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Treatment for Transgender Kids Becomes Litmus Test for Texas Republicans

The issue is no longer contained to just the party’s fringes — and it is unlikely to go away any time soon as the national fervor grows, Gov. Greg Abbott’s directive faces legal challenges and it factors prominently into a slew of GOP primary runoffs.

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People held up a transgender flag at a protest last year at the Texas Capitol in Austin. (Sergio Flores/The Texas Tribune)

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune

Gov. Greg Abbott sparked a national uproar last month when he authorized child-abuse investigations into families that allow transgender kids to receive gender-affirming care.

But the political momentum toward the move had been building for months, after the failure at the Legislature of a bill to block such treatments for kids paved the way for executive action amid a competitive primary season. Along the way, the issue emerged as a new litmus test for Texas Republicans.

The issue is no longer contained to just the party’s fringes — and it is unlikely to go away any time soon as the national fervor grows, Abbott’s directive faces legal challenges and it factors prominently into a slew of GOP primary runoffs.

“This is a winning issue,” Abbott’s top political strategist, Dave Carney, told reporters last week, brushing off any general-election concerns. “Texans have common sense.”

Abbott’s directive came shortly after the attorney general, Ken Paxton, issued a legal opinion classifying certain types of gender-affirming care as child abuse. Within days, the state was investigating a family after the parents received such treatment for their 16-year-old transgender daughter. The American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal sued on the family’s behalf, and a state district judge temporarily blocked the investigation but did not stop Texas from opening other, similar probes.

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On Friday, Texas Children’s Hospital, the largest pediatric hospital in the country, said it was ending prescription of gender-affirming hormone therapies in response to Abbott’s directive. Another major hospital, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, closed a clinic for transgender teens last year. On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that the clinic had faced pressure from the governor’s office in the days before it dissolved.

Texas Republicans’ growing focus on what they call “child gender modification” is the latest illustration of the state’s swing to the right after the 2020 election. And it reached an apex as both Abbott and Paxton were in the final days of primaries where they were getting pressured from their right over the issue.

Conservatives pushing the initiatives say they are protecting children from making dramatic changes to their bodies before they are old enough to understand the ramifications. LGBTQ advocates say permanent treatments almost never happen in children and that Texas Republicans are making a cynical play with a vulnerable population with legitimate treatment needs in the crosshairs.

“I think what is happening here is that anti-LGBT politicians realize it’s politically advantageous to attack a minority or marginalized community that people know very little about,” said Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas. “They are exploiting that knowledge gap … with disinformation about who transgender people are as a fear tactic.”

Caught in the political crossfire are parents like the Baizes, who have a transgender son. Melissa Baize lived in Fort Worth for 15 years before her family left the state last year, concerned about the ramp-up of legislation targeting trans children.

Baize said it’s been painful and surreal to be on the receiving end of political attacks from the state’s most powerful leader.

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“As a parent, you try so hard to protect your kids whether they’re straight or gay or trans or anything,” Baize said. “And to have someone who’s in power, who has a voice out there and is saying that this is wrong and you need to turn on these people.”

Baize said she considered Fort Worth her home, and her husband was born and raised in Texas. But she said “we’re never going back, especially now” with the new directive.

From “bathroom bill” to now

The fight over gender-affirming care is the biggest policy battle in Texas over LGBTQ rights since the 2017 “bathroom bill” that sought to restrict which restroom transgender Texans could use. The legislation, a priority of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, never reached Abbott’s desk, stymied by stubborn opposition from the business community and then-state House Speaker Joe Straus, a Republican.

When the bathroom bill was first introduced, Baize’s son was just 10 years old. But she said her son understood then that lawmakers were talking about kids like him. He started to feel afraid to use the bathroom he felt more comfortable in. That was the beginning of the stress that prompted them to leave town.

“We thought, if this is always going to be going south for us, it’s not going to be good for us as a family as a whole,” Baize said. “We needed to get our family back on track, and we needed to be somewhere safe.”

A good amount has changed since then for Republicans. In 2020, the GOP defeated the most serious effort in recent memory to turn the state blue and then used the redistricting process last year to shore up its majorities for the next decade. Combined with a national environment favoring the GOP in November, that laid the foundation for Texas Republicans to return to a time when the primary is far more consequential for them than the general election.

