Bitter Texas custody battle fuels political and public debate about trans youth

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said state officials were looking into “the matter” of a 7-year-old whose parents disagree about the child's gender identity.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott Hosts Roundtable On School Safety In Wake Of Last Week's Mass Shooting At Santa Fe High School
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on May 24, 2018 in Austin, Texas.Drew Anthony Smith / Getty Images file
By Brooke Sopelsa and The Associated Press

A bitter custody battle in Texas has spilled over into state politics and fueled a public debate — and plenty of misinformation — about gender-expansive children, what’s in their best interest and who gets to decide what type of care they receive.

At the center of the debate is a 7-year-old whose estranged parents are in disagreement about whether the child is transgender and are advocating for vastly different approaches to raising the child, who was assigned male at birth.

“James is a gender expansive or transgender child and, by choice, now goes by the name Luna and is only known by her classmates as a girl,” an attorney for the child’s mother, Anne Georgulas, wrote in a court document filed in July 2018.

The father, Jeff Younger, claims his 7-year-old “shows no signs of wanting to be a girlwhen given the choice” and suggested on his website that his ex-wife’s claims may be part of a ploy to remove him from the child’s life.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted Wednesday evening that the attorney general’s office and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services were looking into “the matter” of the child. And Thursday, Attorney General Ken Paxton said he was asking Family and Protective Services to investigate the mother for possible child abuse, citing “public reports” in a letter that alleges she is “forcing” the child to transition to a girl.

However, Judge Kim Cooks in Dallas said Thursday during a hearing that the court noted no abuse, neglect or family violence in the case. Cooks ruled that the parents would make joint decisions about the child. She also noted the court found that both parents love their children, and she noted the 7-year-old appears comfortable as a male or a female.

Abbott and Paxton were not the only Texas officials to sound off on the case. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz shared an article on Twitter about the case, writing, “This is horrifying & tragic.”

“A 7-year-old child doesn't have the maturity to make profound decisions like this,” Cruz wrote in a separate tweet. “The state of Texas should protect this child's right to choose — as an informed, mature person — and not be used as a pawn in a left-wing political agenda.”

And Matt Krause, a Republican state lawmaker announced that he would introduce legislation that prohibits the use of puberty blockers for children under 18 in the next legislative session.

Cooks scolded the father, who she noted was unemployed, for seeking publicity on the case and raising money on his website, but she also pointed out how the mother testified that her encouragement of the child being transgender may have been excessive.

“The father finds comfort in public controversy and attention surrounded by his use of unfounded facts and is thus motivated by financial gain,” Cooks said, adding that the gain came “at the cost of the protection and privacy of his children.”

Much of the public reaction to the case has focused on backing the narrative laid out on the father’s website, which features a headline saying he’s fighting “chemical castration and sex-change of his son.”

Cooks said Thursday that no Texas court or judge has ordered “the chemical castration, puberty blockers, hormone blockers or any transgender reassignment surgery on this child to become a female.”

Attorneys for Georgulas, who is a pediatrician, said before the hearing that she was “being viciously attacked and threatened by complete strangers based on false and untrue statements.” Cooks said she limited spectators to only the media at the hearing because of safety concerns.

Earlier this month, Georgulas filed a proposed parenting plan that said the child is too young for treatment with hormonal suppression, puberty blockers or gender reassignment surgery to be considered. And she asked the court to not allow any such treatment without the consent of both parents.

Dr. Stephen Rosenthal, medical director for the University of California San Francisco’s Child and Adolescent Gender Center, says that often when parents disagree about potential medical treatment, it’s “likely because there’s a possibility that they may be misinformed about what the treatment actually is” or if it would even be considered at the child’s age.

He said a puberty blocker temporarily puts puberty on pause and is a safe medication that has most commonly been given to kids who go into puberty much too early. He said that before the onset of puberty, there’s “no role” for medical intervention in a person who might be transgender.

For a child who has not yet reached puberty, transgender health experts recommend seeking mental health support, because even prior to disclosing a gender identity that is different than the one they were assigned at birth, trans youth can experience symptoms of depression, anxiety, social isolation, behavioral problems, school struggles and suicidal ideation. While medical guidelines advise that prepubescent children do not undergo hormone interventions, they state that allowing trans youth to “socially transition,” which can include taking on a new name or pronouns and wearing clothes they feel comfortable in, can greatly benefit a child.

Once the child starts to experience puberty, transgender health experts recommend a puberty blocker, as experiencing puberty when suffering from gender dysphoria can be traumatic for trans and gender-nonconforming youth. With age, gender-expansive youth can explore other options such as gender-affirming hormones and surgery. The World Professional Association of Transgender Health (WPATH) Standards of Care recommends deferring genital surgery until a person is at least 18 years old.

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Gwen Aviles contributed.