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After accepting her trans son's identity, Texas mom investigated for child abuse

By Eleanor Klibanoff, The Texas Tribune
People gather for the Trans Kids Call for HELP! rally in front of the Governor’s Mansion in Austin on Sunday. Photo by Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune
People gather for the Trans Kids Call for HELP! rally in front of the Governor’s Mansion in Austin on Sunday. Photo by Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune

March 18 (UPI) -- It took Max three years and one letter, written with shaky hands, to tell his mother the truth.

He gave her the letter at the worst possible moment, with dinner on the stove and a house full of other kids needing her attention. But as soon as Amy started to read his words, she stopped, sat down and let it all sink in.

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The child that she had given birth to and raised for 13 years as a daughter was telling her that he was, in fact, her son.

"I had one of those out-of-body experiences, where it felt like I was looking at myself reading the letter," Amy recalled recently. "I could not believe what I was reading. I just wanted to cry."

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But instead, she took a deep breath and let her maternal instinct take over.

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"I knew in that moment it was more important for me to hug him," she said. "He needed to feel loved and accepted more than I needed to cry."

The family spoke to The Texas Tribune on the condition of anonymity and are identified in this story with pseudonyms because they fear harassment. They are one of at least nine families facing child abuse investigations for providing gender-affirming care to their transgender children in the wake of a recent directive from Gov. Greg Abbott.

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In that moment three years ago, Max explained to his mom that he'd been slowly coming out to friends and one of his brothers and he'd started going by his new, male-sounding name. He told her about his years of self-discovery and research into pronouns and puberty blockers and ways he could dress to hide his female form.

Amy felt like she'd just been swept up in a tornado and landed somewhere completely unfamiliar.

"I felt like I was grieving for my daughter ... It took me about a week to realize [he] is healthy and he is safe, and he is exactly the same person he was a week ago," she said. "And it's me that needs to get over it."

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It's been three years and while Amy is fully supportive of Max's journey, she feels like she's still playing catch-up. He's the one educating her about the process of gender transition, including medical care like puberty blockers and hormone therapy.

So she was shocked when, three weeks ago, a child welfare worker showed up at their door, asking questions about whether Amy might be the one forcing Max to transition.

The investigations are in limbo while a legal challenge to the governor's directive makes its way through the court system, leaving these families in a state of suspended terror.

Max, now 16, can't understand why the government is targeting his family.

"The most upsetting thing about this for me is ... the fact that they would accuse my mother of being a child abuser simply because of my identity," Max said. "She's made all of this possible for me and accepted me. That's all I could ask for, and then the state comes out like, 'Oh, actually, your mother is abusing you.'"

Young man's transition

Growing up, Max didn't think much about gender. He was a tomboy, but mostly because he had three older brothers and inherited a lot of hand-me-downs.

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But as he got closer to puberty, he started to wonder if everyone felt the same panic and revulsion that he did when he looked at his changing body. Researching online, he found the term "gender dysphoria," the discomfort and distress someone can feel when their gender identity doesn't match the sex they were assigned at birth.

Max experienced dysphoria when he looked at his changing body or heard his girlish voice, but what really stuck out to him was the opposite -- the euphoria and comfort he felt when, for example, online friends referred to him with male pronouns.

"I was like, this is the good stuff," he recalls. "And then I was like, I don't think I should be feeling this way."

Even as a child, Max was cautious, thoughtful and private. He spent several months meticulously testing out different combinations of pronouns, running personal A/B tests to measure the amount of discomfort or joy that he felt when he thought of himself as she or they or he.

He was increasingly uncomfortable identifying as a girl. The nonbinary identity didn't quite sit right with him. But he resisted the other option for a long time.

"It was very upsetting to realize I was trans, if I'm being honest," he said. "I want people to be proud of who [they] are, that's amazing, but ... why would you want to be trans?"

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He thought about the the judgment he'd face, the money it would cost to transition and, even back then, the laws that his home state of Texas was passing to take rights from transgender people. He read stories about people getting kicked out of their homes, losing their friends and facing stigma in their communities.