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It was against that backdrop last year that the GOP-led Legislature, with Abbott’s support, became a red-meat factory, churning out laws that almost totally banned abortion, allowed permitless carry of handguns and tightened Texas’ already stringent voting rules. Some called it the most conservative session ever.

That year, Republican leaders moved forward on legislation targeting trans athletes that forced student to play on teams based on their sex at birth. That proposal failed in the regular session but passed in a special session after Abbott prioritized it.

Even as Republicans raced to the right on a host of issues, though, going after transition-related medical care for transgender kids remained on the back burner. Despite the efforts of some of the farthest-right members — and passage in the Senate — it never made it through the House.

Straus’ modern-day successor is Dade Phelan, a Republican from Beaumont who initially gave LGBTQ advocates cautious optimism due to his 2019 comment saying he is “done talking about bashing on the gay community.” But their optimism dimmed when he allowed the bill on transgender student athletes to reach the floor last year.

Still, through four legislative sessions last year, Phelan and his leadership team were able to keep off the floor an array of proposals targeting gender-affirming care for minors. That laid the groundwork for it to become a primary-season issue when the Legislature finally gaveled out in October — and raised the possibility that Abbott would have to take executive action to appease his right.

It was not long before the issue became a political liability for both Paxton and Abbott. Paxton got flack from some of his primary opponents who wanted to know why he was taking so long to formally weigh in on whether gender-affirming treatments constituted child abuse. The request for the legal opinion came in August from state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, who would go on to wage a short-lived challenge against Paxton in his primary that fall.

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Meanwhile, Abbott got badgered over the issue by primary challengers including Don Huffines, a former state senator from Dallas.

“Texans deserve a governor who will fight against the radical Leftist sickos and end their war on children,” Huffines said in one statement.

Another Abbott challenger, former Texas GOP chair Allen West, was able to crusade on the issue long before he launched his campaign because it was one of the legislative priorities of the state party he led.

Paxton released his opinion on Feb. 21, the middle of the early-voting period for the March 1 primary, and Abbott issued his directive the next day.

Paxton advanced to a runoff in his primary, and Abbott easily won his outright with nearly two-thirds of the vote. He now faces a Democratic opponent, Beto O’Rourke, who has criticized the directive, pledging to protect transgender children in Texas and more broadly expand LGBTQ rights in the state.

Abbott’s campaign is not worried about the fallout.

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“That is a 75-to-80% winner,” Carney, the Abbott strategist, said during a call with reporters the morning after the primary. “I don’t believe that even O’Rourke would think that if a parent cut off the hand of their kid, it wouldn’t be considered child abuse.”

There has not been any public polling on the issue recently in Texas. But the state’s Republicans overwhelmingly backed a primary ballot proposition last week calling for a ban on “chemical castration, puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and genital mutilation surgery on all minor children.” (Medical experts say surgeries and irreversible treatments for transgender children are exceedingly rare.) The proposition got 93% support, and it was the third most popular among the 10 nonbinding propositions that appeared on the ballot.

“Clearly as of right now, the Republicans feel safe enough to do as they please,” said Andrew Sanders, an assistant professor of political science at Texas A&M University-San Antonio. “They’re definitely feeling confident that this is an agenda that can keep them in power.”

Business breakup

Another thing that has evolved since 2017 is Republicans’ relationship with the business community.

Once a bedrock constituency of the GOP, Big Business has found less of an audience with state GOP leaders as it seeks to influence them on social issues, at least publicly. A stark illustration of that came last year when American Airlines came out against the Republican-backed voting bill — and Patrick went on a rampage against it, essentially making an example out of the Fort Worth-based company.

​​”Stay out of things you don’t know anything about,” Patrick said at the time, “and if you want to get involved, then you’re taking that risk.”

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Businesses are taking notice of the fierce blowback they can incur from the highest levels of state government. The Texas Association of Business, which was instrumental in stopping the bathroom bill, did not respond to a request for comment on Abbott’s directive on transgender youth.

The TAB was a top organizer of bathroom bill opposition in 2017. Opponents also got a boost when the NFL warned the Legislature against passing the legislation, suggesting it could impact future games in the state.

There has nonetheless been noteworthy business opposition to Abbott’s recent directive. Texas Competes, a coalition of over 1,400 businesses and business groups that advocates for LGBTQ rights, issued a statement saying it was “gravely concerned” about the directive.

