Within days, Texas Governor Greg Abbott will sign a law banning gender-affirming care, including puberty blockers and hormone therapy, for all trans youth in the state. Trans youth, their parents, and LGBTQ advocates have been fighting this ban for years. As a national campaign led by Christian nationalist groups and their allies in state legislatures has advanced, passing bans in 18 states since 2021, Texas advocates knew their state might follow. Now the reality they had been bracing for is upon them. And while some trans kids may be able to leave the state with their supportive families, countless more face the possibility of being forcibly detransitioned by the state.
In Texas, Rachel Gonzales and her daughter, Libby, who is trans, have been making the drive from Dallas to Austin each legislative session since 2017. They’re part of a network of parents of trans kids who have been visible and vocal at the state legislature, fighting these bills year after year. The last session in 2021 (the Texas state legislature meets every other year) was the worst yet, with Texas introducing more anti-trans bills than any state in the country. While all but one of the bills—a sports ban—was defeated, they could feel the climate of the state shifting. Their wins in 2021 did not really feel like a victory.
2023 is now looking like a turning point in this fight: Senate Bill 14, the health care ban that passed this week, is not the only anti-trans bill that the Texas legislature might pass this year, but rather “a key proposal among a slate of GOP bills that would restrict the rights and representation of LGBTQ Texans this session, amid a growing acceptance of Christian nationalism on the right,” as The Texas Tribune reported, with an acknowledgment of the Christian nationalist drive behind this campaign that was rarer to see from news outlets in years past. As investigative journalist Sarah Posner has revealed, groups such as the Family Policy Alliance, the lobbying arm of the Christian right group Focus on the Family, have been convening and training “far-right members of state legislatures around the country.” FPA’s Statesman Academy, Posner reported, “elevates the profiles of these legislators and helps them promote legislation rooted in baseless distortions of science and medicine, particularly with regard to reproductive and trans rights.” Alumni have gone on to sponsor or co-sponsor anti-trans legislation, like Arkansas Republican Robin Lundstrum, who introduced the state’s ban on gender-affirming care (currently blocked by courts), and who travels to other state legislatures to promote copycat bills.
S.B. 14 is not much different from what we have seen in other states: In blocking access to treatment, it means trans minors will face either forcible detransition or will have to travel out of state to get care (if they can), or obtain treatment outside the formal health care system. Getting care in the state was already difficult, with providers and clinics facing harassment, political pressure, and legal threats from major Republican donors and elected officials, and some closing altogether. When Governor Abbott signs S.B. 14, the ACLU, ACLU Texas, Lambda Legal, and the Transgender Law Center have already pledged to challenge the ban in court.
More than 50 anti-trans bills have been introduced in the Texas state legislature this session, breaking a record. In a shift from years past, even drag shows and public libraries are now being targeted for being welcoming to queer and trans communities. Florida-style “Don’t Say Gay” provisions are being considered in a state education bill. In one key difference from 2021, multiple Democratic state lawmakers voted to pass the health care ban, like Representative Shawn Thierry. Representing a majority-Democrat district including Houston—she got 87 percent of the vote in 2020, and ran unopposed in 2022—she ran as a supporter of LGBTQ rights. Thierry joined 10 of her Democratic colleagues in the House voting in favor of S.B. 15, a bill excluding trans college athletes. An area Democratic Club voted this week to censure Thierry.
As the legislative threat has grown, the environment has become more hostile at the Capitol; multiple advocates who had been there to protest in 2021 have told me that it no longer felt safe to do so in 2023. As Rachel Gonzales told me when we spoke by phone this week, even compared to the grueling 2021 session, “You would not believe the fuckery of this session.”
On Monday, when a group of trans youth dropped a banner that read “DEFEND TRANS KIDS” at the Capitol in opposition to the health care ban, according to the Transgender Education Network of Texas, state police gave them criminal trespass warnings, and they were banned from the Capitol for a year—part of a pattern of harassment that accelerated this session.
“I’ve been sitting with the question of how responsible is it of me as a leader to tell trans people to come into this building to fight,” Emmett Schilling, executive director of Transgender Education Network of Texas, said at a press conference after other advocates were removed from the Capitol by state police, “while the lives of our families and our youth are being ripped apart in the same building.”
On May 2, a staffer with Equality Texas, a statewide LGBTQ+ advocacy group, was cited for criminal trespass, banned from the Capitol for one year, and escorted off the grounds by Texas Department of Public Safety officers, or DPS, after releasing a banner that read, “Let Trans Kids Grow Up.” Later that day, when advocates in the House gallery unfurled their own banners and chants of support ensued, DPS cleared the gallery on orders from House Speaker Dade Phelan. “The troopers began pushing them away from the Chamber, yelling at them to get out,” recounted Equality Texas CEO Ricardo Martinez in an email message to supporters. “DPS officers continued to shove, yell, and harass our community while pushing them towards the exit,” Martinez continued. “Anti-LGBTQ+ protestors created a prayer circle while the community was being removed and lifted their hands to ‘pray over them.’”
In the midst of this, state police officers moved in to violently arrest Adri Pérez, organizing director of Texas Freedom Network. “I was there with Adri,” Gonzales said. So was her husband, Frank, she said, “and there was a very, very obvious juxtaposition between a trans, brown, nonbinary person getting brutally arrested and my cis, brown husband, like hands up, pushing cops, yelling, trying to get to Adri, and did not get arrested.”
State Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a statement claiming that charges against Pérez were dropped by Travis County District Attorney José Garza, a progressive Democrat, which was incorrect: The district attorney’s office had no involvement in the case. Paxton also misgendered Pérez, and said if they were not prosecuted, this signaled to law enforcement that “violence” against police “will not be punished as long as an assailant shares Garza’s extremist political views.” In an echo of Montana activists fighting anti-trans laws being painted by Republican legislators as inciting “insurrection,” Paxton accused Pérez of “indifference to political violence.”
“The trauma of that day is going to haunt all of us for a while,” Gonzales said. She said she could imagine her own daughter Libby in that same situation, being arrested merely for demonstrating in support of her own rights.
Paxton, of course, supports the passage of S.B. 14, and has called gender-affirming care “acts of child abuse.” When Republicans were unable to pass a law decreeing that parents of trans kids who support their transition are committing child abuse in 2021, Paxton instead institutionalized it in a directive he issued in 2022, instructing child protective services to investigate parents of trans children for child abuse. That order is currently suspended and the subject of a legal challenge by the ACLU, on behalf of PFLAG and parents who were investigated.
Texas provides a chilling example of what we have seen across the country: dozens of anti-trans laws introduced in a single session meant to wear down opposition; an escalation in anti-trans rhetoric which has emboldened police and anti-trans activists; and elected officials likening supporters of trans rights to violent extremists. This is the point of these legislative attacks on trans lives: to terrorize trans people and those who support them and then claim that it’s trans people doing the terrorizing.
Even before this session, Rachel Gonzales told me, after the 2022 child abuse directive was issued, her three children, both cis and trans, have had nightmares about being separated from their family. The family has emergency plans in place, should they have to leave the state for their safety. But Gonzales said they have no intention to do so. “My kids are fifth-generation Texans,” said Gonzales. “We shouldn’t have to leave.” She and her daughter, Libby, have a supportive community, where they don’t have to deal day to day with the kinds of threats they face at the Capitol or because of the legislature’s actions. She was emphatic: “Until it gets to a point that we are literally forced from our home, I will ensure that she receives health care that she needs, wherever that is.”