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What Is Gender-Affirming Medical Care For Transgender Children? Here’s What You Need To Know.

A nurse practitioner is seen speaking to a patient through an open door at a pediatric care facility. The patient is not visible to maintain privacy.
Spencer Selvidge for The Texas Tribune
Medical care for transgender youth is again up for debate in Texas, though leading health care organizations say gender-affirming care is the best way to provide care to transgender children.

Texas GOP lawmakers failed to restrict transition-related health care options for transgender Texas kids earlier this year. But Gov. Greg Abbott plans to enact limits through executive action.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced earlier this summer that he’s planning to take action that would restrict transition-related medical care for transgender minors in Texas, a move that aligns with other conservative states that have recently targeted the medical practice that is widely accepted by leading health care groups.

Besides Abbott, many other Republican officials in Texas have called for bans on gender-affirming care, including state Sen. Charles Perry and Abbott primary challenger Don Huffines. Efforts to ban such medical care — or define it as child abuse — got through the Texas Senate this year, but ultimately failed to become law. Medical experts say Republican lawmakers’ justifications for the bills have falsely claimed doctors and parents are allowing children to go through irreversible medical treatments.

Leading health care organizations in Texas — including the Texas Medical Association, Texas Counseling Association and Texas Pediatric Society — say gender-affirming care is the best way to provide care to transgender children. They’re not alone: the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and others agree, and have for years.

LGBTQ advocates say the mere specter of banning transgender kids’ access to some medical care exacts a mental health toll on them. And now, medical providers are worried the upcoming executive order, as well as any future legislation, could impact their ability to provide treatment to Texas transgender kids.

“If you can’t even talk about it, and these kids can’t get the mental health services that they need and the counseling services that they need, then that has a huge detrimental impact on those kids,” said Seth Kaplan, president of the Texas Pediatric Society.

What is gender-affirming care?

Areana Quiñones, executive director for the Texas nonprofit organization Doctors For Change, defined gender-affirming care as judgment-free, individualized care oriented toward understanding and appreciating a person’s gender. Providers often work with counselors and family members to ensure they have everything they need to navigate the health care system.

Under the gender-affirming model of care, more time is spent allowing kids to socially transition instead of focusing on medical treatment. A social transition consists of the steps a child takes to affirm their identity. An example could include allowing a child assigned male at birth to wear clothing, grow their hair or use a different name that better fits their identity.

This transition is done with their family and community’s support.

“The most important message is that trans kids are kids,” Kaplan said. “And they deserve to have the same health care that all kids have, which is evidence-based health care that serves to promote their growth and development to help them become healthy, fully functioning adults.”

Sometimes, more medical support is needed for the child. Puberty or hormone blockers are used to give a transgender kid time before deciding what permanent transition-related treatment they want.

What are puberty blockers?

Puberty blockers are a type of medical treatment that delays puberty. They are completely reversible.

It is not uncommon for puberty blockers to also be a treatment for children who aren’t transgender. Since early onset puberty can cause health issues into adulthood, they have been an approved medical treatment for children for decades.

“Hormone blockers are used for a lot of different medical purposes, not just for transgender youth,” Quiñones said. “So I think that it's a slippery slope, when you're saying you're going to prohibit physicians from using this as a potential treatment for something.”

Do transgender children have procedures more advanced than puberty blockers?

Some transgender children have more advanced medical procedures, like starting testosterone therapy. Those instances are rare, especially if they are allowed to go on puberty blockers, which give them more time to decide what medical procedures they want in the future when they are an adult.

Language in legislation targeting medical care for transgender children hasn’t reflected this reality, however. One bill filed during the special legislative session by state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, would ban “gender transitioning” and lists procedures that do not fall under gender-affirming care.

“The standards are to support pre-pubertal youth where they are,” said Celia Neavel, director of the Center for Adolescent Health at the People’s Community Clinic in Austin. “There’s nothing going on with hormones or surgery, there’s only living your life and being supportive of who you are.”

