Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Family Bonds Protect a Trans Teen in Texas

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One day in late February of 2022, Amber Briggle received a phone call from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. It was a caseworker, informing her that allegations of child abuse had been filed against her and her husband, Adam, and that the state would be imminently inspecting their home and interviewing their children. The Briggles, who live in North Texas, are the parents of two children. Their eldest, Max, was fourteen at the time and is trans; their daughter, Lulu, was nine. A few days before the phone call, Ken Paxton, the attorney general of Texas, had issued an opinion equating gender-affirming care for transgender youth with child abuse; this was quickly followed by a directive from Governor Greg Abbott to investigate parents seeking out so-called “abusive” gender-transition health care for their children.

Amber and Adam had been advocates for the rights of trans children for years, appearing on television and even hosting Paxton for dinner once. The investigation threw Amber into a state of terror. “Raising a transgender child in Texas has been one long political emergency,” the couple posted on a blog she kept. Amber also posted on a members-only bulletin board for a community of women and nonbinary professionals called TheLi.st, asking for advice. Tanya Selvaratnam, a documentary filmmaker and author, told her to keep a record of every encounter with the state. The two women began communicating, and Selvaratnam soon decided to make a documentary, co-directed with the filmmaker Rose Bush, about the Briggles. The result is “Love to the Max,” a short film that chronicles Max’s experiences during the months after the investigation.

As the documentary makes plain, Max would prefer nothing more than to live a normal teen-age life. “Being trans is the least interesting thing about me,” he says. He likes to do gymnastics and play the ukulele. In a recent phone call with me, Amber recalled that, in 2022, as a social worker came to inspect their house, Max tried to calm himself by practicing the cello. “The challenge of the film was to show the tension around doing the most basic things in your growth as a student or as a family member while being under constant surveillance,” Bush told me. “I wanted to try to help bring that to life. As a trans person, I relate to the experience of thinking of myself as so many identities before I think of myself as being trans.”

In recent years, trans children have become the target of a nationwide political movement to ban gender-transition treatment for minors. Dozens of laws and policies curtailing their participation in sports, their access to health care, and their right to use their preferred pronouns in school have been adopted in states around the country. The Supreme Court recently agreed to hear a case that will consider whether bans against gender-affirming care are constitutional. In a heightened political climate, Selvaratnam and Bush’s movie is a reminder that the families at the heart of a vicious political battle would much rather live anonymous lives. “It was important for me to focus on the humanity and the family, and to make sure that the film was not overtly political, because I want anyone to be able to watch this film,” Selvaratnam told me.

It took more than a hundred days for the state to close its investigation. Around the same time, the Briggles and other plaintiffs sued Governor Abbott, and obtained a temporary injunction from the court blocking the state from investigating the family further. Earlier this year, a state court upheld the injunction after the state appealed. (The case is ongoing.) Max is now about to enter his junior year of high school. His parents say he is an honors student.

Unlike many other families with trans children, the Briggles, who have drawn support from local allies, such as Patchouli Joe’s, an independent bookstore that hosted a transgender story time for children, have not left Texas. Amber is a small-business owner, and Adam is a professor at a college; their jobs are not easily uprooted. They also don’t see moving as a solution. “This really can happen anywhere,” Amber Briggle said. “People are just one or two school-board elections away from banning books and pronouns. This is not a Texas thing. This is not strictly a red-state thing.”

An earlier version of this article misstated the number of plaintiffs named in the lawsuit.



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