If there’s one thing the right loves, it’s to wring their hands and concern-troll over the welfare of transgender children. It’s not uncommon for right-wing pundits and politicians to accuse parents of using their children as pawns and ignoring their children’s welfare in service of their so-called left-wing agenda — and in so doing, ignore the very real, very urgent health crisis facing transgender youth today. A recent court case in Texas has generated rabid backlash from right-wing pundits and politicians alike, and is serving as a lightning rod in the right’s larger effort to erode transgender rights — while simultaneously putting actual transgender children at tremendous risk.
Last Thursday, a Dallas judge ruled that Anne Georgulas and her ex-husband Jeffrey Younger, who have been embroiled in a years-long custody battle, should have joint custody over their 7-year-old transgender child, who self-identifies as female. (Rolling Stone has chosen not to name the child to protect her privacy.)
Georgulas and Younger have been publicly vying for custody for two years, with Younger alleging that Georgulas, a pediatrician, “manipulated” their child into believing that the child self-identified as a girl, and that the mother pushed for the child to undergo medical transition at a young age. Georgulas’ defense has countered that this is untrue, and that she was not requesting sole custody of the child nor to medically transition her, but for Younger to use the child’s correct pronouns and otherwise affirm her gender identity. Judge Kim Cooks ruled that both parents will have equal say in their child’s medical care, and that they will attend mandatory counseling with their children. (The child at the center of the custody dispute has a male twin.)
Judge Cooks’ ruling is notable because it came just a few days after a jury previously ruled 11-1 in favor of Georgulas, granting her sole custody. The jury’s ruling had struck a nerve among conservatives, many of whom have spent months rallying in support of Younger. Last week, Sen. Ted Cruz tweeted that the jury’s decision in favor of Georgulas was “horrifying and tragic,” adding, “For a parent to subject such a young child to life-altering hormone blockers to medically transition their sex is nothing less than child abuse.” Donald Trump Jr. also weighed in, tweeting: “This is child abuse. People need to start to stand up against this bullshit. Enough is enough.”
Texas legislators also responded with outrage. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted that the Texas Attorney General’s office and the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services would be launching an investigation into the case, including probing claims of “possible child abuse” against the child. In a letter sent last week to the Department of Family and Protective Services, First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer inaccurately accused Georgulas of proposing “chemically and surgically altering [the child’s] biological sex based on her belief that he may identify as a girl,” which would lead to “permanent and potentially irreversible harm.” (As Jezebel notes, Mateer has a history of using transphobic language, including describing transgender children as part of “Satan’s plan” in 2017.)
In a conversation with Rolling Stone, Gillian Branstetter, a spokesperson for the National Center for Transgender Equality, said she did not wish to comment on the outcome of this specific case, saying that it was “not in the interest of anyone in this case and in particular the kid for anyone, including me and including national politicians, to be inserting themselves into a private family matter.” Yet she expressed outrage at the coverage of the case and the right-wing political establishment’s response to it, as well as right-wing media’s promotion of misconceptions surrounding transgender youth health care.
“The only reason this case is so high profile is thanks to an entire universe of websites and bloggers spreading disinformation about who trans people are, and what it means to affirm and love a trans child, and what trans healthcare entails,” she says. “I think it’s been a growing problem bubbling just beneath the surface of mainstream political discourse and it is deeply unfortunate that it has surfaced in this way.”
Chief among these misconceptions is the suggestion, promoted in court by Younger himself, that Georgulas pushed for the child to undergo medical transition, such as taking hormone blockers or gender-affirming hormones. In right-wing media, and on Younger’s (now-defunct) blog, the term “chemical castration” was used to describe such interventions, even though this term is inaccurate. Even ostensibly more mainstream outlets have perpetuated the idea that Georgulas pushed for her child to undergo a medical transition. The New York Post story on the ruling, for instance, includes a hand-wringing paragraph about the risks of hormone therapy and its effects on the child’s “health down the line,” along with publishing a headline favorable to Younger and referring to the child using male names and pronouns.
