© 2021
In touch with the world ... at home on the High Plains
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In a political era of 'parental rights,' Texans raising trans kids say new law strips them of choice

 Kari said she did a lot of research and consulted with her child’s therapist and doctor before allowing him to receive testosterone treatments.
Evan L'Roy
The Texas Tribune
Kari said she did a lot of research and consulted with her child’s therapist and doctor before allowing him to receive testosterone treatments.

Senate Bill 14, which is set to take effect on Sept. 1, bans transition-related care for minors. Parents of transgender kids say it blocks their ability to support their children.

For mental health support for LGBTQ youth, call the Trevor Project’s 24/7toll-free support line at 866-488-7386. For trans peer support, call theTrans Lifeline at 877-565-8860. You can also reach a trained crisis counselor through theSuicide and Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988.

Gov. Greg Abbott and state lawmakers have used variations of the phrase “parental rights” this year to push a litany of legislation, with varying degrees of success.

They’ve vowed to empower Texas parents in their fights for everything from sweeping changes to the state’s foster care system and what can be taught in schools to using tax dollars to subsidize kids’ private school tuition.

But Kari, a Georgetown mother of a transgender 17-year-old, says she feels like she has “no choices at all” as she and her family stare down a ban on puberty blockers and hormone treatments for trans minors that goes into effect Sept. 1.

“My rights as a parent have not only been infringed upon, but they’ve been stripped. I’ve been removed from making a decision about my child’s health care with my child and for my child,” said Kari, who agreed to talk to The Texas Tribune if her full name wasn’t used because she fears her family could be targeted by hate groups.

Kari said she did a lot of research and consulted with her child’s therapist and doctor before allowing him to receive testosterone treatments. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

Senate Bill 14’spassage leaves families with trans kids in a myriad of challenging situations. Some are weighing the stress of uprooting their lives against the psychological damage their children could experience once access to gender-affirming care is cut off. Others are unable to leave the state and are preparing to watch their children go through what they call government-forced detransitioning. And one low-income family with a trans kid wants to move but is struggling to raise money to do so.

The law will allow trans minors already receiving transition-related care to be “weaned off” puberty blockers and hormone treatments in a “medically appropriate” manner. But parents and medical experts say the law doesn’t provide clarity on how that should happen — and that can be unsafe to wean people off of such treatment at all.

Texans whose kids are transgender say the law is an affront to the notion that Abbott and the Legislature are champions of parental rights since each of the choices it leaves them could have dire outcomes. And a new lawsuit that aims to block the ban on gender-affirming care argues that the law violates parental rights already enshrined in the state constitution.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and Lambda Legal are representing several doctors and parents of trans kids, who argue in the lawsuit that SB 14 violates those constitutional rights by stopping parents from providing medical care for their children. It also says the law discriminates against transgender kids because the ban applies only to them and allows cisgender children to access the same treatments for care that isn’t aimed at transitioning.

[“Unbearable”: Doctors treating trans kids are leaving Texas, exacerbating adolescent care crisis]

The state constitution says Texans can’t be “deprived of life, liberty, property, privileges or immunities, or in any manner disfranchised.” The suits argues that means Texas parents with transgender children should not be blocked from accessing the recommended treatment that doctors and medical groups say lessens trans kids’ higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide.

“The Texas Constitution provides stronger rights for parents, stronger rights in the guarantees of equality ... and much stronger rights with respect to the individual rights of autonomy,” Lambda Legal senior counsel Paul Castillo said. “Those decisions that rest with parents are at their apex when they are made in consultation with physicians who recommend this medically necessary care.”

Lawmakers who championed the bill claimed that health care providers recommending transition-related care, like puberty blockers and hormone treatments, latched on to a “social contagion” to influence parents and kids to elect life-altering treatments that kids may regret when they’re older. They also disputed the science and research behind transition-related care.

Parents “were given a false dichotomy choice between ‘it’s either this or suicide,’” state Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, said during a committee hearing for his companion bill to SB 14. “The science doesn’t support that. It is unconscionable to me that a licensed health care provider would put a parent in that position.”

But Kari — and many other parents and trans kids who testified against the legislation throughout this year’s regular legislative session — say the journey to beginning gender-affirming care was filled with methodical, thoughtful decisions made over long periods of time.

Abbott, Oliverson and state Sen. Donna Campbell, a Republican from New Braunfels who authored SB 14, did not respond to requests for comment about parents of trans kids saying the law undermines their rights.

Kari said she put in hours of research and had several discussions with her child’s therapist and doctor before deciding that testosterone treatments were the best way to avoid the “personal anguish” her son would feel as his body developed the physical characteristics of a gender with which he didn’t identify.

Lawmakers supporting the bill said children are too young to decide whether to undergo gender-affirming care, even though the treatments they will soon be banned from accessing are available to cisgender kids of the same age for other medical purposes.

“A lot of politicians throw around the term ‘informed decision,’ but that’s exactly what we’ve done,” Kari said.

Emily Witt, a spokesperson for the Texas Freedom Network, a left-leaning state watchdog organization that supports public education and religious freedom, said state leaders, in order to limit the rights of trans people, are using the term “parental rights” to tap into a groundswell of fears from Texans who think the government is going too far in determining what their kids learn.

“It’s been co-opted to tap into this cultural fear of not having control over your kids’ lives,” Witt said, “when really their agenda is erasing trans people.”