He tried every angle he could think of to talk himself out of being trans, but in the end, he couldn't ignore the absolute joy he felt when he imagined living as a boy. When he finally worked up the courage to tell a friend that he might be trans, the friend responded positively -- and asked him what name he wanted to go by.

"So, that was another one or two months," he recalls. He spent days writing in his journal, "Hi, my name is ..." again and again, trying out different monikers, until he landed on the one that felt right.

As he became increasingly certain in his identity, he started telling more people. First, it was his friends who were on similar journeys of gender discovery. Then others at school and then some of his friends' parents, then his older brother.

Through it all, he kept putting off telling his mom. He knew, in his heart, that she'd be supportive. She's liberal and socially progressive and, most of all, has always supported him, no matter what.

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"But I felt like I could be disappointing her somehow," he said. "Like, hey, I'm not who you thought I was at all."

Toward the end of eighth grade, he poured all of this into a letter and watched, his heart in his throat, as his mother read it. And he felt the overwhelming relief when she wrapped him in her arms, embracing her son just as she had her daughter.

"It took a few days for the family to fully adjust," he said. "I would say it took them like a week to get used to it."

Sitting at the kitchen table in their cozy Austin-area home as he said this, Amy looked at her son, shocked.

"I'd say it took us the better part of a year, love."

A mother's journey

When Amy's older son came out as gay, she bought herself a pride flag and would have marched in every parade if her children had let her.

But to learn that the child she thought was her daughter was now her son threw her for a loop. It was brand-new territory for her. After Amy hugged Max, reminded him that she loved him and assured herself that he was OK, she finally allowed herself to start crying.

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"I could not stop the tears," Amy said. "I said to him, 'Look, I'm really sorry about this. I don't mean to make you feel bad. But I cannot stop crying.'"

The feelings wouldn't stop bubbling up -- the loss she felt for the daughter she'd raised, the sadness that her son had been carrying this alone for so long, the anger that she'd been the last to know, the confusion, the fear.

"How could I live in this house with this person his whole life," she said, "and not have a clue?"

She started seeing a grief counselor for herself and talked with Max's doctor about how to be most affirming for him. Because even though he'd come out and was living as a boy, he was still female-presenting in many ways and struggling significantly with gender dysphoria.

Gender dysphoria is recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as a diagnosable mental health condition that can lead to depression, anxiety and staggeringly high rates of suicide among transgender people.

More than half of transgender and nonbinary youth seriously considered suicide in the past year, according to a national survey by the Trevor Project, an advocacy group focusing on mental health in LGBTQ communities.

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Research shows that the suicide rate plummets when transgender teens have access to gender-affirming healthcare.

Gender-affirming care often starts with social transition, like when Max started using his male name and pronouns and dressed more masculinely. This alone can have a tremendous impact -- the Trevor Project found that transgender and nonbinary youth who lived with people who respected their pronouns attempted suicide at half the rate of those who did not.

But as Max moved further into puberty, the dissonance between his body and his identity only grew. In public, he'd hide behind his mother, equally worried that someone would misgender him as a girl or identify him as a trans boy.

"I would worry about the silliest things," he recalls. "Like am I walking feminine? Is my breathing pattern a male breathing pattern?"

His voice didn't match his gender identity, so he'd avoid speaking in class and withdrew from his family and friends, hiding out in his bedroom.

"Even when I did go to my room, I would still feel uncomfortable," he said. "It's a horrible feeling, just constantly being in discomfort. You can't find even find solace in privacy, no matter what you do."

Just before the beginning of his freshman year of high school, with his mother's buy-in, Max talked to his doctor about beginning hormone therapy, which would more closely align his physical presentation with his gender identity.

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All of the major medical associations have endorsed providing gender-affirming care for transgender teens, including hormone therapy when appropriate.

And the potential costs of not being able to access this care are stark -- a 2021 study from the University of Washington found ​​that young people on puberty blockers or gender-affirming hormones were 60% less likely to be depressed and 73% less likely to have thoughts of self-harm or suicide.

But with a dearth of specialized healthcare providers and increasing state-level crackdowns, less than half of transgender teens who want hormone therapy were actually able to access it.

