While her friends go on vacations and plan trips to Disney World, 14-year-old Harleigh Walker spends her free time fighting for her right to exist.
In between homework and listening to Taylor Swift records, Walker sends videos and letters to Alabama lawmakers in hopes of educating them about the lives of trans youth. Her home state is currently weighing HB 266, which would prohibit gender-affirming medications from being administered to minors under the age of 19, and she took time out of her spring break this week to join activists at the Alabama State Capitol on Wednesday to lobby against the legislation.
If HB 266 were to become law, Walker would immediately lose access to the medication she’s been taking for five years. Because halting treatment is not an option for her, she says her family would have to leave Alabama and start over in another state.
“I’ve lived here my entire life,” Walker tells Rolling Stone. “I’d have to leave behind everything that’s built me as a person and start fresh. It should be a choice to move, not to stay and have no gender-affirming care or leave behind everything you’ve grown up with. It’s a hard decision that should be forced on people.”
HB 266 is one of the most extreme and wide-ranging trans youth medical care bans ever put forward in the United States, but it’s also among a growing trend of anti-trans legislation across the country. Of the more than 130 anti-trans bills introduced this year, at least 38 seek to curb gender-affirming health care, according to the Human Rights Campaign. An Idaho bill would mandate life in prison for doctors who offer surgical interventions or medication to trans youth, while a directive from Texas Governor Greg Abbott instructs parents of trans kids to be investigated for child abuse.
Under Alabama’s version of the legislation, doctors and other health care providers that prescribe treatments like puberty blockers and hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to trans minors face a class C felony charge. If convicted, they could receive a potential fine of up to $15,000 and a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison
But what makes HB 266 unique is that it also borrows elements of legislation that limits safe spaces for youth in schools. As at least seven state legislatures attempt to prohibit school libraries from shelving LGBTQ+ books and Florida passes its “Don’t Say Gay” bill, HB 266 seeks to out trans students to their parents. It would force school personnel to notify families if they become aware that a minor perceives that “his or her gender or sex is inconsistent with his or her sex,” according to the bill text.
HB 266 has been condemned by national LGBTQ+ groups like GLAAD and HRC, along with local civil rights organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama. Cathryn Oakley, HRC’s state legislative director, tells Rolling Stone the consequences would be “terrifying,” predicting that HB 266’s enactment would force “families who are able to flee the state in order to get their children care that can be life-saving.”
Alabama trans youth and their parents agree that HB 266 would tear their lives apart. Walker’s father, Jeff, says he is ready to leave Alabama if it means protecting his daughter from harm, but it would mean being separated from his 19-year-old son, who is three years into a six-year contract with the Alabama National Guard.
“It’s a really hurtful thing,” Jeff tells Rolling Stone. “We didn’t ask for this. We’re no different than anyone else, no matter how much people like to demonize us.”
Sofia doesn’t know what she would do if Alabama lawmakers vote to limit the kinds of medical care that her son, Oro, can receive. Moving is expensive, and their family is already struggling to get by as it is. Sofia lives off disability income, and saving up money to leave Alabama would force her to go back to work, which she says would be extremely detrimental to her health. She suffers from acute anxiety and kept fainting at her last job.
Sofia, whose name has been changed to protect her safety, says that she could take out a loan or ask for help from her brother to finance the move, but so many other questions remain unanswered. Her elderly mother lives next door, and they aren’t sure if they can afford to move her out of the state. Leaving would also mean being separated from their close-knit family, the vast majority of whom live in Alabama. Her 24-year-old son, who is getting married this year, wouldn’t be able to go with them.
Oro, who is 17, says his family has been a major source of support since he came out as transgender. He began taking gender-affirming medication two years ago and says his parents and extended family members have only become closer as they have gone on that journey with him, despite the little struggles along the way.
“It’s very scary to think that I won’t have that foundation around anymore,” he tells Rolling Stone. “It feels like I’m just a chess piece that’s being moved around to try and win elections and sway votes.”
If signed into law, HB 266 would force families across Alabama to make impossible choices in their kids’ best interests. Numerous studies have shown that access to medications that affirm a trans young person’s sense of self strongly reduce depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. Leading medical groups like the American Medical Association (AMA) and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have stated that gender-affirming care is safe and effective in treating youth gender dysphoria.
Two of Sarah’s five children fall under the trans umbrella, and she says gender-affirming care has been a lifeline for her oldest son. Three years ago, he approached her in tears and confessed, “Mom, I think I’m a boy.” Sarah, who asked that her real name not be used in this story, recalls that she instinctively responded: “OK, then you’re my boy.” One of her middle children has since come out as nonbinary.
