Right-wing media built the Texas government investigation into custody battle over trans child

An ally of extreme anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom called for an investigation into “child abuse” following right-wing outrage over gender-affirming care for trans youth

The state of Texas with various news organizations' logos

Citation Ceci Freed / Media Matters

Texas government officials are parroting right-wing media misinformation about trans youth, including during an appearance on Fox News, as the state is attempting to launch a “child abuse” investigation into a custody battle over a transgender child whose parents disagree about affirming her gender identity. Anti-trans figures have consistently portrayed the affirmation of trans youth as “child abuse.”

Right-wing media outlets have dubiously framed the custody battle as a debate over medical intervention -- despite the fact that the child would not be undergoing any such procedures in the near future. They have also pushed misinformation about medical interventions that are widely supported by medical professionals, inaccurately calling them “chemical castration” -- a false claim which has also been repeated by the Texas attorney general office.

The custody battle is between Anne Georgulas and Jeffrey Younger, two divorced Texas parents of a trans child who goes by Luna and uses female pronouns. Three mental health professionals have diagnosed Luna with gender dysphoria, and Georgulas has accepted her as trans. However, Younger has rejected Luna’s gender identity, insisting she is not trans and referring to her by her former name (commonly referred to as a deadname). According to court documents, Younger “has engaged in increasingly aggressive behavior, including physical force, toward” Georgulas and “emotionally abusive behavior toward the child.” He has also launched an online campaign, fundraiser, and petition all using the name Luna formerly used.

 On October 24, a judge ruled that the parents would share joint custody of Luna despite a jury ruling that Georgulas should have sole custody earlier this week. The judge’s decision came after major outcry from right-wing media figures and Texas elected officials, including Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). 

Texas officials have asked for an investigation into the case as “child abuse”

Right-wing media led an extensive misinformation campaign about the custody battle, which Texas government officials relied on to justify launching an investigation.

Abbott announced on October 23 that the Texas Office of the Attorney General and Department of Family and Protective Services are looking into the custody case. Government officials in the state used that misinformation to justify the potential investigation. Following the announcement, Texas Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Mateer sent a letter and issued a press release requesting that the state Department of Family and Protective Services “conduct a thorough investigation” into “possible child abuse” to “protect the boy in question [from] permanent and potentially irreversible harm by his mother.”

Mateer is an allied attorney with the extreme anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom; at least four other ADF allied attorneys worked in the Texas attorney general’s office in 2018. In 2017, Mateer’s federal judicial nomination was withdrawn after some of his extreme anti-LGBTQ comments were uncovered. Notably, Mateer claimed that the existence of trans youth proves that “Satan’s plan is working,” and he advocated for the harmful and debunked practice of conversion therapy.

On October 24, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick went on Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle, a friendly show for anti-LGBTQ viewpoints, and claimed that “at seven, you can't make that decision that will change their life forever -- that you cannot come back, particularly if you go through the full treatment into their teen years.” During the segment, Ingraham also called gender-affirming care “child abuse.” In another segment from Fox’s The Daily Briefing with Dana Perino on October 25, Patrick suggested the legislature would explore the issue in its next session.

Texas officials’ claims of “child abuse” and irreversible medical procedures are false and ignore medical best practices

The language in Mateer’s comments and Patrick’s interviews comes directly from right-wing media, which have taken the custody battle and falsely reframed it to be about supposedly irreversible medical procedures. In fact, therapists have not recommended any medical interventions for Luna, but rather “would allow her to dress and otherwise identify as a girl.” The Washington Post has noted:

For a 7-year-old, that might mean speaking to experts and potentially helping them through a social transition, which might include changing their clothes, hairstyle or pronouns. At around ages 10 to 13, parents, health professionals and the child might decide to take puberty blockers, which delay the development of secondary sex characteristics, like facial hair or breasts.

 Those can be stopped at any time, and puberty continues as it would normally. “It is only irreversible if the adults in the child’s life make it irreversible,” [clinical psychologist Laura] Edwards-Leeper told The Post. “If the adults can stay open to whatever trajectory the child has, then it’s completely reversible.”