“When Texas sends this dangerous message, it is at stark odds with our members’ values and competitiveness — especially in a climate where all sectors have struggled to recruit and retain a talented workforce,” the statement said.

Jessica Shortall, the managing director of Texas Competes, said in a separate statement that the group has “heard from several big employers that the outreach — and outrage — from their workforce exceeds even what they experienced in the 2017 bathroom bill fight.”

How much that means to Abbott and other state Republican leaders is an open question. Matt Rinaldi, the Texas GOP chair who was serving in the state House during the bathroom bill battle, argued in an interview that Patrick was “really ahead of the game” in going toe-to-toe with the business community in 2017.

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“You’re seeing now that people are realizing that Big Business is quickly siding with the most extreme elements of the Democratic Party,” Rinaldi said, “and the Republican Party, in one of the largest political realignments we’ve seen in a while, is becoming the party of small business, working Americans and parents.”

Not going away

The national attention over the directive is not receding.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra has said his agency is looking into what it can to help transgender kids in Texas in light of the directive. During his State of the Union speech, President Joe Biden decried the “onslaught of state laws targeting transgender Americans and their families.” And on Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the Texas policy was “discriminating against exactly the kind of kids who we need to be loving and supporting.”

Paxton appealed the judge’s ruling that halted the first known investigation to stem from the directive, but a court rejected the appeal Wednesday. That means a Friday hearing can proceed over whether the district judge will issue a statewide injunction blocking all such investigations.

Then there are the electoral ramifications going forward. Paxton is in a primary runoff against Land Commissioner George P. Bush, who has criticized Paxton’s opinion as an empty gesture, citing the money he has “accepted in campaign funding from gender transition clinics for illegal immigrants.” That is a reference to Paxton’s financial support over the years from Border Health PAC, the political arm of DHR Health in the Rio Grande Valley, which in 2017 opened a Gender Care Clinic at its Family Medicine Center.

It is unclear if that clinic is still operating. A DHR Health spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

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There are also at least two Republican primary runoffs for state House in which transgender rights rank as a leading issue. State Rep. Stephanie Klick of Fort Worth, the chair of the House Public Health Committee, is in a runoff against a challenger, David Loewe, who has been attacking her for not doing enough to stop “gender modification.” It is also a top debate in a runoff for an open seat in which one of the candidates is Jeff Younger, a North Texas father who came to prominence through a protracted custody battle involving a transgender child.

“I know how to use political power,” Younger wrote Tuesday on Facebook, sharing the news about Texas Children’s Hospital. “My five year campaign to shut down these barbaric abuses is bearing fruit.”

Baize said it’s still hard to watch what’s happening in her home state.

“It’s like, you pick on the weakest ones you can to get ahead, to get the attention they need.” Baize said. “They’re just bullies, and the worst kind to just keep attacking and attacking and attacking. And then thinking of new ways to attack us more and more.”

Sneha Dey contributed reporting.

Disclosure: UT Southwestern Medical Center, DHR Health, Equality Texas, Facebook, Texas A&M University, Texas Association of Business and The New York Times have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Patrick Svitek is the primary political correspondent for The Texas Tribune. Patrick logged countless miles on the 2016 campaign trail, covering the many Texas angles of the momentous presidential race. He previously worked for the Houston Chronicle's Austin bureau. He graduated in 2014 from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. He is originally from Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Texas

Judge temporarily blocks some Texas investigations into gender-affirming care for trans kids

The state has been investigating whether parents who provide access to gender-affirming health care are committing child abuse. The temporary restraining order is part of a lawsuit filed on behalf of three families and members of PFLAG, an LGBTQ advocacy group.

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Activists and members of Austin’s LGBTQ community gathered on the steps of the capitol in 2017 to celebrate the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots. A Texas judge on Friday temporarily blocked the state from some investigations into gender-affirming care for transgender kids. (Austin Price/The Texas Tribune)

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune

An Austin judge has temporarily stopped the state from investigating many parents who provide gender-affirming care to their transgender children. The state has ruled out allegations of child abuse against one family under investigation, but at least eight more cases remain open.

Travis County District Judge Jan Soifer issued a temporary restraining order Friday in a lawsuit filed on behalf of three families and members of PFLAG, an LGBTQ advocacy group that claims more than 600 members in Texas.

Brian K. Bond, executive director of PFLAG National, applauded the decision to stop what he called “invasive, unnecessary and unnerving investigations.”

