Gov. Greg Abbott is at it again, but this time it’s worse.

You may remember the day in April when Abbott and his entourage staged a press conference on the parking lot outside San Antonio’s Freeman Coliseum to trumpet what he said were complaints of sexual abuse of migrant children who were being temporarily housed there by federal authorities. 

With three stern Texas Rangers in cowboy hats standing behind him, Abbott declared dramatically that the facility was “a health and safety nightmare” with poor staffing, insufficient nutrition, and inadequate COVID-19 protocols.

He had not, of course, actually bothered to go inside and inspect the facility before accusing its staff of malfeasance. He hadn’t even waited for state agencies to begin an investigation. The probe, he said, “should and can begin tonight.” He added, “We may have answers as soon as tomorrow.”

It was a classic case of “Ready, fire, aim.” Abbott did tour the facility after declaring it to be a hellhole. He said nothing to the media but then fired off a letter to Vice President Kamala Harris demanding that the feds shut down the facility. 

Bexar County Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores, who had been inside many times as a volunteer, said she found the place to be clean, well-staffed, and secure. The issue went “poof” after the governor’s drive-by alarm. A federal investigation found no support for the allegations and we haven’t heard from Abbott about them since.

On Friday, Abbott’s office released a letter he was sending to the head of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. Like his publicity stunt at the Freeman Coliseum, Abbott was pretending to be a defender of a marginalized group of children. Instead of immigrant children, this time it was transgender children.

The letter ordered Jaime Masters, commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services, to “issue a determination of whether genital mutilation of a child for purposes of gender transitioning through reassignment surgery constitutes child abuse.”

The letter left little question as to what finding the governor wants. 

“Subjecting a child to genital mutilation through reassignment surgery creates a ‘genuine threat of substantial harm from physical injury to the child,’ citing language from the Texas Family Code. This broad definition of ‘abuse’ should cover a surgical procedure that will sterilize the child, such as orchiectomy or hysterectomy, or remove otherwise healthy body parts, such as penectomy or mastectomy.”

Abbott goes on to write, “It may be useful to explain the reporting requirements for all licensed professionals who have direct contact with children who may be subject to that abuse, including doctors, nurses, and teachers, as well as the penalties for failure to report such child abuse.”

Such failure can result in a Class A misdemeanor with a punishment of a $4,000 fine and/or up to a year in jail.

In the brief, five-paragraph letter Abbott uses the term “genital mutilation” six times. It is an alarming term describing a procedure performed on adolescent girls in parts of India and in some African nations. UNICEF and other organizations define it as “a procedure performed on a woman or girl to alter or injure her genitalia for non-medical reasons.” These reasons, usually based on longstanding social customs, can include depriving women of sexual pleasure to maintain their “purity.”

Texas law, using the above definition, already makes “female genital mutilation” a state jail felony. 

By applying the term to the treatment of gender dysphoria, Abbott is attempting to portray what has become a relatively small portion of the medical treatment of transgender children as being just as barbaric as the practice UNICEF is fighting.

Abbott’s latest pandering to a portion of his base is part of a broader effort. During the recent regular session of the Legislature, Abbott backed a far more damaging bill. It would have criminalized everyone involved — doctors, psychologists, social workers, and even parents — in all phases of medical treatment for transgender children. These include the use of puberty blockers to give children time to affirm their transgender nature, and later the use of hormone treatments to move a body toward the gender with which the child identifies. 

Experts say these treatments require careful consideration, but can be effective in preventing anxiety, depression, and even suicide. Surgical alteration of the genitals is often not requested until later in life, if at all. It’s not clear how many, if any, Texas children are receiving such treatment before the age of 18. 

These courses of treatment have for some time been endorsed by a broad range of medical organizations. These include the Texas Medical AssociationTexas Counseling Association, Texas Pediatric Societythe American Psychiatric Associationthe American Academy of Pediatricsthe American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and others.

Last May I wrote about a mother of a transgender child who testified at a legislative hearing that she and her family would have to leave Texas if the bill passed. Asked why by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), Karen Krajcer replied: “Because I could be charged as a child abuser. I would not be able to provide my child with the gender-transitioning care that she needs. And right now … all that means is affirming who she is, using the pronouns she prefers and driving her to therapy. And I won’t be able to help her when she does approach puberty and more medical interventions are necessary.”

Despite the testimony of parents like Krajcer and of physicians and other experts, the Texas Senate passed the bill. It died, however, in the House of Representatives. Abbott was not pleased, yet he did not add it to the agenda for the first special session that recently ended or to the second special session that began Saturday.

Why not? He may have been told by House leadership that the votes were not there to pass it. Or he may have been somewhat discouraged by a federal judge who recently blocked similar legislation passed by the Arkansas State Legislature after being vetoed by Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

Abbott last month told a radio interviewer he didn’t put it on the special session agenda because “I have another way of achieving the exact same thing, and it’s about a finished product as we speak right now and may be announced as soon as this week.”

His action Friday did not, of course, achieve “the exact same thing.” It covers only surgery rarely performed in Texas on children, not the puberty blockers and hormone treatments commonly used as part of transgender medical care.

By inappropriately using the term “genital mutilation,” Abbott is letting transgender children and their families know they don’t have a friend in the governor’s mansion. But the message he intends is to his right wing base as he heads into a primary with opposition from two candidates to his right. One of his opponents, former state Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas, blasted Abbott for not putting criminalization of hormone treatments on the special session agenda, calling Republicans who blocked the bill “cowards.”

Here’s an idea: Maybe the Department of Family and Protective Services should declare the inflammation of ignorance and hatred toward transgender children, a group that already faces bullying, to be child abuse under Texas law. 

Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.