Parents of transgender children in Texas are reeling after Governor Greg Abbott issued a directive telling "licensed professionals" and "members of the general public" to report parents of transgender minors to authorities if it appears those children are receiving gender-affirming medical care.
The directive, which is not a law, was sent to the state's Department of Family and Protective Services this week, calling on the agency to investigate any reports of minors receiving gender-affirming care. On Monday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton released an opinion that said allowing children to receive care like puberty blockers, hormone therapy and surgery is child abuse.
The opinion ignores guidance from all relevant major medical organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association, which all say that gender-affirming care is medically necessary and backed by decades of research.
For parents of transgender and gender non-conforming children, the new directives are another escalation in a hostile environment. Texas recently banned children from playing in sports with a gender that does not match their birth identity, and in its previous legislative session, the state had 13 proposals addressing transgender children.
Things like Abbott’s directive make it so much easier for people to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people, and it’s already scary being around that kind of hate in school now.
Hailey Lawson, 17
"It’s chilling. It’s terrifying for kids who now fear that their parents might be taken away from them and jailed if they support them. It’s terrifying for parents who fear that caring for their trans children will result in them losing their children," said Jenny Lawson, who writes the popular blog "The Bloggess," and who has one non-binary child. "It’s terrifying for trans kids who are not yet out and are now even less likely to go to their parents for support because this just adds one more level of fear to an already enormous hill they have to overcome."
'This attack is only going to grow'
Advocates and legal experts emphasize that the governor and attorney general's opinion and directive are not law and cannot lead to family separations. A bill to criminalize providing gender-affirming care failed in the Texas legislature last year. Parents fear that the opinion and directive will lead to more legislation targeting their families.
"They tried passing a bill that would make parents like us child abusers and strip our children from our home, and that bill failed," said Dallas-area mom Amber Briggle, who has a teenaged transgender child and testified against the legislation in 2021. "Therefore it is not illegal to love and support and protect a trans kid. ... I'm not scared because I know what my rights are as a parent in this state, but I am concerned that these attacks are happening not only against my family but against trans kids literally across the country. I'm concerned that this attack is only going to grow."
Briggle said that even though she knows her child can't be taken from her, she does worry that Child Protective Services will be called on her family or on the families of other transgender children. Lawson said that she worries that state leaders will eventually target her family.
"The idea that a government could try to take such ridiculously overreaching and harmful steps for trans kids just makes all of us a little more nervous about what unexpected thing could happen in the future," Lawson said. "None of us are safe until all of us are safe, and that’s not just about kids on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum."
For mom Violet A., who asked that her last name be withheld to protect her family, the new directive is a final straw: She plans to leave Texas with her transgender 6-year-old, even though that means giving up her local support systems and using the money she was saving to buy a house to relocate.
"It's always been scary, ever since we socially transitioned (my child) back in 2020, it's been scary," said Violet, referencing a process in which children begin to present as a different gender. This may involve a different haircut or clothing, using a different name or pronouns, and otherwise altering their gender expression. "With the sports ban last year, things got a little scarier. When ... a gender-affirming healthcare spot for children closed a few months ago, it got a little scarier. So now, to hear about this most recent news, I'm over Texas. I'm over it."
For Briggle, the opinion issued by Paxton is especially personal: In 2016, she invited the attorney general to dine with her, her husband and her two children, and they discussed trans rights. Paxton accepted the invitation, and Briggle said that the two families spent several hours together.
“He was in our home ... dined at our table, engaged with our children, looked us in the eye before he left and said that (our son) was a good kid. It’s not that he’s ignorant, it’s that he doesn’t care,” Briggle said. “... It just personally offends me that he could just be so cruel and cold-hearted, to sit at my table with my family and then say that families like mine should be torn apart.”
'Texas doesn’t want me to be who I am'
Parents also worry about how general sentiment in Texas could affect their children and other transgender or gender non-conforming youth.
Violet said that her 6-year-old daughter doesn't watch the news much, but still is aware that some people are hostile to her existence.
"When we transitioned her, I was able to gauge people's responses and reactions," said Violet. "The daycare she was at when we transitioned her refused to use her new pronouns and her new names. There just hasn't been this feeling of being supported in general ... She's really smart, so she picks up when people are not accepting of her, and she'll kind of act out a little bit or not behave the way she should."
"Our experience has been that people, my family included, just kind of treat her like she’s an aberration, like there’s something wrong with her, like I’ve done something wrong as a parent," Violet continued. "They just generally act like she’s broken or something’s wrong and she picks up on that."
Lawson's child Hailey, who is 14 and who spoke to TODAY with their mother's permission, told TODAY that the new directive is already affecting their classmates.
“It already feels hard enough to just exist as a non-cis person and it sucks that Texas doesn’t want me to be who I am. I understand people want to protect kids but as a person who suffers from gender dysphoria you are not protecting me from anything. You are making it worse," they said. "Things like Abbott’s directive make it so much easier for people to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people, and it’s already scary being around that kind of hate in school now.”
'We need to stand up for trans kids now'
Texas parents are trying to decide what their best move for the future is. For some, like Violet, that means leaving the state.
"The writing is on the wall here. You know what I mean? I’ve been ignoring it and trying to look past it and there’s just no reason to anymore," said Violet, through tears. "I just want to get her somewhere safe before she’s anywhere near puberty, so when that type of health care starts to be a necessity then it won’t be a matter of potentially getting criminalized for it."
"When I started doing my research into other states and the laws that they have, it just seemed very clear cut like, 'OK, well, this is kind of a no-brainer,'" Violet continued. "I just need to get her somewhere where the laws on the books are written to protect her and not to erase her identity."
Meanwhile, Briggle, who is active in her community and said she feels safe and supported in her area, is determined to stay and fight against anti-trans legislation. Lawson said she plans to do the same.
"I have a small fear that the next push will be against any parent offering any sort of affirmation of their LGBTQIA+ kid or being somehow persecuted for offering support to trans kids or offering LGBTQIA+ literature in my bookshop, but I have faith that it won’t get that bad, and if it does it won’t affect the way I live my life," Lawson said. "I will still offer love and care to every person and support people to be the best possible versions of themselves."
Briggle said that she hopes families around the nation see what's happening in Texas and it fuels a movement to protect all families.
"If parents everywhere think this attack on trans kids doesn't affect their kids because their kids are cisgender, then they're wrong," Briggle said. "If anyone can get away with this and inflict this upon families like mine, who's next, right? Are they going to come now for the kids who have been adopted by same-sex couples? Are they going to come after kids who have been adopted from outside the United States? ... If they can get away with this, who's next?"