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‘These are powerful people who are attacking children’: Parents respond to Texas’s latest anti-trans directive

(Adam Smigielski/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
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This story has been updated.

For months, parents of transgender children in Texas have been fighting a historic wave of anti-trans legislation in their state, including dozens of bills that would strip rights away from trans kids and their families. So when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) last week instructed state agencies to investigate families who provide gender-affirming treatments to their children — and to “refer for prosecution any such abuse” — it landed as a particularly devastating blow.

As news of Abbott’s move spread, Rachel Gonzales, a mother in Dallas, consoled her 11-year-old transgender daughter, who broke down in tears. Annaliese Cothron, a mom to a nonbinary transgender child in San Antonio, immediately felt gripped by fear, thinking of the harassment and abuse families such as hers could face. In Houston, Lisa Stanton’s phone began to fill with messages from friends asking whether Stanton and her family, which includes her transgender daughter, would be moving away from their home: You’re leaving Texas, right?

The letter to the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services followed a Feb. 18 opinion issued by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) stating that certain gender-affirming treatments for transgender children — including gender reassignment surgery and puberty-blocking medications — “can legally constitute child abuse.” The developments in Texas are the latest in an ongoing torrent of anti-trans legislation sweeping across the country, as conservative lawmakers have sought to ban medical treatments for transgender children and prohibit trans kids from playing on sports teams that match their gender identity.

FAQ: What you need to know about transgender children

The legal implications of Abbott’s directive are not clear — several county attorneys have already stated that they will not enforce it, and policy experts on trans issues have noted that Paxton’s opinion is not legally binding and that there is no existing law in Texas or any state that labels gender-affirming care as abuse. But on Tuesday, it was reported that Texas officials had begun investigating families suspected of providing gender-affirming care, including one employee of the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services, who has a 16-year-old transgender daughter. The ACLU has filed a legal challenge to the order on behalf of the state employee and a psychologist who works with transgender and nonbinary children.

The reverberations are profound for transgender children and their families. Cothron, Gonzales and Stanton are among the more visible and vocal advocates for the rights of transgender children in Texas — a position and privilege that all three said they take seriously because they know that many other families in less supportive communities and more vulnerable circumstances cannot safely speak out on behalf of their children. The three mothers spoke to The Washington Post about their response to Abbott’s directive and their plans going forward. These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Annaliese Cothron, parent to a transgender child in San Antonio:

I have two kids, both are LGBTQ-identified, and one is transgender. My husband is a Purple Heart veteran, and our young transgender child is nonbinary, 9 years old. They came out to us a few years ago, just said: “You know, Mom, I’m going to use they/them pronouns.” I started getting involved in advocacy last year after seeing all the bills in the Texas legislature — originally we thought they were going nowhere. We thought these bills were just signaling to an extremist base, that they were so horrifying that no one would ever take them seriously, including a bill that would have designated gender-affirming care as child abuse. But that bill [was not taken up for consideration by the House] because it was so extreme, which is why I was so shocked to see our attorney general and our governor seemingly bypass that legislative process. The point is to create fear, to create harm, to silence transgender kids, to erase their existence. The entire point is to send them into hiding, so they don’t feel like they’re welcome in Texas.

As a mom, my initial response is fear — these are powerful people who are attacking children. We’re just everyday people. I take my kids to school. I go to church every Sunday. We don’t have some hidden agenda. We’re just community members who are being attacked by these powerful people. We don’t tell our kids what’s happening, or if we do, we try to do it in a way that doesn’t instill absolute terror, because that’s what we’re feeling.

As a parent, the number one goal is protection of your child. I pulled my child out of the public school system and sent them to a school where I thought they could be safer. I just couldn’t risk my child being exposed to bullying, being exposed to other parents saying they couldn’t use the bathroom, all the little things that when they add up can make a child feel like they don’t deserve to be a person. So my child understands on some levels that they’re not welcome in certain places. We’ve had to have a discussion about whether they can play sports when they’re older, and that was a bill that I fought against, and as a parent it’s heartbreaking and it’s also humiliating to admit defeat to your child — to know you’ve in some way failed them, that you can’t give them a basic experience like playing sports on a team with their friends. But at the end of the day, we have such a great community that rallies around us, we have church members who love our kids and would do anything for them, there are so many faith leaders who are standing up for transgender children — I do feel very hopeful that there are so many people saying, “This is not going to stand.” There are [roughly] 14,000 transgender kids living in Texas [according to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law]. They all deserve protection, and it’s not going to happen unless people can be vocal. We need allies to help take the load off transgender people and their families, to stand up for what’s right.

Rachel Gonzales, parent to a transgender daughter in Dallas:

My daughter, Libby, is 11, and she transitioned six years ago. In March of 2017, my husband gave a speech on the front steps of the Texas Capitol for trans lobby day, and Libby was not supposed to be standing with us at that time, but she came and then she ran up and stood with us, and her face was on newspapers around the world. She testified before the Texas legislature for the first time when she was 7.

