Sen. Joey Fillingane, defending a controversial bill that would ban gender-affirming care for trans minors, said on the Senate floor Tuesday he’d recently spoken with a Hattiesburg-based plastic surgeon who told him he’d performed gender-confirmation surgery on 17-year-old trans kids.
That plastic surgeon, contacted Wednesday by Mississippi Today, says he didn’t tell Fillingane that and wants the senator to recant his statement.
Though lawmakers this session have fast-tracked House Bill 1125 – which would ban gender-affirming care including hormone therapy, puberty blockers and gender-confirmation surgery for minors – they had been unable to identify any in-state surgeons that have operated on trans youth.
That is, until this past Tuesday, when Fillingane presented the bill to the Senate. He took many by surprise when he said he’d talked to “plastic surgeons in Hattiesburg” who told him they had “on occasion” performed gender-confirmation surgeries on 17-year-olds with parental consent.
“I don’t think it’s often,” Fillingane, R-Sumrall, said on the Senate floor. “I don’t want to make it sound like it’s rampant or it happens a lot, but with one plastic surgeon friend of mine that I’ve spoken with in Hattiesburg just this weekend, he confirmed that, ‘Yeah, I can’t give you specifics, but yeah, I’ve done this.’”
Dr. Paul Talbot, who founded the Plastic Surgery Center of Hattiesburg in 1998, told Mississippi Today he is the surgeon Fillingane talked to. He recalled the recent conversation with Fillingane — which took place after the men ran into each other at Revolution Fitness in Hattiesburg — differently.
“It was a two-minute conversation,” Talbot said. “I was on one elliptical, he was on the other.”
While they were exercising, Talbot said he told Fillingane he has taken on trans adults as clients but has never performed surgery on trans kids.
“I’ve never done anybody (trans) under the age of 18,” Talbot told Mississippi Today. “He must’ve misheard that because no, we’ve never done that. Never had someone ask me under 18 to do it.”
Talbot said he may have told Fillingane he might consider performing surgery on a trans teenager under certain circumstances, but he probably would not do it. (International organizations that set standards for gender-affirming care say surgery is appropriate for trans youth in some cases.)
“If I’m gonna do it for you, one is you gotta be 18,” he said. “Two, I need a letter from your psychiatrist that says you’re stable enough and you know what you’re doing before I’ll even consider it.”
It wasn’t a big deal to talk to Fillingane about HB 1125, Talbot said, because the two have been friends for more than 10 years, and it seemed like the senator was curious about his experience as a surgeon.
He doesn’t want Fillingane to feel called out but said that it is a shame this misunderstanding is now “part of the record” of the bill.
“For the political climate in Mississippi, it’s probably a good thing for him,” Talbot said. “But for trans people, it’s probably a bad thing for them.”
Speaking to Mississippi Today in his office Thursday, Fillingane wouldn’t say that he spoke with Talbot over the weekend, but he said he only spoke to one plastic surgeon who he knows “from the gym.”
“I’m not gonna confirm or deny the person, but I heard what I heard, obviously,” Fillingane said. “I was speaking on that bill, so to whomever I was speaking with, I don’t know how one could mishear something. You’re talking about a specific bill that deals with this specific issue of surgeries related to folks who are trying to transition from one sex to the other.”
Fillingane added that he’s had “a bunch” of other conversations about HB 1125, including one with the Mississippi State Medical Association’s government relations staffer, who said the organization has no position on the bill.
“One conversation, whether it was misheard or not, certainly does not comprise the entirety of my due diligence on this bill,” Fillingane said.
After Mississippi Today spoke with Fillingane, he sent Talbot a text apologizing “for any unwanted attention you may have received from the HB 1125 coverage.”
“I wanted you to know that I never told them press your name but it seems they have figured it out because I was ambushed by a reporter from MS Today earlier today because I had said I had spoken with a plastic surgeon friend of mine from Hattiesburg about the bill,” he wrote. “They apparently pieced it together but I would never confirm nor deny who it was that I had spoken with but I apologize anyway.”
It’s likely that HB 1125, which passed the Senate on Tuesday along party lines, would have been headed to the governor’s desk whether or not Fillingane had claimed to find a surgeon in Mississippi who has performed gender-confirmation surgery on trans minors.
Regardless of the outcome of his conversation at the gym, Fillingane said he would have supported the bill.
“Even if you were to accept for the sake of argument that these particular surgeries don’t happen at all or certainly very often in this state, so therefore we don’t need this bill, I think (that) misses the larger point,” he said. “There are other parts of this bill, i.e. the prescription of puberty blocking drugs and the prescribing of cross hormone therapies, that I think we all can admit is in fact happening in Mississippi.”
