COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – As lawmakers debated a bill to ban various medical procedures for LGBTQ+ youth, protesters lined the halls of the Statehouse to rally against what they called a misguided, harmful effort.

Lawmakers held their second hearing Thursday morning on House Bill 454, the Save Adolescents From Experimentation (SAFE) Act, which would ban the provision of gender-affirming treatment – like hormone replacement therapy, reconstructive surgery or puberty blockers – to trans and gender non-conforming kids in Ohio.

Proponents of the bill testified in support before the House Committee on Families, Aging, and Human Services, including several faith-based organizations, a Cincinnati woman who detransitioned and even a handful of Southern Poverty Law Center designated hate groups.

“Gender affirmation therapy does not affirm an individual’s gender but rather affirms their dysphoria, kicking the can down the road and leaving grave consequences to be dealt with later,” Click wrote in his testimony before fellow lawmakers in February.

One in 137 American teens identifies as transgender, according to the Ohio Children’s Hospital Association. Gender-affirming care is rendered on a case-by-case basis – with the consent of the minor and their parents – by a medical professional to help those youth align their physical traits with their gender identity.

Matt Sharp, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom – an SPLC-designated hate group for its anti-LGBTQ views – testified that Ohioans under the age of 18 are too young to understand the impacts of consenting to gender-affirming care.

“If a child lacks the maturity to sign a contract, vote, or even get a tattoo, how can they be mature enough to consent to experimental, irreversible medical procedures that lead to permanent sterilization?” Sharp said.

Helena Kerschner, 23, of Cincinnati, also testified in support of HB 454. As a teen, she believed she was transgender and sought gender-affirming care at the suggestion of her school counselor.

She said she began hormone replacement therapy at the age of 18, but eventually came to the realization that she was not transgender.

“I started skipping testosterone injections because they made me so anxious, so I was only injecting once or twice a month,” she said. “With this, my ‘episodes’ dramatically decreased.”

While Kerschner decided to end her hormone therapy, the consensus among medical providers – including Nationwide Children’s Hospital – is that gender-affirming care is an evidence-based practice with a proven track record of improving health outcomes for many trans and non-binary youth. 

Nationwide Children’s Hospital and the Ohio Children’s Hospital Association called HB 454 a “misguided effort” that could exacerbate harm to LGBTQ+ youth by denying healthcare to a population that’s already more susceptible to mental health disorders.

“Ohio is fortunate to have world-class institutions providing the best practice, evidence-based care for both children’s and adolescent’s physical and mental health,” the Ohio Children’s Hospital Association said in a statement. “Our mission for families of transgender youth is no different.”

Felicia DeRosa, an educator and full-time artist in Columbus, said that as a trans woman, the SAFE Act jeopardizes the health of Ohio’s queer youth by denying what could be life-saving care.

Access to gender-affirming medical care and a supportive community would have “dramatically improved” her childhood, she said, and her suicide attempt at the age of 9 may not have happened.

“I have 30-plus years of trauma and dysphoria that I still have to dismantle,” DeRosa said. “If I had access even to a little bit of hormone blocker as a young person to at least get to a point where I could figure out what I needed for myself – it just puts things on pause.”

Gender-affirming care like hormone replacement therapy is reversible, according to the Office of Population under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Surgical interventions are typically reserved for adulthood.

While HB 454 seeks to ban gender-affirming care, DeRosa said that won’t stop LGBTQ+ youth from scoping out different avenues to access various procedures.

“I found ways that were back-alley ways that actually put my life at great risk, but I needed to do something in order to feel right in my own skin, and I don’t want any child to go through that,” she said.