A common narrative among parents of trans kids, Sarah says, is that they grieve the loss of the child they thought they knew, but transitioning brought her son back to her. Before coming out, he was “depressed and isolating himself,” but since first beginning puberty blockers and later testosterone treatments, she says he has blossomed.
“When he finally came out, I got back the child I raised, and now he’s involved in the family and is just a light,” she tells Rolling Stone. “He’s such a great kid.”
Sarah’s family has already started planning for worst-case scenarios if Alabama prevents her son from receiving the medical care that has allowed him to flourish. She has begun looking at jobs in other states, but with a Master’s degree in Divinity, she says her options are limited. She’s either overqualified or her background in ministry doesn’t translate to the position. While she’s started pouring through LinkedIn looking for any listing available, Sarah has begun to wonder: What if she can’t move?
To ensure that both of her gender-diverse children can continue on whatever path they choose, Sarah and her husband have discussed sending them to live with relatives out of state, where they would be hundreds of miles apart. It’s a major sacrifice, but after witnessing her nonbinary kid struggle with self-harm, she knows the alternative is much worse.
“As a parent who has already woken up every day fearful that their child isn’t going to be alive when they wake up, I don’t know if I could handle it with more than one child,” she says. “It’s just too much.”
Roadblocks on the way out of the state
Alabama’s medical care ban has yet to pass the state House, but its companion legislation, Senate Bill 184, already passed the Senate in February on a 24-6 vote. Supporters have claimed the bill is necessary to prevent young people from making decisions they allege are irreparable and ultimately harmful.
But Dr. Morissa Ladinsky, a pediatrician and co-lead of the youth multidisciplinary gender team at the University of Alabama Birmingham, says the threat represented by HB 266 and its companion bill is “catastrophic” to the young people she treats. Ladinsky is just one of only three medical professionals in the entire state who specialize in gender-affirming treatment, and many families drive hours to seek the care she provides. Some come across the border from Mississippi.
Ladinsky says UAB’s gender clinic has met with with more than 400 families during its nearly seven years in operation, although she estimates that just 30 percent of the kids they’ve treated have received puberty blockers or hormones. Of those that have, Ladinsky sees an “incredible brightness and energy” as they learn “how to live their truth and to become safe in living their truth,” she says.
If those options were to suddenly be ripped away, Ladinsky stresses that the population she is worried most about isn’t her patients. It’s the young people she hasn’t had a chance to treat.
“The ones that keep me up at night are the ones that I’ve never met: the kids who are first finding the words for what they’ve been grappling with inside,” she tells Rolling Stone. “To see that the health care they would need to become whole has been outlawed, those are the kids I worry about, the ones that feel like, ‘I have no hope because the legislature has erased me.’”
As families of trans kids across Alabama scramble to figure out what’s next, some say they plan to continue living in the state so they can advocate for vulnerable youth who can’t speak out against this legislation. Charlie, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, says he has no choice but to stay and fight: His custody agreement with his former spouse prevents him from relocating more than 60 miles away, and his ex would not be supportive of a move. He doesn’t believe any court in Alabama would be either.
Charlie has two trans children — a seven-year-old daughter and a nonbinary masculine 12-year-old — and says it’s difficult not knowing what the future holds. While his daughter isn’t old enough yet to start puberty blockers, Charlie says his oldest is “doing so well” now that he has access to gender-affirming medication. Charlie struggles to put into words the changes he’s seen, but a word comes to him suddenly: “He’s a rainbow.”
“He’s so happy now,” Charlie tells Rolling Stone. “He knows who he is. He loves who he is, and I don’t want to see anybody try to take that away from him.”
Parents like Charlie say they are prepared to join legal action to overturn HB 266 should the bill reach Gov. Kay Ivey’s desk and be greeted with her signature. Ivey, a Republican, has yet to take a public stance on the legislation, but last April she signed a law preventing trans female athletes from participating on the school sports team that most closely aligns with their gender identity in K-12 athletics. Ten other U.S. states have enacted similar legislation.
For now, Harleigh Walker and her dad are still figuring out their next steps. She turns 15 next month, and she’s trying to carve out space between trips to the capitol to be a normal teenager. She’s preparing to get her learner’s permit, and when she finally gets her driver’s license, she says the first thing she’s going to do is drive to Starbucks and order a grande white mocha with oat milk.
Jeff Walker says he is proud of his daughter for standing up for her rights, but he wishes she didn’t have to. “At 14, I’m not even sure I knew what politics really were,” he says. “For her to be as involved as she is, it makes you proud, but it’s upsetting that it’s necessary.”