Last month, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said it was child abuse to give transgender teens gender-affirming health care like puberty blockers or hormone therapy. Now, Alabama lawmakers are on the verge of passing a law that would criminalize doctors who do so. The bill would make their work punishable by up to a decade in prison—even though they’re offering treatments that are approved by major medical associations and mostly reversible. The bill is expected to pass in the coming days, and Gov. Kay Ivey is expected to sign it.
All of which terrifies David Fuller, a veteran police sergeant in Gadsden, Alabama, who could be called on to enforce the ordinance. Several years ago, his kid Jess came out as trans, and she relied on the very health care that could now be outlawed. This week he called me from his police truck to share his story, told below in his own words.
We knew something was up from the time she was young, like elementary school. By the time my wife died, we knew she was questioning who she was, but we assumed it meant she was gay. Because I didn’t even know what transgender was. I just had no knowledge of it. Then, after her 16th birthday, not long after Caitlyn Jenner came out, I came home from work one day and there was a note on my computer desk: It was, Dad, I want to be a girl. I didn’t know how to process it.
Jess tried to come down to take the note back, but I’d already read it. I just gave her a hug and said, “I love you. I’m gonna support you no matter what.”
I talked to no one about it. I live in the Bible Belt. And I’m a police sergeant. I knew what people I worked with thought of transgender folks, just from Caitlyn Jenner having come out. “She’s a joke,” and “she’s just doing it for attention. There’s no such thing as transgender.” They were just riffing off everything they’d ever heard and being the way they’d been raised.
I started investigating what all this meant. The first thing I read was the suicide attempt rates of transgender youth. It was close to 50 percent. I came apart, thinking, Oh, my God. I’ve got a 50/50 shot at Jess trying to kill herself. I was apoplectic. I went months worried to death if she didn’t answer the phone. Because she didn’t know why this was happening to her. Despite what you hear from some people, this was not a choice and definitely not something she was thrilled about.
I kept digging, though, and found more information: The kids who came out as trans and got support, their suicide attempt rates dropped down to the rate of other kids their age, or a little bit above it, but enough where I was, I know I’m gonna be supportive. So maybe that’s something I won’t have to worry about, and we can start moving ahead.
The health care we got at the University of Alabama was the help we needed. I think she came out in November, and we got our first appointment in May. So there were about six months where we were stumbling around trying to find people. We live in the middle of the woods in Alabama. And when we went there, they made us immediately feel like, You’re not the only ones. We know a lot of folks like you. We’re going to take it slow. They were just so caring. They gave Jess and me a chance to express ourselves. And then they gave us options and told us what they would not do. There’s not going to be surgeries, there’s not going to be medications or prescriptions right off. We’re gonna find out who you are, you’re gonna find out who we are. And then we’ll go from there. It may have been the one-year mark when she got something very light, a hormone [puberty] blocker, like a half dose. Just to see, moving slow, is this what she really wants. When we got to the point where they were saying, Next visit we’re talking about medications, then boy, everything changed.
I mean, if I think back to before the doctors, I’ve got pictures of her from the year before she came out, and you can see the look on her face. Like she’s not there. As her health care kicked in and she got more confident about who she was, she became more outgoing, making friends. She never used to talk to people hardly at all, unless she really, really knew them. Now you get her started and you can’t get it to stop. She started her own online group on Discord for kids like her, so they’d have some place to talk. She’s trying to write a book. Before she never wanted to be in crowds, and last night we went to a Billie Eilish concert together.
That doesn’t mean everything was rosy right off, because we were kind of hidden. She stayed completely under the radar for her junior year in high school because her brother was graduating as a senior, and though he was extremely supportive, we didn’t know what kind of blowback there would be.
But then when her senior year came along, she wanted to go back to school as Jessica, not Jonathan. She had her name changed. I’m assuming the high school had never had an openly transgender graduate before. She was unbelievably brave. None of that could have happened without the health care, because it gave her the courage to say, “This is who I am.”
But, you know, up till last year, we were still under the radar as much as we could be. One day some lawyers in Birmingham, the ones who helped us with the name change, called and gave me the details on a bill in the Legislature. It would not just take the health care away [from trans teens], but also make the doctors criminals.
The first thing I thought was, My God. My daughter probably would be dead today if this bill had passed when she was in high school. She’s older now, but I think of all these other kids like Jess and these other dads like me. So I decided to testify. I was terrified to put our family out there.
Part of the terror was that I didn’t know if I would draw any violence to Jess. I live in an area with a lot of people who are very, very right-wing. And we had just seen what went on in the Capitol on January 6, how people can get out of hand. I worried about that one nutjob who might try something. And I didn’t know how my job would react. I didn’t know if the guys would stop talking to me. All these guys who for years had these attitudes, saying things to my face, not knowing Jess was out. I understood it—maybe 15 years ago, I would have been in on it too, because I didn’t have the information.
But after I testified, a couple of the guys surprised me. One was ultra-religious and tends to have bigoted things to say. But they messaged me behind the scenes and said, “If anybody bothers you about this, you let us know. We got your back.” It was like, Okay, now it’s in my room. That’s my buddy Dave. That’s my sergeant, and he’s a real person. He knew my family already. He knew what I went through when my wife got sicker and sicker and died. He saw me trying to raise the kids alone, going through the anguish of that. And so we were already real people before they found out about this.
The fact that I got these comments from them behind the scenes tells me that putting ourselves out there, as much as we didn’t want to do it, had an impact, not just nationally, but for the people standing next to us. If you don’t know anybody or you have an image of what a transgender person’s mom or dad would be—as if we’re all wearing hemp underwear and living on a commune—it helps to remind them that no, it’s just like anybody else. This is just our regular old family. It could be you tomorrow. You just don’t know.
Still, the reality is, if the bill passes and they are told to arrest a health care worker, they’re gonna do it. It’s a terrible thing to fathom. But I mean, these guys are professionals, and the law is the law. Most of these doctors are based in Birmingham, not under our jurisdiction. But say they put a warrant on one of my doctors, the ones who saved my daughter’s life? And say that doctor gets stopped in our town, cutting through? Technically, I’d be assigned to put them in handcuffs and bring them to jail. I don’t think that’s likely to happen. But my big fear is the fact that they would be designated as criminals. To imagine these people being arrested for everything they’ve done for my family makes me cringe.
I don’t want to speak for the doctors, but knowing how dedicated they are, I have a hard time believing they would walk away from them. They know these kids, they know them as human beings. And they know what they need. They’re not pushing them down any roads. The kids are already on the road. They’re just trying to take care of them now that they’re there.
I’m apolitical, but I do vote Republican more often than not locally, because I know the people personally. And I’ve always known that this party is supposed to be the one that wants to be less invasive in our personal lives, like smaller government. So I don’t understand their logic with trying to get involved with how a father takes care of his kid’s health care. I mean, if you don’t understand it, trust the experts. I’m an expert now because I’m raising a child. The doctors are experts because they work with them every day. If they look at you and say this is not child abuse, and these kids not only need this to flourish, but in some cases so that their mental health keeps them from killing themselves, why don’t you trust those experts?
Of course, the reason is they’re just using us as a political game. But I’m asking them, could you just leave it to me, please? I live it every day. We’re not hurting anybody. If you don’t want to hang out with us, don’t hang out with us. That’s fine. But let me take care of my kids.