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Arkansas families describe living where lawmakers are hostile to their transgender children

Greenwood residents Dylan Brandt, 17 (right), and his mother, Joanna (left), testified in federal court in October about the benefits of hormone therapy for Dylan, who is transgender. They are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against a 2021 Arkansas law that bans gender-affirming medical treatments, including hormones, for minors.
Rana Young
/
American Civil Liberties Union
Greenwood residents Dylan Brandt, 17 (right), and his mother, Joanna (left), testified in federal court in October about the benefits of hormone therapy for Dylan, who is transgender. They are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against a 2021 Arkansas law that bans gender-affirming medical treatments, including hormones, for minors.

Parker Saxton, 18, sings tenor in his high school choir and enjoys drawing.

Sabrina Jennen, 17, also enjoys drawing and is considering a nursing career.

Dylan Brandt, 17, works at a hardware store and is the manager of his high school’s cheerleading team.

Brooke Dennis will be 11 this month and looks forward to playing the cello in her middle school orchestra next year.

Parker, Sabrina, Dylan and Brooke are all transgender. They each came out between 2018 and 2020. They didn’t know each other until 2021, when their families banded together in 2021 with a common goal: to fight the law that would take away their children’s health care.

The Save Adolescents From Experimentation (SAFE) Act prohibits physicians from providing “gender transition” treatments like hormones, puberty blockers and surgeries to those under 18. The act became law after the Arkansas Legislature overrode Republican then-Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s veto in May 2021. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit challenging the law just days later.

Sabrina and Parker are seniors in high school, set to graduate this month, and Dylan will be a senior in August. All three have received gender-affirming hormone replacement therapy. Brooke is approaching puberty, so her family is considering the option of puberty blockers.

One parent from each family — Donnie Saxton, Aaron Jennen, Joanna Brandt and Amanda Dennis — put their experiences with their children’s gender transitions into the public record on the witness stand in federal court in late 2022. Dylan also testified as the primary named plaintiff. All the witnesses said moving or traveling to other states to receive health care would be emotionally and financially burdensome.

"I used to really not like myself or who I was, but now I’m someone that I’m very proud to be."
-Sabrina Jennen, a transgender 17-year-old from Fayetteville

Both the SAFE Act and the trial against it were the first of their kind in the U.S., though other states have since passed laws restricting or banning transgender minors’ health care. There is no jury in the case, and U.S. District Judge James Moody is solely responsible for the decision about whether the SAFE Act will go into effect.

Moody blocked enforcement of the SAFE Act in July 2021. The injunction was upheld in August 2022 by a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the full court later refused to rehear an appeal of the panel’s decision.

During the trial, the Arkansas Attorney General’s Office asked Moody to dismiss the case; Moody denied the motion.

The trial ended in December. Five months later, the plaintiffs are still waiting for Moody to issue a ruling after they watched state lawmakers introduce and advance other legislation from January to April that would make life measurably harder for transgender Arkansans. Those bills include bathroom restrictions for children and adults, pronoun restrictions in schools and the classification of gender-affirming care for transgender youth as potential medical malpractice. Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed all of these bills into law.

The families all agreed to be interviewed by the Arkansas Advocate to discuss the pending lawsuit, the new legislation and how both have affected their lives.

Aaron and his wife, Lacey Jennen, said their family deserves better than how the state government has treated them.

“Sabrina deserves to be here and be happy and be safe, but for whatever reason, they don’t think so,” Aaron said. “We love it here. We love Arkansas; we just want Arkansas to love us back.”

Sabrina Jennen, 17 (center), of Fayetteville plans to attend college in Massachusetts, where it is safer for her to exist as a transgender individual. Sabrina and her parents, Lacey (left) and Aaron (right), are co-plaintiffs challenging an Arkansas law that would prevent Sabrina from receiving gender-affirming health care before turning 18. The Jennens said they hoped the pending lawsuit would discourage more legislation targeting transgender Arkansans, but that was not the case.
Rana Young
/
American Civil Liberties Union
Sabrina Jennen, 17 (center), of Fayetteville plans to attend college in Massachusetts, where it is safer for her to exist as a transgender individual. Sabrina and her parents, Lacey (left) and Aaron (right), are co-plaintiffs challenging an Arkansas law that would prevent Sabrina from receiving gender-affirming health care before turning 18. The Jennens said they hoped the pending lawsuit would discourage more legislation targeting transgender Arkansans, but that was not the case.

