State officials are intentionally and unlawfully discriminating against transgender people who need medical care, a new lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit was filed Monday by half a dozen state workers who are transgender themselves, or who have transgender children. They are all members of the State Health Plan, which provides health insurance to more than 700,000 North Carolina teachers, state workers, retirees and their families.

They say the State Health Plan discriminates against them by not covering costs related to gender dysphoria, the medical term for when someone identifies as a gender different from their physical sex.

Max Kadel, a transgender man who works at UNC-Chapel Hill, said the State Health Plan will not cover breast-reduction surgery for him, even though it would cover a non-transgender man or woman who wanted the exact same surgery. That message of unequal treatment was echoed by another transgender man who is part of the lawsuit, former N.C. State University employee Sam Silvaine.

“I’ve been sent the message that my medical needs are not valid, and my mental and physical health are not important,” Silvaine said.

Silvaine, Kadel and others spoke at a press conference Monday morning in Durham, outside the federal courthouse where they filed the lawsuit.

Some children of state employees are also affected.

“Without this care, I struggle from depression and anxiety,” said Connor Thonen-Fleck, a 16-year-old from High Point who like Kadel and Silvaine was born female but now identifies and presents himself as male. Thonen-Fleck’s parents both work at UNC-Greensboro, and he and his parents said he would have surgery if it were still allowed by the State Health Plan.

The state changed its rules to allow such procedures in 2017, as well as other gender dysphoria treatments like hormone therapy and counseling — but then in 2018 reversed course and no longer allows for them to be paid for by the State Health Plan.

POLITICAL BACKGROUND

The State Health Plan is controlled by the state treasurer. When transgender state employees were covered in 2017 it was because in 2016 State Treasurer Janet Cowell, a Democrat, pushed for the plan’s board of trustees to vote to include transgender coverage.

When Dale Folwell, a Republican, replaced her in 2017 he had no plans to let that coverage continue, and the board has not voted to include it since then.

“I pledged to the people of North Carolina that we would reduce the state health plan’s $32 billion debt, provide a more affordable family premium especially for our lowest paid employees and provide transparency to the taxpayers,” Folwell told The News & Observer in late 2016, after he had been elected but before he took office. “The provision to pay for sex change operations does none of those three things.”

Folwell’s spokesman Frank Lester said Monday that he doesn’t typically comment on pending litigation, and also had not yet had the chance to look at the lawsuit. Folwell is among the state officials and entities being sued.

The State of Wisconsin lost a similar lawsuit last year, according to news reports,

‘FORCING US TO MAKE OUR PRIVATE LIVES PUBLIC’

Numerous medical authorities recognize gender dysphoria as a legitimate condition, leading transgender members of the State Health Plan to ask if discrimination is the real reason it’s not being covered like other legitimate medical conditions.

“Our plaintiffs are simply asking to be treated equally,” said Taylor Brown, one of the attorneys for Lambda Legal representing them. “Nothing more, nothing less.”

According to the North Carolina lawsuit, gender dysphoria can lead to people becoming depressed or suicidal if not addressed with proper medical treatment“Untreated gender dysphoria often intensifies with time,” the lawsuit says. “The longer an individual goes without adequate treatment, the greater the risk of severe harms to the individual’s health.”

Michael Bunting, an assistant athletic director at UNC-Chapel Hill, is also part of the lawsuit. He’s a UNC grad who has worked there for 30 years and didn’t want to bring the school into the lawsuit, he said, but felt he had no choice to help his 13-year-old son.

His son, identified only as C.B. in the lawsuit, was born female but has identified as male from a young age. He is in 8th grade and came out as transgender to his parents in 2017, at which point they started getting him medical treatments, only to have the cost skyrocket last year when the State Health Plan dropped the coverage.

Bunting said the lawsuit was their only resort after asking the State Health Plan’s board of trustees not to let the coverage go away, to no avail.

“This board is forcing us to make our private lives public,” Bunting said. But he and his wife Shelley decided to come forward, he said, because “our son is the bravest, most empathetic person we know.”

HRC announced the organization will honor six-time Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Christina Aguilera with the HRC Ally for Equality Award at the 2019 HRC Los Angeles Dinner. As previously announced, Yeardley Smith will also be honored with the HRC National Leadership Award. Set to take place on Saturday, March 30, 2019, at the JW Marriott L.A. LIVE, the event brings together more than 1,000 of HRC’s most active members and supporters in the greater Los Angeles area to raise crucial funds in the fight for LGBTQ equality.

