L., a mom who lives in Austin, Texas, said she was excited and relieved when her transgender son turned 18 last month, because “he made it.”
Her son attempted suicide multiple times, she explained, first when he was just 9 years old. After he came out as trans and started wearing different clothing and using male pronouns, she said she heard him laugh for the first time in a long time.
Now, he’s going to college in another state, and L., whose lawyer recommended she go by an initial instead of her full name to protect her family's privacy, thought her family was safe.
“Nobody has to know that he’s trans unless he wants to tell them, so he’s just been thriving in college,” L. said. “He’s got good friends, he’s in several clubs, working hard at his nursing studies. For once he’s just one of the guys. He’s not that trans kid.”
But on March 1, an agent from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, the state agency that investigates child abuse claims, showed up at her front door and told her that there had been “multiple reports of abuse” filed against her.
The agent’s visit followed a directive by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott last month calling on the department to “conduct a prompt and thorough investigation” of any reported instances of minors undergoing “elective procedures for gender transitioning,” including the prescription of puberty blockers or hormones.
L. said she was shocked when the agent showed up at her door, because her son is no longer a minor. The agent said they can retroactively investigate parents for alleged abuse if it happened before the child turned 18. L., who has testified against anti-transgender bills in Texas’ Legislature, said she believes the abuse reports were filed by people who support the bills and saw her testify.
“I’m tired, I haven’t been eating much, I’m stressed out,” she said. “Why are you trying to punish his happiness? Because if he didn’t get these things, I honestly would have probably buried my child.”
NBC News spoke to nearly a dozen parents of trans kids and trans teens about the impact of Abbott’s directive in Texas as the state investigates families. Almost all of them weren’t comfortable using their full names because they are the subject of active investigations or because they fear being reported.
Most of them have hired lawyers in case they are reported and investigated, while others are considering leaving the state entirely or are already in the process of doing so.
'Targeting' outspoken families
Last month, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a nonbinding legal opinion declaring gender-affirming medical care for minors child abuse under state law. Abbott affirmed Paxton’s opinion in a letter that, in addition to urging “prompt” investigations by the Department of Family and Protective Services, called on “licensed professionals” and “members of the general public” to report the parents of transgender minors to state authorities if it appears the minors are receiving such care.
Since then, the Department of Family and Protective Services has opened investigations into at least three families, including one of its own employees who has a trans child. A judge last week blocked that investigation after civil rights groups intervened, but the judge’s order was narrow, and investigations into other families are ongoing, at least until a hearing on Friday, when the injunction could be expanded to apply to all investigations. Paxton filed an appeal asking the judge to reverse her decision, but that appeal was tossed out on Wednesday.
A spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services declined to comment on the investigations due to confidentiality reasons and did not provide information regarding the number of open child abuse investigations related to gender-affirming medical care.
Angela Hale, communications director for Equality Texas, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy group, said the situation is especially scary for parents who have been outspoken advocates for their trans children.
“They’re mainly targeting some of our families who either testified in hearings or have participated in news conferences or have been outspoken for their children,” she said.
Equality Texas has partnered with civil rights legal groups like Lambda Legal, which is compiling a list of lawyers who will represent parents and their kids pro bono if they face an investigation.
As advocates await the hearing Friday, Hale said Equality Texas has received a variety of calls from nervous parents, including from a family who was afraid to take their trans child to the emergency room. She said doctors and therapists are also afraid of providing transition-related care and mental health support to minors because they fear losing their medical licenses, even though such care is supported by relevant accredited medical organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association.
“The ripple effects are wide and very dangerous right now for these families,” Hale said.
Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston announced Friday that it “paused hormone-related prescription therapies for gender-affirming services” after assessing the attorney general’s and governor’s actions, KPRC-TV, an NBC affiliate in Houston, reported.
“This step was taken to safeguard our health care professionals and impacted families from potential criminal legal ramifications,” the hospital stated, according to KPRC.
President Joe Biden condemned the letters from Paxton and Abbott in a strongly worded statement last week alongside a list of actions that the Department of Health and Human Services said it would take to protect transgender youth and their families in Texas.
Parents in Texas said they appreciate the support, but that reports of alleged abuse and subsequent investigations — and the fear of them — have continued.
'Hard to stay in one piece'
Even families who aren’t currently under investigation say the last two weeks since Abbott released his directive have been traumatizing.
In Houston, N., a 15-year-old who is trans masculine, said things have been “awful.”
“It was hard to stay in one piece and not break down on everything,” he said. “A lot of feelings, a lot of disassociation and hardness to just keep everything in control.”
Katie, N.’s mom, said the family doesn’t plan to move right now, though they do fear being reported. However, unlike some families, they have the resources and time to fight back and advocate.
One Austin mom, K., wanted to be one of the parents who stayed to fight. She testified at the state Capitol last year when the Legislature considered more than 50 anti-trans bills. But on Monday, she stood in an airport terminal on the brink of tears.
She was on her way to Oregon to look at a house. She said she’s moving her family out of Texas, where she was born and raised, to keep her 10-year-old transgender daughter safe.
She’s said she feels an “inexpressible guilt and anguish,” for the families who can’t leave. But then she reminds herself that she’s doing the right thing for her family.
Last week, while she was driving her daughter home, she told her about Abbott’s directive and that some people were protesting at the Capitol.
She said her daughter, who usually doesn’t cry, had tears running down her cheeks, and she asked, “Am I going to die?”
“I said no. I pulled over. I went, ‘Why would you ask me that?’” K. said. “She went, ‘Because everybody hates me.’”
She said her daughter feels that way even with a loving and supportive family, which, she added, shows that living in a liberal city in Texas like Austin doesn’t protect families from the effects of Abbott’s directive and the greater conversation it’s creating.
She said she’s increasingly starting to feel like a frog in boiling water — a phrase she had never heard until Texas’ last legislative session.
“To me, that’s what living in these large Texas cities is like: You’re like a frog in boiling water, where you don’t realize how much trouble you’re in until it’s too late,” she said. “But lucky for us, it may not be too late.”
L., the mom currently under investigation, said she is afraid for the parents of trans kids who can’t flee. She fears that now more of them could experience what she did when she found her son at 9 after a suicide attempt.
“I hate the fact that this is going to scare kids from living their truth,” she said. “Our state is terrorizing us and torturing us. We didn’t do anything wrong other than love our kids and want our kids to be healthy.”
If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.