“They’re talking about how my existence is child abuse”: Trans teen fears crackdown on gender-affirming health care

From left: Jessica Shortall, executive director of Texas Competes; Andy Marra, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund; Emmett Schelling, executive director of the Transgender Education Network of Texas; Charlie Apple, high school senior; and Diamond Stylz, host of the Black trans podcast Marsha's Plate. (Sewell Chan/The Texas Tribune, Sewell Chan/The Texas Tribune)

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Like other high school seniors, Charlie Apple, 18, has a lot going on. He’s studying for an Advanced Placement exam in English literature. He leads the organization for queer students at his high school in Corpus Christi. After he graduates in June, he intends to study sociology at the University of North Texas in Denton.

Apple, who came out as transgender at 13, testified before the Texas Legislature while in Austin in August, opposing a bill that would have classified certain kinds of gender-affirming health care as a form of child abuse. He returned to the capital Sunday to speak on a panel at the South by Southwest festival.

“These government officials are supposed to protect our rights, but now they’re talking about how my existence is child abuse and I need to be removed from my family and put in the foster care system,” said Apple, noting that his family had been loving and supportive during his gender transition. “I’m still in high school, and I worry about the day that one of my teachers may report me to DFPS. That’s a horrible situation to live through when you’re trying to make it through senior year.”

Against a consensus of medical experts, Attorney General Ken Paxton has asked the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services — itself long criticized for its treatment of children in foster care — to open child abuse investigations into families whose children have used puberty blockers or received hormone therapy and other gender-affirming treatments. A state judge on Friday temporarily blocked Gov. Greg Abbott’s administration from backing up that request, finding that the governor’s directive was unconstitutional and exceeded his authority.

“I feel I can’t do anything,” Apple said. “I am at the mercy of powerful people who don’t want to understand me. They want to put a political agenda on my body, on who I am as a person. I’m worried about the day someone weaponizes that against me.”

Andy Marra, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, said that conservative activists — having lost battles over bathroom usage and employment discrimination — have now waged a “micro-targeted campaign on transgender youths,” including efforts to remove queer-themed books from school libraries. She also pointed out that the Affordable Care Act of 2010 prohibits federally funded health services from discriminating against patients on the basis of sex, including gender identity.

Marra suggested that the directives by Paxton and Abbott would not withstand court scrutiny. “The law hasn’t changed,” she said. “No court in the state of Texas has found that gender-affirming care is considered a form of child abuse.”

Emmett Schelling, executive director of the Transgender Education Network of Texas, said the directives from Paxton and Abbott risked turning Texas into a “vigilante state” in which residents turn in their neighbors for letting their kids get gender-affirming treatments. “We have families literally living in hiding,” he said. Many of the families are scrambling to find lawyers.

Another panelist, Diamond Stylz, who hosts the Black trans podcast “Marsha’s Plate,” told Apple it was a pity he couldn’t enjoy his last months in high school. “You should not have to be dealing with this crazy adult foolishness,” Stylz said. She said she feared that the latest official actions targeting transgender people could lead to an uptick in fear, anxiety and even suicidal ideation.

Schelling said that most Texans probably know a transgender person even if they are not aware of it. “Your discomfort is not worth Charlie’s life, is not worth Diamond’s life, is not worth Andy’s life, and is not worth my life,” he said about those who oppose gender-affirming treatments. “Your discomfort does not mean enough for us to lose our health care, for us to lose our lives, for these kids to lose their parents, for these parents to lose their homes or livelihoods.”

While stating that trans youths were being “used as political footballs,” Marra predicted that social conservatives had “overplayed their hand,” alienating voters who see children’s medical care as a private matter for families to decide on, without government interference.

The attempt to interfere with trans kids’ health care also contradicts the principle of limited government, she added, noting that governors in Arkansas, Louisiana and Utah had opposed anti-trans legislation.

“Using young people as a political weapon is not a good idea,” she said. “While parents right now, with trans young people in their families, are fearful and are confused, the fact of the matter is, we’re going to see more and more families get activated and stand up and do something.”

She predicted that parents of cisgender and transgender children would rally against these measures, sending a message: “Don’t mess with our kids. It’s none of your business.”

The panel was moderated by Jessica Shortall, executive director of Texas Competes, a business coalition that makes the economic case for LGBT equality.

Disclosure: South by Southwest and the University of North Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.