The Unspeakable Cruelty of Targeting Trans Kids to Score Campaign Points

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, as part of his reelection bid, wants to punish supporters and caregivers of trans youth as child abusers.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a campaign event in Houston, Tex., on Feb. 23, 2022.

Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

This week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, following the lead of state Attorney General Ken Paxton, officially backed the terrorizing of trans kids and those who support them.

On Tuesday, Abbott sent a letter to state agencies, including the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, asserting that gender-affirming health care constitutes child abuse — and that those who provide it or support children in accessing it could be investigated as potential abusers. Like so many of the vicious attacks on trans people that now define the Republican agenda, the governor’s letter was as cynical as it was cruel and grimly rich in political weight.

This line of attack — with marginalized youth in its crosshairs — is a Republican electoral strategy.

Abbott’s letter was an affirmation of an opinion written last week by Paxton, which offered a new and twisted interpretation of existing state law on child abuse. To be clear, the opinion does not change what’s on the books; the opinions of attorneys general do not have the force of law and are meant as written interpretations of current statutes. Yet the message, now undersigned by the governor, is a chilling threat to trans children and adults and their loved ones. The material consequences on many already imperiled lives will be very real.

The fact that both the Texas governor and attorney general are up for reelection this year makes their anti-trans grandstanding all the worse: It’s further confirmation that this line of attack — with marginalized youth in its crosshairs — is a Republican electoral strategy.


Anti-Trans Bills Are Moving Through State Legislatures With Remarkable Speed

Abbott’s letter sits alongside aggressive anti-trans initiatives nationwide. Hundreds of bills taking direct aim at the lives of trans kids are moving through statehouses at chilling speed. From Arkansas to Alaska, Republicans are pushing — and passing — legislation that in no uncertain terms seeks to make trans lives unlivable, with children as a specific target. In Alabama, Idaho, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Arizona, pending bills would officially criminalize or civilly ban offering gender-affirming care to kids. Abbott, though, couldn’t even wait for the legislative process to go after trans youth.

If the galling cynicism of Abbott’s letter needed any clarification, the attorney general this week tweeted that he was against “Chopping off boys’ and girls’ private parts” being treated as health care. Grotesque wording aside, there is no doubt that both Abbott and Paxton are well aware that nowhere in Texas — nor in the entire country — is surgery on children a common aspect of gender-affirming health care. Their official filings this week served only to pander to a paranoiac base and reinforce a fascistic vision, by which all bodies and lives outside their white Christian nationalist agenda are policed, criminalized, and extinguished.

Beyond Abbott and Paxton’s efforts to criminalize nonexistent surgical practices, aspects of the attorney general’s written opinion create immediate threats for trans kids and their loved ones. Paxton wrote that providing medical treatments like hormones to transgender teenagers should be investigated as child abuse. The same hormones prescribed to cisgender children for growth and puberty issues, though, fall under no such investigative suspicion.

The attorney general and governor also pointed to the existence of a “mandatory reporting requirement” under existing Texas law, such that any doctor, nurse, teacher, or other licensed professional must report suspected child abuse or risk criminal penalties. When the fact of being trans is asserted by the state as a presumed consequence of child abuse — a presumption Republicans aim to establish as fact — all trans youth and their supportive families and carers are at risk of ever more harassment, surveillance, and bullying.

“What they are doing is terrifying,” wrote the American Civil Liberties Union’s Chase Strangio, an attorney fighting on the front lines against the ongoing barrage of anti-trans laws. Strangio noted that while Abbott and Paxton’s opinions have no technical legal effect, “they are scaring kids, their families and their doctors into believing they will be investigated if they affirm their trans children and patients.”

Abbott, Paxton, and their allies have long pushed to make trans lives impossible; both the governor and attorney general put their weight behind anti-trans bathroom bills when that legislative push tried, and largely failed, to establish footing in 2016. It speaks to troubling conditions of political possibility this year that, among a host of anti-trans bills, those same bathroom bills are now gaining ground in GOP-led legislatures around the country.

The moves in Texas and elsewhere are rife with ironies. Strangio noted that the very same politicians who claim to back “parental rights” — when it comes to things like white parents on school boards banning anti-racist materials — willingly embrace separating trans kids from their loved ones.

Jules Gill-Peterson, author of “Histories of the Transgender Child” and an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, pointed to the utterly contemptible use of child abuse laws to attack children. “The state of Texas would like to legally abuse trans children and their kin using a child abuse statute,” Gill-Peterson wrote. “The gall of such a perverse irony is stunning; the authoritarian implications chill to the bone.”

Most trans kids and their families in the U.S. have scant access or resources to afford any affirming medical assistance in the first place.

Such venal ironies are, of course, the bread and butter of a white nationalist platform. As I have previously noted, the conservative agenda has long been committed to sacrificing the lives of living, breathing children at the altar of some figuration of a child in need of protection — an imagined child that is invariably white, cis, and a stand-in for an allegedly endangered white America. Understood this way, the attack on trans youth sits clearly alongside equally febrile conservative legislative efforts to control reproductive systems and erase Black and Indigenous histories.

“Texas is joining a long and violent American history of child removal as a means to police entire populations out of existence,” Gill-Peterson said on Twitter.

Last year, the only comprehensive medical program for transgender children in Texas hospitals was shuttered — over the objections of over 400 doctors and health care workers. Most trans kids and their families in the U.S. have scant access or resources to afford any affirming medical assistance in the first place. As with the battle for abortion rights, the struggle for trans health care in red states involves fighting for the right to access services that barely even exist, when in any just world they would be in abundance.

The existential threat to trans and nonbinary youths and adults is intolerable. We should not need to point out that attacks on abortion and other reproductive rights are ideologically tied to assaults on trans lives — although they are — to garner support from liberals. Democrats who see the fight for trans lives as a “culture war” distraction make clear their comfort, wittingly or not, with a white nationalist project of eradication.

Meanwhile, week after week, trans youth who deserve our full solidarity and support are being forced to argue for their existence in front of cold and calculating political bodies — and that’s only the kids who have a voice in the public forum at all.

Correction: March 1, 2022
This story has been updated to reflect that, in exceedingly rare cases, minors have undergone surgery as part of gender-affirming health care.

Join The Conversation