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At Texas child welfare meetings, activists call for end to transgender investigations

It's been a year since Republican Governor Greg Abbott ordered the state child welfare agency to investigate the families of openly transgender children. Transgender Texans and their allies are using the agency's public meetings to push back.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — It took Meghan Fairbanks most of her life to realize she was a transgender woman.

Before then, the 51-year-old Houston resident and community organizer spent decades living with confusion and shame.

Growing up as a teenager in the 1980s, doctors weren’t sure what to do with the high-schooler who felt more comfortable in women’s clothing.

“I ultimately got diagnosed with being a compulsive cross-dresser,” she said in an interview Friday. “I carried around so much freaking shame.”

Fairbanks doesn't want any more Texas kids to go through what she did. And so, before the sun rose on Friday, Fairbanks left her home in Houston and headed for the Austin headquarters of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, the state's child welfare agency.

Fairbanks and other activists came to deliver a simple message: Loving transgender children for who they are is not a form of child abuse. It's a grim tradition that started last year after Republican Governor Greg Abbott issued a directive declaring gender-affirming care to be just that. He ordered state social workers to investigate families who were providing such care to their children.

That directive upended not only the lives of many transgender Texans, but the state's own child welfare system. Texas hospitals have stopped providing forms of gender-affirming care for minors. An unknown number of families have fled the state.

Meanwhile, at DFPS, many social workers have quit rather than participating in what they've called "politically motivated" and "unethical" investigations. Former employees say the controversy has harmed an agency that was already understaffed and dealing with a range of scandals, including allegations of sexual abuse.

The DFPS declined to comment for this story, citing ongoing litigation over the investigations. There have been a total of 15 such investigations, an agency spokesperson said on Friday, of which three remain open.

Equality Texas, a LGBTQ+ civil rights group that's helped to organize these protests, argues that DFPS has a responsibility to end what it calls "the malicious practice of targeting trans children and their families for CPS investigations." The group points to a Texas Supreme Court ruling from May, which allowed the investigations to continue but stressed that the agency did not technically have to follow Governor Abbott's order.

Four times a year, the Texas child welfare agency holds these regular meetings at its headquarters in Austin.

At every meeting since Abbott's order, transgender Texans and their allies have shown up.

They read anonymous testimony from affected families, share their own stories and urge child welfare officials to end the investigations.

"It's unconscionable," Mary Wilson, a former Methodist minister who showed up Friday to read testimony, said in an interview. "It's causing real harm, and it needs to stop."

Trans activist Meghan Fairbanks testified before a Texas Department of Family and Protective Services Council on March 10, 2023, where she pleaded with the council to cease child abuse investigations into the parents of transgender children. (Kirk McDaniel/Courthouse News)

As investigations into trans families have dragged on, there's been a "dwindling of families that are reaching out for support," Chloe Goodman, a worker with Equality Texas, said in an interview.

Many are just too scared. "The longer this order to investigate families remains in effect, the more hesitant people are to come forward," Goodman added. When families with transgender children do still reach out, it's typically for "resources that would help them leave the state."

While affected families may be too afraid to speak at meetings like this, Equality Texas came prepared with more than 40 pages of their testimony. Among them were the words of a former Texas resident named Karen, the mother of "two elementary-aged children, one of whom happens to be transgender."

"I’ve asked someone else to read my testimony," Karen said in her statement. "By the time you hear these words, my family will no longer be residents of Texas."

"These investigations are tearing families apart," she said. "Four days ago, my children stood on our front porch and hugged their grandparents goodbye."

At least one gender non-conforming child did show up in person on Friday. That was 10-year-old Norie, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns.

"I'm concerned," their mother, Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch, said about their decision to attend the meeting, but "we made a family decision to pursue this issue together."

"Norie has been asking to do stuff like this," she said. To the family, it felt like a "civic duty." Besides, since Norie isn't on hormone treatments for gender dysphoria, the family felt OK about speaking publicly — at least for now.

Norie read testimony from the father of a transgender boy. "Let me tell you what has happened at our house," the father had written, since "Governor Abbott's witch hunt of transgender kids."

"My transgender son, who for most of his young life didn't have a care in the world other than wondering if the Astros were going to win the World Series, has been waking up every other night from nightmares," the statement continued. Across the top, Norie scrawled in 10-year-old handwriting: "Hello, my name is Norie, I am 10 yrs old and non-binary."

Fairbanks, the Houston activist, decided to make a statement about her own experience.

It took her years, she recalled in her interview, to realize she wasn't a compulsive cross-dresser. As she got older, she discovered she instead had gender dysphoria — a term for the discomfort transgender people feel at the mismatch between their preferred gender and the sex they were assigned at birth. Groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that transgender children receive gender-affirming care to help them “grow into happy and healthy adults.” That care can include medical interventions like hormone therapy or simple social changes, like letting a child try out new outfits and names.

Back in the 1980s, when Fairbanks was a teenager, she knew none of this. A therapist once told her she put on women's clothing to feel aroused. "That was absolutely not true," Fairbanks recalled in her interview, "but I couldn’t even bring myself to vocalize the words to correct them."

Life didn't have to have to be like this for young trans Texans, Fairbanks told state officials on Friday. In 2018, she started living as openly trans. I "found the strength to live the life I had always dreamed of," she said in her statement. "That weight fell away."

At the top of her statement, Fairbanks had typed out some encouraging words for herself. "Deep breath. Glasses up. I can do hard things."

"This is what I want for trans children," she continued. "I want them to survive and thrive and shine like the beautiful human beings that they are. I want them to feel that weight dropped from them at a young age, because I can tell you, it only gets heavier as you get older."

Categories:Civil Rights, Government, Politics, Regional

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