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Arizona Republican breaks with party to block transgender health care ban

Arizona state lawmakers have filed the most anti-LGBTQ bills of any state in the country so far this year.

An Arizona Republican state senator broke with his party this week, blocking legislation that would have banned gender-affirming care for transgender youth.

State Sen. Tyler Pace voted Wednesday with three Democrats on the Arizona Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, splitting the vote 4-4 and effectively killing the bill. Pace said that while he sees "both sides," he was ultimately swayed by personal stories from LGBTQ youths and their families.

"The testimonies we heard today about the many people who are using these avenues of medical treatments to save lives, to improve lives," he said during the committee hearing, "I don't want my vote to stop those great things."

Image: Tyler Pace.
Tyler Pace.Arizona Legislature

The lone Republican lawmaker's break from his party diverged from the nationwide push by conservative lawmakers to enact a series of bills that critics argue unfairly discriminate against gay and trans Americans.

Following what advocates described as the “worst year for anti-LGBTQ legislation” in modern history, Republican state lawmakers have filed more than 160 anti-LGBTQ bills this year, according to nonprofit Freedom for All Americans. The majority of the bills, 92 of them, target trans people.

And with 15 pieces of legislation introduced so far this year, Arizona state lawmakers have filed the most anti-LGBTQ bills of any state in the country.

The bill shot down Thursday, SB 1138, would have prohibited health care providers from providing gender-affirming care to trans and nonbinary minors, including reversible puberty blockers.

Lizette Trujillo, who testified in front of lawmakers in defense of her 14-year-old trans son, said that she was "very surprised" when Pace voted down the measure.

"When you meet our kids and you see them and you meet our community, a lot of those biases that people carry are dispelled, because we're just families trying to do the right thing," she told NBC News. "I think that Senator Pace saw that in that moment."

Two states — Arkansas and Tennessee — have enacted similar versions of the Arizona bill into law last year, making them the only states in the country with such laws. However, a federal judge temporarily blocked the Arkansas law in July after the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the law in court on behalf of trans youth and their families.

Despite Arizona's failure to pass SB 1138, advocates say proposing bills of this nature can still exacerbate the mental health issues plaguing LGBTQ youths.

A survey published in January by The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization, found that two-thirds of LGBTQ youth say that the debates about state laws restricting the rights of transgender people have negatively impacted their mental health. And among trans and nonbinary youth, more than 4 in 5 report the political discourse surrounding the bills hinders their mental health.

However, researchers at The Trevor Project have also found that LGBTQ youths who reported having at least one LGBTQ-affirming space were significantly less likely to attempt suicide.

"My son is proof that affirming and supportive care by a medical team is the right thing to do because my child has never been suicidal or self-harmed," Trujillo said.

For transgender youth and LGBTQ advocates in Arizona, the fight is far from over.

On Monday, state lawmakers will hear oral arguments on bill that would make it illegal for trans people to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity. And on Wednesday, Arizona's House Judiciary Committee will debate a similar version of SB 1138, HB 2608, which aims to restrict gender-affirming care for trans minors.

Despite the challenges ahead for Arizona's LGBTQ advocates, some remain optimistic.

"When people hear how important gender-affirming care is, and also how normal and safe it is, they can be won over and they can change their mind and make the right call," Jeanne Woodbury, policy and communications director at LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Arizona, said referring to Pace. "I think we can keep that going."

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