If You Have A Trans Or Nonbinary Child, Here’s How To Protect Their Rights
ACLU attorney Chase Strangio walks parents and guardians through the legal aspects of protecting their trans and nonbinary kids.
When your kid comes out to you as trans, nonbinary, or genderqueer, it’s common for Protective Parent mode to instantly switch on. How can you keep your child healthy, happy, secure, loved, and safe now that they face a world where many don’t understand or accept them? What do you need to learn — and what do you need to do — to be the best parent possible for your child?
While worries about getting along in school and being accepted by family used to be at the forefront of parental concerns, aggressive, hateful legislation by conservative politicians across the country means that the parents of trans and questioning kids now have another huge worry: constant legal challenges their kiddos face simply for being who they are.
Scary Mommy sat down with Chase Strangio, the deputy director for trans justice at the ACLU’s LGBTQ and HIV Project — and a nationally-known expert on trans rights — to go over exactly what parents need to know today about their trans kids’ rights (and the threats to their rights). Strangio — who has been on the front lines of trans legal battles for years, including the most recent battle in Texas — has invaluable advice and information for parents, kids, and anyone interested in supporting trans youth.
What should parents of trans and nonbinary kids know, legally speaking?
First and foremost, when we're thinking about parenting our kids and trans kids specifically, what we know to be true is that loving and affirming our children and allowing them the ability to explore and self-determine who they are is the most important aspect of them thriving. There are many legal constraints on that, unfortunately, and they’re changing and escalating in many ways.
What are the federal rights of parents with trans and nonbinary kids?
The U.S. Constitution gives parents certain rights that the states can't take away. And despite the best efforts of some places, those fundamental Constitutional rights still exist. People should be comforted by the fact that, at least for now, we continue to have some paradigms that the states can't infringe upon. They will try to take them away and we will fight them.
Do the rights of trans kids vary from state to state right now?
For people who have trans non-binary adolescents who have a need for medical care (after the onset of puberty), the only states in the country that restrict it are Arkansas, Alabama and Texas. Thankfully we have been able to block those restrictions in court in Arkansas. They passed a ban on treatment that's targeted to clinicians — it's not a criminal ban. It's not a child abuse paradigm, but if it goes into effect, it will restrict the care across the state that is currently blocked by a court in Arkansas.
Texas obviously has this very scary paradigm around child abuse that we're continuing to try to block in court. In this case, it's an executive action. If the legislature were to pass a law going after parents for providing treatment for their minor children, that does put parents in a really untenable and precarious situation.
And so this is something that parents have to monitor — they have to pay attention to what's going on in their state. And, unfortunately, even without this type of statewide formal intrusion into the parent-child relationship, people live in fear. They carry around things like safe folders.
So: there are legal protections, then there are the intrusions into those formal legal protections, and then there is the practical reality, which is that people will encounter various forms of bias that I think it's important to prepare for and equip against.
What’s a safe folder, and do parents of trans kids need one?
For a long time, families with trans children have organized together around ways to protect their children from so-called child protective services or questions from teachers who may question a parent for allowing their child to live as who they are. And given the violence and discrimination that trans people and their families face, this can be a tool for the families to protect themselves.
Oftentimes in a folder like this, you’ll have a letter from the child's pediatrician saying, ‘I'm familiar with this child and they have a real medical diagnosis.’ And if they're being treated with medications, have the endocrinologist write a letter and keep it in the folder that says it is very common to provide these treatments under clinical practice guidelines.
And you may have friends say, ‘I'm very close with this family, and I watch them love and care for their child. And have sociologists or psychologists say, ‘Allowing someone assigned male at birth the opportunity and freedom to wear a dress is actually good and healthy for child development.’
These types of things collected together can be a source of protection. Sometimes people carry them around and they never have to take them out. And sometimes it’s something to bring to a school that's accusing you of not properly parenting your child because you're letting them express themselves consistent with who they are. In this moment where there's such an attack on trans youths and their families, it's the type of precaution that people can take to try to protect themselves against unnecessary and really upsetting scrutiny.
