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As Texas targets trans kids, their families scramble to find lawyers

Ever since Gov. Greg Abbott directed the state’s child welfare agency to investigate parents who provide gender-affirming care to their children, LGBTQ-affirming family lawyers statewide have been deluged with calls.

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Atlas, left, and Sam, right, chant in front of the Texas Capitol during a protest for transgender kids' rights on Tuesday, March 1, 2022. Sam said he came "so kids like me don't have to go through the hard strifes of CPS or health care procedures to feel like themselves." (Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune)

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune

For the last two weeks, a mom in the Austin area has been vacillating between rage and panic. Some days, she’s so fired up she feels like she could take on the entire state of Texas by herself. Other days, she just crawls under her weighted blanket and lets the fear take over.

The woman, who asked not to be identified to protect her family, has an 8-year-old transgender daughter. In late February, Gov. Greg Abbott directed the state’s child welfare agency to open child abuse investigations into parents that provide gender-affirming care to their children.

This family hasn’t had a visit from Child Protective Services, but they know others who have and they’ve started preparing for the possibility that they could be next.

They’re trying to figure out how to explain all this to their daughter, who they’ve tried their best to keep insulated from the growing anti-trans backlash.

“Sadly, that’s going to change,” she said. “We’re going to have to have a conversation with her about somebody potentially coming to her school and trying to talk to her.”

Even though they have no reason to believe that they’re going to be investigated, the family has started speaking with a lawyer who specializes in LGBTQ family law.

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“It would put my mind at ease to know that I have a human being I can call, a sort of a helpline if somebody shows up at my door, somebody that already knows my family,” she said.

This mom isn’t alone. The Texas Tribune talked to seven families with transgender children who have proactively hired lawyers as a result of this directive. None were willing to give their names, fearing that someone might report them if their identity became known.

And lawyers who specialize in LGBTQ family law say the number of families reaching out in fear of potential child abuse investigations is unlike anything they’ve ever seen.

Last week, Ian Pittman’s phone started ringing. And it hasn’t stopped since. Pittman is based in Austin and, as a family lawyer specializing in LGBTQ issues, works in a growing and underserved sector.

“But I have never gotten this many phone calls or requests for consultations,” he said. “The number of people who have called has exponentially increased … and the common thread is that everybody feels terrorized.”

This latest wave of fear among parents of trans kids started two weeks ago, when Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a legally nonbinding opinion equating certain gender-affirming medical treatments for transgender children with child abuse. Abbott followed up with a letter directing the state’s child welfare agency to open investigations into “any reported instances of these abusive procedures.”

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Most gender-affirming care focuses on “social transition” — allowing a child to express their gender however they see fit. Some transgender children take puberty blockers, a completely reversible medical treatment that’s prescribed for a wide range of situations beyond transition. Paxton and Abbott also cited concerns over gender-affirming surgeries that are rarely, if ever, used on children.

In a court hearing Wednesday, a lawyer for the state argued that the directive is not intended to mean that the use of puberty blockers or gender-affirming surgery is always abuse, rather that it could be used in an abusive manner.

But anyone can make a report of child abuse, anonymously, and the state has to investigate, meaning parents could face an investigation for any number of reasons.

Pittman is representing two clients who are currently facing investigation by Child Protective Services. Though the reports are anonymous, he said he has reason to believe at least one of the allegations was politically motivated.

The family’s address on the report was one they haven’t lived at for years, ever since it was released publicly as part of a doxxing campaign against trans activists.

Pittman and other lawyers say they’ve also been deluged with calls from families who haven’t yet been contacted by CPS but want to be prepared. He said one family was preparing to start their child on puberty blockers and wanted his opinion on whether they should wait.

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“I’ve never before had to consult parents of children about whether or not they should follow doctor’s orders,” the attorney said. “The fact that they think that they need to get a legal opinion about whether to follow medical advice is mind-boggling.”

Many lawyers and advocates are hopeful that this directive will be struck down by the courts. A state judge on Wednesday intervened to stop an ongoing investigation into the parents of a 16-year-old transgender teenager and scheduled a hearing for next week to consider a statewide injunction.

Paxton filed an appeal Thursday, so rather than having that hearing next week as planned, there is a temporary hold on the injunction hearing until the higher court rules.

And while that all gets sorted out, there are at least two other ongoing investigations — and the real number may be much higher. A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services did not respond to a request for comment on the number of reports the agency has received and the number of ongoing investigations.

DebnamRust, a Dallas law firm that specializes in LGBTQ family law, is currently working with five families, some of whom are currently under investigation by CPS. Attorney Derek Mergele-Rust said these families are not willing to just wait for the courts to sort this out while their lives hang in the balance.

“There is a palpable fear from parents who are afraid their kids are going to be taken away from them and they’re going to be labeled as child abusers,” said Mergele-Rust. “If you’re labeled as a child abuser and you are a licensed professional in the state of Texas, you can’t do your job anymore … there are far-reaching consequences on parents’ lives, too.”

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Mergele-Rust and other lawyers interviewed for this story stressed the importance of starting to build a relationship with an experienced family law attorney now, even if CPS hasn’t gotten involved yet.

“You need a plan,” he said. “A lot of parents are being encouraged to gather documents from doctors and the schools stating that the children are fine and they’re following doctor’s care, things of that nature.”

Families may also need more than one LGBTQ-affirming family lawyer on speed dial. As is typical in child abuse cases, the children need a different lawyer than the parents; ideally, in these cases, they want those lawyers in person during the interviews.

There is some light on the horizon for these families: In just the past week, Lambda Legal and the National Center for Lesbian Rights have heard from hundreds of child welfare lawyers statewide who are stepping up to provide pro bono or low-cost representation to these families.

NCLR legal director Shannon Minter, a trans man who lives in East Texas, said that support has been inspiring to see — and horrifying that it’s necessary.

“This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen happen … to LGBTQ people in my 30 years of practicing in this area of law,” Minter said. “It’s such a blatant fiction to try to say that supporting a transgender kid is abuse.”

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Minter encouraged families to call Lambda Legal or the NCLR to get in touch with a lawyer sooner rather than later.

“Once you’re in the clutch of the child welfare system, you’re very vulnerable,” he said. “You don’t want to have to, at that point, be wasting time and energy looking for a lawyer after you’re already targeted.”

Reporter Sneha Dey contributed to this story.

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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Eleanor Klibanoff is the women's health reporter at The Texas Tribune. She was previously with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, where she covered sexual assault, domestic violence and policing, among other things. She has worked at public radio stations in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Missouri, as well as NPR, and her work has aired on All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Here & Now. She lives in Austin with her enormous cat, Grover Cleveland.

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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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