“Christina Aguilera is a living legend and a true LGBTQ icon who consistently uses her global superstar platform to share a message of hope and inspiration to those who have been marginalized simply because of who they are,” said HRC President Chad Griffin. “Through her powerful music and her tireless efforts for positive change, she is making a real difference in the lives of countless people while bringing greater visibility to the LGBTQ community. HRC is proud to honor Christina Aguilera with the HRC Ally for Equality Award at the 2019 HRC Los Angeles Dinner.”

From helping raise funds in the fight against HIV/AIDS to advocating for marriage equality and speaking out against anti-LGBTQ bullying, Christina Aguilera has long been an outspoken advocate for fairness and equality. In 2017, Billboard said she had earned her status as an LGBTQ icon “for advocating for LGBTQ equality and representation over the course of her career.” Aguilera’s 2002 single “Beautiful” was hailed as one of the most empowering LGBTQ anthems of all time and brought greater visibility to the LGBTQ community through representation in its celebrated music video. In a 2017 special love letter to the LGBTQ community, Aguilera said, “The LGBTQ community has never had it easy, the struggles each one of you faces daily on an individual level and on a broader political and cultural level are unimaginable, yet you keep fighting, you keep moving forward trailblazing and beating all odds with love always in your hearts.”

Aguilera‪ is renowned for her powerful voice and hit songs. Throughout her career, she has sold more than 43 million records worldwide. Aguilera has achieved five No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart making her the fourth female artist to top the chart over three consecutive decades (1990s, 2000s, and 2010s). She has received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and holds the prestigious honor of being the only artist under the age of 30 included in Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest singers of all time. In 2011 she entered the world of television as a coach on NBC’s Emmy Award nominated show The Voice. Aguilera has served as global spokesperson for Yum! Brands’ World Hunger Relief effort since 2009 and has helped raise over $150 million for the World Food Program and other hunger relief agencies. In May 2019 she will begin her residency, The Xperience, at the Zappos Theatre at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas.  Later this year she will also embark on The X Tour in Europe.

Last month, HRC announced that the organization will honor LGBTQ advocate Yeardley Smith with the HRC National Leadership Award at the event. Smith is an Emmy Award-winning actor and producer who has appeared on television, film, and Broadway, and has been the iconic voice of Lisa Simpson for over 30 years. A long-time, passionate supporter of the LGBTQ community, she was a leading advocate and contributor to the fight for marriage equality and was the single largest funder in the fight against California’s notorious “Proposition 8.” In the face of the Trump-Pence administrations relentless efforts to undermine and roll back the critical progress made for the LGBTQ community, Smith helped fund HRC’s unprecedented 2018 midterm efforts to mobilize voters and successfully flip the U.S. House of Representatives to a pro-equality majority.

When Jaim Foster began teaching nearly two decades ago in Nebraska, he said he was discouraged from being an openly gay educator. He had championed LGBT causes at his liberal arts college but suddenly found himself switching pronouns when telling students about his boyfriends.

“I was told I had to stop being that advocate, and I had to go back into the closet because it wasn’t really safe,” the teacher recalled. “You could be fired.”

On Thursday, Foster reflected on how far the country has progressed, he said, as dozens of kindergarten students sat cross-legged in his classroom at Ashlawn Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, listening as an advocate for transgender rights paged through a children’s picture book about a transgender girl.

“I have a girl brain but a boy body. This is called transgender. I was born this way,” the advocate, Sarah McBride, read to the students from the storybook “I Am Jazz.”

McBride, a spokeswoman for the Human Rights Campaign, who drew national attention when she came out as transgender the day after her term as American University’s student body president ended, wanted to relay a message of tolerance on a national day of reading led by the country’s largest teachers union.

“For young people, being kind and being respectful is quite simple,” she said. “LGBTQ young people are their classmates, their friends. They may be LGBTQ themselves. And so, this just makes sense. No one’s ever too young to learn to be nice.”

Students throughout the country were expected to participate in the National Education Association’s annual Read Across America Day. It was the first time the union partnered with the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group for LGBT civil rights.

Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the union, said the support was especially urgent because the Trump administration has reversed guidance intended to protect transgender students.

