On Monday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced his “formal attorney general opinion” that gender-affirming health care for trans kids is “child abuse,” a chilling pronouncement that landed in the midst of Republican legislators’ multistate fight against LGBTQ rights, overwhelmingly focused on teens and children, and trans kids in particular. Later that day, responding to Dallas Morning News’s coverage of his decision, Paxton suggested gender-affirming health care consisted of “chopping off boys’ and girls’ private parts.” Texas Governor Greg Abbot subsequently tweeted that “the Texas Dept. of Family & Protective Services will enforce this ruling and investigate & refer for prosecution any such abuse.” All this sends a clear message to those in Texas with children in their care, including educators: The state would support it in separating trans children from their supportive parents.
Genital surgery, in almost all cases, is only available to adults. But this basic factual error is only the beginning—if also the foundation—of the problems with Paxton’s stigma-fueling decision.
Categorizing gender-affirming health care, which also includes puberty blockers and hormone replacement therapy, as child abuse could have far-reaching implications—even if Paxton’s decision doesn’t hold up in court. Adri Pèrez, policy and advocacy specialist at the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, told me by text on Tuesday that they were especially concerned about the “mandatory reporting” section, “where Paxton reminds teachers, social workers, and others of their duty to report child abuse.” Even though it is not legally binding, people could point to this section as a reason to report. “The amount of false reports, bullying, and harassment directed towards trans youth, their parents and guardians, and providers of gender-affirming care could go up.”
Paxton is currently facing Republican challengers to keep his attorney general seat, which may be influencing the timing of this announcement. But this opinion is something Paxton committed to earlier, in response to one father of a trans child who denies her identity and sought custody of her from her supportive mother, claiming her mother’s affirmation of her identity was abuse. That father, Jeffrey Younger, has been at the forefront of spreading such misinformation about trans kids and abuse, from Fox News to the Texas state legislature, claiming his “parental rights” were violated when his daughter’s identity was affirmed.
Many Texas parents have long been dealing with such unfounded accusations of abuse. They had been dreading this news since Paxton announced he was considering it. Texas mother Lauren Rodriguez, for example, spent most of 2021 alongside other parents of trans and nonbinary kids beating back dozens of anti-trans bills, before helping get her trans son off to college in another and more supportive state. He recently celebrated his eighteenth birthday. “It was sad,” she told me today via text, “that his turning 18 made me feel relief that CPS couldn’t torture me anymore”—something that also made it safer for her to speak out against the Paxton opinion.
The danger this move by Paxton poses to trans children in Texas is life-altering. It is also part of a broader national campaign, led primarily by the Christian right and allied Republicans, claiming a “parental right” to essentially forbid a child from being trans or even learning about trans people. Some bills, as in Indiana, require educators to seek parental permission before asking any student about their pronouns, or, in North Carolina, require educators to inform parents if their child exhibits “gender nonconformity.” The title of Florida’s now-infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which was up for floor debate on Tuesday, is “Parental Rights in Education.”
The “parental rights” claim is central to anti-trans policy goals. Michael Farris heads Alliance Defending Freedom, or ADF, one of the lead architects of this national anti-trans legal strategy. He also founded the nonprofit ParentalRights.org. As Kathryn Joyce reported at Salon, this group’s “primary purpose was to advocate for the passage of a constitutional amendment declaring, ‘The liberty of parents to direct the upbringing, education, and care of their children is a fundamental right,’ which no international treaty or law could supersede.” (Farris also drafted one of the lawsuits meant to overturn the 2020 election results.)
“Parental rights” groups’ claims sound unwinnable, and their rhetoric can be extreme. Vernadette Broyles, an ADF-affiliated attorney with her own group, Child and Parental Rights Campaign, has claimed that schools are “conscripting our kids into a social experiment without our consent” by having trans-inclusive bathrooms. The bathrooms, she claims, are only the beginning: Activists’ real “goal,” she said at an Eagle Forum conference in 2020, “is to strip away the protective layer of parents from children in order to be able to access the gold, which is the child.” Her remarks evoke fears that children are being groomed by predatory gay, queer, and now trans or even just trans-affirming adults.
On the right, “parents’ rights is a fringe issue no more,” Joyce wrote in January. A number of Republican governors and members of Congress, including House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, have voiced their support for “parents’ bills of rights.” Parental rights figured throughout Florida Republican Senator Rick Scott’s plan to “rescue America” (meant to be a policy agenda, reported Politico, should Republicans make gains in the midterm elections later this year). The anti-trans “parental rights” movement got a boost from the critical race theory moral panic instigated by Christopher Rufo and has also benefited from the anti-mask, anti-vax rhetoric around the Covid-19 pandemic, which has mobilized not only conspiracy theory–pushing parents on the right but also some liberals. In the fight against masks in schools and other public health guidelines to safeguard students, these seemingly disparate groups are connected by this rubric of parental rights, as my colleague Rachel M. Cohen has reported.
To date, liberals seem still to be struggling to identify what is animating bills like the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida, even as they forcefully rejected that bill. We can see that these bills aren’t coming from some organic concern: One mother who testified in support of the Florida bill is also represented by Broyles, the ADF-affiliated attorney, in a parental rights suit. Broyles is currently involved in two suits against Florida schools, accusing them of withholding children’s trans and nonbinary identities from parents. (That mother will also speak alongside Broyles at a Heritage Foundation event in March.) The “Don’t Say Gay” bill empowers parents to bring lawsuits like these against teachers and schools, but with an even lower bar: if parents think students are exposed to something not “age-appropriate.”
The “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which could potentially mandate that schools disclose to parents anything they know about a child’s possible nonconforming gender identity, puts children who are queer or questioning at risk. But this bill and bills like it across the country are also premised on the idea that not only being queer or trans but even discussing LGBTQ issues poses a threat to children.
There’s a reason activists are so alarmed by this turn of events: There isn’t much of a gap to close from Republicans’ assertion that openness about LGBTQ issues is dangerous to kids to mainstreaming the thesis that some Americans—based on who we are and the identities we affirm—are definitionally abusers. In response, kids could be removed from supportive classrooms, supportive homes.
Republicans’ weaponization of the term abuse isn’t just culture-war gamesmanship in search of votes; it is a statement of the kind of world they want those votes for. At the Eagle Forum conference, Broyles made it plain: “This is not about a few kids or even a few adults—this is an existential threat to our culture.” She quoted an anti-trans writer who said the trans rights movement “sows the conditions for totalitarianism.”
These rhetorical inversions—where accepting children for who they are is abuse, where children’s self-determination is more of a threat than parental and societal abandonment—are a way to cloak those seeking to entrench their own power. As Jules Gill-Peterson, historian and an editor at Transgender Studies Quarterly, noted on Tuesday, “The state of Texas would like to legally abuse trans children and their kin using a child abuse statute. The gall of such a perverse irony is stunning; the authoritarian implications chill to the bone.”