Breaking Barriers: Championing Legal Justice and Health Equity for Transgender Youth
Sarah Everett ’17 and the Arkansas ACLU team successfully argued to overturn the country’s first ban on gender-affirming care
Sarah Everett ’17 watched in dismay as Arkansas led efforts to ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth. But through her work at the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, she has discovered opportunities to deploy her legal skills in the fight to keep such laws from going into effect.
In 2021, Arkansas passed a first-in-the-nation law that banned medical treatment for transgender teenagers. It aimed to prevent healthcare professionals from providing care to transgender youth or referring patients for such care, and it prohibited state funds or insurance coverage for gender-affirming care for people under 18. The ACLU quickly filed suit, taking the case to trial in December 2022.
In June, U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr. issued an 80-page ruling, siding with the ACLU’s clients — four families of transgender youth and two physicians. Though Everett was not surprised that Moody struck down the law—he had issued a bench decision in favor of a preliminary injunction—she was heartened by the victory.
As policy director and a member of the plaintiffs’ counsel team, Everett said she was inspired by the transgender teens and their families who testified about their experiences receiving medical treatment for gender dysphoria. She worked closely with the client families.
“I was already motivated, but after getting to know the clients, I couldn’t help but fight with them,” Everett says. “Our clients have incredible stories about how this care has totally transformed their lives. Some of them aren’t sure they would still be here if they didn’t have access to it.”
Everett will stay on the case when it is appealed to the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In the meantime, the Arkansas Legislature is keeping her busy as lawmakers consider and pass new measures that target transgender people and the medical professionals who treat them. These measures include bathroom bans and expanding malpractice laws to include injury from gender-affirming care. During three recent legislative sessions, she lobbied lawmakers against such laws.
Everett has been steeped in this fight since joining the ACLU in 2017, thanks initially to a post-graduate Robina Fellowship from Minnesota Law. Everett says that being an Oklahoma native who graduated from a conservative Christian university in Arkansas helps her speak her opponents’ language as she advocates to protect the constitutional rights of all.
It’s work she believes she was meant to do. “Our courts have become increasingly hostile, in Arkansas especially,” Everett says. “We can’t just rely on our courts to fix whatever terrible things our legislatures do. I think we really did make a difference here this session. It’s been exciting.”