West Virginia Wesleyan students at the State Capitol
From left to right: West Virginia Wesleyan student Reeds Benjamin, Cadie Kittle, Noah Jeffries and Dakota Johnson pose with their signs supporting transgender West Virginians at the State Capitol. Photo by Allen Siegler

Update: On Friday, February 3, the House of Delegates passed HB 2007 84-10, with 6 delegates absent. The vote was almost entirely along party lines; all Republicans voted in favor along with one Democrat — Del. Elliott Pritt, D-Fayette. 

Reeds Benjamin doesn’t usually wake up at 5 a.m. The  19-year-old’s West Virginia Wesleyan University classes don’t require rising before the sun. 

But Thursday was different. Benjamin, several other members of the university’s queer-straight alliance club, PRISM, and a few teachers piled into a van to drive two hours to the state Capitol. The reason: a public hearing for a bill that would ban kids from seeking gender-affirming surgery or medication in the state. 

It’s a subject that hits very close to home for Benjamin, who is a transgender West Virginian.

“I’ve seen and experienced the firsthand effects of trans people not being able to get the proper health care they need,” they said. “It’s very devastating.”

The bill is up for final passage in the House of Delegates on Friday. If it becomes law, it would make it illegal for doctors to connect children with gender-affirming hormones: drugs that can be used to help transgender folks transition from one sex to another, so their external appearance matches their internal visions of themselves. This therapy is supported by groups like the American Association of Pediatrics, and peer-reviewed evidence finds that it often improves mental health.

Benjamin also uses gender-affirming hormones and has noticed positive impacts in their life.

“Before I thought that [treatment] was possible, I was in a very dark place,” the Buckhannon resident said. “I didn’t know…how I could live a good, happy life. But now that I have access to it, it’s like there’s hope for the future.”

Gallery view of the HB 2007 hearing
Bystanders watch a public hearing about the House Bill 2007, a bill that would ban children from seeking gender-affirming surgery or medication in West Virginia.

While only the professors planned to speak publicly against the bill, Benjamin and the other students wanted to be there to show their opposition to the bill.

“Being in college and seeing the community around me, I realized that a lot of people felt like they had to hide from other people,” said Dakota Johnson, a first-year student from Berkeley County.

The Wesleyan students weren’t the only folks who woke up early for the public hearing. Dozens of West Virginians showed up to speak in the House chamber that day. Nearly all of them — ranging from Christian religious leaders to health care workers to transgender West Virginians themselves — were in opposition to the proposed ban. 

Their testimony cited evidence that contradicts the assumptions of the bill’s framers: that gender-affirming hormones in particular are safe for children and in many cases are necessary to prevent depression, anxiety and suicide.

“I’ve heard countless pleas from trans kids,” said Hannah McCoy, a former crisis counselor for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. “Begging to be seen, begging to be supported, begging to be affirmed in their identity.”

Sam Hinton
Sam Hinton, a 23-year-old transgender woman from Huntington, stands in a Capitol hallway. Photo by Allen Siegler.

For Sam Hinton, a 23-year-old transgender Huntington resident, it was her second trip to the Capitol in the past few weeks: she was there last month when the bill was before the House Health and Human Resources Committee. While she was inspired by some of the speakers she heard, she remains worried about the impact of the bill on her community.

“Growing up, I experienced a lot of shame, both external and well, that then became internalized,” Hinton said. “I dealt with that for years, and this legislation does not help with that.”

While Del. Geoff Foster, R-Putnam, the bill’s lead sponsor, said he was unable to attend the hearing because of a scheduling conflict, a few Republican delegates did stop by and listen to some of the testimony. Del. Joe Statler, R-Monongalia, and Del. Bob Fehrenbacher, R-Wood, each spent some of the public hearing in the upper galleries. They both said the testimonies revealed gaps in their knowledge.

“I’ve gotta get more input,” Fehrenbacher said. “But it was certainly powerful and compelling.”

Jessica Scott, a West Virginia Wesleyan gender studies professor and the PRISM faculty advisor, knows that the public hearing might not ultimately swing anyone’s vote. But she overflowed with pride for the students who drove with her to Charleston and thought it was a valuable experience regardless. 

“My hope for today is just that the students are empowered to start talking about these things and start influencing the ways policies are made,” Scott said.

Allen Siegler is the public health reporter for Mountain State Spotlight. He can be reached at (681) 317-7571.