Physician Jack Turban, whose “research focuses on the mental health of transgender and gender diverse youth,” wrote in Vox that one large study of trans adolescents showed that “only 1.9 percent of those who hit puberty and start puberty blockers decide to stop treatment.” He also noted that these interventions are “completely safe and reversible” and that medical guidelines do not advise prepubescent children, like Luna, “be offered any hormonal interventions,” adding that they “by definition, have not yet started puberty, and thus there is no puberty to block and no need for hormone therapy.”

Additionally, research shows that transgender youth are best able to succeed when their families accept and affirm their gender identity. This includes being less likely to experience substance abuse, depression, homelessness, and suicidal ideation.

Right-wing media have seized on the case to fit their false claim that gender affirmation of trans youth is “child abuse”

Right-wing media have dedicated obsessive coverage to the custody battle, as it fits an entrenched narrative that LGBTQ advocates are coming after conservatives’ children. With Younger’s participation, right-wing media has exploited the case to push misinformation about affirming trans youth, which it has regularly and falsely regarded as “child abuse.” 

Right-wing media have explicitly called for action to be taken against Georgulas -- including criminal charges. A blog at The Federalist suggested that parents who affirm their trans children’s gender identity “should be hauled away from those kids as fast as possible for their safety,” and The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh claimed that Georgulas “should be locked in prison for the rest of her life.” Walsh even suggested that Younger kidnap Luna, writing, “There is nothing his father can do to stop it, short of ‘kidnapping’ the boy and fleeing the country (a move that would be not only morally justified, but heroic).” That post received over 282,000 interactions on Facebook, and Walsh later started a hashtag to promote the case on Twitter.

Walsh and other right-wing commentators including Townhall’s Kurt Schlichter and One America News Network’s Jack Posobiec have asked for government intervention in the case, and the Conservative Review suggested passing new state laws to prevent or even “criminalize” some trans-affirming medical practices.

In covering the case, right-wing outlets have also falsely referred to puberty blockers as a form of “chemical castration” that has “been proven to kill people.” The suggestion that puberty blockers are deadly is right-wing junk science that has been widely debunked. Mateer’s comments about child abuse and “chemical castration” mirrored right-wing misinformation about affirming trans children--media outlets including LifeSiteNews, The Federalist, Christian Headlines, and The Patriot Post have propagated the “chemical castration” language before it appeared in Mateer’s letter from the attorney general’s office.

Spearheaded by right-wing evangelical website LifeSiteNews, right-wing media have dedicated significant coverage to the story, writing about it since at least November 2018 and ramping up coverage as the court case’s jury was selected on October 15. LifeSiteNews has published at least 28 articles on the issue, started a petition in support of Younger that has received more than 75,000 signatures, and ran six Facebook ads promoting their anti-trans content. It also sent writer Madeleine Jacobs to attend the trial in person. 

Fox News has aired several segments on the case, including coverage from Fox’s Shannon Bream on October 4. On Fox & Friends, right-wing commentator Mark Steyn falsely suggested that Luna would be making irreversible medical decisions, saying, “What a kid thinks at seven is completely different from what that kid may think at 13 or at 17, and the trouble with all this stuff -- if you put him on puberty blockers and everything, even if he changes his mind in 10 years time, he’ll be impotent.” During a segment on Fox’s The Daily Briefing with Dana Perino, Fox contributor Emily Compagno repeated language about “chemical castration,” saying that the father claimed it was “lined up on the mom’s table.” 

Both The Washington Post and The Daily Beast have cited conservative media coverage as an impetus for the Texas government’s child abuse investigation and even potentially the judge’s ruling. The Daily Beast wrote that the decision is “widely seen as a win for conservative media and politicians who have framed the case as a debate over how (or if) children can come out as transgender.” 

Right-wing media’s coverage of the case may have dangerous consequences

In addition to potential legislative or government actions that could affect trans Texans' ability to access care or parents' ability to do what is best for their children, right-wing media’s narrative around their case has put the lives of Georgulas and Luna at risk. 

According to The Daily Beast, “A Facebook group with a graphically violent name circulated what they claimed was Georgulas’ address and phone number,” and Georgulas’ attorneys have said she “faced threats, harassment, and vandalism, having been ‘viciously attacked and threatened by complete strangers.’” 

Now, the right-wing has the force of the Texas government on its side, with the help of Mateer, an extreme lawyer associated with the powerful and extreme Alliance Defending Freedom, potentially resulting in further action against Georgulas.