Even Max, who found a specialist and had support from his mother, found the process to be long and daunting. His doctor required him to be assessed by a counselor, and Amy had to go to court to get full legal custody because her ex-husband, Max's father, was opposed to providing gender-affirming care.

Finally, nine months after he first asked his doctor about hormone therapy, Max started taking tiny doses of testosterone. His dosage has slowly increased over the past year with no negative side effects.

Today, he looks like any other 16-year-old boy, with floppy boy band hair that he constantly swipes out of his eyes and the first few wisps of a beard. And he has found his voice -- a few octaves lower and a lot more confident.

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"I've been able to talk to people more easily, like not having to worry about what they think of me [or] how I'm presenting," he said. "Like, is it too obvious? Am I gonna endanger myself?"

For Amy, her son's transformation has been awe-inspiring to watch. Not from female-presenting to male-presenting, but from an uncomfortable, fearful child to a confident, self-assured young man.

"He just started blooming," she said. "It was just such a huge, huge difference. He came back to us."

Max participates in class, hangs out with his family and has a robust group of friends. When he thinks about who he was before, Max says hormone therapy saved his life.

"I can't remember a time I've been happier than this," he said. "People don't look at me as trans. They just see the person."

A visit from CPS

After spending his whole freshman year in virtual classes due to COVID-19, Max returned to school for sophomore year as just one of the guys. The school and his close friends are aware that he is trans, but many of the other students have no idea.

He said some of the other students, unaware of his identity, are openly transphobic. Which is just one reason that it was so scary to be called to the office a few weeks ago and find a caseworker from the state's child welfare agency waiting to question him about his gender identity.

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It was Feb. 24, two days after Abbott directed the Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate parents of transgender children for child abuse.

Max had texted his mom earlier that day after he learned about the directive, never imagining that his family would be among the first to be investigated under these new orders.

The caseworker asked him questions, he said, about his medical and family history. Was there a history of drug abuse? Had his mother ever tried to physically harm him? Had anyone tried to influence him to take hormones?

"I just tried to answer as honestly as I could, but I was really nervous about saying something to where it would incriminate someone in my family," he said. "I don't want it to seem like they've actually done anything to me because they haven't, but I know that people can twist your words."

Amy was driving the carpool that afternoon, so Max waited until all the other kids had been dropped off to tell her what had happened. But before he could even get the words out, his older brother called -- a caseworker was at the door, looking for Amy.

"I didn't handle it as well as [Max] did," she acknowledges.

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She didn't want to let the caseworker inside, but her husband, Max's stepdad, reminded her that they had nothing to hide. So they agreed to allow the caseworker to interview the whole family.

Amy said the caseworker told her they've been instructed to prioritize investigations into parents who provide gender-affirming care above all other child abuse and neglect cases. A representative for DFPS declined to verify the caseworker's comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

Another caseworker testified in court Friday that the state's child welfare agency is treating these cases differently than others -- they've been told not to put anything in writing and they are required to investigate, even if there's no evidence of abuse.

"That just tells me that Abbott and his team do not give a damn about kids," Amy said. "Because if you can put these cases above all other cases of children who are going through real, authentic, terrible neglect and abuse, you don't care about kids at all ... trans or not. This is purely political."

A judge granted an injunction on Friday, blocking Abbott's directive from being enforced statewide. Attorney General Ken Paxton has appealed, which stays the injunction, but the family's lawyer has informed CPS they won't be participating further in the investigation.

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In the meantime, the family is in a state of suspended animation, both desperate for and terrified of what the next steps in this process might bring.

Amy isn't worried about what an investigation might find -- she knows she hasn't done anything wrong. She worries most about the impact all of this is having on her son, who was finally finding his way out of his shell.

After CPS visited him at school, Max has asked if he can return to virtual classes to wrap up the school year. He's struggling with his mental health and scared of being outed or facing bullying or discrimination from his classmates.

She just tries to remind him, over and over again, that he has done nothing wrong. It's never wrong, she tells him, to be who you are -- no matter who tells you otherwise.

For LGBTQ mental health support, call the Trevor Project's 24/7 toll-free support line at 866-488-7386. You can also reach a trained crisis counselor through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 800-273-8255 or texting 741741.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune. Read the original here.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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