What bills targeting transgender people have Texas lawmakers pushed in recent years?

Major legislation targeting transgender Texans has been introduced in recent regular legislative and special sessions. In 2017, Abbott called a special session to, among other issues, pass a controversial bathroom bill that would have restricted which restrooms transgender Texans could use. The legislation ultimately failed in that special session after also failing in the preceding regular session.

Experts warn legislation like this demonizes transgender people, which can lead to them facing higher rates of violence and mental health issues.

“These kids already suffer from much higher rates of mental health concerns related to anxiety and the higher levels of suicidal ideation because of all the stress that they’re under,” said Kaplan, president of the Texas Pediatric Society. “And so these laws have the potential to just have a dramatic impact on these families.”

In 2019, Black transgender women like Muhlaysia Booker and Chynal Lindsey were killed in Dallas during a year that almost every transgender person murdered was a Black woman. Booker was found dead one month after being assaulted in a Dallas parking lot. When advocacy groups showed lawmakers pictures of Booker’s face, they stated every single lawmaker had a hard time looking at the photo.

“This was the first time legislators were faced with the reality of what was happening in a deeper way,” Emmett Schelling, Transgender Education Network of Texas’ executive director, said in a 2019 conversation about building trans political power. “In the midst of tragedy we were able to really make legislators understand the cost of the rhetoric and what our community was paying.”

Yet little more than a month after the conversation, Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton urged state agencies to investigate whether a mother supporting her 7-year-old child’s gender transition was committing “child abuse.” Jeffrey Younger, the child’s father, posted falsehoods on his blog about gender-affirming care, capturing outrage from Republican politicians like Abbott, Paxton and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

Texas lawmakers promised to file legislation in response to the Younger case. Equality Texas CEO Ricardo Martinez said earlier this year Texas filed more anti-LGBTQ bills during the regular session than any other state legislature. According to bill tracker Freedom For All Americans, only Tennessee matched the amount of anti-transgender legislation introduced in Texas. A federal court in Arkansas recently blocked a law criminalizing gender-affirming care from going into effect. Seventeen state attorneys general — including Paxton — had filed a brief in support of the law.

Perry and Krause, who championed some of the bills targeting transgender children this year, did not respond to the Tribune’s request for comment. Abbott also did not respond.

How do these legislative attempts affect transgender youth?

LGBTQ advocates say the political rhetoric surrounding anti-transgender legislation — and the possibility that the bills could become law — have dire consequences for trans kids’ mental health.

The Trevor Project found 52% of transgender and nonbinary youth have seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. It also found that over 70% of transgender kids have experienced symptoms of generalized anxiety and major depressive disorder. Over the last year, the organization, which offers crisis counseling for LGBTQ youth, has received over 9,400 crisis contacts from Texas.

“A majority of trans individuals have struggled with depression or anxiety, at a minimum, during their life and their process,” said Adrian Warren, president of the Texas Counseling Association. “And any time the government, or really any entity, has an anti-trans position, that does further harm. And so when it is something like the government, there’s a very large potential for harm.”

What do transgender Texans think?

Abbott hasn’t yet announced what the executive action on gender-affirming care will look like. However, Texans are paying attention to what it could do, as well as what further moves he could make to stifle gender-affirming care in Texas.

Many transgender kids and their families already have spent hours testifying at the Capitol in support of gender-affirming care, along with doctor and counselors. Some are considering leaving the state if any further action is taken.

Landon Richie and his family have considered such a move. Now 18, Richie began socially and medically transitioning as a teenager. He also got involved in transgender activism, and is now an intern with Transgender Education Network of Texas. A third-generation Texan, he has a younger nonbinary sibling, and his family has discussed moving if they have to.

“Trans people absolutely do belong in the state of Texas,” Richie said. “We make up an integral part of the fabric of this state. But every other year that’s the message that is sent, that trans people don’t belong. They’re second-class citizens. Texas doesn’t want us to exist in public life.”

The Texas Tribune provided this story.