LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—Unlike most dads, Aaron Jennen is accustomed to being in court.
But Jennen, an assistant U.S. attorney in federal court, Fayetteville, found himself in an unusual role in another federal court here, about 200 miles away from where he works.
Republican lawmakers voted to ban gender-transitioning medical treatments—puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones and surgeries for minors last year, the nation’s first such law. The ban was put on hold before taking effect and remains so pending the resolution of the trial.
The lawmakers said the Save Adolescents From Experimentation (SAFE) Act is intended to fulfill the state’s obligation to protect children from lifelong consequences of these controversial medical interventions.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is challenging the law’s constitutionality on behalf of the Jennens, three other families with transgender children, and a pair of Arkansas doctors who provide the procedures.
A Father’s Love
Testifying in U.S. District Court on Oct. 18, the second day of the federal court challenge to the SAFE Act, Jennen smiled broadly when speaking about his wife and their three children, including the eldest, now legally known as Sabrina.
Born male, the child began receiving feminizing medical treatments in early 2021 after “coming out” as transgender in mid-2020.
Jennen’s face contorted and he wept as he described the dilemma that the SAFE Act creates for his family. Jennen cannot imagine stopping the treatments for his child.
Nor can Jennen fathom uprooting his deeply connected family. It would be a stretch to afford traveling out-of-state to legally obtain the treatments for his child, who now appears to be happy and well-adjusted.
But that same child used to make heartbreaking statements such as “What’s the point of life?” and, “I don’t see a future for myself,” Jennen said, pressing a handkerchief to his eyes.
Without the treatments, the child would likely regress back to that condition, Jennen said.
As he took his seat in the courtroom and regained his composure, Sabrina leaned into his shoulder.
Lawmaker Expresses Compassion
When told about Jennen’s emotional testimony, the sponsor of the SAFE Act, Rep. Robin Lundstrum, responded: “My heart goes out to these parents. They’ve been through hell and they’re scared, and they’re doing their very best to help their children because they love them.”
Although Jennen and another father of a transgender teen testified that professionals discussed risks and benefits of treatments with them, Lundstrum says many parents are not being given “full information” about the long-term implications of these procedures, especially if the treatment progresses to include surgeries.
“The sad thing is, this is a lifetime decision,” she said.“It’s a short-term fix for a long-term problem.”
Some transgender adults have told Lundstrum they support the SAFE Act. They told her they experienced a lifetime of pain, medical problems and ongoing medical costs—and that no child should embark on that journey.
While litigation over the SAFE Act has been pending, Lundstrum said she has often wondered about the future of the young plaintiffs.
“I know it will look different than what they’re picturing,” she said, and that saddens her. “When all of the spotlight goes away, and these young people are left with the hurt and the pain and the long-term consequences, what happens to those kids and those families then?”
Lundstrum’s deposition, a previously sworn statement, was entered into evidence in court after Jennen finished testifying.
Emotion Breaks Through
Jennen’s poignant testimony capped two days of hearings in the case pending before Judge James Moody Jr.
Experts who testified on behalf of the ACLU cited numerous studies supporting their position that transgender procedures are safe, effective and appropriate for youths suffering from gender dysphoria, which is persistent distress over one’s gender identity conflicting with one’s biological sex.
Although the testimony has mostly been highly technical in nature, even very serious clinicians showed signs that the subject is emotional.
When Jack Turban, a treating psychiatrist who has written about 30 peer-reviewed articles, was asked to react to the possibility that the SAFE Act would remove access to the “gender-affirming” care that his studies support, he replied, “That would be emotional to think about.”
Then Turban sniffed, apparently stifling his feelings, and said, “If these treatments were not an option, I would be left without any evidence-based approaches to treat this young person’s gender dysphoria.”
ACLU lawyers say they could finish presenting their witnesses today. Representatives of Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge would then start calling witnesses.
Moody plans to declare the trial in recess Friday. It will resume when he and the parties set dates to hear from a number of witnesses who were unavailable to testify this week.