It was Feb. 22, exactly one week before the Texas primary election. Gov. Greg Abbott knew from his own polls and public ones that he was in no danger of being forced into a runoff by two candidates running to his right, former state Sen. Don Huffines and former state Republican Party Chairman Allen West. 

But Abbott is not a man for taking chances. He made one last play to cater to the 11% of Texas registered voters who would cast ballots in the increasingly conservative Republican primary. 

The political play? He issued a directive to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services ordering the agency to investigate as “child abuse” some of the standard treatments recommended by major medical associations for transgender children. He based the order on a controversial legal opinion issued four days earlier by Attorney General Ken Paxton. 

Abbott also issued the same day a press release making sure that his order would receive prominent play in the state’s media outlets so that voters would know that he was taking on the pressing issue of how doctors, psychologists and parents were treating children with gender dysphoria. 

And to add force to the order, he reminded the DFPS it was responsible for investigating parents who subjected their children “to these abusive gender-transitioning procedures” and it was the responsibility of “other state agencies to investigate licensed facilities where such procedures may occur.”

If you think Abbott was solely concerned about the well-being of a small minority of Texas children, consider this: Two days after Abbott issued the order, former Trump administration chief strategist Steve Bannon featured on his “War Room” podcast the head of the American Principles Project, a conservative “think tank” that describes itself as “the NRA for families” and in 2020 spent $3.3 million on political advertising. Of that, $3 million was for ads attacking Democrats, with the remainder supporting Republicans. 

APP’s director, Terry Schilling, had previously been on the podcast accusing Abbott of engaging in back-room maneuvers in the Texas House to kill a bill passed along strict partisan lines by the Texas Senate that would make gender-affirming therapy criminal child abuse, even though a range of medical experts had testified against the bill.

Now Schilling was on the show taking credit for successfully pressuring Abbott to issue his order doing what the Legislature had failed to do.

“We put together a $750,000 grassroots advocacy campaign with the ‘War Room’ support and we put pressure on him right before the election,” Schilling bragged. “It wasn’t a coincidence that he did this.”

Schilling continued, “It doesn’t happen without Ken Paxton and his leadership and what he came out with, and it also doesn’t happen without the support of the ‘War Room’ Posse. and everything they’re doing to help us really make this pro-family movement more muscular.”

The reference to the “War Room” support refers to Bannon frequently asking his listeners, whom he calls the War Room Posse, to pressure elected officials. Pro Publica last year published a piece detailing the impressive impact of a Bannon push in which he told his audience of believers that the 2020 election was rigged and urged them to sign up as poll watchers. 

Bannon and Schilling’s APP aren’t the only conservative political organizations pushing for gender-affirming therapy to be defined as child abuse. Others include the Heritage Foundation and Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian advocacy group described as a “legal army” with assets of more than $40 million. These and other groups have pushed bills restricting transgender rights nationally, with more than a dozen states introducing bills so far this year. It’s easy to see why Abbott might be feeling the heat. 

Paxton’s opinion, although legally nonbinding, may also have increased pressure on Abbott. Paxton’s opinion is filled with misinformation, such as this: “There is no evidence that long-term mental health outcomes are improved or that rates of suicide are reduced by hormonal or surgical intervention.”

Google “gender dysphoria and suicide” and you’ll find a plethora of studies indicating elevated rates of suicides and attempted suicides among teenagers suffering from untreated gender confusion.

In the 13-page opinion, Paxton’s and his staff make analogies to forced sterilization of marginalized groups “such as African Americans, female minors, the disabled, and others,” to Munchausen syndrome by proxy and to “‘female genital mutilation,’ a standalone criminal act.” For a robust treatment of the dishonesty of Paxton’s opinion, see this article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

It’s possible that Paxton’s shop did not draft the opinion entirely on its own. Michael Farris is the head of the Alliance Defending Freedom, and Farris has a link to Paxton.

Last fall the New York Times revealed that Farris drafted the lawsuit that sought to overturn the 2020 presidential election by nullifying the results in several states, including Pennsylvania, Georgia and Wisconsin. Trump supporters needed an attorney general to file the suit. After the Louisiana AG turned them down, they settled for Paxton.

Paxton filed the suit “after making some changes but keeping large chunks of the draft circulated by Mr. Farris,” according to the Times. The suit was so ridiculous that it took the U.S. Supreme Court, including three Trump appointees, just four days to dismiss it. 

Paxton’s opinion on treatment for children with gender dysphoria is as cynical as was his lawsuit trying to wipe out the votes of millions of people in other states.

But if it is politics to the likes of Abbott and Paxton, it is panic-inducing to many parents of children who intensely believe they are in the wrong bodies, and worrisome to those who treat these children. 

Already Child Protective Services is investigating at least four families, including one mother who works for the agency and asked her supervisor how it would impact her. She has been suspended from her job. 

Meanwhile parents are lawyering up and a number of district attorneys have announced that they will not prosecute such cases. They include Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales, who stated last month, “Politicians should stop inserting themselves into medical care decisions that are best left to doctors and patients. Our office would not prosecute the family members, medical professionals, teachers and others who provide medical care, unconditional love and emotional support for this vulnerable population.”

And on Sunday, Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston announced that it was discontinuing hormonal treatments given as part of what may be the state’s largest program treating gender dysphoria. 

“This step was taken to safeguard our health care professionals and impacted families from potential criminal legal ramifications,” the hospital said in a statement.

A friend of mine has watched her child blossom in the two years since her family began therapy to deal with her gender dysphoria. She has been warmly accepted by her teachers and classmates. She is too young for puberty blockers or hormones that may be in her future. The possible impact of what the mother calls “a political stunt” is devastating.

“Our children could be taken from us because we are doing our job, the care every medical association says is the right thing to do,” she says. “All of this is traumatizing.”

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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.