When the AG opinion came out, we thought, ‘Well, this isn’t good.’ But it was the governor’s letter that put people over the edge, because it says that they’ll criminalize people who are not reporting parents of trans kids, and that’s bananas. So it’s not just an attack on trans kids and their families, it’s an attack on every single person who has any contact with the parent of a trans kid, or a trans kid. I don’t cry a lot — I just get mad and try to be productive. But when the governor’s letter came out, I cried a lot. It’s just so overwhelming to have your child be in the crosshairs of the most powerful political people in your state.

At first everyone was thinking, “Oh my God, do I need to hire an attorney? Do I need to take my kid out of school? What do I need to do to keep my kid safe?” Is there anything more terrifying for a parent than their kid being removed from their house? My phone started blowing up, and as I was getting more and more messages, I was like, “We have to do something, we have to get to the bottom of this — this is not legally binding, but so many people don’t know that, so we need to get this information to parents.” Parents are freaking out, for good reasons. I’m a member of the [Human Rights Campaign’s] Parents for Transgender Equality National Council, and I planned a Zoom call in less than 24 hours and we had 447 people show up. It was extremely helpful — our biggest fear is that teachers, nurses, doctors, counselors, are going to see that letter and not realize that it’s an opinion piece, that it’s not the law.

I’m abundantly aware, and so is my daughter, of our privilege in this, and that is why we are so active in the fight. There are thousands of families across the state who cannot be as visible. And they cannot leave. Stop telling us to leave Texas! There are so many reasons people can’t leave, and people should not have to leave their homes. My kids know we are not backing down, and we are not letting our governor and our attorney general run us out of our home. Libby knows that there are so many people fighting for her, and I think that gives her great comfort. At the same time, I haven’t told her specifics about what this letter means, and I don’t want to, because she’s not going to sleep if I tell her that.

Lisa Stanton, parent to a transgender daughter in Houston:

My husband and I are parents of 11-year-old twins. We thought we had biological twin boys when they were born, but from the time that my daughter could talk, she was asserting that she was a girl. We did not understand what it meant at the time — we were so uneducated, and it wasn’t in our worldview to understand that children could be trans. We realized we were out of our depth, and we got educated and informed, and it was truthfully a very hard process. Our biggest thing was we were really scared to allow her to transition and to be her authentic self because of potential backlash. Would it make her life harder? But we knew that our child was really struggling and depressed, and when we allowed her to express her gender identity, she was happy. She has lived for six years as a girl, and she is thriving. She is happy and healthy and doing fabulously and it has become so clear to us that this is who she always was.

I first heard about a ‘safe folder’ years ago when our daughter was transitioning, and a local organization called Gender Infinity provided a lot of resources to us. When we were going through the process of getting her name changed, it came up: ‘Do you have a safe folder? You should make sure to put all this documentation you’ve been collecting from her name change in the safe folder.’ So we put one together. It includes photographs of our daughter before her social transition, showing that she always saw herself this way. There are emails from teachers at preschool talking about how our daughter was so upset and didn’t want to change out of the dress-up clothes. Pictures showing that she would run in and immediately put on a princess dress and didn’t want to take it off. Drawings she made that have her old name, and the drawing is of a girl. There are letters from our physicians that support us as a family, talking about our parenting style, and her specific medical providers who can talk about and support her diagnosis as having gender dysphoria and being transgender. It’s all documentation that supports our journey and our family’s story and her story. It’s a tool that we have, to know that if someone calls Child Protective Services, we have evidence ready to show that this wasn’t some decision that was made lightly. So after Abbott’s letter came out, I pulled out our safe folder and emailed all our friends and doctors again for updated letters to include.

We have made the decision not to share Abbott’s letter with our children, and we’ve asked all of our friends not to say anything about it to our children — we do typically let our daughter know what’s going on. She’s been very vocal and involved in the political advocacy work that we’ve done around the trans rights movement because we’d rather she feel empowered and have the skills to stand up for herself. But we know in this situation, this is not a legally binding document, there is no truth or teeth or merit to any of these statements, and it would just cause her to worry needlessly. So we’re sheltering her from that right now.

I can’t tell you how many messages I got from friends: “So you’re moving home right, you’re moving back to D.C.?” And I’m like “No, I’m not.” We have resources, and we are lucky in a lot of ways. But for my husband to start over in his career, for us to leave our community and our family members who are engaged and involved in our lives here, all because of this, would be really difficult and painful. I won’t lie and say we haven’t thought about it. We have thought about it. But at this point, we are not willing to allow this type of stuff to intimidate us. We’ll see them in court if it comes down to it.

For my husband and I — when Paxton’s opinion came out, and then again when Abbott’s letter came out, there were a lot of tears. We feel so marginalized and attacked by our own government for doing what we know to be the right thing for our children and for listening to the advice of every leading medical association, of all of our doctors — these aren’t decisions that any of us have made in a vacuum, and they’re not easy decisions to make, and they’re made out of love and care. No parent chooses a harder road for our kids. So the fact that our government is using us in this way is particularly painful.

But we’ve had incredible community outreach and support and calls and texts and our inboxes are flooded with messages of support from all over the country. We are not going to back down. And in the end, they’re going to be the ones who lose, because the reality is there are trans kids from every background and political affiliation, and this isn’t a liberal issue, this is a human issue. We have real problems to deal with in Texas. And the fact that my kid is happy and healthy and thriving because she is affirmed in her gender identity is not a problem.