Restrictive policies

Keeping up with bill after bill that would affect the way they live their lives takes an emotional toll, the four families agreed.

“It’s the first thing you think of in the morning and the last thing you think of when you go to bed,” said Shayne Dennis, Amanda’s husband and Brooke’s father.

“It makes you live in a constant state of hypervigilance,” Amanda added.

Meanwhile, Parker turned 18 last year after the trial started. The SAFE Act would not stop his testosterone treatments if Moody were to uphold it, so he’s reached the “light at the end of the tunnel,” Donnie Saxton said, but they still harbor concern for their fellow plaintiffs.

A law signed March 13 will open the door for private enforcement of the SAFE Act, according to Michael Cantrell, one of the defense attorneys in last year’s trial. Act 274 allows doctors to be sued for medical malpractice for providing gender-affirming care to transgender minors.

Parker, Dylan and Sabrina will all be either legal adults or within weeks of this milestone by the time the law goes into effect at the end of July. Additionally, Act 274 is unlikely to affect the Dennises’ ability to get gender-affirming health care for Brooke, though that is subject to change, ACLU of Arkansas communications director Megan Bailey said.

However, one law signed by Sanders will directly affect Brooke as she continues to grow up in Bentonville. Act 317 requires students in public schools to use the bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender assigned at birth.

Another law, Act 619, initially would have made it a crime for adults to simply be in what the bill’s supporters called “the wrong bathroom” when minors are also present. The law no longer does that, but the bill’s original language affected the SAFE Act plaintiffs.

Parker said he already seeks out gender-neutral, single-occupancy public bathrooms whenever he can. Sabrina, on the other hand, finds significant relief for her gender dysphoria in using women’s public bathrooms.

Aaron Jennen (right), a father of a transgender teenager from Fayetteville, speaks against Senate Bill 270 before the House Judiciary Committee on March 28, 2023. Sen. John Payton (R-Wilburn, left) is the bill’s sponsor.
Tess Vrbin
/
Arkansas Advocate
Aaron Jennen (right), a father of a transgender teenager from Fayetteville, speaks against Senate Bill 270 before the House Judiciary Committee on March 28, 2023. Sen. John Payton (R-Wilburn, left) is the bill’s sponsor.

Act 619 was one reason Sabrina turned down scholarships and other higher education opportunities in Arkansas, including at Hendrix College, she said. She will start college in Massachusetts this fall.

Joanna Brandt and Aaron Jennen each told the House Judiciary Committee on March 28 how Act 619 as originally written would affect their families. Aaron said it would create problems when Sabrina returns to Fayetteville from college.

“Her visits home will be precious and a cause for celebration, which in our family means going out to eat… [but] if we did, when Sabrina goes to wash her hands before we eat or if she needs to use the bathroom, she would have to overcome her dysphoria to use the men’s room or potentially risk jail time,” Aaron said.

He suggested an amendment to the bill that would limit its applicability to adults with sexual intentions. The committee adopted the amendment, a move that Aaron said gave him “some hope.”

Like Sabrina, Dylan said it would be difficult for him to find a college in Arkansas where he feels safe and comfortable.

“I really don’t want to spend any more time here than I have to,” he said. “I feel like with all these things going on, it’s not going to stop anytime soon.”

In the meantime, he tries not to let the legislation targeting transgender people stress him out, he said.

“I’m worked up enough for the both of us,” his mother said. “He’s leaving that part up to me.”

Joanna added that she appreciates being able to vent to the other parents involved in the trial.

“If I’m having a bad day and I want to go in our group chat and cuss and say some awful things, there’s zero judgment,” she said.

"It’s the first thing you think of in the morning and the last thing you think of when you go to bed."
-Shayne Dennis, referring to legislation that targets transgender Arkansans, including his 10-year-old daughter, Brooke

One of the Brandts’ ways to lighten the burden is their baseball caps with the name of the case, “Brandt v. Rutledge,” stitched across them. Dylan wore his while speaking to the Advocate.

