My name is Preston Heldibridle. I’m 19 years old, I just graduated from high school in York County and I am transgender. I was also once a recipient of care through the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). As a young kid who juggled four sports, had chronic ear infections and got bronchitis twice a year, CHIP was vital for me and my family as it is for many other trans youth who depend on CHIP’s funding to get the care they need.
I spent the majority of my high-school years trying to figure out why I felt like my body didn’t feel quite right. After years of struggling, I finally realized that much of this anxiety and discomfort was rooted in the stark difference between who I knew I was inside and how people treated my based on my outward appearance. Once I was able to give the term “gender dysphoria” to my experiences, it helped to validate what I had been grappling with and gave me the courage both to come out as trans and to begin to take measures to help me feel more comfortable in my skin. I cut my hair, wore a binder to flatten my chest and felt the unbelievable relief that came with finally beginning to be at home in who I was and how I presented myself to the world. As my dysphoria gradually lessened, my grades improved, I was more fully present with my friends and my family noticed my mood improve significantly.
Transitioning hasn’t come without its own obstacles, however. One of the biggest challenges for me is the chest binder that I have to wear every day. If I wear it for extended periods of time, it can impede my breathing and bruise my ribs. Most students are at school or out of the house for much longer than eight hours on a daily basis, so this can cause a number of problems. The long-term solution for me and for many other trans youth is surgery (commonly known as “top surgery”), but even though it is critical for my mental and physical health to have this procedure, it is very difficult to make that happen. Top surgeries are expensive, and this puts my health and the health of other trans youth in the hands of the lawmakers who are currently deciding whether or not to cover gender affirmative surgeries under CHIP.
In my time working with the Pennsylvania Youth Congress (PYC), we’ve engaged with hundreds of youth affected by the changing political landscape. This amended bill may start with preventing a handful of low-income trans youth from getting the coverage they need for the specific challenges that come with being trans, but it also emboldens discrimination, encourages harassment and opens the floodgates for other forms of legalized discrimination. If we block medically necessary coverage for one rare condition just because we are prejudiced against that group of people, when will this cycle end?
I’ve been excited to see groups across the state who have expanded their work to advocate with us as trans youth by springing into action and throwing their weight behind this issue these past several weeks. We are grateful for the support of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania for all the awareness that they are trying to bring to this matter, as well as the community groups and organizations who support our work at PYC on the ground and as we play the long game to press for equitable legal treatment for trans youth. We are also deeply appreciative to the legislators and Gov. Tom Wolf who are backing a clean renewal of CHIP and pressing against discriminatory bills in every way they can. Unfortunately, the fact that this legislation was passed by the state Senate is a grim reminder that we can’t simply send a couple emails when something bad happens, yell at a few people, raise some dollars and walk away when it looks like things are settling down. If we are to prevent the politicization of trans youth and stop these bills before they make it to the Senate or House floor, we must first commit to years of developing strong, sustained relationships with youth, their legislators and their local communities.
Through the process of working with PYC on this issue, I personally attended every committee and floor vote on CHIP reauthorization and met with dozens of legislators and their staff. If we did not spring into action when we did, and had not been consistent with our efforts in Harrisburg, I am petrified that a CHIP bill with exclusions on trans health would already have become law. PYC’s work and the fight for LGBTQ justice started long before me, and it will continue long after I’m gone. But for now, I’m proud to make my contribution to the effort through an organization that can be held accountable to the communities in which it works.
Thanks to the work of so many, this cruel bill was revised in the House of Representatives on Monday. However, the state Senate again has the opportunity to put in an exclusion on trans health care. Please continue to contact your state senator and our governor to urge them that Pennsylvania should only enact CHIP re-authorization without any exclusions for transgender youth. We must continue to educate our elected officials and build the political power of LGBTQ youth so that we not only can stop horrible bills from moving ahead, but also can secure equity and inclusion for all young LGBTQ Pennsylvanians. n
Preston Heldibridle is a 19 year-old trans youth leader with the Pennsylvania Youth Congress, Pennsylvania’s first and only statewide LGBTQ youth organization. He is a recent graduate of Dallastown Area High School and resides in rural York County.