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Gohmert Blasted Paxton Over 'Child Abuse.' Paxton Attacked Trans Youth Just Weeks Later.

Ken Paxton issued a legal opinion calling gender-affirmation treatments for transgender youth child abuse - a few weeks after his primary opponent called him out for failing to do so earlier.
Ken Paxton issued a legal opinion calling gender-affirmation treatments for transgender youth child abuse - a few weeks after his primary opponent called him out for failing to do so earlier. Gabriel Aponte / Getty Images
Two weeks ago, U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert spoke for nearly an hour to a packed house at a Donald Trump merchandise store in Gainesville, about 70 miles north of Dallas. Predictably, he didn't take long to start harping on trans youth.

The East Texas Republican is one of several candidates aiming to unseat Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton as the GOP's nominee for the job during next week’s primary elections. His pitch to supporters at the pop-up warehouse in Gainesville: Paxton didn’t go far enough to address the issues that matter to the right, issues like widespread election fraud (which no one has ever produced any evidence to support) and the perceived threat of migration on the southern border.

He's part of a small group of hardline Texas conservatives staging a revolt against establishment leaders of the state's Republican Party. Their message: entrenched leaders like Abbott and Paxton are RINOs, or Republicans In Name Only. Failure to criminalize what's known as gender-affirming treatments is one of their favorite lines of attack against incumbents like Paxton.

Gohmert zeroed in on gender-affirming treatment for transgender youth under the age of 18 about 20 minutes into his speech, calling out Paxton for failing to label such treatments for minors as child abuse under Texas law.

Gender-affirmation procedures encompass a variety of treatments that help trans people transition to their self-identified gender. Many include non-surgical options; almost all treatments for trans youth are non-surgical, according to Emmett Schelling, executive director of the Transgender Education Network of Texas. A vast body of research shows that gender affirmation results in significant improvements in trans people’s mental and emotional health.

Four months ago, Paxton issued a legal opinion focused on limiting transgender people’s access to gender affirmation treatments, but the attorney general did not explicitly state that performing these procedures on transgender children constitutes child abuse. This was an outright failure, Gohmert told his supporters.

“After four months, he came out with an opinion, and you cannot tell from reading the opinion whether or not he thinks it is child abuse or if he thinks it isn’t, Gohmert said. "It just dances around, and it doesn’t come to a conclusion. He should’ve come forward and spoken truth.”

Nine days later, Paxton released another legal opinion, a nonbinding document that does not change existing Texas laws. It states that, according to his reading of Texas laws, gender-affirming treatments “can legally constitute child abuse”.

Gov. Greg Abbott wasted no time putting the opinion into action. On Tuesday, Abbott sent a letter to Texas’ Department of Family and Protective Services, or DFPS, ordering the agency to investigate families of trans youth receiving gender-affirmation treatments as child abuse cases.

There’s no question that this will harm trans kids and trans people. The question is how many of us will have to die before we start to reckon with it.”- Emmett Schelling

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The fallout was immediate. Harris County attorney Christian Menefee denounced the governor’s directive the same day, stating that his office (which directs DFPS’s investigations of alleged child abuse), would not be pursuing child abuse investigations based on reports or gender affirmation treatment.

“I’m the county attorney, chief lawyer for the largest county in Texas, and a large part of our office is the CPS group. My position is I have prosecutorial discretion, and we’re not going to rely on some nonsense legal opinion from the AG’s office and start trying to infringe on folks’ parental rights,” Menefee told the Observer.

Menefee explained that Paxton’s legal opinion is based on “an absurd misreading of the statutes” in Texas law that are “intended to capture instances of physical abuse to children,” not address elective medical procedures for transgender youth.

Menefee acknowledged that despite his own public stance against the directive and the legal toothlessness of Paxton’s opinion, the governor and AG’s actions pose an immediate threat to transgender youth and their families in Texas.

“It’s no surprise to me that Congressman Gohmert has recently said this,” Menefee said, referring to Gohmert’s denunciation of Paxton for not labeling gender affirmation treatments as child abuse. “I absolutely believe that part of what we’re seeing is a response to the races that these folks have going on.” (Both Abbott and Paxton are facing multiple challengers in their March 1 primary races.)

“It’s unfortunate that it has been at the detriment of families with trans kids. That’s very much why I spoke out and said we’re not going to be participating in this game,” he continued.

“This is a political move and an extreme fear mongering tactic that will have real consequences on the lives of trans youth, their families, and supportive professionals in Texas," said Shelby Chestnut, director of Policy and Programs at the Transgender Law Center.

"Parents and guardians who are rightfully afraid and unsure of what to do should know that loving their children and allowing them to live authentically is not child endangerment. It is a love, understanding, and trust that youth know what they need," Chestnut said. 

Neither Abbott's nor Paxton's office responded to the Observer's request for comment.

Researchers have shown that denying gender affirming treatments to trans people causes increased risk of suicide and a slew of other mental health problems. Emmett Schelling, executive director of the Transgender Education Network of Texas, said these studies show that Republicans’ political maneuvering in the lead up to the primaries will come at the expense of trans kids' lives.

“They’re OK with seeing those tolls in Texas. There’s no question that this will harm trans kids and trans people,” Schelling said. “The question is how many of us will have to die before we start to reckon with it." 
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Michael Murney is a staff writer at the Dallas Observer and a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. His reporting has appeared in Chicago’s South Side Weekly and the Chicago Reader.
Contact: Michael Murney