Feature writing

LGBTQ+ issues

Texas leaders intensify a vicious war on trans kids and their parents

The Daily Beast

February 25, 2022

Texas’ governor and attorney general say gender-affirming care is “child abuse,” and will be prosecuted as such. But that isn’t the law, and now angry parents are fighting back.

Libby Gonzales, from Dallas, is 11. In a couple of weeks, she will celebrate turning 12. But right now she is scared because of the “bullying” behavior of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and the state’s governor, Greg Abbott.

This week, Paxton and Abbott stated they considered gender-affirming care for trans people under 18, like Libby, to be “child abuse,” with Abbott directing the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) to “conduct a prompt and thorough investigation of any reported instances of these abusive procedures in the State of Texas.” Abbott said that any professional with any contact with children receiving such treatment should report it or face jail—and that this went for members of the general public too.

Paxton and Abbott’s directives are not legally enforceable, but the intent behind them has left trans children and their families feeling intense fear, worry, and upset about living in a state which would criminalize parents for loving and supporting their children, while also living with the risk of having those same children taken from them. Paxton and Abbott’s statements run counter to the policies and guidance of every leading medical association, which back gender-affirming health care for young people.

“It feels very scary, but I have a supportive community,” Libby said in a conference call featuring LGBTQ and trans advocates Thursday. “It’s super-annoying that all these lawmakers are just bullying me, and other trans and non-binary kids. It’s really sad.”

Libby’s mom, Rachel, said that over the last few days, “despite what the headlines impress upon people,” she and her family had felt loved and supported” in Texas. But, she added, “To say that it’s scary is an understatement of a lifetime.” Yes, parents know that Paxton and Abbott’s words are just opinions with no legal weight, she said, but she still worried about those who do not understand that and wrongly or falsely report trans kids and their parents to the authorities.

The “lies” of lawmakers like Paxton and Abbott, Rachel said, could lead to grave hurt for trans children like Libby, and their devoted parents. “It’s absolutely reprehensible,” Rachel said. “I’m embarrassed for our state,” she added, which instead of protecting children uses “them repeatedly as pawns.”

Rachel said she had received “a number of messages of absolute panic,” with children now terrified of going to school, or of a sudden door-knock from DFPS. “The potential scenarios are causing so much fear,” Rachel said.

Emmett Schelling, executive director of the Transgender Education Network of Texas, said it felt like the intention of Abbott, Paxton and other legislators was to “eradicate” trans people. The upside of recent days had been the immense amount of support trans Texans had received from so many, Schelling said. “The pushback on this is going to be enormous,” he said. “It’s a wake-up call. People care a lot.”

Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas, told The Daily Beast that he was concerned about the “practical application” of Paxton and Abbott’s words, legally binding or not. Equality Texas had already been contacted by parents of trans kids looking to leave the state for other states with more affirming legislatures. “But with nearly 200 pieces of anti-LGBTQ legislation across America, where is ‘safe’ now?” Martinez told The Daily Beast.

The Daily Beast reached out to both Paxton and Abbott asking them to explain their statements, and how they saw them being legally and practically enforced. Abbott’s office referred this reporter to Paxton, who did not return requests for comment.

In a statement, a DFPS spokesperson said: “In accordance with Governor Abbott’s directive… we will follow Texas law as explained in (the) Attorney General’s opinion… At this time, there are no pending investigations of child abuse involving the procedures described in that opinion. If any such allegations are reported to us, they will be investigated under existing policies of Child Protective Investigations.”

This reporter put it to a DFPS spokesperson that there was no such “law” in Texas ruling that gender-affirming treatment for trans teens was illegal, and that this was just Paxton’s opinion. What law, this reporter asked, would the DFPS be following in its investigations into trans teens and their parents—or did Paxton’s opinion now count as law as far as the DFPS was concerned? The spokesperson said they were aware that there was “discourse on this issue,” and could not speak in greater detail.

The Daily Beast also asked the DFPS to clarify that if it received reports of trans teenagers receiving gender-affirming care would it investigate such care as “child abuse,” per Paxton and Abbott’s statements. The DFPS is yet to respond to our question.

If Paxton and Abbott’s intention is to sow confusion, the lack of clarity at DFPS is mirrored in other key organizations.

In a statement, Dr. E. Linda Villarreal, president of the Texas Medical Association (TMA), the largest state medical society in the nation representing more than 56,000 physician and medical student members, told The Daily Beast: “The issues raised this week by the Texas governor and attorney general are complicated. TMA physician leaders are seeking input from the governor’s office and others to determine what these orders actually mean for patients and the physicians who care for them. Our ultimate goal is to ensure patients can access sensitive, thoughtful, caring consultation with their physicians, regardless of the health care issue.”

A spokesperson would not clarify what was “complicated” in the TMA’s mind, or what clarification it was seeking from the governor’s office. “Once we learn more, we are happy to discuss,” the spokesperson told The Daily Beast.

The ACLU and other organizations on the Thursday call could not say what its legal strategy was when it came to Paxton and Abbott’s pronouncements. The general thinking seemed to be that a lawsuit or challenge would emerge if the Attorney General and Governor’s policy resulted in a trans teenager or parent or teacher or doctor being targeted in the ways Paxton and Abbott have laid out.

