Protect trans kids.

A thoughtless sop to bigots in Texas has endangered trans children and their only advocates. It’s time to stand up for them. PLUS: Madeleine Albright, remembered

Protect trans kids.
The Bryant family, Rebekah, Sunny, who is trans, Bodhi and Chet pose in their Houston, Texas, home on March 4, 2022. Francois Picard, via Getty.

Edited by Spencer Ackerman

LAST MONTH IN TEXAS, Republican Governor Greg Abbott and his attorney general, Ken Paxton, changed rules governing “licensed professionals.” These professionals are now required to report parents who give their trans children gender-affirming care as child abusers. Reports to managers or institutional superiors are not sufficient—they must be made directly to the police or to Texas’s Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), who have the authority to remove children from their homes.

The “duty to report” classification is a serious one. Teachers, doctors, clergy, and attorneys, all licensed by the state of Texas, are emboldened under this regime to indulge any bigotry they might harbor toward trans kids and their parents. But it's even broader than that: Professionals who do not report parents of trans children risk a felony conviction—complete with a year in prison. The ACLU sued the state of Texas and sought and, on March 11, won an injunction against the rule until arguments could be heard in July. But several child-abuse cases based on the rule have already been opened.

If children are removed from a parent’s care by the state, they are very difficult to get back from a system notorious for its extraordinary dysfunction. The DFPS is currently under investigation after extensive allegations of negligence and corruption. Twenty-three children have died in the care of the Department in the past three years. Another 24,000 children are currently in long-term care there.

The risks to them are not just mortal. At a shelter for teenage victims of sex trafficking, an employee was discovered not merely to have instructed at least seven children in her care photograph themselves naked— photos she used to buy Xanax and Percocet, which she then gave to the children—but to have been dating a man who trafficked one of the children in her care at the time. It is among the most egregious cases in an ongoing class-action lawsuit against the DFPS, which resulted in the shutdown of so many long-term care facilities that the DFPS put its children into hotels, where they were raped by hotel staff and tazed by security guards contracted by DFPS.

LGBTQ children are disproportionately represented in the Texas foster care system.

These facilities are functionally prisons. The "duty to report" rule would confine children to them for getting medical treatment that lets them go through puberty as their chosen gender. People who get early medical treatment from caring physicians and parents often see symptoms of mental illness subside dramatically as their dysphoria diminishes. And for some, it is important to present as their identified gender in adulthood, which they can do much more easily if they transition early in adolescence. Interventions like puberty blockers and hormone therapy can spare adult trans people complex and painful surgeries and therapies. Functionally, Abbott and Paxton are turning trans children who receive gender-affirming medical care—which is especially effective in early puberty—into criminals in an effort to force them into the gender the state prefers. It is an attempt to eliminate an entire class of person by attacking them at their most helpless. And they will enlist parents in the work of destroying them by using the fear of separation as a cudgel, demonstrating a cynical but bitterly accurate understanding of how gender and other normativities are most effectively enforced throughout American history.

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CARING FOR A TRANS CHILD is a difficult proposition even without the interference of bigots. Many kids experience some form of gender dysphoria. The majority do not go on to be trans. Much of affirmative care is simply respect: Calling children by their preferred names, letting them dress as their identified gender, and asking relatives, friends, and teachers to do the same.

The Endocrine Society, a 106-year-old professional association of endocrinologists, calls “gender affirmation [a] multidisciplinary treatment.” Many organizations recommend or even require psychological therapy before going on puberty blockers; hormone therapy and cosmetic surgery are similarly carefully controlled (and often very expensive). The former option, though, is a godsend to the new generation of trans kids—finally, say many of their elders, by using puberty blockers, trans people will be able to escape the experience of being forced into the wrong body at the most vulnerable moments in their lives. And if those kids come to the conclusion that they’re not trans while using puberty blockers (which does happen, albeit to a very small minority of trans people, who are already a very small minority), they’re able to stop their medication and resume the frustrating, weird experience of adolescence as the gender they were assigned at birth.

