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Grief and tangled politics were at the heart of Kentucky's fight over new trans law

Sen. Karen Berg (D - Louisville)
Sen. Karen Berg (D - Louisville)

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing 9-8-8, or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Kentucky state Sen. Karen Berg had to deal with the most devastating thing a mother could imagine.

In December last year, Berg's transgender son Henry Berg-Brosseau died by suicide. He was just 24 and a prominent LGBTQ rights activist who inspired his mother to run for office.

As Berg thumbs through pages of her son's work, she finds the last piece of writing he left, one that foreshadowed a new law in his home state of Kentucky.

"Let me read you this ... it's the closest thing I have to a suicide note," Berg says.

Fourteen hours before her son ended his life, Berg says he put together a press release for the Human Rights Campaign, where he worked as a deputy press secretary for politics.

"We must all work to repudiate anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and falsehoods in the strongest possible terms ... because our lives are quite literally on the line-"

As she reads, her voice withers and collapses into a deep sigh.

"-and then he went home, and he went out, and he killed himself. My son knew. He knew exactly what was going to happen," she says.

Heading back to the Capitol

Two weeks later, Berg was awash with grief but had to pick herself up and go to the state Capitol for the 2023 legislative session. She says she felt exhausted.

"I had to learn how to get out of bed. I had to learn how to shower. I had to learn how to get dressed."

But she kept her chin up, rolled her shoulders back and walked into the Senate chamber, dreading that her legislature, like so many others, would face multiple bills to restrict the rights of LGBTQ people.

"I got there, and I stood up and I just quietly said 'Please, let's not politicize this session. Please, let's not go down there,' " she recalls.

More than two months later, she watched her Republican colleagues, one by one, vote to override a veto on Senate Bill 150, banning all gender-affirming medical care for trans youth in Kentucky including puberty blockers and hormone therapy.

For public schools, the bill restricts which bathrooms students can use and puts limits on discussing gender and sexuality. It also allows teachers to refer to students by their gender assigned at birth.

It's exactly what her son Henry fought against.

How it all began

In early February, Republican state Sen. Max Wise introduced Senate Bill 150 to much applause from his colleagues on the floor. Berg looked on, shaking her head in disbelief.

Wise took the lead on anti-trans legislation this session, starting by targeting the state's progressive education commissioner, Jason Glass. Glass's department had issued guidance telling teachers to use inclusive language and kids' preferred pronouns, upsetting Wise and other conservative Republicans.

"It's time for our governor to listen to parents, instead of a commissioner who thinks that teachers should find another profession if they don't subscribe to his woke ideology," Wise said on the Senate floor.

It's an election year for Kentucky, and Wise is running for lieutenant governor on the same ticket as GOP candidate for governor Kelly Craft. One of her campaign issues includes "dismantling" the state's Department of Education.

Craft is facing 11 other contenders for the Republican nomination in order to try to defeat Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who is popular in this red state.

Her husband is coal magnate Joe Craft, and they're both megadonors to the state's Republican party. In March, they each contributed $10,000.

Some Republican dissent

Senate Bill 150 gradually morphed into a broader and bigger anti-trans bill to include the ban on gender-affirming medical treatments, borrowing from another bill introduced in the House.

But not everyone in the Republican caucus seemed to be on board.

The GOP's more conservative wing quashed some fellow Republican efforts to rein in the bill.

Last-minute lobbying and procedural maneuvers led to an air of unpredictability in the last few hours of the penultimate day of the session. Some members who seemed to be on the fence wound up voting "yes."

Just one Republican pushed back — state Sen. Danny Carroll, who voted "no."

He had tried, and failed, to introduce an amendment to an earlier version of the bill that would have exempted puberty blockers and given doctors more discretion. In the end, it didn't have the Senate's approval.

"Going against your entire caucus is a very uncomfortable place to be," he said in a speech on the floor after the Senate voted to override the governor's veto on the bill.

"My fear and my no vote is for those kids that are being left out ... those kids that may be contemplating suicide, that may need to delay puberty," he said. "We're not doctors here."

Going forward

Hundreds of Kentuckians rallied at the state Capitolthe day Republicans overturned the governor's veto on the bill. Every legislator's speech on the Senate floor was accompanied by protestors' chants booming through the walls of the chambers.

Kentucky's first openly trans elected official, Rebecca Blankenship, wasn't at the Capitol that day, "for the sake of my sanity," she says.

She called the recent wave of anti-trans legislation "the current obsession among most Republicans," but for the transgender community, she likens the experience to a monster.

"For us this is Frankenstein. They've created something that is so far behind their control," she says. "And they are no longer able to do anything but vote yes, vote yes, vote yes to everything."

But she says she knows the next generation will keep fighting for people like her.

"Trans people are going to have to reveal ourselves," she says, "because otherwise, there will be other people to define us."