As anti-transgender legislation skyrockets, parents with transgender children face safety fears and lawmakers in New York propose protective measures
Joan Smith knew from a young age that her child was different. It started out with little things. At three, her daughter, Jane, who was assigned male at birth, was drawn to feminine clothing and opted to play with Barbie, not Batman. At four, her child was adamant about dressing up as Elsa from the movie “Frozen,” even as her mother tried to persuade her to be Olaf.
Now 12, Jane has been fully socially transitioned since the age of six, which is when she received a diagnosis of gender dysphoria.
“She’s never been confused about who she is,” said Smith, who lives and owns a business in Arizona with her husband. (The family members’ names have been changed to protect their identities.) “She’s been very aware that ‘Hey, this is just me and it doesn’t quite match what you see on the outside, but the person on the inside is who matters.’”
Ten-year-old Sam Jones came out to their parents, Rob and Mary, as nonbinary, transmasculine about 18 months ago, after years of just being considered a tomboy.
“When I was younger, I didn’t really know what LGBT was,” Sam said in an interview with their parents present. “When I did, I was instantly like ‘Yep, this clicks. I finally know what I am.’”
The Jones family members (whose names also were changed) were living in a “heavily conservative” area in Texas at the time. Now, they reside in Upstate New York, having moved a week after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a directive that treats the gender-affirming care that Sam was receiving as a form of child abuse.
The order is similar to measures across 15 states, including one in Arizona, that target the rights of families to pursue similar care for transgender children.
“As if it’s not hard enough as a kid to go through adolescence when you’re different,” Smith said. “To then select that group of kids and say, ‘not only are you different, but you’re a pervert,’ or `you’re a groomer.’ I can’t imagine anything more abusive than what the politicians are doing to a kid like mine.”
According to healthcare professionals, gender-affirming care is centered around supporting their child’s gender identity through highly individualized plans that focus on the mental and physical needs of the child, including age-appropriate education on gender and sexuality, social intervention and, in some cases, medical intervention.
“It’s literally just trying to reduce harm,” Mary Jones said.
As states like Texas and Arizona are implementing measures to restrict gender-affirming care, other states, like New York, are responding with their own proposals to safeguard access to that support.
About 58,200 transgender minors live in states that have blocked the care or are attempting to do so, according to an estimate by researchers at the UCLA School of Law. Those children represent a third of all transgender youth, or those aged 13 to 17, in the U.S.
In New York, Senate Bill S8842, introduced on April 22 by Sen. Brad Hoylman, would prohibit the consideration of another state’s law in allowing a child to receive gender-affirming care. If passed before the end of the session on June 10, the legislation will make New York a “haven for transgender kids” and their families, according to the bill’s text.
The legislation is similar to measures in other states including California and Colorado that aim to protect families seeking gender-affirming care for minors. The New York bill would also cover cases of child separations in family court, Hoylman said.
“We’re taking a stand because of the national trend of scapegoating, attacking and undermining transgender kids and their families,” said Hoylman, whose district includes parts of Midtown and Lower Manhattan. He has passed more than 60 pieces of legislation in the Senate, including GENDA, which extended human rights protections to transgender New Yorkers.
The legislative push in some states to restrict gender-affirming medical care endangers transgender and nonbinary youth, according to Kareen M. Matouk and Melina Wald, clinical psychologists with the Gender Identity Program at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. A nationwide survey in 2020 by The Trevor Project, a nonprofit crisis intervention group for the LGBTQ community, found that most transgender juveniles had considered suicide in the previous year and 29% of the respondents had made an attempt to end their lives. Research studies find that gender-affirming care leads to improved mental health among transgender minors.
For many trans-identifying individuals across the country, the ability to express their true gender identity is a matter of life and death, intertwined with the environment a child is in and their ability to express their true gender identity.
“All we've always cared about is trying to make sure that she's not another suicide statistic and to do whatever we can to help her love and accept herself,” Smith said.
Texas native Victoria Brumbaugh, a transgender mother to a nonbinary teenager, said her upbringing in Dallas during the AIDS crisis caused her to repress much of her identity for many years.
“In my mid-40s, I had to make a decision: to be me or not be here,” she said. “After I made that decision, it was like Dorothy at the beginning of the Wizard of Oz, where everything is black and white, then all of a sudden she gets to Oz and everything is in color.”
Brumbaugh, who has since publicly come out and transitioned to a woman, said she feels like Republican lawmakers who pass anti-transgender laws are stripping away the transgender community’s progress over the last 50 years.
“It’s a frightening thought that a parent listening to their child and loving their child — something that I never received in my life growing up, as far as my needs as a queer person — that somehow I'm a danger to my own child,” she said.
For the Joneses, moving to New York from Texas was a relief. “The last month we were in Texas, I started to notice a somberness in Sam that was heartbreaking,” Mary said. “But, compare that to how they are now, they’re a normal kid again.”
Sam has been able to redirect their energy to things that they like such as art, learning Japanese, and playing with a swing set nearby their house.
Hoylman’s bill was sent to the Judiciary Committee, of which he is the chairman. Though the legislation garnered criticism in the Senate as some officials question its constitutionality, Hoylman said he is confident in New York’s propensity to take a stand in this historical moment.
“I was a gay kid growing up in rural West Virginia and I left because of laws and intolerance,” he said. “I imagine that transgender kids and their families would make similar decisions. They’re welcome here.”