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The ACLU Is Suing Texas to Block the Worst Anti-Trans Program in the Country

A Texas family investigated under a “child abuse” directive targeting trans youth is taking the state to court.

Photograph by Ilana Panich-Linsma for The New Republic
A child at the Austin Trans Picnic, June 2021

Last Saturday, in Central Texas, Marin Brice was out with her 10-year-old daughter, driving to get a treat after acting class, talking about an upcoming political protest. She told me she explained it as simply as she could: “Our governor wants to make it so that trans kids can’t have puberty blockers—because that’s something she understands—and if anyone helps trans kids receive or get puberty blockers, they could get in trouble and can go to jail.” The protest, she she said to her daughter, who is trans, was “because everyone thinks this is awful. And we want to let the governor know that he is wrong.” Her daughter got quiet, Brice told me, so she asked, did she understand? (Brice, out of concern for her family and their safety, asked to use a pseudonym.) She said yes, but she also had a question. “Am I going to die?

A few days earlier, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton offered a “legal opinion” that providing medical care to treat adolescents with gender dysphoria could be “child abuse,” and Governor Greg Abbott instructed the Texas State Department of Family and Protective Services, or DFPS, to immediately investigate cases of alleged “sex change” procedures, as he described them. On Tuesday, a Texas family and a psychologist filed a legal challenge to the directive, asking the district court in Travis County to block enforcement of Abbott’s order—which had warned that health care providers, educators, other “licensed professionals who have direct contact with children,” and “members of the general public” could face criminal penalties “for failure to report such child abuse”—and to block DFPS’s interpretation of the order. The plaintiffs are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, Lambda Legal, and the law firm Baker Botts. (Brice’s family is not a plaintiff.) While neither Abbott nor Paxton has the authority to change Texas state law, they are attempting to shift the legal landscape, directing DFPS to conduct investigations based on the presumption that gender-affirming treatment for transgender adolescents is child abuse.

The new legal filing in Travis County shows that at least one family, the plaintiffs known as the Doe family, is already being investigated. Jane Doe, the mother of a trans child, Mary, is herself a DFPS employee, according to the filing. On February 23, after the Paxton and Abbott directives, she sought guidance from her supervisor about how the changes would impact her work. “Such clarification was important for her family as well as to her ability to perform her job at DFPS,” the filing states. “That same day, and just mere hours later, Jane Doe was placed on leave from her employment because she has a transgender daughter with a medical need for treatment of gender dysphoria.”

The Does are also now being investigated by DFPS. Two days after Jane was sent home on leave, a DFPS Child Protective Services investigator came to the Doe home. “The CPS investigator disclosed that the sole allegation against Jane Doe and John Doe is that they have a transgender daughter and that their daughter may have been provided with medically necessary gender-affirming health care and is ‘currently transitioning from male to female.’”

As a result of these directives, families like the Does have been exposed immediately to such investigations—including surprise home visits from CPS and efforts to obtain their confidential medical records. “These extralegal actions from Texas’s top executive officials violate the Texas Administrative Procedure Act, the Texas Constitution’s separation of powers, and infringe the rights of parents, minors, and mandatory reporters under the Texas Constitution,” said Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs. “We are suing today to put a stop to the abuses in these directives and to vindicate the rights of Texas youth and families.”  

State Republicans, Strangio added, “acted far beyond the scope of their legal authority in an effort to transform Texas law to punish transgender people and their families and to deputize the general public to assist them in that unauthorized endeavor.”

When Paxton and Abbott issued their directives early last week, they prompted the strongest national reaction yet to the wave of anti-trans bills currently moving through state legislatures across the country. “These actions perpetuate the spirit of intolerance and discrimination against transgender youth,” Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary Rachel Levine said on Twitter. “It is unconscionable that evidence-based care is being politicized.” Texas Democrats, including the Texas House LGBTQ Caucus, the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, and the Texas Women’s Health Caucus, have condemned Paxton and Abbott’s directives, calling them representative of “an ongoing attempt to scapegoat innocent children for political gain,” and saying that their actions “contribute to a dangerous campaign of misinformation that has fueled fear, discrimination, and violence, threatening the lives of children across our state.” To date, five Texas district attorneys—from Bexar, Dallas, Fort Bend, Harris, Nueces, and Travis counties—say they oppose the directive and they would not prosecute such cases.

Paxton’s opinion justifying all this was also deceptive, a move with political purpose. A review by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram found that Paxton “cited sources in a misleading way and drew parallels that researchers say simply do not exist.” As one researcher cited told the Star-Telegram, “If they knew anything about my scholarship more generally, they would know that I am someone whose research demonstrates the harm of the very types of policies they’re trying to enact on marginalized people.”

Misinformation about these treatments has circulated across the right, sometimes quite intentionally. Terry Schilling, president of the American Principles Project, or APP, took substantial credit for Abbott and Paxton’s moves in an interview last week on Steve Bannon’s podcast, War Room. “We put together a $750,000 grassroots advocacy campaign with the War Room’s support, and we put pressure on him right before the election,” said Schilling. “It wasn’t a coincidence” that Abbott did this, he added, and it “would not have happened” without Ken Paxton and without Bannon’s War Room “posse,” who were helping APP “really make this pro-family movement more muscular.” Schilling also spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando on Saturday, in a breakout session with the title, “Silly Doctor! Sex Changes Aren’t for Kids.” As the Miami Herald reported, “Schilling told attendees to keep pressure on the issue, and said the ‘real bad guys’ in the culture wars of transgender rights are pharmaceutical companies and medical professionals that participate in gender reassignment surgeries for children.” This was a victory lap. The campaign to “protect kids from gender activists” was so successful, Schilling recently tweeted, Trump has parroted it.

Even before Abbott’s directive, a broader, years-long Republican effort to spread misinformation about trans health care helped fuel protests and a disinformation campaign targeting one of the few providers of mental health services and hormone treatments to children and adolescents. It led the program to disband late last year. Texas parents had been preparing for these attacks, some with “exit plans,” Brice told me this week, but many intended to stay and fight. Last legislative session, they defeated every anti-trans bill introduced—including one deeming gender-affirming care abuse—until a sports ban passed in a third special session. Notably, Paxton and Abbott issued their directives within days of their respective primaries, with both facing challenges from their right. Three of Abbott’s opponents called for another special session specifically to pass a law defining gender-affirming care as child abuse.

With the midterms looming and Republicans leaning in to attacks on trans kids, Democrats have yet to meet them with a similarly loud defense. On one level, it may be because these attacks seem so calculated that they don’t merit a response, though parents fear it’s also because liberals are just less invested in protecting trans kids. “I keep on hearing, These politicians are just using trans kids as their pawns to score political points,” Brice said. “And that’s true … and how would you feel if your child was being treated as a game? As a means to an end?” She said she was getting tired of people telling her, It’s just a political stunt. “Yes, they’re right, but it’s a political stunt that causes real harm.”

Then Brice shared the story about her daughter’s reaction to hearing of Abbott’s new order—am I going to die? “My daughter, my child, she’s sitting behind me, and I can’t see her face, but I hear this question.” Brice pulled over. She got in the back seat and asked her daughter if it was OK to give her a hug. “I’m holding her, and we’re sitting there in a parking lot, somewhere between her acting camp and getting a donut, and I’m telling my daughter that she is not going to die, and that I will always keep her safe, and that’s my job. And I’m worried that it’s getting to the point that it’s going to be hard for her to believe me.”