“I was the kid who brought home the kid other kids were picking on.”
That’s Morissa Ladinsky talking about growing up in Madison in the 1960s and 1970s when her parents were professors at the University of Wisconsin and social justice activists.
Raised in what she calls a “culturally Jewish home,” her parents taught her that Jews, because of their difficult history, are obliged to stand up for the oppressed.
Now a 58-year-old pediatrician at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, this Wisconsin native learned that lesson well.
Ladinsky is a high-profile plaintiff in a pending legal effort to overturn a new Alabama law that makes it a crime for doctors such as her to provide certain kinds of gender-affirming medical care to transgender patients under 19.
“This law doesn’t help people. It can actually harm them. It could have devastating downstream consequences for these kids, especially loss of life. Plus, it’s an unprecedented overreach into medical decision-making,” says Ladinsky, co-leader of her university’s Youth Multidisciplinary Gender Health Team.
Ladinsky knows the transgender issue is emotionally and politically charged in conservative Alabama. Blending steely determination with Midwestern amiability, Ladinsky fights for her patients and other transgender youth, referring to them as “my kids.”
As the Alabama measure gained legislative traction, Ladinsky wrote a piece for the state’s major news site headlined, “I’m a doctor and Alabama could arrest me for doing my job.”
In it, she highlighted a consultation she had with a young patient battling gender dysphoria —when who you are is at odds with the gender assigned at birth.
“My patient — a well-built teen — was pacing in a small room in my hospital’s psychiatric ward. The patient was admitted to the hospital as a male after a third suicide attempt and unrelenting depression. Earlier that day, the patient told the care team an inescapable secret: The patient had always known herself to be a girl.”
Explained Ladinsky, “With puberty closing in and a visceral dissonance deep inside her, amplified by the trepidation of angering her family, she was left entirely hopeless. Her dark eyes, windows to a kind but troubled soul, conveyed her long journey, a forever search to be heard and understood.”
This Alabama-transplant did not start out in gender care. “When I was growing up, people weren’t talking about transgender people. It wasn’t something I learned about in medical school and residency either.”
She was a pediatrician with a typical practice, doing clinical and academic work. Her turning point came about 10 years ago while working in Cincinnati. Based on what she was seeing, Ladinsky’s interest in transgender youth began to grow.
Ladinsky recalled the story of a 16-year-old Ohio teen, feeling female but trapped in a male’s body, died by suicide in 2014 because of bullying and harassment. It’s hard for her to talk about it even today.
That’s because the teen was Leelah Alcorn, who went to school with hundreds of Ladinsky’s patients and whose suicide drew wide attention. “Almost every day, I would drive by the place where she killed herself and think about her.”
There are other stories.
“I also remember one girl, who I had taken care of since she was little, freezing up at her annual physical at the start of her teenage years, as her parents, with tears in their eyes, asked me why she was starting to wear boys’ underwear.”
A 2021 story in Forbes on a study by The Trevor Project reported 52% of all transgender and nonbinary young people in the U.S. seriously contemplated killing themselves in 2020. “More than half thought it would be better to be dead, rather than trying to live with rejection, isolation, loneliness, bullying and being targeted by politicians and activists pushing anti-trans legislation,” Forbes reported.
At the University of Alabama, Ladinsky’s team begins with a comprehensive, integrated approach that includes psychological evaluation, counseling with patients and their families, and reviewing available resources to help patients and their families during this often perplexing and stressful time.
Then there is an extended, ongoing analysis of each situation on a case-by-case basis, often lasting 1 to 3 years before medical options are considered. Even then, her team’s mantra is to go slow, especially with patients in their early teenage years.
For younger teens, puberty blockers are prescribed if the team thinks they are necessary. “These medications, introduced in early puberty, provide a short term pause button on further pubertal changes and are instrumental in preserving the mental health of younger teens who are beginning to struggle with gender dysphoria,” Ladinsky explained.
As the teen patient gets older, hormone therapy becomes an option.
In cases of females transitioning to males, hormone injections can stimulate the growth of body hair, deepen voices and create a more masculine appearance. For males transitioning to females, treatments can lead to breasts, softer skin, rounder hips and other changes.
The pediatrician’s chance to do more in the gender area came in 2014 when her husband, Dr. Mitch Cohen, a prominent pediatrician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, was recruited to be chair of the University of Alabama’s Department of Pediatrics and physician-in-chief of Children’s of Alabama.
The University of Alabama provided Ladinsky with an opportunity to teach and practice, opening the door to her and a UAB pediatric endocrinologist, also interested in gender care, co-establishing a transgender care program. Their team, which also includes a chaplain and psychologist, was established in 2015.
“We are the only group providing this level of care in Alabama and Mississippi. Families from the Florida panhandle, southern Tennessee and western Georgia also come to see us,” she said with pride.
“Since we began, we’ve touched the lives of 400 to 500 kids and families. We also have helped pediatricians better understand gender dysphoria and the toll it can take on a young person’s physical and mental health.”
When Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a popular Republican, signed the new law in April, Ladinsky issued this statement:
“Gov. Ivey has told kind, loving and loyal Alabama families they cannot stay here without denying their children the basic medical care they need. The governor has undermined the health and well-being of Alabama children and put doctors like me in the horrifying position of choosing between ignoring the medical needs of our patients or risking being sent to prison.”
Ivey said she signed the bill because she believes that “if the good Lord made you a boy, you are a boy, and if he made you a girl, you are a girl.”
Being in the limelight hasn’t been easy for Ladinsky.
“I’ve gotten some crazy emails from really bizarre humans,” she said. Though she is visibly Jewish, none of it has been antisemitic.
Ladinsky knows not all Jews agree with her views. For her, though, the Judaism imprinted on her while growing up in Wisconsin empowers her. “We as Jews are taught to see and hear those who others are attempting to silence; to elevate the voices of people who are oppressed.”
Forty years after leaving Madison, she is still arguably the kid standing up for kids other kids are picking on.
Richard Friedman is associate editor of Southern Jewish Life Magazine.