24-year-old shares experience as a trans youth in Arkansas: 'I felt like I didn't belong'

On Monday, Arkansas's state Senate passed a bill that would ban access to gender-affirming care for transgender residents who are minors.

The bill, H.B. 1570, specifically calls out the use of puberty blockers, hormones and gender-affirming surgeries as "harmful" and, if passed, will keep transgender people under the age of 18 from accessing these services in the state. The bill also bans the use of any state funds for gender-affirming health care for transgender people under 18. In addition, it allows private insurance companies to refuse to cover gender-affirming care for people of any age.

“Medical decisions belong to trans youth, their parents, and their doctor — not the government,” Holly Dickson, executive director at the ACLU of Arkansas, said in a statement. “This bill flies in the face of common decency, basic human rights, and the advice of every major medical association — not to mention federal law. What could possibly be more cruel than trying to take away a child’s access to the care that could save their life?"

Several transgender people testified against the bill, including Wolfe Espinosa Villegas, who spoke before the Arkansas House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee earlier this week. Villegas, who identifies as a "butch lesbian on testosterone" and prefers female pronouns, tells Yahoo Life that she feels it's her duty "as a human being and as a trans person" to speak out against the bill.

"It's something that I have to do," she says. "No one else is going to do it."

Villegas, 24, gave powerful testimony, telling legislators about her experience as a transgender youth in the state. "I can promise you that, if a supportive process had been the norm when I was a child instead of this outdated rhetoric, the scars of attempted suicide would not adorn my body to this day," she told the panel. "The trauma wouldn’t live in my bones that I work to overcome to this day."

Villegas says she came out as a transgender man in 10th grade, but struggled to find support. "I did not have supportive parents; I didn’t have a supportive community," she says. "I come from a family of Latino immigrants who are fairly older and religious — they're very firmly against gay and trans people." Villegas says she also struggled to find help at school. "I would reach out to teachers and others about how I was feeling, and they wouldn't listen or would say crazy things like, 'If you were an actual boy, you would just get it done and shoot yourself.'"

Villegas says she tried to kill herself on multiple occasions, including jumping out of a window at a hospital. "My parents found nooses in my closet and I had plenty of suicide notes," Villegas says. "One time I refused to go to the hospital after having opened veins. I also took a bunch of ibuprofen because I didn't have access to prescription pills and lost my hearing for three days."

Villegas says she felt "so alone" as a teen, and was even homeless at one point. "I felt like I didn't belong, and that I would never belong," she says.

Eventually, she found a supportive community. Now she's trying to advocate for change. "I just want to focus on the importance of health care for transgender people," she says. "Because without testosterone, one of those suicide attempts would have been my last."

Villegas urges people to "organize and mobilize in order" to fight for transgender rights, particularly in the health care realm. "As a teenager, I was so suicidal because I didn't have any access to competent therapists or doctors," she says. "If I had just one person tell me that they could help me out..."

Villegas says it wasn't until she was able to get a binder, a device that is often used by transgender men to compress the chest, and started testosterone at age 20 that she felt positive. "It got me out of bed," she says. "That was so incredibly difficult to do at the time. It made me want to live."

Villegas says it's "so important" for transgender people to have access to "competent" health care. "Otherwise, people lose their lives, sanity and dignity," she says. "I’ve had friends take their own lives because of not being able to look and feel the way they want to."

If this bill is signed into law, Villegas says, "people are going to die."

H.B. 1570 now moves on to Gov. Asa Hutchinson and, if it's signed, will make Arkansas the first state to ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth in the country.

If you are thinking about suicide and in need of immediate support, please call the TrevorLifeline at 1-866-488-7386 or click here to connect with a counselor via chat or text.

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