Other powerful elected officials, like Gov. Tate Reeves, have claimed with no proof that gender-confirmation surgery is harming Mississippi children.
“While some in our country push surgical mutilation onto 11 year olds, even here in Mississippi, even liberal darlings like Finland and Denmark and Sweden don’t allow these surgeries to be performed on kids who are under the age of 18,” Reeves said in his State of the State address.
Similar claims misrepresent just how difficult it is for trans kids in Mississippi to access gender-affirming care, advocates and in-state providers say.
There is just one clinic in the state — Spectrum: The Other Clinic in Hattiesburg — that currently prescribes puberty blockers and hormones to teenagers 16 years or older. Younger trans kids and their families must go out of state to access these medications, which often aren’t covered by insurance and can be costly, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars a year.
Rob Hill, the state director of the Human Rights Campaign Mississippi, said he is angry that Fillingane, Reeves and other lawmakers have spread misinformation this session about gender-affirming care because it endangers already vulnerable trans kids. Gender-affirming care is evidence-based and multiple studies have shown it significantly reduces suicidality among trans kids who receive it.
Fillingane is “somebody that touts his faith very often, and I would say that this is not a faithful act,” Hill said. “What the lieutenant governor did, what the speaker did and what the governor’s ultimately going to do — and those who voted for this legislation — is not faithful … it was harmful.”
The misinformation and lack of research by lawmakers is typical for bills that take on “culture war” issues in Mississippi. In 2021, lawmakers could not identify any complaints about trans athletes in Mississippi despite banning their participation on sports teams that align with their gender identity. Last year, many lawmakers were repeatedly asked to correctly define “critical race theory” and could not.
But this session, Fillingane sought to do what no other Republican lawmaker had done so far in the debate around HB 1125: Talk to actual providers of gender-affirming care in Mississippi. On Monday, he invited Stacie and Lee Pace, the owners of Spectrum: The Other Clinic, to meet with him in his office about the care they provide.
At the gym, Talbot recalled a more casual conversation.
“This was no big formal thing where you’re taking notes or anything like that,” he said, noting that Fillingane’s questions were about what he does and how many trans people he’s operated “as far as, is it a big number.”
Talbot estimated he has performed chest surgery on five trans adults roughly the ages of 24 or 25 who had psychiatric letters, which is what he says he told Fillingane.
In general, Talbot said he doesn’t operate on people under 18 because that’s what he believes is moral. He said most surgeons in Mississippi do the same.
“I wouldn’t bend that rule just because we’re doing a gender transition,” he said.
There’s only a few instances in which Talbot would, like a congential condition that results in substantially uneven breasts. Talbot also gave this example: “She’s gonna be 18 in a month or two, and so you’re going to college, where, you know, before you go to college, every body knows your body image before you get there. Mom’s on board, and it seems like a reasonable thing. Yes, yeah, I’ve done that. But again, that’s rare.”
The gender binary is not as clear-cut as some Mississippians might think, Talbot said. He thinks of cosmetic procedures for cis people as on the same spectrum as those for trans people.
“Typically once you have them draped out in the operating room ready to do surgery, I couldn’t tell if it’s a boy or girl lying on the table,” he said.
There’s no difference, he said, when it comes to the actual procedure: A mastectomy for a cis woman is performed exactly the same way as “top surgery” on a trans man. Still, in Mississippi and across the country, trans people face more barriers in obtaining the same procedures that cis people can get with little questions asked.
“I don’t put a big weight on transitioning,” Talbot said. “I mean, we screen them, I think, better. … We probably find out a lot more information. When it comes down to doing the surgery, it’s just another operation I’ve done 15,000 times, and this one’s no different from the last 15,000.”
All Mississippians should be able to get plastic surgery if they can pay for it, Talbot said. That’s why he doesn’t take insurance.
“There’s lots of girls, thank goodness, walking around with small breasts that want big breasts,” he said. “You don’t get them just because you’ve got small breasts. It’s the same thing to me.”
As the two were exercising, Talbot said he told Fillingane that he doesn’t think House Bill 1125 is a good idea.
“I don’t like them reducing what people can do or limiting what people can do – for anybody, for any group,” Talbot said. “It doesn’t seem right.”
The next time he sees Fillingane at the gym, Talbot said he’ll ask him to take back his comments.
“When I see Joey, I’ll have to say to him, ‘Hey, you need to recant that or whatever because no I’ve never done that,’” Talbot said. “Again, he was on the (elliptical), I was on the (elliptical). It could easily have been misunderstood, I would think.”