Yet during trial (and as confirmed by Judge Cooks’ ruling), Georgulas stressed that she would not consider hormone suppression for her child until she reached puberty, and that she would only do so with the consent of both her and her ex-husband. Perhaps more to the point, under current guidelines gender-affirming hormones such as testosterone and estrogen are not even prescribed for children under the age of 16 and puberty blockers are not recommended until a child reaches adolescence. “A child as young as the one in this case is receiving nothing like cross-sex hormones or surgical care. I have never heard of a trans child that young receiving hormonal treatment,” says Branstetter. “That is a fictional concern and not at all based in reality.”
On its website, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advocates for clinicians and parents to embrace a “gender-affirming” approach to transgender and gender-non-conforming children by referring to them by their desired names and pronouns and encouraging them to dress, play, or wear their hair in ways that affirm their gender. This is well within standard pediatric protocol, says Shelly Skeen, senior attorney at LAMBDA Legal. Georgulas “is doing what a mother should do and a pediatrician should do in this situation that is in the best interests of her child,” she says.
This gender-affirming approach falls under the umbrella of “social transitioning” — not medical transitioning, as was claimed by many on the right. “There is nothing harmful or dangerous about recognizing a trans child for exactly who they say they are, and in fact you can do severe harm to a kid by refusing to,” says Branstetter. Indeed, according to the AAP, transgender children who are supported by their parents at a young age are more likely to have more positive physical and mental health outcomes, while delayed social transition for children may have “serious negative consequences” for their mental health.
Within the context of the larger health crisis transgender youth are currently facing, the consequences for a lack of such affirmation could be disastrous. Numerous studies have indicated that transgender youth are at significantly higher risk of suicide than their cisgender peers, with one study reporting that nearly 50% of transgender male teens reported having attempted suicide in their lifetimes, and that risk increases if they are rejected by their family members and loved ones. Indeed, in a 2018 Ohio custody case of a transgender teen that was similar to the Texas case, the teen’s medical providers testified that his parents’ efforts to block his transition put him at increased suicide risk. (A judge awarded custody to his grandparents, who supported his transition.)
“This is the status quo. That is what is happening right now in a world that is telling trans children they are unwelcome and just going through a phase,” Branstetter says. “The entire medical world is telling us how best to respond to this crisis, and pretending that we have any responsibility [other than] to empower our children to thrive is disastrous.”
In the midst of this crisis, transphobic rhetoric has been on the rise. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the transgender community has seen an uptick in violent threats and hate speech in recent months, with many on the far right accusing transgender people of “brainwashing” or “indoctrinating” children in the service of an ambiguous leftist agenda.
Stories like the Texas custody case are an entry point for the right to harp on their favorite subject: “the problem of ‘degeneracy’ eroding our culture,” says Cassie Miller, senior research analyst for the SPLC, who authored the report. She sees a direct line between tweets like those of Cruz and Trump, Jr. and the actions of those on the far-right on threads like the encrypted messaging app Telegram, where some have been posting veiled threats alongside Georgulas’ contact information in an effort to dox her. (Indeed, Georgulas’ attorneys, Jessica Janicek and Laura Hayes, told BuzzFeed News that Georgulas has been subject to “threats, harassment, and even vandalism” as a result of the publicity surrounding the case.)
“Anti-trans rhetoric is a way of linking the more mainstream right with the far right. It’s a conversation that is happening in more of a mainstream space,” she says. Doxxing specifically is a tool utilized by the far-right to “create a cost to supporting trans people, trans rights, and progressive causes.”
The hysterical and often inaccurate national media coverage of this case may yield more urgent and far-reaching consequences beyond inciting the ire of a few far-right trolls. Branstetter says that she has spoken to parents of transgender children in Texas who are “terrified of speaking out at all” because of Gov. Abbott’s threats of an impending investigation into allegations of child abuse: “That just sets a god-awful precedent,” she says. Additionally, Texas State Representative Matt Krause has pledged to introduce legislation that would prohibit “the use of puberty blockers” for children under 18.
In light of the ample research suggesting that affirming a child’s gender identity has a positive impact on their physical and mental health, the implications of such legislation are nothing short of terrifying, says Branstetter. “Such a bill if proposed and especially signed into law would have a body count. It would not only destroy lives but end lives,” she says. “It is absurdly dangerous and it is an extreme proposal beyond any recognition of reality.”