“I am so sorry. What a horrible, hard time to be a trans teenager.”
Owen Egerton, an Austin-based filmmaker and writer, received that text from a friend the morning of Feb. 23, after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott released an order directing health agencies to investigate gender-affirming care for trans youth as child abuse. He read the text as he was dropping Willow, his trans daughter, off at her high school. He watched his 16-year-old walk onto campus, waving at her friends, wearing pink, white, and blue knee-high socks—the colors of the trans flag. It struck Egerton that there was a silver lining in an otherwise dark time.
“It’s horrific when your state goes against vast medical opinion and declares gender-affirming care as abuse,” he said. But he also felt admiration watching his daughter be openly proud of who she was in a community of people who embraced and loved her. “I wish that that was something I could have seen when I was a teenager growing up in Texas, but I don’t think that was a possibility in the same kind of way in the culture of my small Texas town.”
Egerton and Willow joined families and advocates in a march to the state Capitol in Austin on Tuesday, March 1, to oppose Abbott’s order. The order, which referenced the Feb. 18 opinion by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, said that providing medical treatments including hormones and puberty-suppressing medication to transgender teenagers should be investigated as child abuse. Doctors, nurses, teachers, and other professionals who engage directly with children were directed to report such care to state authorities under threat of criminal penalty should they fail to do so.
Outcry followed immediately, with district attorneys in five Texas counties announcing they would not abide by Abbott’s order. “[W]e will enforce the Constitution and will not irrationally and unjustifiably interfere with medical decisions made between children, their parents, and their medical physicians,” reads a letter signed by district attorneys of Dallas, Travis, Bexar, Nueces, and Fort Bend counties.
While no law in Texas considers gender-affirming care as child abuse, and Paxton’s opinion is not legally binding, investigations into families are already underway, according to a lawsuit filed March 1. The American Civil Liberties Union, Lambda Legal, and Houston law firm Baker Botts LLP are representing an anonymous family with a 16-year-old trans daughter.
The day after Abbott’s letter was released, the complaint states, an employee of the Department of Family and Protective Services was placed on leave because her trans daughter has a need for medical treatment for gender dysphoria. The next day, the employee was informed she and her family were being investigated for providing their daughter gender-affirming care, and an investigator with Child Protective Services arrived at their home for an interview and requested access to their daughter’s medical records.
On March 2, a Texas judge temporarily blocked the state from continuing the investigation into the family but did not stop the state from looking into other reports about children receiving similar care.
This move is the latest in a wave of legislation targeting trans youth in Texas and around the country. During the 2021 legislative session, the state introduced more than 40 proposed anti-trans bills, including attempts to ban trans youth from playing on sports teams that align with their gender identity and criminalize gender-affirming medical care. When none of those anti-trans bills passed, a North Texas father thought his family could breathe a little easier.
“Now Abbott has decided he doesn’t need a law to persecute us. We are back to fearing for our son’s safety and revisiting our exit plan should we get caught up in the net of recent DCFS investigations,” said John, the parent of a transgender 17-year-old who chose to remain anonymous out of fear of persecution.
His son was diagnosed with gender dysphoria when he was 12 years old and struggled with clinical depression and suicidal ideation. After years of therapy and consultations with doctors, it was abundantly clear that gender-affirming treatment was needed and was the best route to provide care for his son.
Medical professionals across the board agree that offering gender-affirming care is vital and can be life-saving for trans youth. Gender dysphoria can lead to depression, suicidal thoughts, and other mental health issues. Studies have shown that access to care like hormones and puberty blockers can lower the odds of depression and suicidality among trans youth, and is generally associated with improved mental health and overall wellbeing for trans kids.
Meanwhile, in Florida, a bill banning teachers from talking about gender identity or sexual orientation—and would allow parents to sue teachers who do—passed in the Senate and will likely be signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“What we are doing is not child abuse, but the opposite of that—helping our child. To remove the medical care that is helping our son with his diagnosed medical issues would be cruel and unusual punishment, making Abbott the child abuser in this story,” John said.
Willow told her parents she was gender fluid in the second grade. The phrase she’d learned articulated the sentiment she’d already expressed, that she knew she didn’t feel like a boy or a girl.
“We have always sort of had a belief like, let’s be open to how we grow, let’s be open to how we evolve as individuals and keep an open heart to the path ahead of us,” Egerton said. So when Willow came out as a trans woman a year ago, Egerton and his wife, Jodi, saw it as a continuation of their child’s self-actualization.
“What was remarkable to see was the bloom that came over this child when she was able to say, ‘This is who I am.’”
While the state appears to be relentless in their persecution of trans youth, Egerton is heartened by the support that members in his community have extended to his family. The comedy troupe Egerton is part of, Master Pancake Theater, began organizing virtual performances to fundraise for advocacy organizations like Out Youth and Equality Texas.
“It was just remarkable to see. And that really, that they gave us hope and light in a dark week,” Egerton said.
In fact, a lot of people sprung into action as soon as Abbott’s order went out. Equality Texas and other organizations hosted educational webinars to explain to parents what it actually meant, help them parse out what to be concerned about, and advise them on how to prepare should they find themselves being wrongfully investigated.
“I think there’s a lot more to Texas than the governor’s politics,” Egerton said.