“I was thinking about ordering everybody else one,” he said.

“And then he got me one for Christmas,” Joanna said.

All four families said the support network they have formed has been invaluable.

“You read about or hear about the bonds that strangers have when they go into warfare, and I’m assuming what we have is kind of akin to that,” Aaron said.

Having all four families in the same place during the trial was “magical” and “enjoyable in a weird way,” Lacey Jennen said.

“We talked about, after the trial was over, how we didn’t really know what to do with ourselves,” she said. “… It felt really powerful to be all in one room together, day after day.”

Amanda and Shayne said they appreciate being close to parents of transgender teenagers so they can be prepared for the next stages of Brooke’s development and transition, and Brooke said she appreciates knowing other transgender kids.

“I’m very happy that I have people that are just like me, even though they’re older than me and have experienced harder stuff [because] they’ve gone through puberty,” Brooke said. “They’re super nice and compassionate and caring.”

"They’re not going to bring us down. You can bet on that."
-Donnie Saxton, father of transgender 18-year-old Parker Saxton

‘Seek first to understand’

State attorneys and their witnesses at last year’s trial repeatedly claimed that minors cannot know for certain that they will still consider themselves transgender as adults and that there is not enough evidence that gender-affirming medical care improves transgender people’s quality of life.

The same talking points came from lawmakers and members of the public who supported this year’s legislation restricting the behavior of transgender people. They also repeatedly said they want to protect children from harm.

“There’s a lot of ways to protect kids that they’re just blowing by, just to worry about people like Parker’s genitals,” Donnie said. “He doesn’t think about his genitals; why are they thinking about them?”

If someone in Parker’s hometown of Vilonia has questions for him about his gender identity, it can be difficult to tell if they come from a place of genuine curiosity or potential mockery, he said.

“That’s the only thing this mess has accomplished, opening the doors for hate,” Donnie said.

“I’m not a circus clown,” Parker said. “I’ll be a circus clown any other way, but not [about] me being who I am.”

A bill introduced in January had the Saxtons concerned for a while about whether Parker could achieve his goal of being a singer in Arkansas. Act 131 initially defined drag as “exhibit[ing] a gender identity that is different from the performer’s gender assigned at birth” while performing in front of an audience. Opponents of the bill said the language was vague enough to criminalize any kind of performance or self-expression by a transgender or nonbinary Arkansan, whether in public or in private.

Act 131 was amended beyond recognition in February and no longer mentions the word “drag.”

“It’s very relieving, because I want music to be a part of my life for always,” Parker said.

Parker Saxton, 18 (left), of Vilonia would no longer be affected by Arkansas’ ban on gender-affirming health care for transgender minors if it goes into effect. He and his father, Donnie Saxton (right), said coming out as transgender and receiving gender-affirming care saved his life.
Joshua Asante
/
American Civil Liberties Union
Parker Saxton, 18 (left), of Vilonia would no longer be affected by Arkansas’ ban on gender-affirming health care for transgender minors if it goes into effect. He and his father, Donnie Saxton (right), said coming out as transgender and receiving gender-affirming care saved his life.

As a lawyer, Aaron said he had hoped the pending litigation against the SAFE Act would deter legislators from introducing more bills targeting transgender people.

“I feel foolish about that, [thinking] that maybe some of the coverage or some of the testimony would discourage people from doing these things,” he said. “Seek first to understand, right? That’s what we’re supposed to do, and they just choose not to.”

During a February committee hearing on the bill that allows doctors to be sued for gender-affirming care, Sen. Matt McKee, R-Pearcy, asked a transgender woman about her genitalia, provoking a strong negative reaction from the crowd in the room.

Dr. Gwendolyn Herzig told McKee she would not answer his “highly inappropriate” question. She is a Little Rock-based pharmacist who provides hormones to transgender Arkansans.

Sabrina and her parents remember that moment as particularly “disheartening,” especially since legislators rarely asked transgender people any questions at all during committee hearings throughout the session.

Medical groups, including the American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association, lobbied against the SAFE Act, saying the treatments it seeks to ban are safe and that medical decisions should remain in the hands of doctors and their patients.