What should parents of trans kids do if they feel that their kid has their rights taken away or is being discriminated against? Or if their gender-affirming health care is being taken away?
It’s every parent’s and every young person's nightmare that their healthcare is going to be cut off, or that they're not going to be safe in schools. That they're not going to be able to go to the restroom. That they're not going to be able to play sports.
In each of those different scenarios, the reaction and the tools are somewhat different. And all of it is somewhat dependent on geography. Certainly the protective laws that exist vary greatly by state. Someone living in New York City is going to have a really different experience than someone living in rural Texas. But even in New York City, even when there are a lot of laws on the books, it doesn't mean that things in practice are always great.
When it comes to something like healthcare — if it's cost prohibitive, or if it's difficult for people to access, or if a state shuts it down altogether, the ACLU, Lambda Legal, and other organizations can help provide resources for how to safely get access to care or how to file litigation if necessary.
When it comes to in-school systems of discrimination, it depends on the state. Start with connecting with local groups There may be sort of LGBT groups in the state that are organizing for school districts to have more inclusive policies. Unfortunately, a lot of people have felt that they have to either move or change schools, which is not an option for many people.
Schools can be really unsafe for trans young people. It's a matter of identifying the tools and support systems needed in the context of each person's family, community, and living situation, and trying to push back where appropriate and safe. I think there are a lot of national conversations happening right now about how to improve the survival opportunities for trans young people. And that they don't just survive, but can actually thrive into adulthood.
What can all parents do to help fight harmful legislation?
There are three different ways.
The first and most direct is to engage with state-level politics as they're playing out. Over 35 states have introduced anti-trans bills this year. That means that most people are living in a state that has one of these types of bills pending, and the most effective form of advocacy can be contacting your lawmakers and telling them that, as a constituent, you oppose this type of legislation.
People are generally much less engaged with state-level politics, but it's really important to find out who your state senators are, who is your state rep. Not just who represents you in Congress. You can go to openstate.org, type in your address, and find out who represents you. Then you can go to ACLU’s website and find out if there're any bills pending in your state that target trans people, and then call those people and say, ‘Please oppose these bills.’ It’s immediate and it’s effective.
The second thing — for people who have the resources — is to donate to trans-led organizations. These fights are incredibly costly. And the organizations that are leading the fights need resources. I recommend going to Trans Justice Funding Project — they grant out to trans-led organizations.
Then the third thing is that we all have a role to play in changing the discourse. At the end of the day, these bills are politically viable because we have a reflexive fear of transness, a reflexive fear of gender variance that has been weaponized by people in power.
Especially for those of us who are parents and caregivers, we talk a lot about how the world is with our children. We talk a lot about what gender means, and we can actually destabilize a lot of these assumptions by reminding the next generation that we have more control over determining our identities — things aren't fixed under this notion of a sex binary that we are so overly reliant on.
And all of us engaging in the public discourse in one way or another producing cultural content — whether that's through our social media or whether that's through the work that we do — we have a role to play in denaturalizing the idea that transness is scary and deviant and something to be abolished. And we can do that with our young kids. We can talk about the possibility that we don't have to equate body parts with identities. We don't have to equate norms and behavior with entities or body parts. It’s something we can all do to disrupt the violence that we're seeing right now.
In this moment, what do you want the parents of trans or questioning kids to know? And what do you want their kids to know?
I want parents to know that they're not alone and that they're doing the right thing by loving and affirming and fighting for their kid.
I think ... one of the really upsetting things about something like Governor Abbot's directive in Texas is that it, in essence, is incentivizing rejection of your child. And that’s the most dangerous thing that someone can do.
Parents should know that they're not alone. That they should continue to love and affirm their kids. That will never stop fighting. Nobody's in this fight alone.
And I want the young people to know that they are seen and appreciated in their beautiful transness. It's really amazing to watch young people have the self-awareness and self-confidence to claim who they are even when adults in their life, even when the government is telling them that that's not possibly true, or that it shouldn't be true, that they know exactly who they are. It's on us to listen to them and learn from them.
They will continue to guide us. And we’ll continue to have their back.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity. Since the interview, the Texas directive mentioned has been enjoined.
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