AUSTIN, Texas (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Every morning, Mary’s eight-year-old daughter Paige walks into school in the Texan city of Austin with a legal letter in her rucksack, neatly packed with her schoolbooks and her lunch, just in case she gets stopped by state family protection officials.
The letter is short and to the point: she cannot be interviewed without the family’s attorney present.
Paige is among thousands of trans children in Texas whose lives have been upended since the state’s governor ordered welfare officials to launch abuse investigations into parents who support their children’s gender transition.
“We feel threatened, we feel scared to just do normal things like go to a pool,” Mary told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, who like all the family members interviewed in this story asked to use a pseudonym for personal security reasons.
Republican Governor Greg Abbott, who was re-elected in Tuesday’s midterms, issued a directive in February that said providing children with medical treatment for gender transition constitutes “child abuse” that must be reported to protection agencies.
Parents who are investigated over suspected abuse can face prosecution or have their children put into care.
Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
The directive has been significantly weakened by legal challenges, with the state’s Supreme Court ruling in May that Abbott lacked the authority to personally order investigations, but the probes have not stopped.
Texas’ Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) said five of the 14 investigations it opened into families of trans children following the governor’s directive were ongoing. None have led to a child being put into care, a spokesperson said.
Many families of trans children are weighing up leaving the state as the political climate turns against them. But some are tied to the state by family responsibilities, lack of finances or other reasons.
Mary said moving would protect her daughter – but might force the family to split up due to custody agreements with her ex-partner over her other child.
“When I think about leaving, it just feels traumatizing,” she said.
‘WHERE DO WE GO?’
In a manicured neighborhood in Houston, 11-year-old trans girl Claire and her mother Julia said they live in constant fear of investigation.
“It feels like half my childhood has been spent worrying,” said Claire.
Julia is involved in one of the lawsuits challenging the governor’s directive and is in regular contact with her lawyer.
“Every week it’s an update, and it’s kind of like being on a roller coaster,” Julia said of the ongoing litigation.
“While we have injunctions, even if they’re temporary, I sleep better.”
Julia and her family have considered moving state but finances and care needs of another family member make it hard.
But the political climate, particularly in terms of attitudes towards trans youth from the state’s lawmakers, has also made her wonder if they should go.
Texas has introduced a number of bills related to trans minors and LGBTQ+ people in recent years. Last year, it passed a law banning trans school children from being able to participate in sports teams that match their gender identity.
Another bill that sought to outlaw gender-affirming surgeries and the prescription of puberty blockers to trans teenagers failed to pass.
In 2019, Texas also passed a religious freedom law, which civil rights groups say could allow businesses to withhold services from LGBTQ+ people on the basis of religious objections.
“We may have to leave … (But) where do we go?” said Julia.
‘THOSE WHO CAN ARE LEAVING’
There are nearly 30,000 transgender youths aged between 13 and 17 living in Texas, according to a June study by the Williams Institute, an LGBTQ+ law and public policy research center within the University of Los Angeles.
There is no data available on how many have left. But Ricardo Martinez, chief executive of the LGBTQ+ advocacy group Equality Texas, said the organization had seen a spike in families asking for support in recent months.
“There’s this timidity, this trepidation, about just navigating everyday life for families, which is why those families who can are leaving,” said Martinez.
In response, LGBTQ+ rights group All in for Equality Coalition – which includes Equality Texas and other organizations – created a web page for trans children and their families that includes legal updates, advice on what to do if officials open an investigation, and details of support groups.
Since the start of the year, more than 300 bills have been introduced nationwide that target LGBTQ+ rights, according to advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign, many of which are focused on trans youth and education policy.
“What we’re seeing, and we continue to see in states around the country, is that (lawmakers are) posting laws that they know to be unconstitutional,” Chase Strangio, a trans rights expert at nonprofit the American Civil Liberties Union, said at a press conference last month.
But for trans schoolchild Claire in Houston, while her friends are out playing, she is sometimes at home, writing letters to lawmakers describing how such legislation affects her life.
“They’re using their power to take away trans kids’ rights,” she said.