For trans kids on the blockers, though, there are all manner of benefits. Far lower incidence of depression and anxiety occur in a group horrifyingly prone to suicidality, for one. Forcibly detransitioning children, on the other hand, causes suicidality to skyrocket.

Again, trans people are a tiny, tiny minority. Social conservatives have spent years using that minority’s relative obscurity to frighten the Republican voting base, at first with bizarre “bathroom bills” declaring various toilets off-limits to trans people. As anti-trans rhetoric became a cornerstone of Republican policymaking (such as it is), public perception of the trans population lost any contact with reality. Respondents to a recent YouGov poll estimated that 1 in 5 people were trans. In reality that number is about 6 in 1000. It’s the same playbook that conservatives ran when they tried to run against gay marriage, but with the advantage to bigots that far fewer people are friends with a trans person than a gay person (How many people are gay? YouGov respondents: 30 percent. Actual: 3 percent).

As Matthew Sitman points out on this week’s Know Your Enemy, bathroom bills were so unpopular they cost North Carolina governor Pat McCrory his job—who was going to be on penis watch in the ladies’ room, anyway?—and so conservatives moved on to a much easier group to persecute: children.

Some of this is mere cynicism. A popular candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, Don Huffines, campaigned by complaining about amenities for LGBTQ people and then bragging when the state’s overwhelmingly Republican elected leaders scrambled to eliminate them, from mental health resources for suicidal teenagers to story time in the children’s section at the library. Children can’t speak up for themselves to politicians. They can't tell anyone but their parents that they miss going to story time. They are easy targets for the sort of bully who fears reprisal above all else, and, as his administration repeatedly demonstrated by capitulating to Huffines, Abbott is exactly that sort of bully.

The pressure on Abbott was useful to groups purely opposed to the existence of trans people, as well. A man named Jeff Younger, estranged from his wife and twins, one of whom is trans, took to the conservative punditry circuit to denounce his ex-wife for supporting their daughter’s transition. The case attracted coverage from the usual suspects, and Abbott ordered the woman investigated in 2019. That order turns out to have been a watershed. “I think the Younger case in particular stands out as dragging it to Abbott's notice (and the notice of the right more broadly),” says Gillian Branstetter, press secretary for the National Women’s Law Center. It made it clear, too, that Abbott himself could be pushed to further marginalize trans people.

Conservatives used Younger to do that pushing. During the primary race, a right-wing think tank called The American Principles Project ran a million-dollar series of ads featuring Younger and calling on Abbott to support a bill that would classify gender-affirming care as child abuse. The bill died in committee, but Abbott needed the bigot bloc, and the surest way to get it is to prove you are more extreme than the extremists. So he simply issued new rules to the DFPS. When you want to persecute people who are already marginalized, there is often no lawmaking necessary.

IT’S STRANGE to see these cruel attacks on trans kids succeed when their immediate predecessors, the bathroom bills, failed so spectacularly. To learn why, it’s important to consider the centrality of education to the conservative project, especially the current panic over bizarre redefinitions of “critical race theory” designed to exclude stories about Ruby Bridges from elementary schools.

This resentment of school integration is the foundation of much contemporary conservative intellectualism and the enthusiastically forgotten origin story for many of its own educational institutions. (At conservative Baptist school Bob Jones University, interracial dating was specifically forbidden until March 3, 2000). It is of a piece with the conservative lowbrow, too: Republicans have taken to calling anti-trans legislation “anti-grooming” legislation, a nod to its embarrassing (but in no way abandoned) flirtation with lizard-people-level conspiracies like QAnon. Many conservatives are certain that the Democratic elite molests children in the basements of pizza parlors; many others consider the acknowledgement that gay and trans people exist at all to be a form of recruitment. When the two positions are confused, both benefit. The crazies seem less crazy (since gay and trans people are real and pizza rapists are not), and the bigots seem less bigoted (since child sex dungeons are obviously more objectionable than gay people appearing in a credit card ad).

