50.50: Opinion

Texas parents with trans kids speak out on shocking ‘child abuse’ policy

A new law in one US state means families with trans children can be investigated for ‘child abuse’. Now parents are fighting back

Chrissy Stroop
Chrissy Stroop
28 March 2022, 5.01pm

Protest outside the State Capitol in Austin against Texas’s new anti-trans policy, 1 March 2022

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Bob Daemmrich / ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Texas’s new state policy of targeting the loving parents of transgender children with sham “child abuse” investigations has shocked Americans of conscience and observers around the world.

But while the policy represents an immensely harmful escalation, the assault on trans rights has been well under way in Texas and other American states for years.

The inhumane new policy – currently in limbo amid rapid legal manoeuvring – seems to have been inspired by the case of Jeff Younger.

Younger is a financial analyst who is now running for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives on the strength of the cachet he gained among extreme right-wingers in a custody battle with his estranged wife. She is a paediatrician who allowed one of their two twin children to socially transition from male to female – that is, to dress and live as a girl – when the child was staying with her.

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This decision represents medical best practice, and is in line with the broad consensus of the medical and scientific communities. By claiming in court that acceptance of the child’s desire to socially transition was “child abuse”, Younger was, in fact, the abuser.

And now the state of Texas is following in his abusive footsteps.

The Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, a well-known evangelical ideologue who was indicted on multiple felony fraud charges in 2015, published a non-binding opinion in February. This provides a fig leaf of legal cover for the state to investigate parents who allow their children to receive age-appropriate gender transition care, for “child abuse”.

Texas governor Greg Abbot, a right-wing Catholic, swiftly acted on that opinion – which legal scholars widely agree represents unconstitutional executive overreach. He ordered the state child welfare agencies to begin terrorising Texas families who have (or are merely suspected to have) transgender children, by opening up illegitimate “child abuse” investigations in response to reports – denunciations, really – from other Texans.

Asked whether the Texas policy is constitutional, Charles ‘Rocky’ Rhodes, a professor at the South Texas College of Law in Houston, answers unequivocally: “Absolutely not.” The moment is striking, since throughout most of our phone conversation, his words are measured and carefully spoken.

Rhodes also doesn’t mince words about Paxton, a man he sees as “an opportunist”. On matters of constitutional law, both state and federal, there is no doubt in Rhodes’ mind that the state attorney general and governor have overstepped. Under the state constitution, they don’t have the authority to so radically redefine a statute – as they have done in this case. That prerogative belongs to the state legislature.

As for federal law, Rhodes points to issues relative to equal protection, citing the example of puberty blockers. If doctors are legally allowed to prescribe them for some conditions but not for the treatment of gender dysphoria, Rhodes argues, that “shows that the only reason for the law is animus toward transgender individuals”.

A parent fights back

Unfortunately, such animus is surging among Texas conservatives. Over the last few weeks, I have spoken to some of the parents being targeted simply for loving and accepting their children as they are. Their stories are heartbreaking.

Katie Laird is a social impact strategist, who has recently moved from the corporate to the nonprofit sector. She is also the mother of a trans son, currently in high school, who she asked me to refer to as ‘N’.

Laird told me that one of the things she most loves about N is how he “has always been uniquely himself”. When he came out during his last year of middle school, Laird explained: “He was worried that it would be too much for us, which is like, ‘oh baby, for you anything, nothing is too much’.” And Laird has been a fierce fighter for N’s rights and well-being as a young trans man ever since.

Born in Texas and currently living in the diverse urban centre of Houston, Laird said she now has a “love-hate relationship” with her home state, because it “is becoming very hostile to my family”.

Last October, after testifying in Austin, the state capital, before the Texas house committee on constitutional rights and remedies, Laird wrote, “I am firmly in crisis mode.” At that point, Texas was considering a ban on trans children’s participation in school sports, a ban that was ultimately approved by the state legislature.

That was the only anti-trans bill to pass the Texas legislature last year, out of 76 that were considered – a flurry of anti-trans agitation and activity that put Laird and her family on what she calls “an emotional rollercoaster”.

Laird travelled frequently between Houston and Austin to fight the proposed bills, testifying, meeting with legislators and “having to walk through these hallways with people calling you a genital mutilator, wearing pro-life T-shirts, but acting in a way that I see as not at all pro-life”.

Although she’s proud of the accomplishments of herself and her fellow activists in fighting off 75 proposed bills, she said it feels like a “hollow victory”, because Texas Republicans continue to scapegoat trans people and push the boundaries of what is possible in terms of persecuting them.

Laird and her fellow activists “feel so certain that with the sports bill, they wanted to […] get people riled up, put certain language in people’s heads” in order to pave the way for even harsher measures later. This feeling is being borne out in current events.

Her family is not under investigation at this point, but Laird knows families that are. Before the governor ordered these “child abuse” investigations, Laird said she had never considered moving out of Texas, but that option is now on the table.

She lives, she said, in a state of “visceral fear”. But she added, with what might be described as authentic Texas grit: “I refuse to be silenced. I’m not going to cower.”

Family under investigation

The Briggle family knows well the fear that Laird describes. They live in North Texas, where Adam Briggle teaches at a local university – one where a right-wing student group invited Jeff Younger to speak.

“The students shouted him down,” Adam told me by phone on 8 March. He was fielding calls from reporters that day, which is when the Briggles went public with the information that they are under investigation for “child abuse” because they have a transgender son.

He calls his wife Amber “the real rock star” in terms of advocating for trans rights. They have been fighting for those rights since 2015, when the first ‘bathroom bill’ was proposed.

They just get more vicious and consequential. Now they’re talking about throwing us in jail

In 2016, the Briggles famously hosted state attorney general Paxton for dinner, hoping that the interaction would soften his anti-trans political stance. Adam Briggle hoped that the political attacks on trans Texans would eventually fade away, but instead “they just get more vicious and consequential. Now they’re talking about throwing us in jail.”

The Briggles’ experiences with their local community remain mostly positive, but Adam said, “I’m much more skittish now […] with being out and about. I think it’s part of their game. It’s kind of terror tactic.”

I believe that Adam is correct. His family, and Laird’s, and – above all – transgender people in Texas are being terrorised by a fascist policy, one that may pave the way for more horrors to come.

According to Rhodes, the fate of the policy could be decided by the Texas Supreme Court, and it may reach the federal Supreme Court. Even if it does, its fate is far from certain. Rhodes pointed out that the US Supreme Court “has never issued a constitutional ruling on trans rights”.

Although precedent suggests that two of the court’s conservative-minded justices (John Roberts and Neil Gorsuch) should rule for those targeted by Texas’s cruel policy, the court is broadly unsympathetic to the rights of queer Americans. Roberts and Gorsuch are more concerned with the court’s institutional legitimacy than the other conservative justices, who are partisan extremists. But whether they would side with the court’s liberals in ruling the Texas policy unconstitutional is far from a foregone conclusion.

The parents I spoke to warn of dire consequences if the policy is allowed to stand. Katie Laird feels strongly that trans kids and their families will not be the only target for severe state persecution. “At some point in the very near future,” she said confidently, “the focus will shift from trans kids to trans adults, and from there it will move out into the broader queer community.”

Meanwhile, Adam Briggle explained that by choosing to go public about the fact that his family is under investigation by Texas child protective services, his family wants to send a very clear message: “We really think we need to draw a line in the sand right here, as a nation. This is too far.”

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