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At Home with the Families Affected by Texas’s New Anti-Trans Orders

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Last Tuesday, when Matt Kent picked up his sixteen-year-old son, Jackson, from an appointment, Jackson could tell that “something was off,” he said. Matt is a pilot with a neat beard and a controlled manner, but something had disturbed his typical restraint. He didn’t tell Jackson what was wrong right away. “I wanted to gather my thoughts before unleashing something dumb out of my mouth,” Matt said when we spoke a few days later.
All families interviewed for this story asked to use pseudonyms to protect their privacy.

At home, on Galveston Island, Jackson learned the news that had disturbed his father. Ken Paxton, the attorney general of Texas, had issued a nonbinding legal opinion classifying gender-affirming medical care for trans children as child abuse. A few hours later, Governor Greg Abbott published an order reinforcing Paxton’s statement, noting that doctors, nurses, teachers, and members of the public who fail to report such “abuse” to authorities may be subject to criminal penalties.

Jackson, who is trans, had received his first shot of testosterone in February. Months earlier, the state legislature had tried and failed to pass a bill criminalizing gender-affirming care; without legislative backing, was the attorney general’s directive just a toothless political stunt—all hat and no cattle, as Texans like to say? Or was it an active threat? The more that Jackson read about it, the more frightened he became. From his room, he texted his parents: “It doesn’t look good.” Matt and his wife, Carrie Ann, a nurse, climbed the ladder to their son’s lofted bedroom to reassure him. “As a family, it’s still pretty raw,” Matt told me quietly. Carrie Ann was more direct. “I was pissed,” she said. “You start thinking, I’m going to hang that flag that says ‘Come and Take It,’ but, like, ‘Come and Take Him,’ ” she said, grabbing onto her son’s sleeve.

Elsewhere on the island, another family with a trans child was gaming out worst-case scenarios. “I’m such a planner,” Janet Murphy, the mother of thirteen-year-old Ruby, told me. “So I’m, like, O.K., I’ve got to make sure that we have cash. Where are we going to go? What’s our first stop, second stop, if someone’s going to come and try to take my child?”

Paxton’s and Abbott’s statements came days before the Texas primary elections, in which both men faced serious challengers. (Abbott won his primary, while Paxton will participate in a runoff election in May.) They are part of a broader, nationwide wave of legislation targeting trans people, and particularly trans children. Last fall, Texas became the latest state to restrict trans students’ participation in school sports, while state legislators proposed dozens of other anti-trans bills that didn’t pass.

By the time I visited the Kents, in a house with surfboards in the stairwell and seashells on the windowsills, the family’s first wave of panic had ebbed. In its place was a kind of grim resolution. “I love Texas,” Matt told me as we sat at their kitchen table. “The people, the friendliness, the wide-open spaces. The independence, the self-reliance.” This made Abbott’s stance all the more frustrating: “It’s disappointing, and it’s frankly embarrassing. My friends that have moved away, you know, they’re saying: ‘Oh, those dumbass Texans.’ ” He and Carrie Ann, who grew up in Mississippi, voted Republican until 2012. Now, suddenly, they were looking at real estate in California, to Jackson’s chagrin. “I’m going to be honest—that Huntington Beach place seems a bit boring,” he said. “I like Galveston. It looks like there’s hardly any green space there.”

Jackson was born in 2006. By the time he was in elementary school, he told me, he felt inexplicably “off.” When other kids played games at recess, he collected rocks, or amphibians. “Frogs,” he said. “That’s always been my thing.” The summer after sixth grade, he told his parents he was questioning his gender. Carrie Ann wasn’t surprised. But she was concerned. Matt’s older brother, John, was gay; when Jackson was a toddler, John died of a drug overdose. “My parents did not do real well with his coming out,” Matt told me. “That was a big factor in my life. I knew that I didn’t want to do the mistakes my father and mother did.”

In some ways, the pandemic was conveniently timed for the Kents. Jackson socially transitioned at home in the summer of 2020, and then spent the ninth grade taking classes virtually. Meanwhile, his pediatrician prescribed puberty blockers and made a referral to an endocrinologist at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. (In 2012, Children’s Medical Center Dallas opened the state’s first specialty clinic for trans children, but it closed late last year, after facing a targeted harassment campaign.) Jackson was eager to start testosterone, but his parents were hesitant. After months of discussion among the family and with various medical and psychological professionals, Carrie Ann finally asked Jackson’s pediatrician for advice. “And he said, ‘Oh, if this was my child, I’d do it instantly,’ ” she told me. “We trust our doctors. Fifteen years, he hasn’t steered us wrong. So why would we not listen now?”

A year ago, the Kents visited Matt’s parents at the family lake house, where Matt’s brother’s ashes are interred. Jackson’s grandparents had not been good about using his name and pronouns, and on that visit they pulled Matt aside and warned him against Jackson’s medical transition. “With my brother’s ashes right there,” Matt said. “I lost it. I finally snapped. We packed up and left. And that was the last time I’ve spoken with them.” A couple days after Abbott issued his letter, Matt wrote a Facebook post asking why the governor was focussing on trans children instead of issues like the fragile power grid. “A lot of my friends who I think would back me were silent on it,” he said.

The next day, when I visited Ruby’s family, she answered the door wearing ripped jeans, a crocheted shrug, and earrings that grazed her shoulders. Her mother, Janet, was right behind her. “Your jeans are falling apart,” she said, looking skeptically at her daughter’s pants. “That’s the point,” Ruby said. As Ruby’s father, Alan, fiddled with the coffee machine, Janet explained that the family had deep roots on the island—a Galveston point of pride. “I never thought we would move, but we will if we have to, to keep our child safe,” she said.

Abbott’s and Paxton’s opinions came at a frustrating time for Ruby and her family. Alan, a gruff man who works part-time for law enforcement on the island, told me that, when Ruby was three, she’d crawled onto Janet’s lap, crying, and asked why God hadn’t made her a girl. She came out as trans to her family in 2020, when she was eleven. Her parents were supportive, but she had a harder time at the small school she’d attended since she was young. School administrators told Ruby that she could only use one bathroom on campus, which was in an inconvenient location, and often locked. Bullying was a problem—“really, really mean stuff,” Janet said—and the school’s leadership was not always helpful. “My old school more or less traumatized me,” Ruby said.

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