Make no mistake, this is not the work of used-car salesmen and Pentecostal rednecks. The American Principles Project, which bears a great deal of the responsibility for the suffering of trans kids in Texas, was co-founded by Princeton legal scholar Robert P. George and career Republican operative Frank Cannon; its public face is Terry Schilling, son of late Tea Party congressman Bobby Schilling.

The smaller the minority, both in number and in stature, the easier it is to find popular people willing to join you in persecuting them. Where other celebrities might try to save the whales, Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling has rebranded herself as a defender of women and girls, championing cis women’s bodily autonomy and maligning trans women as predators from the same platform. Conservatives are thrilled to make common cause with someone so culturally influential, pro-choice or no, and it strengthens their position against literal children, who are already helpless.

All that is left for these children are their closest allies, their parents. Abbott hopes to take them away, too. These children deserve protection. We must provide it.

SPENCER HERE. As we were working on Sam's piece, news broke that Madeleine Albright had passed away. Albright, the first woman to serve as secretary of state, and who rose to it from the darkest hour in Jewish history, truly was a historic figure. She shaped, in substantial ways, American foreign policy at the height of its unchallenged influence. Choices she and the other senior officials in the Clinton administration made characterized the American unipolar moment. The legacies of those choices have outlasted the specific crises that prompted them, like the Balkans wars or the containment of Saddam Hussein. Her death provides a moment, perhaps, to review.

"Act[ing] multilaterally when we can and unilaterally when we must," a thesis statement of post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy frequently attributed to Albright, hits different in 2022. The consequences of this declaration are on vivid display after 25 or so years' distance, and perhaps today it is easier to understand it as a statement of imperial exceptionalism. Being what Albright called "the Indispensable Nation" means that the "rules based international order" is whatever you say it is. The Indispensable Nation is not obliged to act multilaterally—something, in other contexts, the U.S. will call "complying with international law"—and when Washington acts unilaterally, it is not an illegal act of aggression. In REIGN I call this the qualified immunity of the global policeman.

Contained within Albright's transactional relationship with multilateralism is another choice that appears, in retrospect, fateful. The Clinton administration's understanding of multilateralism did not distinguish between an act authorized by the United Nations and one launched under the rubric of NATO. But NATO, unlike the United Nations, does not make international law. Investing NATO with a usurped mission of international-law enforcement looks much different to those outside of NATO. And making compliance with the United Nations contingent on the U.N. doing the work of the United States does substantial damage to any institution claiming to represent a "rules-based international order" instead of an instrument of imperial prerogative.

It was easy for Americans to overlook or dismiss that at a time of supreme international power. Not so much now.

Albright is nowhere near uniquely responsible for this. But she is among its architects. When I read her obituaries in the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, I noticed that only the Times mentioned the sanctions on Iraq that she defended as secretary of state. The Times wrote simply, "She promoted the expansion of NATO into the former Soviet bloc nations of Eastern Europe and defended continued economic sanctions against Iraq."

Here's how Albright put it to 60 Minutes. It's only about three-and-a-half minutes and is worth watching in full.

Less than a decade later, Albright gave the Iraq invasion cover. In Iraq hearings called by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden in summer 2002, Albright testified that an unprovoked invasion could strengthen the rules-based international order. "The path of inspections is all too familiar, but it is worth traveling one last time," Albright judged. "If the Iraqis break their promise, the case for military action will be stronger."

She was out of power and in no position to manufacture this particular crisis. But as one of the most important Democratic Party voices on foreign policy, her endorsement of the disaster mattered. That was especially so because Albright also referenced the foreseeable disasters her chosen course of action would yield: "a prolonged U.S. military occupation… the administration [needs to] think the consequences of all this through in advance, something it has not yet done… anti-American extremists [could be] strengthened…"

I don't write this to reduce Albright, in death, to her crassest comments. I write this because Albright really was a consequential figure. That means the consequences people felt because of her and her colleagues' choices matter as well.