A sense of betrayal

A ninth generation Texan, Kari feels a deep sense of betrayal about her elected leaders crafting a law that takes aim at what she — and doctors — think is best for her child.

Part of her wants to move her family to a state where her child could legally stay on his current level of hormones. But they don’t have the stockpile of savings needed to do that.

And the discussions with her children about leaving the only state they’ve ever known have devastated her.

Her son will be 18 within a year, so the ban won’t apply to him after his next birthday. So for her, it’s almost a waiting game to see if his psychological reaction to being weaned off hormone treatments is so grim that it outweighs the other considerations.

Trans youth are more likely to be at risk of depression and suicide than their cisgender peers. And some doctors say that trans kids’ mental health improves if they are allowed to take hormones.

“It’s almost like, you know, watching a wildfire. You want to stay to protect your house. You don’t want to leave,” Kari said. “ So you’re waiting until that moment where you can feel the heat or the flames and you have to flee.”

 Kari’s son will be 18 within a year, so he’ll be legally allowed to resume gender-affirming care after his next birthday.
Evan L'Roy
The Texas Tribune
Kari’s son will be 18 within a year, so he’ll be legally allowed to resume gender-affirming care after his next birthday.

For now, the family’s plan is to follow the law, which means Kari’s child will need to be “weaned off” his hormones in a “medically appropriate” manner. Still, that’s something many medical groups, including the Texas Medical Association, warned could have devastating physical and mental effects on minors.

So for Laura, whose trans son, Gabe, is 16, it feels like the flames are already licking at their heels.

She wants to move to a state where transition-related health care is still available to kids. But her family faces several financial roadblocks to leaving. After years of putting money into their house in Houston, they have spent months looking for rental properties out of state. Laura's full name is also not being used because she fears harassment. The family planned on using money they’ve collected from a GoFundMe campaign, but then their 2002 GMC Safari was stolen from a grocery store parking lot. Now they’ve had to use some of those funds to buy a replacement vehicle before the move.

Laura’s husband works in retail and his employer will transfer his job to another state, but her position in the public sector is based in Houston, so she will need to find a new job in a state she’d never been to until this month, when the family went to check out potential homes.

“I won’t have my little village, you know? But at the same time, I need to be that village for my children,” Laura said. “I need to be the safety net that my children need.”

As Mexican-Americans, Laura and her family have deep roots in what is now Texas.

“My family never crossed any borders; the borders crossed us. My family has been here for generations,” Laura said. “What do I know about anywhere else? What do I have anywhere else?”

Mama bear

For years, trans Texans have lived in fear as they’ve watched state leaders push a litany of legislation and policies that would limit their lives. In 2017, lawmakers tried to restrict which bathrooms trans people could use in public with legislation that ultimately failed.

In 2021, lawmakers failed to pass legislation that would classify gender-affirming care as child abuse. But Abbott still ordered the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate parents who provided their kids access to such care, a directive that’s being fought in the courts.

Laura said she knew it was time to move to another state when she asked her son if he wanted to leave Texas and he said, “I’d rather not be arrested as a sex offender for being trans.”

At school, Gabe’s friends tried to find loopholes in the new law that they hoped would allow him to stay. When they couldn’t, they offered to help him pack up his home. Some of them even prayed for him.

“Lots of my friends are Christian, but they’re still supportive of the LGBTQ community,” he said.

Earlier this month, Laura and her husband found a three-bedroom apartment for her family of five to share in another state. She says the process was a struggle, but she thinks it’s the best move in the long run, even if they had to ask people they don’t know for help.

“I can’t believe it sometimes that it’s because [of] all of these strangers that this is even possible,” she said.

Sherry Brodell, whose family lives in a rural area outside Austin, constantly experiences the impacts of raising a 13-year-old trans son in a state where his gender identity has become a focus of Texas politics.

Part of that included conversations about what to do if Child Protective Services showed up at their home to investigate her on child abuse charges.

“My youngest said, ‘If they come and talk to me, I am going to … look them in the eye and tell them, ‘I know why you’re here, and let me just tell you, it was no abuse in my home, unless the abuse is having a family who loves you,’” Brodell said.

Brodell worries that her son can’t wait things out since he is only 13 and will have to go years without gender-affirming care. Her son is reckoning with the fact that he must go through the puberty of a gender he does not want to be.

But he’s also trying to steel himself for what’s to come.

“The reality is that a lot of trans people throughout history have been through a whole lot worse than that,” she says he told her. “If I have to wait until I’m 18, I won’t be the first trans person who has to do it.”

Some lawmakers this year also took aim at gender-affirming care for adults, though attempts at blocking access for people over 18 failed. Still, it stirred fear in many trans Texans.

Brodell decided the only choice she had was to stay in Texas and fight. She was in the Capitol several times this year to oppose the bills targeting trans people. She held a sign that said, “You Woke the Mama Bear.”

She and Kari have both joined their local chapters of PFLAG. It’s a source of support as they wait to see how the ban will impact their children while politicians portray themselves as champions for parental rights and the recent lawsuit begins to work its way through court.

“Instead of just being alone against the whole world, we were at least dealing with it as a community,” Brodell said.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/07/17/texas-transgender-health-care/.

Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Rebecca Schneid | The Texas Tribune