Currently, as The Daily Beast has reported, Arkansas is the only state with a trans youth health-care ban in place, after a similar measure failed to pass in other state legislatures, including Texas, last year. There are presently hundreds of proposed anti-LGBTQ bills, including more health-care bans, in Republican-controlled state legislatures. In Texas, advocates and parents say the issue has re-emerged this week because Abbott and Paxton are facing challenging primaries on March 1, and are using trans kids as political weapons to position themselves further right than their challengers.

“I am not surprised,” Martinez said. “This isn’t new. This is another attempt to turn Texans against Texans, and Texans against their LGBTQ neighbors. In surveys, 70 percent of Texans say they believe discrimination against LGBTQ people is wrong. Republicans are trying to erode that by using misinformation. They have found it politically advantageous in the past, and there is an election here on March 1. They are spreading lies and vilifying trans and LGBTQ people because they have hotly contested primaries, and they want to secure their re-election. This is an emergency for our community, and right now we need our allies to be vocal in supporting us.”

“They’re trying to out-crazy the crazies,” Amber Briggle, the mother of a 14-year-old trans son, told The Daily Beast. “This is a last-ditch effort to win primary votes.”

Briggle, who wrote a powerful article in The Daily Beast last year when the legislature was trying to pass a bill that would have labeled affirming parents as “child abusers,” said she had been contacted by “countless” parents of trans children in Texas asking if they needed to leave the state.

“I keep telling them, ‘It’s not the law, and Paxton and Abbott can’t just say it’s the law because they want it to be the law.’ I keep saying, ‘Paxton doesn’t make the laws, he enforces them.’”

In 2016, Briggle said she and her husband had invited Paxton and his wife to supper. Briggle said she had wanted Paxton, prior to the introduction of bathroom bills a year later, to see what a trans-inclusive family looked like. “I asked him if he could stop the bad, anti-trans bills we could see coming. He looked me in the eyes and said, ‘I don’t make the laws.’ He knows he doesn’t make the laws, and Abbott can’t compel agencies like the DFPS to investigate families like mine of the law doesn’t exist. They’re making shit up to scare people.”

“Paxton sat at our table breaking bread with our family,” Briggle recalled. “We had a lovely talk for two and a half hours. He exchanged magic tricks with my son. Paxton and his wife bought a warm home-baked dessert. They live just one county over, which is ‘next door’ in Texas terms. That he should turn around now, and say families like mine shouldn’t exist is unconscionable.

“Our intention had not been to talk politics, but to build a bridge, so he realized there was nothing to be scared of to meet a trans person in flesh and blood. It’s hard to hate up close. I wanted him to think that the next time an anti-trans bill came up to stop and think twice, about the child and family he had just met.”

When Briggle’s children were out of the room, brushing their teeth and putting on their pajamas, Paxton said of Briggle’s trans son: “He seems like a really good kid.” Today, Briggle notes that he used her son’s proper pronouns. “And now this. Has he forgotten about that dinner? Doesn’t he care? Fuck him.”

Schelling told The Daily Beast that the latest salvos from Paxton and Abbott were part of a “coordinated effort. They want to drive trans children out of Texas, or into a grave. Across the country we have never had a case where parents have been criminalized for supporting their trans kids, or for listening to physicians who are using best practice as laid out by by reputable and credible medical professional entities. It’s clear, through their actions and words, they would rather see dead kids than happy, supported, thriving trans children. It makes me sick to my stomach. They’re using my people, and our children, to further their own political gain without a mind to the harm they are doing. They are talking about separating families, and criminalizing parents trying to do their best.”

Schelling said he had heard from school educators who are “terrified” to help trans children they see being bullied in schools because of the words and statements from Texas’ Republican state leadership.

“Some families have left, some are talking about leaving, and we know of children who successfully ended their lives after HB 25 (an anti-trans sports ban) passed last year,” Schelling told The Daily Beast. “When we say trans people are dying, that this is killing our children, I am not kidding. This is a reality.”

Briggle said friends living elsewhere in the country had offered her family a safe place to live. “I keep telling them we’re fine, and that Paxton and Abbott are causing unnecessary hysteria to win their elections. I want to say to them, ‘Thank you. I know you’re saying this for the best reasons. But please stop telling me I need to move. Don’t put that impetus on me. I have done nothing wrong, and I deserve to be safe in the place that I live in the state that I love. Texas is a diverse, beautiful place. Instead, please ask your senators to vote for the Equality Act so it passes in the Senate.’

“I know what is best for my child. Ken Paxton and Greg Abbott don’t. I love my son, and I provide the care he needs because it is not illegal, and it is the right thing to do.”

Briggle said she had recommended to worried parents they have a “safe folder” always updated and always ready, filled with official and personal documents outlining their trans child’s development and loved place within the family. “If at some point it becomes clear we are no longer safe in this state, I don’t know what we would do,” she said. “But why would I run away now because two dipshits are trying to exploit kids to win a primary race?”

Briggle said that whenever Paxton, Abbott, and other Republicans attacked trans teens and families like hers, the rest of the community galvanized in support of her. She had not told her son about the latest attack by Paxton and Abbott, “as I don’t want him not being able to sleep, worried he will be snatched from his bed in the middle of the night in a case of state-sanctioned child abduction. He’s fine. Tonight, gymnastics practice is canceled because of an ice storm, so I expect he’ll sit in front of the fire and pet the cat.”