“However, let’s be clear: These investigations into loving and affirming families shouldn’t be happening in the first place,” Bond said in a statement.

This is the latest chapter in an ongoing legal battle stemming from a February order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott, directing the Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate parents who provide gender-affirming care to their transgender children.

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The Texas Supreme Court recently blocked the state from investigating one family, which had brought a lawsuit challenging the directive, but overturned a wider injunction that stopped the state from investigating other families.

This new lawsuit, filed Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal, seeks to block investigations into all parents of transgender children who belong to PFLAG.

During Friday’s hearing, Lambda Legal’s Paul Castillo revealed that the state has ruled out allegations of child abuse against Amber and Adam Briggle, who were under investigation for providing gender-affirming care to their 14-year-old son.

The Briggle family, outspoken advocates for transgender rights, once invited Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton over for dinner. Five years later, they ended up at the center of a child abuse investigation that stemmed, in part, from a nonbinding legal opinion that Paxton issued in February.

While their case has been closed, many others remain ongoing. Castillo said one of the families involved in the lawsuit was visited by DFPS investigators Friday morning.

“I do want to highlight for the court that every plaintiff in this case has illustrated the stress and trauma of even the potential of having a child removed, merely based on the suspicion that the family has pursued the medically necessary course of care that is prescribed by their doctor for gender dysphoria,” Castillo said.

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Gender-affirming care is recommended by all major medical associations to treat gender dysphoria, the distress someone can feel when their gender identity does not align with their biological sex. Gender dysphoria can be exacerbated as a child approaches puberty, so doctors often prescribe reversible puberty blockers and, sometimes, hormone therapy. More than half of all transgender youth report considering suicide, but the rates are much lower for those who are able to access gender-affirming health care.

The mental health impact of Abbott’s directive has already been clear, according to the lawsuit. One 16-year-old transgender boy, identified in the suit as Antonio Voe, attempted to kill himself after the directive came down. When he was admitted to an outpatient psychiatric facility, the staff reported his family to DPFS for child abuse because he was undergoing hormone therapy, according to the lawsuit.

In the hearing, Assistant Attorney General Courtney Corbello revisited the state’s argument that merely being under investigation by DFPS does not constitute harm to a family.

She also argued that PFLAG cannot bring this legal challenge on behalf of its members since there is no evidence that PFLAG members are being targeted for investigation based on their membership in the association.

Soifer disagreed, granting the temporary restraining order on behalf of the three named plaintiffs and PFLAG members. Soifer directed the lawyers to schedule a hearing in the coming days, where a judge will hear evidence and decide whether to extend the restraining order.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Austin

Austin Pride Rescheduled

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The Austin Pride Foundation announced that this year’s Austin Pride celebration, originally scheduled for Saturday, August 13, 2022, has been rescheduled for the following weekend. This year’s Austin Pride Festival and Parade will now be held on Saturday, August 20, 2022.

According the a post on Facebook, the change was made at the request of the City of Austin:

We will celebrate Austin Pride No! Matter! What! At the request of the City of Austin, our new date for Austin Pride is Saturday, August 20, 2022. One more week also gives us a chance to go Beyond the Rainbow for the Pride we deserve after two long years. This year the rainbow shines no matter what! See you there.

This will be the first pride celebration in Austin since 2019, after all events in 2020 were canceled as a result of the pandemic and canceled again in 2021 due to a surge of infections caused by the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

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Dallas

Dallas Southern Pride Announces the 2022 Juneteenth Unity Weekend

More than 20,000 people expected to attend the star-studded event featuring A-List celebrities including Moneybagg Yo, The City Girls, Saucy Santana, and Dallas’ own, Yella Beezy and Erica Banks

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DALLAS — Dallas Southern Pride will host its Juneteenth Unity Weekend celebration, June 16-19, 2022. This year’s celebration will include a myriad of events, including health and wellness screenings, COVID-19 vaccinations, concerts, their annual Juneteenth Unity Festival and Pool Party, various local club events, parties and The Emancipation Ball. Some of the biggest stars in hip-hop and entertainment are confirmed for this unforgettable four-day weekend of festivities, including the City Girls, Saucy Santana, and Moneybagg Yo, who will perform at the Juneteenth Unity Festival and Pool Party on Saturday, June 18 from 5 PM – 9 PM at Samuell-Grand Aquatic Center, 3201 Samuell Blvd., Dallas, Texas; and Dallas’ own superstars Erica Banks and Yella Beezy, who will perform at the Mega Party that Saturday at 10 PM at Amplified, 10262 Technology Blvd E, Dallas, Texas. The weekend of events will conclude with a signature brunch on Sunday, June 19, hosted by Kirk Myers-Hill, president of Dallas Southern Pride.

