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From 'heartbreak' to relief, Northeast Ohio families share mixed reactions to potential HB 68 veto override

People standing on grace facing a white gazebo. One person holds a rainbow flag.
Patrick Orsagos
More than 200 people gather at Goodale Park in Columbus, Ohio, to participate in the Central Ohio March for Queer and Trans Youth, Friday, March 31, 2023.

Northeast Ohio families and organizations are voicing mixed reactions to House Bill 68, which still has life despite Gov. Mike DeWine's decision to veto it in December.

House lawmakers are expected to return to work Jan. 10 with plans to override DeWine's veto on the bill, which would ban transgender youth from receiving gender-affirming treatments or playing on girls’ sports teams. DeWine signed an executive order banning transgender surgery for minors on Jan. 5.

The actions have induced differing responses within the Northeast Ohio community.

Belle Oehler, a senior at Medina High School who leads the school’s gender and sexuality alliance, said she was initially relieved by news of the veto. But DeWine's executive order on Friday banning surgeries for transgender youth and the possibility of an override changed that.

"That scares me, honestly, because people who benefit from this bill being vetoed, who benefit from receiving puberty blockers or being treated how they want to be perceived and seen, it's scary how that can just go away," Oehler said.

Oehler added that more transgender students may turn to local nonprofits that supply chest binders and other nonmedical means to express their gender identity.

Camp Lilac, a residential camp for transgender and nonbinary youth founded in Geauga County and now located outside Columbus, hosted a family weekend just days after the bill's veto.

“There really was a lot of relief, a lot of thankfulness because DeWine actually met with the community,” said Connor Mahon, the camp’s director of youth services. “And that is something so completely missed by the other legislators approaching this issue — he took the time and effort to speak to these families, including some of the families that we had present.”

But Mahon said any sense of celebration was tinted with foreboding.

“We're going right back through the same process for the override," Mahon said. "And so a lot of people are past processing and more strategizing: ‘Which state are you planning on heading to if [the override] passes? Which doctors are still working to fit in patients? I have to make a decision about my insurance and I have to decide if I want that to be open to out-of-state care.’”

Mahon said there’s a general sense of pessimism among families about the eventual outcome, given the Ohio legislature’s dominance by Republicans who support the bill. Many of the camp’s families have at least considered the idea of permanently relocating to another state, Mahon said.

Camp attendees walk on a hike through some woods at Camp Lilac, a residential camp for transgender and nonbinary youth founded in Geauga County and now located outside Columbus.
Camp Lilac
Camp attendees walk on a hike through some woods at Camp Lilac, a residential camp for transgender and nonbinary youth founded in Geauga County and now located outside Columbus.

Parents of trans children are weighing some tough decisions under expectations the House will override the veto and with the Senate due to return later this month.

“Overall, the climate in Ohio has become more and more toxic. Since we've been here the last three and a half years, it's gotten worse and worse," said Danielle Schultz, an Akron parent of a 17-year-old trans child.

"My 17-year-old should not have had to be living his life like this, and it's heartbreaking," Schultz added. "It's all the way to things like getting a haircut and making sure that the place where he wants to get his haircut is going to be affirming."

Bill's proponents optimistic

But some in Northeast Ohio are expressing cautious optimism and relief that HB 68 could still become law.

John Stover, president of Cleveland-based nonprofit Ohio Value Voters, submitted a written testimonial in support of the bill. He previously voiced support for House Bill 61, the Enact Save Women's Sports Act which aimed to require schools to designate separate single-sex teams and sports before it was combined with HB 68.

House Bill 68 bans gender-affirming care for transgender youth and prohibits transgender girls from playing on girls and women’s sports teams.

“Young people, their brain is not fully developed. And these types of decisions should be made when they are adults," Stover said.

John Foytik of Berea, a parent of six students who attend Northeast Ohio Catholic schools, echoed Stover's sentiments. He said he believes the act of changing one’s body is wrong, especially when it comes to children who are still developing.

“They may have some of these feelings, might be confused, and it's really wrong to actually start some of this gender care and permanently alter their body when five years from now, 10 years from now, a lot of them are going to regret it,” he said.

Foytik said he's been disturbed to see material in textbooks, even those assigned by Catholic schools, that he views as encouraging minors to question their gender identity.

The Catholic Church, Foytik added, doesn't turn away or look down upon members of the LGBTQ+ community, who he said can find resources tailored for Catholics with same-sex attractions. He also noted the difficulties of parenting as a Catholic amid evolving social norms.

The Cleveland Catholic Diocese deferred its response to the Catholic Conference of Ohio, which issued a statement that read, in part, "The Catholic Conference of Ohio, the official voice of the Catholic Church in Ohio on public policy, supports HB 68 and testified as a proponent in the House and Senate."

Mental health effects noted

Gulnar Feerasta, managing director of the LGBT Community Center, said a 2022 Youth Risk Behavior survey of Cuyahoga County high school students found that 25.5% identify as LGBTQ+.

"We're seeing a significant impact, especially around mental health and mental health specifically for LGBTQ+ youth, and then even more sort of compounded impact with gender diverse youth, because they're hearing toxic rhetoric that is demonizing them," Feerasta said.

"With suicide the second leading cause of death among adolescents nationally, we need a comprehensive, statewide approach that ensures all providers are preventing harm to our youth and giving them and their families the supports they need," the MetroHealth System said in a statement issued following DeWine's veto. The statement also said Dewine "showed leadership" with the veto.

Feerasta also noted that gender-affirming care and surgery aren't the same thing, adding that many parents say their child would not be alive today had they not been able to receive gender-affirming care.

"It is a fallacy to equate gender-affirming care with certain gender-affirming surgery," Feerasta said. "Currently in Ohio, there are no medical providers that perform gender-affirming surgery or any sort of surgery on minors, and so to create this nonexistent situation just as a way to win political points is really unfortunate and is a disservice to the very real human beings that are going to be impacted.”

Stephen Langel is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media's engaged journalism team.
Justin Glanville is the deputy editor of engaged journalism at Ideastream Public Media.
Stephanie Metzger-Lawrence is a digital producer for the engaged journalism team at Ideastream Public Media.