Vt. lawmakers seek to be a ‘beacon of hope’ for trans patients

By SARAH MEARHOFF and OLIVIA Q. PINTAIR

VtDigger

Published: 05-07-2023 8:11 PM

There are many ways one can describe Westley Pitcher: An 18-year-old senior at Essex High School. A snowboarder in the winter and track runner come spring. A cat-lover. A server and a cook at a local restaurant.

“I’m just a regular kid, really,” he told VTDigger in an interview this week.

Earlier this month, he occupied a new role — that of an advocate. Sitting at the head of a long table in the Vermont Statehouse with his father by his side, Pitcher implored a panel of lawmakers to move forward with legislation that aims to preserve access to gender-affirming care for transgender patients within state boundaries.

S.37 and H.89, both colloquially referred to as reproductive “shield bills,” would safeguard doctors who offer, and patients who receive, reproductive health care — including abortions and gender-affirming care — within Vermont. As state legislatures around the country seek to restrict access to these procedures — and, more broadly, take aim at LGBTQ+ rights — lawmakers in Montpelier are offering a sharp contrast.

“I want you to hear my words, take them and just think for a moment about what I’m telling you,” Pitcher told lawmakers on April 12. His voice broke and he began to cry. “If you take this care away from kids like me, you are killing so many youth.”

Pitcher was referring to statistics that have shown that LGBTQ+ children, and transgender children in particular, are disproportionately likely to experience anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation.

Pitcher didn’t feel right in his body from the time he was young. He asked his friends and family to call him by different names, but something still felt off, he told lawmakers. Wearing dresses was particularly uncomfortable: “I mean, I hated the way it felt on my body, just so uncomfortable.”

When he was 16, Pitcher came out to his friends and family as trans. On Feb. 8, 2022 — the same day he received his driver’s license, “a huge day” — he began testosterone treatment and “finally, for once in my life, felt like myself.” For his 18th birthday, two coworkers gave him a card with the $400 necessary to legally change his name. He began crying in his car, Pitcher told VTDigger, calling the gift “by far the nicest thing that has ever happened to me. This May, he will receive his top surgery.

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“I feel very comfortable with who I am now. My voice has changed, I’m more muscular, I have all those features I’ve been dying for since I was little,” Pitcher said in an interview. “There’s really no other way to put it other than, I would not be here today without my care.”

At the heart of the two shield bills — among the first in the nation — are protections for Vermont physicians who provide reproductive health care procedures that are outlawed or severely restricted in other states. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision last summer, which struck down the federal right to an abortion, Vermont lawmakers initially had their sights focused on enshrining further abortion protections within state lines.

But during the early stages of drafting the bills, legislators decided to add protections for gender-affirming care, in response to efforts to restrict such care elsewhere in the country.

On Thursday afternoon, Rep. Taylor Small, P/D-Winooski, cast her final vote on H.89, which is now on the way to Gov. Phil Scott’s desk, along with S.37. (The Republican governor is expected to sign both into law.) Small, who is Vermont’s first and only transgender legislator, described the moment as “a great sigh of relief.” But she said it’s also surreal to live and legislate in a state working to expand access to gender-affirming care while other state legislatures seek to actively chip away at it.

“What’s most nerve-wracking for the nation is that, it truly is dependent on your area code or what state you’re in as to what rights you then have access to,” Small said. “And I think, though we can be a model, we can be that beacon of hope for other states, it really is something that I know that we need to take on as a nation.”

State capitals have, for years, served as the primary battlegrounds for debates over transgender rights. But the debate has reached a fever pitch, making its way into the halls of Congress earlier this month when the GOP-controlled U.S. House passed a bill that would have barred transgender girls from playing on girls school sports teams. The bill is unlikely to make it past the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate, much less President Joe Biden.

A similar sports ban bill was introduced in Vermont, and though it stands almost no chance of passing, Small and other lawmakers have said it serves as a reminder that Vermont is not immune from the culture war brewing nationwide.

For patients like Pitcher who reside in Vermont, S.37 stands to have the greatest impact.

The bill offers professional protections to Vermont doctors, safeguarding them from repercussions such as insurance premium hikes or malpractice suits for performing constitutionally protected health care within state lines. Meanwhile, H.89 offers Vermont doctors a legal shield, barring them from being extradited, subpoenaed or forced to testify in out-of-state prosecutions for providing reproductive health care to out-of-state patients.

Those legal protections could come into play if Pitcher, who will likely receive testosterone treatment for the rest of his life, ever decides to move out of Vermont. Whether he would feel safe in another state or could even access his health care is something he thinks about when considering his next steps after high school graduation, he told the House Health Committee earlier this month.

His father, Lance Pitcher, told the panel that there were years where he feared his son would not survive past his youth. The difference he saw in his son’s cadence and confidence and attitude was “night and day” once he began treatment, his father said.

Asked by lawmakers what he plans to do next, Westley Pitcher answered optimistically: “I do think about my future a lot.” He plans to start college classes at Community College of Vermont in the fall to save some money as he makes up his mind on long-term plans.

“One of my favorite teachers once told me, ‘They don’t look at where you started. They look at where you ended,’ ” Pitcher said.

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