“We have seen a complete, literal rollback of the protections for students, especially transgender students,” said Garcia, who also read to students. “The Trump administration has been openly hostile, whether or not you’re a transgender soldier or a transgender little boy or little girl. It is more important than ever before that we speak out.”

Shortly after President Donald Trump took office, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Jeff Sessions, who was attorney general at the time, rescinded Obama-era guidance that directed schools to allow students to use bathrooms that align with their gender identity. Some parents and students fear privacy and safety are endangered by accommodating transgender students in school restrooms.

DeVos said states and individual schools should decide how to address transgender students’ needs — a position that runs counter to the Obama administration’s stance that barring students from bathrooms that align with their gender identity violates federal law forbidding discrimination on the basis of sex.

The reversal changed the course of a landmark lawsuit filed by transgender teen Gavin Grimm, who was a sophomore when he sued his Virginia high school for prohibiting him from using the boys’ restroom. The case was scheduled to go in front of the Supreme Court, but the justices, citing the withdrawal of federal support for Grimm, now 19, returned the matter to a lower court.

Schools vary widely on how they educate children on LGBT issues. School systems in Seattle and San Francisco, for example, have built a robust curriculum around sexual orientation and gender identity. But in some conservative states, teachers are prohibited by law from speaking positively about relationships that are not heterosexual.

Arlington does not have a curriculum that specifies how students should be taught about sexual orientation or gender identity, Foster said. But he shares experiences about his spouse with the children and stocks his classroom library with picture books such as “Heather Has Two Mommies” and “My Princess Boy.”

“We talk about it all the time, in one way or another, of accepting families and differences,” he said.

After her reading, McBride told the children, “I’m like Jazz. When I was born, the doctors and my parents, they all thought that I was a boy.”

“Why?” asked a girl in a blue sweater and ponytail.

“Because society, people around them told them that was the case,” McBride said. “It took me getting a little bit older to be able to say that in my heart and in my mind, I knew I was really a girl.”

The kids began discussing hair.

“Can some girls have short hair?” McBride asked. “And can some boys have long hair?”

Yes, the youngsters seemed to agree, answering in unison.

“Anyone can be anything,” one girl chimed in.

 
 

Since 2016, the U.S. military has spent around $8 million on health care to treat the gender dysphoria and gender-confirmation procedures of roughly 1,200 transgender troops.

USA Today published the numbers released by the Department of Defense Wednesday. The report also broke down how many service members have been treated for gender dysphoria in the different branches of the armed services: Army (500), Navy (442), Air Force (354), Marine Corps (101), Coast Guard (33), Public Health Service (4), and reserves (90). The total is 1,542.

This number is low compared with a recent estimate of how many transgender people are serving: roughly 14,700, according to the Palm Center, a research institute that studies LGBTQ military inclusion. That number is based off of data from the Department of Defense and the Palm Center’s own study on the Selected Reserve.

Based on these numbers, the military is the largest employer of transgender people in the United States, and these troops all stand to be fired under President Trump's transgender military ban.

Trump has argued that the military "cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail." Experts have disputed this assertion, arguing that the cost, when compared to the Pentagon's $716 billion budget, is minimal.

Indeed, it costs the federal government a high estimate of $3 million alone each time the president flies to his private club in Mar-A-Lago, reports NBC News, as Air Force One costs upward of $140,000 per hour to operate. It is estimated that Trump will have spent 28 percent of his term in transit to or staying at the Palm Beach resort.

In a first, transgender service members testified Wednesday on Capitol Hill, in response to Trump's efforts to expel them and prevent other trans people from enlisting. They emphasized their commitment to the military and their exemplary service, and said that being transgender had no ill effects on them or their fellow troops.

“Good leaders can take a team and make it work,”  Navy Lt. Cmdr. Blake Dremann told the House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, according to the Washington Blade. “Great leaders mold their teams to exceed expectations because it doesn’t matter if you’re female or LGBT. What matters is that each member is capable and focused on the mission.” Dremann is president of SPARTA, a group that advocates for trans troops. He was one of five service members who testified.

Capt. Jennifer Peace, who has served 15 years in the Army and is currently an intelligence officer focusing on Iran, offered similar testimony. “We were out for extended time periods in the theater, in the deserts of California, in the forest of Wisconsin,” she said. “There were never any issues that arose to being transgender. Between the time of the initial announcement of open service and the tweets of our commander in chief, the fact that I was transgender never came up. It wasn’t something that needed to be discussed.”

