is a feeling that their sense of self, their whole personality, is being attacked.
It’s already hard to be an LGBTQ youth. You may already be feeling down because you are not accepted by your family or other kids at school. Then, on top of that, there are now these movements going on in other parts of the country against trans rights. A lot of kids who are LGBTQ are feeling badly. A concerning national statistic from the Trevor Project is that 93% of trans and nonbinary youth said they have worried about having access to gender-affirming health care.
MP: How are your young clients hearing about these political movements?
LH: It’s all over social media that these things are happening in places like Texas, so the kids in our programs see that, and it adds to the general sense of insecurity that they are already facing. They feel like at any time they could be subject to discrimination: If this is happening in Texas, what’s going to stop it from happening anywhere else? Why not here?
It’s an overall sense of a lack of safety. As they are forming their identity in their teen years and going through a process of figuring out who they are, this is a big challenge to their sense of identity. As young people who identify with the LGBTQ community, they get a sense that something is just not safe. That adds to an overall feeling of anxiety and depression because if you are LGBTQ, you start to realize that you are in a situation where essentially the people of your state could decide to turn against you.
MP: Does it help these kids to know that Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz recently signed a bill that offers expanded protections for trans people in the state?
LH: I think there’s a sense of relief. The kids here in Minnesota know anti-trans legislation is not something that is going to happen here immediately, but there still is a sense of uneasiness that if we had a different governor, a different Legislature, it could change.
MP: Much of the argument in favor of limiting access to gender-affirming care for kids is that it can cause irreversible damage to a child. Do those kind of claims give the young people you work with pause about seeking this kind of care?
LH: When it comes to gender-affirming care, most of the trans kids I have been working with are very much looking forward to a time when they can access those services. This treatment is very important to them. They consider it to be an important next step in their development. They don’t believe that gender-affirming care will cause them harm. To be told you can’t have the care you so desire is wrong and very delegitimizing of where kids are coming from. This kind of legislation is telling young people that lawmakers think they know what is best for them or that they can come between them and their parents.
What I am experiencing, rather than concern about the negative impact of gender-affirming care, is seeing more kiddos who are very upset by the fact that someone could come to the conclusion that gender-affirming care is somehow wrong. Even though that is not happening in Minnesota now, it is still concerning knowing that it is happening in other states.
MP: There is a real concern that trans adolescents have a higher rate of suicide. People who have spoken out against anti-trans legislation have highlighted that as a real fear.
LH: Adolescents are adolescents and adolescents face stressors. That’s a fact of life. Adolescence is not an easy place to be in life. There is nothing about being trans that would cause a teen to be more prone to suicidality than a cisgender teen, but in a non-supportive environment, if they don’t have at least one supportive adult in their life, the chance of attempting or thinking about suicide goes way up for trans youth. That risk has more to do with the environment that they live in than it has to do with being trans.
There are lot of studies that say if they have unwavering support from at least one adult in their life, a young person’s chance of suicide goes way down.
MP: Are there other safety factors that you consider when you are working with a young LGBTQ client?
LH: We look at if their school is supportive. We rarely recommend that kids go to a different school, but sometimes school can be a real source of anxiety and pain for kiddos.
For instance, I am working with a kid who was going to a school that was super-unsupportive. They had massive mental health impacts from that experience. It was a really risky situation for them. They recently moved to a school that is more supportive and their suicidality has gone down to zero. They are managing their depression symptoms. I can’t overstate the impact that the school environment can have on LGBTQ youth.
MP: Is there anything that you are saying to help ease your young clients’ fears?
LH: I think it’s important to do a lot of validation that there’s good reason for them to be scared. It is validating to tell kiddos that they are not making it up. They are not being melodramatic or unreasonable by saying these things are deeply concerning to them. The other important thing is acknowledging that what is going on in our country right now is scary and then talking about how we can manage to live in that reality.
MP: I remember being a young person and how reassuring it was for me when an adult in my life told me, “It’s going to be OK.”
LH: I personally would never want to say anything like that right now because I can’t guarantee that things will be OK, that the political winds are not going to shift in a different direction. Here in Minnesota, we’ve had different types of legislative leaders that have been less supportive of the trans community.
I wouldn’t want to say that everything is going to be OK, but I would want to make sure that young people understand that there is very little risk that anything like that is going to happen here in Minnesota for the next few years at least. That said, it is still happening around the country and that is scary.
MP: So what is the best role that an adult can play in a LGBTQ youth’s life?
LH: Part of having supportive adults in your life is knowing that those adults are doing what they can to make sure that this kind of legislation is not going to happen in Minnesota. Young people can ask the adults in their lives, “Who are you voting for?” or, “Are you supporting programs and legislation that make sure that LGBTQ youth will be supported rather than attacked?”
It’s important for young people to know adults who are supportive of LGBTQ youth. And it’s important for those adults to speak out.