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For LGBTQ+ Texans, the fight over gender-affirming care is the latest in a long line of political attacks

Demonstrators hold signs in support of transgender youth outside the Texas Capitol on March 1 in response to proposed legal action against parents seeking gender-affirming health care for their children.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Demonstrators hold signs in support of transgender youth outside the Texas Capitol on March 1 in response to proposed legal action against parents seeking gender-affirming health care for their children.

Last month, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott directed the state’s child welfare agency to investigate family and medical providers who help young transgender youth receive gender-affirming care. The move immediately attracted a legal challenge and condemnation across the country from LGBTQ+ advocates. They say the state policy is part of a years-long campaign against trans youth in Texas — and it’s inspired one young Texan to speak out.

Lee esta historia en español.

A little over a year ago, Charlie Apple wanted to be a librarian. Or maybe an anthropologist. He wanted to work in a museum. Or, maybe not. He wasn’t sure. What he was sure about was wrestling. He loved it. He said it saved his life. When he heard Texas lawmakers were trying to ban kids like him — young transgender Texans — from competing in sports, he spoke up.

With his shock of bleached hair, a button-up and a nerve-wracked, warbling South Texas drawl, the then-17-year-old testified during a 13-hour hearing on Senate Bill 29, a bill that would ban children like him from participating in high school sports. He joined thousands of LGBTQ+ Texans who came out during the 2021 Legislative Session and the following special sessions to speak out against that bill and roughly 50 others that advocates say targeted the LGBTQ+ community.

For transgender and nonbinary Texans, it's become rote. Every two years when Texas lawmakers meet, GOP leaders float legislation that limits their rights to bathrooms, high school sports or even medical care. Advocates push back, testifying and rallying at the Capitol. Then the session ends.

But last month, when state leaders effectively criminalized access to gender-affirming care for young Texans through an administrative directive, that cycle was disrupted. While that move is being challenged in state court, advocates say the legislative end-around signals a continual attack on the rights of LGBTQ+ Texans.

In the last year, Apple has been busy. He's finishing up his senior year of high school in Corpus Christi. He's decided to attend the University of North Texas, majoring in sociology. And, this Sunday, he's speaking at South by Soutwest.

"I’m trying not to think too hard about it, because it’s a little intimidating being in a room full of 1,000 people," he joked.

"We’re still feeling the effects of that rhetoric and that bill, when this is not against the law. It is not against the law for an underaged person to get medical, transitional treatment."
Charlie Apple

Seeing all the advocacy at the Capitol in 2021 for trans people like him made Apple want to be an advocate in the LGBTQ+ community. Now, his voice doesn’t quiver when he’s at a podium anymore, and in his home state, he figures he’s got his work cut out for him. That’s why he’s part of a panel on LGBTQ+ rights in Texas on Sunday — specifically the state’s recent campaign to investigate Texas youth and their families for seeking gender-affirming care.

It’s an extension of a bill he thought was killed during the legislative session, one that would have criminalized the use of gender-affirming hormone therapy for minors as child abuse.

The bill failed to pass, but late last month, Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a nonbinding opinion that classified gender-affirming care as child abuse. Then, Gov. Greg Abbott directed the Department of Family Protective Services, the state's child welfare agency, to investigate families and doctors who help children get that health care. Opponents decried both moves, arguing Paxton and Abbott were attempting to appeal to their respective bases ahead of Election Day.

Since then, Apple's family has hired a lawyer, and they say investigators may come for him and his parents.

"We’re still feeling the effects of that rhetoric and that bill, when this is not against the law. It is not against the law for an underaged person to get medical, transitional treatment," he said. "But it’s now classified as child abuse. That’s such a hard thing to reckon with."

Since Abbott's directive made national headlines, the Texas Medical Association and the Texas Pediatric Association have both reiterated their opposition to the restriction or criminalization of gender-affirming care, calling it necessary care.

On top of that, district and county attorneys from across the state who would potentially prosecute families and health care workers for violating the directive have said they would not. The announcement also sparked a threat from the Biden administration to withhold federal funding from agencies that investigated gender-affirming care.

