texas republicans see attacking trans kids as political win scaled

AUSTIN, Texas ― On Jan. 11, the second day of the Texas legislative session, Rep. Tony Tinderholt took the microphone to offer an amendment to a procedural resolution laying out the House of Representatives’ rules.

“Members, this amendment simply says if you want to be a committee chairman in the Texas House, you should be able to affirm the obvious fact that there are two genders,” Tinderholt said on the House floor. “It’s sad to even say this these days, but the push from the radical left has shifted reality.”

Texas Rep. Tony Tinderholt (C) speaks before the Texas legislature on July 13, 2021, in Austin, Texas.
Photo by Montinique Monroe/Getty Images

For the next two hours, Tinderholt and his legislative ally Rep. Brian Slaton ― two of the most conservative Republicans in the GOP-dominated legislature ― pelted the House with a flurry of similar amendments.

One barred committee chairs from enforcing “a speech code that restricts the use of biologically correct pronouns.” Another prohibited the legislature’s members or employees from declaring their pronouns in their email signatures. In addition, the duo tried to keep the House from taking up measures dealing with the highway system before first voting on proposals to ban child gender modification and to make it illegal to perform drag shows in front of minors.

All of the amendments failed, with House Speaker Dade Phelan, also a Republican, ruling that they had nothing to do with the rulemaking resolution under discussion.

But the display set the tenor for the looming fight over a series of legislative proposals aiming to restrict all aspects of life for transgender children in the state ― a decade-long culture war waged by the far right that has increasingly gained traction among the state’s more moderate Republicans.

Conservatives have filed at least 67 bills aimed at imposing new restrictions on LGBTQ Texans, according to a tally by a coalition of advocacy groups led by Equality Texas ― topping the state’s previous record of 33.

Several proposals zero in on medical care for children whose gender identity conflicts with their gender assigned at birth. These therapies are broadly described as “gender-affirming care” within medical circles.

One proposed law would reclassify various surgical procedures for gender transitions of minors as a criminal form of “genital mutilation” ― an inflammatory and false way to describe those legal transition procedures, which are not generally available to minors anyhow.

Those seeking medical attention as youths to reconcile their gender identity with the gender they were assigned at birth start with a consult and lab work. Most, especially in Texas, will struggle to find a qualified provider.

When they do, a series of physical and psychological evaluations follow, usually conducted by a team of doctors, over a period that lasts several months at a minimum. Changes to social cues like dress mark the first steps towards a gender transition. But, for children, that’s usually where it stops.

Adolescents, typically after several years of working with a medical team, may move forward with treatments recommended in the current standard of care, like reversible puberty blockers, possibly followed by partially reversible hormone treatments. Surgery is almost always an option reserved for adults.

“They don’t want other people to understand us, and so they fabricate,” said Antonia D’Orsay, director of trans services with the Borrego Community Health Foundation in California. “The simple truth is that they’re lying. It’s a scare tactic meant to get people upset.”

Still, advocates worry that laws envisioned by Texas Republicans’ conservative wing could have chilling effects on medical providers if passed. For example, multiple proposed laws would classify as child abuse non-surgical forms of gender-affirming care, including puberty blockers or hormone therapy.

“They don’t want other people to understand us, and so they fabricate.”

– Antonia D’Orsay, director of trans services with the Borrego Community Health Foundation

Other proposals aim to push trans Texans out of public life. One possible law, modeled on the “Don’t Say ‘Gay’” bill passed last year in Florida, would bar schools from teaching material “regarding sexual orientation or gender identity” to students from kindergarten through middle school, even though it is now not uncommon for those students to have parents in same-sex relationships.

Texas law still mandates that state educational materials intended for minors “state that homosexual conduct is not an acceptable lifestyle and is a criminal offense,” despite the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the state law criminalizing gay sex back in 2003.

And four separate legislators have filed some variation of a bill that would prohibit drag shows from allowing minors. The bills would impose the same restrictions applied to strip clubs to any bar or restaurant featuring a performer who “exhibits a gender identity that is different from the performer’s gender assigned at birth.”

