As an increasing number of states restrict gender-affirming care for trans children, Republicans have claimed that they just want to protect minors. But a new case out of Texas proves that this supposed concern for children is a smoke screen. These bans are just one step in a bigger project: wielding state power to enforce their retrograde views on gender.
In September, a court filing revealed that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) pulled a 13-year-old child out of class to interrogate the student about his medical history and his gender identity, without his parents’ knowledge. Investigators then visited the child’s mom and similarly questioned her.
The episode was in service to an order issued earlier this year by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, instructing the DFPS to investigate people who help provide gender-affirming care to minors as child abuse.
What’s particularly concerning about this latest filing is that the child, referred to as “Steve Koe” in court documents, is reportedly only experimenting with a social transition. There was no evidence that Koe had started any sort of medical care for gender transition. The DFPS investigated anyway. Perhaps the person who reported Koe to authorities simply assumed that he must be receiving medical care or would start shortly after experimenting with his gender at school. But the details matter little: the fact is that Abbott has essentially converted a beleaguered DFPS staff, already stretched thin, into the state’s gender police. For merely trying on a new gender presentation, Koe was hit with official state power.
That’s an incredible imbalance of power for one child and his parents to face. It’s why Lambda Legal and the ACLU have taken Texas to court on behalf of all current and future members of LGBTQ parental advocacy group PFLAG, seeking to limit the state from investigating PFLAG families. These children and their parents should not have an almighty state authority looming over anything gender-related, from clothes to names to pronouns and yes, even medical care.
Trans people and their allies have said from the start that conservatives’ opposition to childhood transition and puberty blockers isn’t driven by any genuine concern over medical treatment for trans adolescents. In actuality, it’s an extension of the right’s larger cultural anxiety over changing social definitions of gender. Conservatives see how much the world has changed over the last 50 years, with the growing autonomy of women and the advancement of gay rights. Conservatives see trans people as the next line in the sand in a much larger fight.
Although 13-year-old Koe is only trying out his new gender socially, now that school has started, trans kids like him are under intense scrutiny in Texas, where teachers and other school officials are mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse. This puts the gender presentation of all kids under legal scrutiny by default.
But how does one distinguish between, for example, a boy growing his hair out and a trans girl? A trans person like me would simply ask the teen how they would define their own gender, and accept their answer. A conservative or gender critical person, on the other hand, will reject gender nonconformity in order to maintain their own belief that genders cannot change. And different people have different ideas over what makes a boy or a girl. In Utah, for example, high school sports administrators secretly investigated a cisgender girl who won a state championship after her competitors’ losing parents complained that she wasn’t feminine enough to be a “real girl.”
Gender perception has long been a tool for school-aged bullies to enforce order from the earliest stages of childhood development. A 2015 study of 6 to 10-year-olds in South Africa found that inclusion and exclusion from play is used to punish girls who are not perceived as feminine and boys who are perceived as too feminine. And a 2012 study linked gender nonconformity with an increased risk of child abuse and post-traumatic stress.
Now, as this Texas case shows, harmful beliefs and stereotypes about gender perception are being backed with state power. The cost of enforcing this conservative worldview goes beyond the grievous harm done to trans children and their families. When state-sponsored gender police can pull children out of class, or interrogate parents at home, no one is safe from their reach. No matter how you might feel about trans people, especially trans women, is this the type of future Americans want?
There are some efforts to stand up for trans children: In June, President Biden signed an executive order instructing the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to increase access to gender-affirming care for minors and to fight back against red state restrictions. California recently passed a law that would shield out-of-state families from court orders and other police actions taken against people from out of state who come to California for gender-affirming care for themselves or their children. Other blue states could follow California’s lead in the near future.
The biggest blow against anti-trans actions would be the passage of the Equality Act, which would add gender identity and sexual orientation to existing federal civil rights law. Unfortunately, that would require keeping the House this fall and electing enough Democratic senators to kill the filibuster.
Unless that unlikely prospect comes to pass, tens of thousands of trans children will remain under the thumb of state power. An individual’s gender should be a private matter, not the purview of the state. No election is worth sacrificing individual liberty for the sake of satisfying a party’s fanatical political base in an upcoming election.