Analysis: Texas officials bully transgender kids for political points

Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton at a border security briefing at Texas DPS regional headquarters in Weslaco on Jan. 27, 2022. (Michael Gonzalez For The Texas Tribune, Michael Gonzalez For The Texas Tribune)

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Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton are turning the law-and-order Republican Party into a gang of bullies, targeting transgender kids — and the parents who support them — with their decision to treat gender-affirming health care as child abuse.

That health care is legal under Texas law, but this is election season. Cynics who think politicians will say anything to get reelected have a new, sparkling piece of evidence.

Other people caught doing what the governor and attorney general are doing — Texas public school students, for instance — risk breaking the law. Check out the definition of illegal bullying in the Texas Education Code: “Bullying means a single significant act or a pattern of acts by one or more students directed at another student that exploits an imbalance of power and involves engaging in written or verbal expression, expression through electronic means, or physical conduct …”

Substitute “elected officials” for the first instance of “students,” and it’s evident what’s going on here. There’s more to that definition, which specifies bullying that “has the effect or will have the effect of physically harming a student, damaging a student’s property, or placing a student in reasonable fear of harm to the student’s person or of damage to the student’s property; is sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive enough that the action or threat creates an intimidating, threatening, or abusive educational environment for a student …”

Lucky for them, Abbott and Paxton and others like them aren’t students who can be prosecuted under that part of the education laws approved by their government. The gist of that law, however, is crystal clear, and so is the effect of their actions and rhetoric.

Texas government officials aren’t short of real problems to solve, like the two-year COVID slide of public education, weaknesses in the state’s electric grid and the state’s persistently awful foster care system. Or the continuing mess on the border, teacher shortages, criminal justice reforms and so many more.

But most of those aren’t sexy election issues. Paxton is in a runoff. Abbott faces a well-known, well-financed Democrat in November. And as The Texas Tribune’s Patrick Svitek has reported, they think they’ve got a hot item to entice Republican voters.

“This is a winning issue,” Abbott’s top political strategist, Dave Carney, told reporters last week. “Texans have common sense.”

For those two lawyers — the current attorney general and the former attorney general, this new definition of child abuse has been a losing issue — so far — in court.

Paxton is suing the federal government to protect the state’s federal funding after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said restricting someone’s ability to receive medical care solely on the basis of their sex assigned at birth or gender identity is likely a violation of the Affordable Care Act for federally funded entities. It’s a lot of money: In 2020, the state’s Health and Human Services Commission got $26 billion in federal funding.

Since Abbott’s February directive on gender-affirming health care, which followed a nonbinding opinion on that subject from Paxton, the state has begun investigations of at least nine families. Both the directive and the AG’s opinion were issued in the final days of the GOP primary — an election in which Abbott was fending off conservative contenders and Paxton was trying to survive challenges from three serious opponents.

The courts have since blocked enforcement while lower courts hear challenges to the new state policy. But some medical facilities have suspended hormone therapy and other treatments.

Abbott won his GOP primary with ease. Paxton fell far short of the majority he needed for nomination to another term; he’ll be in a runoff with Land Commissioner George P. Bush in May.

The kids and the families targeted by the state are terrified and rattled — and lawyered up — as reported by the Tribune’s Sneha Dey and Karen Brooks Harper.

“How is that considered child abuse to accept them and love them?” one mother told them. “How can they overstep their power and try to come and tell me how I should love my child?”

For LGBTQ mental health support, call the Trevor Project’s 24/7 toll-free support line at 866-488-7386. You can also reach a trained crisis counselor through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 800-273-8255 or texting 741741.