On February 18, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a non-binding opinion calling gender-affirming care for trans young people “child abuse.”
On February 22, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott directed the Texas Department of Family and Planning Services to investigate parents as child abusers if they support their trans children in accessing care they want and need. He also claimed that teachers, doctors and nurses, as well as members of the general public, could face criminal penalties if they do not report parents and providers who support trans youth.
The Danger to Families
Legally, neither the governor nor the attorney general have the power to define — or redefine — child abuse. And providing trans young people with health care they want and need — and that doctors have provided for roughly a century — is absolutely not child abuse. The law has not changed. Trans health care remains legal in all 50 states.
But what people think the law says matters. Once someone reports suspected abuse or neglect and the state insinuates itself into a family, it can be difficult to get it out again. The fear of state surveillance is real for all families with trans children. But the danger is amplified for those in Texas already vulnerable to child removal and the family policing system. Black, Indigenous, Latinx, poor, and disabled families, as well as parents who are trans, survivors of intimate partner violence, or dealing with drug addiction, are much more likely to have their children removed than other families. They are also less likely to have the resources to leave their home state to seek a safer climate for their families if they choose.
For families in this position, there is no clear safe option.
Parents of trans youth in Texas are now afraid of bringing their children to the doctor or to school, because if they do, teachers, doctors and nurses — who may be afraid of being criminalized themselves, even if the actual risk is very low — could report them as child abusers. But not taking the child to the doctor or to school can also result in the child’s removal from their home.
If a doctor recommends their child start puberty blockers — a safe, reversible intervention that has saved trans lives for years — and the parent moves forward with the treatment, they might be accused of child abuse. If the agency then decides to act on the governor’s word rather than the law, the agency could remove the child until the parents can fight it in court. Meanwhile, being removed from their homes puts children at greater risk for actual abuse: Trans kids are often abused in foster care systems. In this context, knowing that you should win in court is thin comfort.
If the parent doesn’t move forward with gender-affirming care, that doesn’t make their child safe either — their child’s health may deteriorate. And not following a doctor’s advice on medically necessary care for a child can sometimes lead to accusations of medical neglect and child removal anyway. So far, no reported cases involve child removal for failure to treat gender dysphoria, and it seems unlikely to happen given how much providers tend to emphasize consent of both parents and patients in this context. Still, there is no safe option.
For those already entangled in the family policing system, these catch-22s might not come as any surprise. To get or keep custody of your kids, you might be told you have to get and keep a job — while also being told you must never leave your child unsupervised. (The system, of course, will not pay for child care.) If you are unhoused, you might be told you have to get appropriate living quarters for you and your child. (The system, of course, will not pay for housing.) If you have been abused, you might be told you have to stop “exposing” your child to domestic violence, as if you could control the actions of your ex. You might be told not to get arrested, when you have no home and it’s a crime to sleep outside, or when the police pick you up every time you leave your house just because you’re Black, trans, femme and walking down the street.
Where These Attacks Come From
The Texas attorney general and governor’s actions, as well as those of others attacking trans people, seem hypocritical only if you believe their propaganda. Supposedly champions of “parental rights” and “small government,” they want the government to kidnap trans children if their parents choose to love and support them. Supposedly concerned about the risks of unproven treatment on young people, especially treatment that impacts fertility, they have chosen to try to outlaw care that young people understand and want, that no one gets before puberty, and that has proven long-term benefits and little risk, including to fertility. Yet they continue to support intersex genital surgeries performed on infants and children so young they cannot possibly understand or want the intervention, and even though most of these surgeries lack proven long-term benefits and pose significant risks, including to fertility.
But it’s never been about parental rights or health concerns to Paxton, Abbott, or the many others like them. It’s only ever been about power. This quest for power takes the form of trying to advance political careers at the expense of those they don’t think will be able to do anything about it. It also takes the form of trying to create a world order — half remembered and half imagined — where people like them have even more control than they do already, and everyone else either knows their place or has been rendered extinct.
While unprecedented in its specifics, this extreme attack on trans young people, their families and their providers is of a piece with other efforts to impose or maintain that world order. It is a part of the web of criminalization and family policing woven into the fabric of government and society around the country, including in “progressive” states. It is a part of the more than a hundred anti-trans bills that have been introduced this legislative session and the several that passed last legislative session, some of them seeking to criminalize the care that many trans young people’s lives depend on, and almost all attacking trans young people specifically. Those bills themselves are not alone, but part of a package of extreme measures seeking not only to eradicate or contain trans life but also (further) criminalize abortion, homelessness, and Black protest; decriminalize white-perpetrated murder of Black Lives Matter protesters; inculcate schoolchildren in white supremacist values; and suppress the vote of Black, Indigenous, disabled, homeless, trans and non-English speaking folks. It is also a part of a much larger attack on trans life, which shows up in myriad ways, whether it’s the latest hot take on whether trans people ought to exist on the pages of a major newspaper or the harassment that drove the only clinic for trans young people in Texas to close last year.
How to Take Action
Unfortunately, many of us advocating on LGBT law and policy issues are not as prepared as we ought to be for this emergency. Many Indigenous nations and Black woman-led reproductive justice and abolitionist organizations have been battling child removal and the family policing system for decades or more. Too few of us have struggled alongside them. Also, within LGBT legal advocacy, trans-led organizations remain under-resourced compared with cis-led organizations, even though trans leadership could not be more critical in these moments.
These coordinated attacks on trans lives demand that we deepen connections among those working for reproductive justice, racial justice, trans liberation and decriminalization. Cis parents of trans young people — and trans young people themselves — would also do well to deepen their connections with trans adults and elders, many of whom have deep experience navigating unsafe environments and severe barriers to care. Additionally, as we fight hard for trans young people to be able to get the care they want and need, we should also be fighting hard for intersex and disabled children to be free from unwanted medical interventions.
We should all be watching for guidance and calls to action from local trans-led groups in Texas and following their lead. We should also be giving them money if we have it. I recommend going to the Trans Justice Funding Project and checking out their recent grantee list — it’s a treasure trove of information about small, trans-led organizations doing important work, organized by state or territory.
It’s also important not to spread misinformation, and to correct it when you hear it. Remember, what people believe the law says matters. And trans health care is absolutely legal. No parent or provider breaks the law by supporting a trans young person’s access to care, in Texas or anywhere else in the country (a court has stopped the Arkansas trans health ban from going into effect thus far). No teacher or social worker breaks the law by not reporting a supportive family. If anyone does face consequences for not denying trans young people care or not trying to get them removed from their homes, we need to be all in to support and defend them.
More generally, trans people need cis people to do the work of educating other cis people on trans issues, and speaking up when they say or do something harmful to trans people, in every context where it happens.
Everyone should be watching the legislative session, and responding to attacks on trans communities — as well as attacks on Black and Indigenous people, cis and trans women, immigrants, pregnant people and those who can become pregnant, and others — by responding to and boosting calls to action from local folks from the affected communities. When considering whether to show up to rallies, contact elected officials, testify at a hearing, give money or otherwise get involved, consider what you would do if your life — or the life of your child — was on the line.