WASHINGTON – Six-year-old Isa says she doesn’t mind being a girl with a penis.
“Yep, very happy,” said Isa, formerly Isaac, who, according to her mother Violet A., has identified herself as a girl since she started speaking at two.
Though she’s too young to know that she’s a transgender woman and part of the LGBTQ+ community, Isa says she’s felt “different.”
“One of the questions that she asked me was, ‘why don’t the other girls have penises?’” recalled Violet, who says her daughter frequently chooses her own sparkle and pattern-bedazzled outfits. “‘Why am I different from the other girls?’”
But for Texans like Isa and Violet — as well as trans individuals and advocates nationwide — alarm bells blared after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote in an opinion last Friday that providing gender-affirming health care to minors can be considered child abuse under Texas law.
“[Lawmakers are] using trans people and trans youth as political pawns,” said Andrea Segovia, senior field and policy adviser for the Transgender Education Network of Texas (TENT). “The primary election being at the height of next week, this isn’t a coincidence… If [it] garnishes [Republicans] more votes, then [they’re] going to do it, which is very harmful and alarming.”
As Segovia confirmed, an attorney general’s opinion alone cannot change state laws, so agencies, such as the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), can decide whether to follow and utilize the opinion. But Texas Gov. Greg Abbott responded to Paxton’s statement, encouraging DFPS to investigate trans children, as well as prosecute their parents as child abusers, should the minor be suspected of receiving gender transitioning treatment.
“We’ve not yet seen the response from DFPS, other than they’re trying to look at the opinions, investigate what’s happening and go from there,” Segovia said.
But experts say Texas already is unwelcoming to trans individuals. According to Lone Star Legal Aid, only about 1 in 10 trans and gender nonconforming Texans have all their IDs align with their gender identity. And 1 in 3 have IDs reflecting their correct name and gender.
“You’re watching [Texas] leadership be bullies that then citizens of the state, people of the state, are then saying, well, if you don’t care about trans people, I don’t have to care about trans people,” Segovia said.
“Trans people are, especially in Texas, just wanting the ability to survive, not even to thrive, because we’re not there yet, but to survive,” Segovia added.
According to a December 2021 study by the Journal of Adolescent Health, access to gender-affirming hormone therapy drastically reduced depression and suicide attempts in trans teens aged 13-17 by 40%. Erin Reed, a trans rights advocate and trans woman herself, says such medical care is one of the most effective treatments, as well as prevention of suicide among trans teens.
“These are real lives,” Reed said. “These are people that will, that can harm themselves and are very vulnerable.”
Such anti-trans agenda and legislation have been surging nationwide since 2021, particularly in GOP-dominated legislatures, with the midterms fast approaching. Trans rights advocates and experts say a primary focus is maintaining a Democratic, pro-equality majority in Congress.
“In the upcoming midterm elections, the stakes for LGBTQ+ people — and all of us — are huge,” said Geoff Wetrosky, HRC national campaign director, in HRC’s “Equality Magazine” Late Fall 2021 issue. “Passing pro-LGBTQ+ federal legislation like the Equality Act becomes much more difficult if pro-equality majorities in the U.S. Senate or U.S. House are lost.”
With a total of 469 congressional seats – 34 Senate seats and all 435 House seats – as well as 36/50 state governor seats up for grabs during the 2022 midterm elections, experts predict Republicans could soon dominate the House. They say Democrats may have a better shot at maintaining control of the Senate.
“We are now in what is a fairly familiar cycle of the conservative Republican base being mobilized by appeals to a fabricated threat of trans people in educational settings,” said Katherine Franke, director of The Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia University. “It’s just heartbreaking to see the horrible things that are being said about trans kids and the ways in which health care professionals and educators, parents, community members and others are being asked to play an active and hateful role.”
Though the political playing field is recurring, experts say there is a key difference this time around.
“They’ve ratcheted up the panic from one in which it was cisgender girls who were the ones at risk to now, it’s the actual trans kids themselves who are at risk by their very own identity and their own reasonable medical needs,” Franke said.
Both experts and trans rights advocates alike say that Democrats must address Republican pushes for anti-trans legislation head on, noting this could help rack up Democratic voters come November.
“To the extent that the Democrats don’t stand up for the fight and don’t provide a kind of defense of the people who are most vulnerable in the state, the Democratic base is not going to get out and vote for them,” Franke said. “Tacking to the middle has not been a great strategy for the Democrats, but they can’t seem to help themselves.”
On the other hand, more conservative Republicans may show up at the polls, Franke added.
There’s also shared disappointment by experts and trans individuals at the lack of Democrat response, both at the state and federal levels.
“The Democrats are often caught on their heels in the face of a well-orchestrated and fabricated panic that’s mobilized by the Republican right… rather than stepping up and asserting an affirmative agenda,” Franke said. Democrats “tend to be much more reactive than proactive around these issues.”
Some left-leaning voters and trans rights advocates, however, are also expressing uncertainty on whether their votes might matter this election cycle, especially when it comes to trans issues.
“I’m politically active, especially for this specific topic,” said Noelle Eve Palmer, a Northwestern junior, who transitioned in March 2020.
While Palmer still plans to head to the polls, come the midterms, doubt remains about whether the power of a single vote could solve this particular issue. “It’s scary to feel like you’re up against the government that wants you dead,” Palmer said.
Yet another fear of the political implications: Reed says she’s worried the political playbook can mean violence.
“If [Democrats] do nothing, things are going to get bad, bad, bad, bad and worse and worse and worse for us, starting in these red states,” Reed said. “It can just take a moment, it could just take one election, and then we lose it all. And a lot of people get hurt.”
For many trans individuals, physical identity very much ties into overall identity.
“[Isa] said, ‘I hate myself, because I hate boys,’” Violet said. “That was before the transition. The second thing that she said, which was a four-year-old version of a suicidal statement, was, ‘I just want to get smashed by a train.’”
To this day, Isa still says she wants to “cut off her penis.” Violet believes moving to California will offer safety and refuge for her daughter, whom she’s struggled to keep sheltered from the lack of support in their home state.
“The straw had already broke the camel’s back,” Violet said. “[Paxton’s announcement was] a little bit more alarming, because now I feel like anti-trans people are going to be more vocal.”
TENT’s Segovia blames a lack of statewide safety for the large population move out each year, especially during legislative cycles, in which parents of trans children grow increasingly concerned.
“[Lawmakers] could let us parent our children and make the decisions that we know are best for our children, instead of trying to put laws on us that would limit our ability to do what’s best for our kids,” Violet said.
Violet, with the help of Reed’s large social media following, has created a GoFundMe page to help her and Isa’s relocation to California. The single-mother says most of the donations came from outside of Texas.
“When I finally affirmed what she said [about being a girl]… she just came out of her shell, and she was vibrant and happy,” Violet said. “I just hadn’t seen her smile really until that day, so I’ll never forget it.”
And while Violet believes California will prove a more nurturing home for her daughter, she says she can’t help but worry for Isa’s future.
“[Isa’s transition] was still very scary for me as a parent because I’m like, wow, the world knows her as a boy. The world knows her as Isaac.”
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: dial 711 then 1-800-273-8255) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.