On Tuesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sent a letter directing the commissioner of the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate cases of gender-affirming care for youth after state Attorney General Ken Paxton declared that “a number of ‘sex-change’ procedures constitute child abuse under existing Texas law.” In doing so, Abbott aims to trigger abuse reporting requirements for teachers, counselors, and other mandatory reporters — including clergy.
The letter also calls for the department to investigate parents and providers of “abusive gender-transitioning procedures.” The surgical procedures referenced in the letter are rare, with most medical professionals advising the delay of reassignment surgery until a person has reached physical and psychological maturation. But the scope of Abbott's order also includes more common hormone treatments like puberty blockers. Clergy supportive of transgender children, teens, and their families have already begun speaking about the harm of any policy that delays, denies, or stimatizes gender-affirming care.
“Obviously this order is actually going to cause more harm,” said Rev. Gavin Rogers, associate minister at Travis Park Church in San Antonio.
Rogers said characterization gender-affirming care as “child abuse” flies in the face of research, which has shown its importance in the health and wellbeing of transgender youth, who already face many barriers to access.
“If reducing child abuse really is the governor’s aim, this order does the exact opposite,” Rogers said.
Claudia Delfin, assistant director of Corazón San Antonio, a church-based ministry to the unhoused, has devoted her career to helping nonprofits and ministries reduce harm done to trans people, including youth. The governor’s order would make that work harder, she said, by stigmatizing not only the trans children themselves, but also anyone who supports them.
“I think the term ‘child abuse’ is out of the question,” Delfin said. Many of the parents she works with are already struggling with guilt because they cannot fully understand what their child needs from them. “To have it instilled in their heads that it’s abuse is going to make that process harder,” she added.
While she’s disappointed, Delfin said, she’s not necessarily surprised. Texas’s state officials have made it abundantly clear where they stand on trans rights, and they’ve stood there for a long time.
When she transitioned at 17 in 1986, she said, “Being trans was a whisper. We had no services, we were shunned.”
Since then she’s seen little progress in Texas’s public institutions, but recently some nonprofits have begun to support trans and nonbinary people, by expanding the gender options on intake forms, for example. From these small changes, to staff training, to health insurance for hormone treatments and surgeries, there are a lot of ways organizations can support trans and nonbinary people and their families, she said.
Though it’s unclear yet whether any public prosecutors intend to take up Abbott’s charge — which came as both he and Paxton face primary challenges in next week’s election — some state agencies, including CPS, have indicated they would comply.
The posturing creates a distraction for volunteer-based ministries, said Rev. Milo Grant, assistant pastor at University Baptist Church in Austin. “As a state mandatory reporter I am legally obligated to make a call when I see any forms of abuse,” Grant said, and so are volunteers in the church’s youth ministries.
Now, in addition to training volunteers to spot and prevent actual abuse, Grant said, they have to explain the possibility of civil disobedience if volunteers choose not to report. While the title “reverend” may help protect clergy in a lawsuit, they said, “My congregants don’t have that.”
While Abbott’s letter changes nothing about the law, fear and misinformation about what to report and not to report will create chaos for the already struggling Department of Family and Protective Services, said Brian Klosterboer, staff attorney at the ACLU of Texas in a statement released Wednesday.
“The law is clear that parents, guardians, and doctors can provide transgender youth with treatment in accordance with prevailing standards of care,” the statement reads. “Any parent or guardian who loves and supports their child and is taking them to a licensed healthcare provider is not engaging in child abuse.”
During the 2021 legislative session, Republican lawmakers did try, unsuccessfully, to outlaw gender-affirming health care including hormone therapy and surgery with a bill that would strip health care providers of their medical licenses if they provided such care.
Upon the failure of the bill, Abbott called upon Paxton to offer a legal opinion on whether hormone treatment and surgery could be considered child abuse. The official request to Paxton was filed in August by Republican State Rep. Matt Krause, the same representative who sent a letter to the Texas Education Agency and school district superintendents in October calling for an audit of 850 titles in school libraries — mostly books having to do with race and LGBTQ issues. At the time of both requests, Krause was running against Paxton for attorney general. He dropped out of the race in November.
Similar to the state’s restrictive abortion law that allows private citizens to sue abortion providers, the order handed down on Tuesday enlists ordinary citizens in the policing and enforcement of the policy while the constitutionality is inevitably challenged. While experts question the enforceability of Texas's more extreme maneuvers in recent months, the explicit calls to civil action — or even the implicit emboldening of anti-CRT and anti-LGBTQ activism at the school board level in the case of the book bans — have had an instant “chilling” or isolating effect on those targeted.
Whatever the state does, Rev. Natalie Webb, head pastor of University Baptist Church in Austin, said her commitment remains to her congregants, including transgender children and their families, even if that means noncompliance.
“My commitment to the body of Christ and to the children who are created in God’s image is definitely more important than what the governor thinks.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated Feb. 25, 2022 at 2:15 p.m. to correct the spelling of Corazón San Antonio.