As written, the bills appear to apply to any trans Texan who sings in public in front of more than two people ― along with pretty much anyone who strays beyond the most restrictive standards of style, including performers like Kiss or Ted Nugent, in his long-haired days.

“The ultimate goal is restricting transgender people from existing entirely,” said Adri Pérez, an organizer with the Texas Freedom Network (TFN). “It was never about saving women’s sports. It was never about bathrooms, and it was not about protecting kids. It’s all about making us afraid to live public lives.”

A Winning Issue For The Right?

The prominence of bills targeting trans Texans has served as a measurement of the influence of the state’s hardcore conservatives for years.

In 2017, when former President Donald Trump was inaugurated, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick forced the legislature into a special session in a hail mary attempt to get a bill passed that would force people to use the bathroom assigned on their birth certificates.

Patrick, who still presides over the state Senate, prioritized the bill throughout the 2017 session, waging a personal war against the phantom problem of men prowling women’s bathrooms.

But Gov. Greg Abbott let the bill die, keeping the issue at arm’s length.

The Texas legislature only holds regular sessions for six months every other year. By the time the 2019 session rolled around, former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D) came within 2.6 percentage points of unseating widely reviled U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R).

The unexpected blue surge in a state where the GOP has won every statewide office since 1994 cost several far-right state legislators their seats. A chastened Republican Party spent the year focusing on bread-and-butter issues like tax reform and teacher pay raises. Neither Patrick nor Abbott made much of a fuss about trans issues.

The presidential election of 2020, however, emboldened Texas right once again. Though Trump lost the election, the GOP gained ground in the longstanding Democratic stronghold of south Texas ― a trend that held steady in 2022, when O’Rourke lost a bid for governor, this time by a much wider margin of 11 points.

With the right’s resurgence, Abbott has increasingly embraced the culture war policies targeting trans kids.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott listens to reporters during a news conference on Jan. 31, 2023, in Austin, Texas. Abbott’s interest in anti-trans measures coincided with a wave of legislation in more than two dozen GOP-led states restricting gender-affirming care.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott listens to reporters during a news conference on Jan. 31, 2023, in Austin, Texas. Abbott’s interest in anti-trans measures coincided with a wave of legislation in more than two dozen GOP-led states restricting gender-affirming care.
Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images

In 2021, he signed a law requiring students in public and charter schools to compete in sports as the sex assigned on their original birth certificates, a measure directed at trans students. Last year, Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a legal opinion describing some gender-affirming care as “child abuse,” with Abbott cheerleading the move and directing the Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate parents who seek such care.

Abbott’s keener interest in anti-trans measures coincided with a wave of legislation in more than two dozen other GOP-led states restricting gender-affirming care. Similar measures, like Florida’s “Don’t Say ‘Gay’” law, aimed to curb public discussion about gender in front of minors.

Texan conservatives tend to favor measures like these by wide margins. Some 79% of Republicans opposed changing the sex on a minor’s birth certificate, except in cases of clerical error or atypical sex organs, according to a poll released Wednesday by the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs. Seventy-three percent of Texas Republicans polled supported legislation classifying gender-affirming care as “child abuse.”

Democratic voters disapprove of both measures. But strong support from conservatives and significant minority backing from liberals meant that the general public favored them.

“It’s a winning issue for Republicans,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said. “It’s definitely the type of issue that the Republican base really likes to see. And you don’t lose votes in November ― maybe you gain a few. The people who feel strongly against these policies are people that don’t vote Republican at all.”

The question that will loom over the legislative session until it ends in May is how far powerful Republicans like Abbott, Patrick or Phelan will take anti-trans measures.

Those figures, who each have significant power to either kill bills or ram them through, will likely try to steer their party toward legislation they view as more symbolic, Jones said.

Passing a law equating gender-affirming care with child abuse would expose the state to a flurry of litigation. A law restricting parents’ ability to change their child’s sex on a birth certificate, for example, would have a less practical effect since few people take that step at that age anyway.

But what conservative politicians may view as symbolic threatens to wield a devastating impact on the children and parents struggling to make the best decisions for their health.

“There’s just so many better things we could be doing,” said Pérez, the TFN organizer, later adding, “Are we really going to let Republican values get in the way of best-practice medicine supported by years of science?”

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