The governor's directive is currently being argued in state court. Shortly after Abbott and Paxton’s memos, the ACLU and Lambda Legal filed suit on behalf of a Texas family whose daughter is transgender.

Shelly Skeen, an attorney with Lambda Legal, says the state leaders' actions bypass the legislative process. She says the governor's directive and the attorney general's opinion aren't legally binding, and they misinterpret the Texas Family Code, the portion of the state's constitution that defines child abuse.

"Medically necessary care is what the law requires, but what the governor is doing and what DFPS is doing is contrary to the law," she said. "It’s the antithesis of the law."

That’s what Skeen argued in state court last week, and she’s one of a handful of attorneys seeking a statewide halt on investigations that could lead to criminal charges or even children being taken away from parents.

State attorneys have argued the memos don’t restrict all gender-affirming care. The case is in a Travis County state district court Friday, after a state appeals court denied an appeal from Paxton. While a judge could rule in favor of the ACLU and Lambda challenge, that decision would likely face an appeal from the state.

Kate Murphy, a senior policy associate at the child advocacy nonprofit Texans Care for Children, says the idea that a child could be removed from their home over gender-affirming care is especially problematic, given the state is already under federal oversight for its child welfare system. That oversight stems from a lawsuit in 2011 that alleged Texas doesn't safely place foster care children.

"We’re talking about families where parents are providing recommended medication and therapy that they believe is in the best interest of their child," she said. "That isn’t child abuse, and the state shouldn’t be treating it that way."

Murphy says there are glaring issues the state should address in the state's foster care system, where hundreds of children sleep in unlicensed care, or even in state offices every month. The latest report from a special state panel overseeing Texas' foster care system showed 236 children were without proper placement in November 2021.

"Focus on significant problems in our foster care system, like kids who are getting abused, kids who are sleeping in offices or unlicensed facilities instead of being placed with a grandparent, or kids who are winding up in foster care because they can’t get mental health services they need," Murphy said. "These are all things that are happening in our system right now."

DFPS did not respond to KUT's request for comment for this story.

For Charlie Apple and his family, the anxiety is a constant. When initially asked if they wanted to speak on the record with KUT for this story, his mother, Adair Apple, initially declined, but changed her mind as more and more families with transgender children became targets of investigation.

"It's fine. We figure we're going to be investigated at some point anyway," she said. "We're just waiting."

Sarah Kapostasy, clinical director for Out Youth, an organization that specializes in counseling and care for trans youth in Austin, says she's felt the same anxiety from parents and families in calls coaching them how to address the prospect of a child welfare investigation and how to broach the possibility with their children.

"We’ve been trying to say and validate [that] this is scary, this is terrible, and here’s the information we want to give you, so that you can be empowered," Kapostasy said. "[Child Protective Services] can’t just show up to your house and take your kiddo. That’s not how it works. So, we’re really trying to give folks the information to kind of let them know how they can proceed and to lessen anxiety as much as humanly impossible in a really impossible situation."

Wes Cowan, leader of Out Youth's Trans Wellness program, said the anxiety stemming from all this brings him back to when he was afraid to come out as transgender — when he couldn't find the words to describe how he felt. It's not just young trans and nonbinary children and their families who are affected by this, Cowan stressed. It's the entire community.

"People are pretty devastated, even folks that are in their 30s and 40s," he said. "They are devastated by this news, because it brings them back to remembering not being able to come out."

That holding pattern and the anxiety are the backdrop for Charlie Apple's panel at SXSW, as Abbott's order winds through state courts.

"We’re just kind of waiting until it finally happens, because I’m not stopping any time soon and neither is Mama. It just feels very isolating," he said. "I feel pretty powerless, but, you know, what're you going to do? You just gotta make it through."

Copyright 2022 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Andrew Weber is a freelance reporter and associate editor for KUT News. A graduate of St. Edward's University with a degree in English, Andrew has previously interned with The Texas Tribune, The Austin American-Statesman and KOOP Radio.