More than 20,000 people from across the United States and internationally are slated to attend this year’s Juneteenth Unity Weekend celebration, which was created to celebrate the brilliance and culture of Black people. An idea birthed by community leader, businessperson and activist, Kirk Myers-Hill, the Juneteenth Unity Weekend is the official annual celebration for Black Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans, and Queer (LGBTQ+) people to come together and celebrate their contributions to both American and Black culture, liberation and community.

“Juneteenth Unity Weekend is a celebration and representation of the many intersections and beautiful mosaics within the Black community,” said Kirk Myers-Hill, president of Dallas Southern Pride. “The Black community is only as strong as its Black Gay brothers and sisters. Juneteenth is an opportunity to showcase unity and display the belief that we are all stronger together.”

Juneteenth became a federally recognized national holiday in 2021. However, long before the nation started celebrating this holiday, Black people in Texas were celebrating this day, as it originated in Texas. The Emancipation Proclamation, which granted freedom to slaves, was signed 1863. However, it wasn’t until two years later on June 19, 1865, that slaves in Texas first learned of their freedom. Union troops entered Galveston, TX, announcing that all slaves were free. This marked the beginning of Juneteenth as it is known and recognized today. Since 2017, the Governor of Texas has submitted a proclamation recognizing the Juneteenth Unity Weekend. Additionally, Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson continues to show her support by issuing welcome letters for the past five years. The Juneteenth Unity Weekend is a family-oriented celebration with events and programming for the entire community and is excited to bring the celebration of Juneteenth back home to Texas. June is also Pride Month and the Juneteenth Unity Weekend has been a staple event in the city of Dallas during Pride month for many years.

“VisitDallas is excited to support the 2022 Juneteenth Unity Weekend hosted by Dallas Southern Pride and Abounding Prosperity, Inc. Events like this continue to make Dallas a better place to live and visit,” said Craig T. Davis, president and CEO of VisitDallas.

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Since its inception in 2008, the Juneteenth Unity Weekend continues to make a positive impact in the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex by unifying the community, celebrating freedom, providing a safe space for community gathering, and infusing millions of dollars into the local economy. The 2021 Juneteenth Unity Weekend brought thousands of visitors to the Metroplex, and sold-out all its host hotels. The event generated more than $2.2 million dollars for local business hit hard by the global COVID-19 pandemic and created hundreds of jobs for “gig” workers. The event and leadership team also created other historic moments for the city of Dallas. As a result, the HIV positivity rate dropped below 10 percent for the first time in the event’s history among more than 200 attendees tested; the Dallas Police Department held a recruitment drive targeting LGBTQ+ applicants; the Dallas skyline was lighted in the Juneteenth and Black Pride colors for the first time and The Dallas Southern Pride Official Pride flag was debuted and flown for the first time at the Sheraton Market Center.

The Juneteenth Unity Weekend is a collaborative celebration made possible by the support of the many companies and organizations that share the collective vision for this impactful event that advances the entire Black family and social justice movements and celebrates unity and peace. The 2022 presenting sponsors thus far are Gilead Sciences and Abounding Prosperity, Inc., along with Black Entertainment Television (BET) and ViiV Healthcare as diamond sponsors. Other key sponsors include the Dallas Mavericks, Radio One Dallas, Dallas TPID, AHF, Yale School of Nursing, Johns Hopkins University, HVTN, SBPAN, AIDS United, VisitDallas, Hilton, Center for Black Equity, United Black Ellument, Crawford Jewelry, and Don Morphy.

A portion of the proceeds from this year’s Juneteenth Unity Weekend will be used to support the free health, and wellness activities of its partner agencies, which offsets the cost of essential services to Black and Brown communities, with an emphasis on LGBTQ+ communities and their families in the DFW metroplex.

The Juneteenth Unity Weekend is still open for additional sponsors and vendors, particularly those in the arts, entertainment, health and wellness, skincare, clothing, beauty, food and beverage including food trucks, and lifestyle brands.

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.dallassouthernpride.com.

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