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The Texas youth transition law

Children are once again caught in the middle of a culture war over gender

Artillery Row

Texas stands accused of mounting an anti-trans crusade. It follows the Texas governor issuing a directive to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) to launch investigations into reports of transgender children receiving treatment for gender dysphoria. His directive means that parents could potentially face prosecution for child abuse or have their children removed by social services. 

Who speaks for the child if the parent has got it wrong?

The controversial move comes on the back of Florida’s contentious bill that would ban certain instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom, what many media are calling the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Both interventions go to the heart of the culture wars around LGBTI rights and parental rights, and Republican versus Democratic narratives around issues being leveraged by both political parties for maximum political advantage. As a result, in the US the line between actions that support trans children or that exploit them is increasingly hard to discern, as the UK is experiencing too.

An independent review in the UK has “highlighted that the quality of care for children with gender dysphoria in England has been unconscionably compromised in recent years, partly as a result of adult affinities to an unevidenced worldview,” notes a recent Observer editorial. “Some clinicians and charities continue in their efforts to shut down legitimate debate about the affirmative model. These adults must examine their consciences, because it is children whose care is compromised as a result of their ideology.”

The fracas in Texas began on February 18 with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton publishing a legal opinion that gender dysphoria treatment — such as puberty blockers and injections of cross-sex hormones — for anyone under eighteen constituted child abuse under existing Texas laws around the likes of forced sterilization. This was swiftly followed by Governor Greg Abbott’s proclamation that also threatened prosecution for any “licensed professionals who have direct contact with children who may be subject to such abuse” — as well as for members of the public — and didn’t report such incidences. 

Texas and Florida are run by Republicans and these actions are intended to appeal to the party’s base. But the Florida bill seeks to empower and reassure parents concerned about their children being exposed to LGBTI issues too early. Whereas the Texas governor’s decree goes against parental control and represents a significant — some are even saying tyrannical — intrusion of the State into the parent-child custodian bond.

“Even if you don’t think it should be legal for children to receive this treatment, the idea that a child can be taken out of a loving home is [totally] wrong,” says Katie Herzog, the host of the Blocked & Reported podcast that parses hot-button issues generating cantankerous polarisation and confusion. “Once you’ve entered into the foster care system it’s really, really difficult to get out of that system — no kid should be put in that position.”  

Paxton is embroiled in various controversies

In the capital of Texas, Austin, a liberal and Democratic Party-voting city — which usually puts it at loggerheads with the state’s Republican overseers — the actions by Paxton and Abbott have not gone down well. Some Texans I spoke with called out the “hypocrisy” of the Republican Party for interfering in people’s lives in such a brazen way when the party claims to stand for “traditional Texan libertarianism” and “getting the government off my back”.  

“Liberty — with the exception of sex,” was one Austinite’s conclusion on how far the Republican Party’s notion of libertarianism went. “Some people hear ‘trans’ and it scares them — politicians will use that fear.”

The Republican-dominated Texas Legislature has targeted transgender Texans for years, says the Texas Tribune in its article Transgender Texas kids are terrified after governor orders that parents be investigated for child abuse. It notes that in 2017, lawmakers unsuccessfully sought to ban people from using bathrooms that don’t match the sex they were assigned at birth. In 2021 they succeeded in limiting athletic participation by transgender students. By the end of the regular legislative session that year, Texas filed more anti-LGBTQ bills than any other state legislature, according to Equality Texas, which tracks such legislation.

Criticism has also focused on the fact that Paxton and Abbott’s actions came just before an important primary election. During the primary campaign Abbott was accused of not being conservative enough. Paxton is embroiled in various controversies, including fighting securities fraud charges and an investigation by the FBI over allegations of taking bribes for political favours. 

At the same time, there are plenty of Texans who do agree with Abbott. 

“I think it’s great what he’s done,” says one lady who wished to remain anonymous as one of her children has started taking cross-sex hormones as an adult. “This is abusive. Parents should have the right to raise their children in the manner they choose, but it stops here: who speaks for the child if the parent has got it wrong? We have to do something as more and more parents are doing this.”  

Herzog points out that the Texas governor’s move “has not come out of nowhere”. She notes various examples from around US states where children can seek treatment and medications without their parents’ consent, and incidences when teachers have chosen not to inform parents that their child wants to use a different gendered name at school. 

“I think [the Texas case] is a reaction — an overaction — to very real trends that are happening in mostly Blue states and cities,” Herzog says. “It’s saying the liberals have gone too far; California, Washington, Oregon, maybe Austin…have gone too far; so we are going to go too far in the other direction. This is the whole problem with the culture wars — extremes on both sides.” 

While DFPS officials have said that the organization “will follow Texas law” as explained in the attorney general’s legal opinion, enforcement of the issue is now stuck in the courts following a state-wide injunction from a district judge. The Florida bill has been passed by the Florida House and Senate and now just needs to be signed into law by the governor, who has indicated that he supports the measure. 

Democrats and much of the US media are piling in on the Texas governor’s directive and the Florida bill as evidence of how cruel Republicans are. But that is not — and never has been — my overall experience of Republican-voting people, especially in Texas. As with the abortion debate, the mainstream media continually makes a mockery of complex issues as well as of why certain people hold the views that they do. This sophistry is almost always accompanied by trite and platitudinous interpretations of “liberty” and “freedom of choice”. 

US politics is incredibly polarised, but that doesn’t mean the politics are always disingenuous. As a Texan told me, everything is political but using that as a criticism is a red herring. It should come down to whether an issue “is legitimate or not.” Vilification of the Florida bill by most media typically fails to mention that it is aimed at 5 to 8-year-old children who, some have dared note, at that stage should be focusing on lessons such as reading and writing skills.

The gut reaction is to recoil at the notion of the State telling loving parents who are doing what they think is best for their child that they are abusive and warrant prosecution. But parents are not always right. The state and society have always had to wrestle with that fact, and too often in these sorts of conundrums almost everyone involved has got it wrong — hence the Observer editorial. 

“There is an attempt to use shock doctrines and use horrible events like this Texas memo and right-wing laws in other states to stifle discussion,” say Jesse Singal, co-host of Blocked & Reported, and whose 2018 Atlantic magazine article about trans children was accused of being transphobic and led to an avalanche of abuse and threats toward him. “We can’t do that. We have to be able to talk about the issues openly and honestly and accurately.”

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