Two physicians who have treated transgender minors in Arkansas also testified as plaintiffs at the trial last year. They said that not only do transgender people rarely, if ever, regret transitioning, but also that minors with gender dysphoria might self-harm or attempt to take their own lives if their transitioning options are restricted.

Donnie said no one close to Parker “thought that he would see adulthood” before he came out as transgender.

“I was a ticking time bomb,” Parker said.

“He was worse than a ticking time bomb,” Donnie added. “He was a grenade that had been pulled.”

Donnie, Aaron, Amanda and Joanna all testified in October that their children’s transitions have vastly improved their mental health and overall well-being. Aaron said Sabrina used to hate having her picture taken but now enjoys drawing self-portraits.

“I used to really not like myself or who I was, but now I’m someone that I’m very proud to be, and it’s very liberating to be able to draw myself,” Sabrina said in March.

Dylan testified in court that the effects of testosterone have made him comfortable with his reflection in the mirror: “My outside finally matches the way I feel on the inside,” he said on Oct. 19.

As ACLU attorney Chase Strangio asked him questions about his transition, Dylan said maintaining eye contact with someone he knew was on his side got him through his otherwise “nerve-wracking” testimony.

“I just locked eyes with Chase, and we talked, and it felt like we were just having a conversation, and it made pretty much all the anxiety and my stress go away,” Dylan said.

Brooke said she admires Dylan for testifying.

“He really had the guts to go up there and do all that stuff,” she said.

"I really don’t want to spend any more time here than I have to. I feel like with all these things going on, it’s not going to stop anytime soon."
-Dylan Brandt, a transgender 17-year-old and the primary named plaintiff in the lawsuit against the SAFE Act

What comes next

The plaintiffs’ experiences in the public eye vary. Parker has never been the kind of person to seek attention and would rather “blend in” as long as he gets to be himself, he and his father said.

Dylan, on the other hand, documented his transition on the social media platform TikTok. He said he appreciated seeing other transgender individuals share their transitioning stories online before he came out, and he wanted to be visible to those after him.

“I’ve had a lot of people tell me they are super glad that I did it, that they love seeing the way that I’ve grown up, and that it makes them hopeful for their future and for their transition,” Dylan said.

Some customers at Joanna’s small business in Greenwood have thanked her and Dylan for being “open and honest about the situation and encouraging people to just love these kids,” she said.

“That, on a bad day, makes it a tiny bit easier, to be reminded, ‘Oh, yeah, this is why we’re doing this,’” she said.

All three of the teenage plaintiffs are leaning toward career paths that help others: Sabrina said she might study nursing, while Parker and Dylan want to go into education.

Donnie said he and Parker will “take a step back and get all our ducks in a row” after Parker’s high school graduation, since the SAFE Act and the trial against it led them to “make a few detours” in their lives.

“It’s all going to work out,” Donnie said. “They’re not going to bring us down. You can bet on that.”

10-year-old Brooke Dennis (center) of Bentonville told her family in May 2018 that she is a girl. She and her parents, Shayne (left) and Amanda (right), are one of the four families challenging Arkansas’ 2021 ban on gender-affirming health care for transgender minors. The Dennises said they appreciate being close to other families with transgender children in Arkansas.
Rana Young
/
American Civil Liberties Union
10-year-old Brooke Dennis (center) of Bentonville told her family in May 2018 that she is a girl. She and her parents, Shayne (left) and Amanda (right), are one of the four families challenging Arkansas’ 2021 ban on gender-affirming health care for transgender minors. The Dennises said they appreciate being close to other families with transgender children in Arkansas.

Meanwhile, the Dennises are “hopeful for a favorable ruling” from Moody but prepared to adapt accordingly if the SAFE Act prevails, Amanda said.

“We will go to any lengths to seek that care elsewhere, but the unjust pressure and harm that puts on us and Brooke is not something that we can stand by and just let happen,” she said. “That’s why it was so important for Shayne and me and Brooke to take part in this battle. I tell our children all the time that there’s [always] a right thing to do, and sometimes that’s hard, but it’s a hard right thing, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Tess Vrbin is a reporter with the nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization Arkansas Advocate. It is part of the States Newsroom which is supported by grants and a coalition of readers and donors.