Representing the Trump administration, James Stewart, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, contended the ban wasn't really a ban on transgender people, just an exclusion of people with gender dysphoria. There are other health conditions that exclude people from military service, he said.

Rep. Anthony Brown, a Maryland Democrat, struck back at him. “We are not talking about heart surgery and diabetes,” Brown said, according to the Blade. “We are talking about a group of Americans who identify as transgender. I’ve never seen a group of Americans, OK, who are prone to heart attacks who come lobbying Congress and say give us the right to serve even though the risk of heart attack is very great because I’ve already had three or four. That’s mixing apples and oranges and I don’t appreciate that.”

Stewart also claimed that current trans military members  would be "grandfathered" and allowed to continue serving under the Trump policy, which does not appear to be the case. A memo on the policy, prepared by former Defense Secretary James Mattis and approved by Trump last year, says trans people willing to serve in their birth gender can stay in the military, and it has exemptions for a few others, but it would bar most.

Several federal courts have issued injunctions blocking the ban while cases against it proceed. The Supreme Court ruled in January to strike down some of these injunctions so that the ban could go into effect while it's being challenged in lower courts, but the decision did not includeone injunction against the ban issued by a federal judge in Maryland. Lawyers for the administration have asked the judge to dissolve his injunction, but he has not done so yet, with the effect that the ban remains on hold.

The hearing was chaired by Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who heads the subcommittee and has introduced a bill to block the ban. Speier told the Blade she's moving forward with the legislation and may attach it to a defense spending bill.

Rainbow House Coalition is set to open its first house for at-risk LGBTQ youth across the Atlanta metro, and at the beginning of March, several tenants will have a new home.

“We have proven that LGBTQ youth excel and blossom when they are in a supportive environment of others like themselves,” said Rick Westbrook, executive director and founder of Rainbow House Coalition. “Our homeless numbers increase yearly to the point of epidemic proportions. RHC offers a way to free up space in programs for youths that need more intensive attention.”

The idea came about after Westbrook left Lost N’ Found Youth. His husband demanded he take three months off and figure out what to do next. He soon realized a major hurdle for homeless LGBTQ youth was a lack of affordable housing in the metro. That’s when the Rainbow House Coalition was born.

“Rainbow House Coalition believes that affordable housing is a right and not a privilege,” said Westbrook. “Our city faces an extreme lack of affordable and shelter systems to accommodate the needs of people on the street, especially LGBTQ youth.”

Currently, funding for the new house is solely funded through donations, but it’s not stopping Westbrook from making his dream a reality. He says it’s the community that’s been a driving force in the project.

“Our community and its supporters have always beckoned the call when I ask for help. We have always taken care of our own. I was supported when I came out and left home but these days, youth are standing proud, not like when my generation came out,” said Westbrook. “The problem is being in the Bible Belt, well over half are put out. Our youth are not disposable and our community will make sure that they get the chance they need to become the beautiful souls they are meant to be.”

The house, dedicated to trans brothers and sisters “at risk” or “transitioning out of homelessness,” will have five bedrooms with private baths, common areas, laundry, and kitchen. Each resident can stay as little or as long as they need depending on their situation and goals for the future. Westbrook says they already have several tenants ready to move in.

“The safety of a bed to sleep on, a roof over my head, and a door that locks behind me is something I haven’t had in almost a year now,” said Avan, a 19-year-old trans man from Augusta, Georgia. “It feels like a luxury to me. It’s comforting to not have to worry how my situation might change if my landlord or housemates discovered the history of my gender identity.”

He began transitioning in high school, but because of social backlash and discrimination, Avan left school and started living on his own. He faced mental, emotional and physical challenges as part of his journey to live

"At one point, I was admitted to an inpatient psychiatric program and was unemployed upon release. After sleeping in abandoned buildings for several months, I decided to hitch a ride to Atlanta,” he said. “I quickly landed a great new job, but still struggled to make ends meet while couchsurfing. I’m now 19 and my life looks completely different. Thanks to the Rainbow House Coalition, I now have a space of my own and can sleep soundly at night.”

Alongside Westbrook, a team of board members will help oversee funding and oversight of those tenants, including Victor Brady and Mark Gibson. The search is still on for three more board members.

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