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His public custody battle helped ignite a movement against transgender health care for kids. Will it carry him to the Texas House?

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Emil Lippe | The Texas Tribune
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Jeff Younger stands outside the Denton County Republican Party Headquarters on March 10, 2022.

Jeff Younger sees himself as the “tip of the spear” in an effort that led the state to investigate parents of transgender children for child abuse.

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.

When some of the most powerful Republicans in Texas began targeting the transgender community in 2017, they found the notion — initially — hard to sell.

The conservative grassroots were all for legislation regulating transgender people’s bathroom use, the first hard legislative push by state leadership to limit the rights of that community. But state House leaders didn’t seem to have the stomach for it, and efforts in the Capitol failed.

Enter Jeff Younger.

The North Texas dad was sounding the alarm on social media and his blog about his bitter public custody battle over 7-year-old twins with his estranged wife, a pediatrician. The dispute focused on the social gender transition of one twin, who was assigned male at birth but lived as a girl at the mother’s house.

While the mother argued in court that their child drove her transition by choice, wearing dresses and choosing a girl’s name, Younger contended the child was happy to be a boy and that his wife was pushing the child to transition against their will.

His fight became a rallying cry for the hard right. On conservative websites and GOP politicians’ social media, Younger was held up as a victim, a tragic example of allowing the so-called leftist transgender agenda to continue unabated. His child’s birth name became a popular hashtag on Twitter.

Even Gov. Greg Abbott joined in, announcing on Twitter in 2019 that the state would look into the child’s case. Younger’s family became the first in Texas ever investigated by the state for child abuse based on treatment for a transitioning child. His ex-wife reported being threatened and harassed. And LGBTQ advocates denounced what they saw as the exploitation of a young, vulnerable child for political purposes.

But around Younger, the movement grew. The Texas GOP’s anti-trans policy endeavors evolved from angry political rhetoric to a raft of new proposed laws — and, last month, to child welfare investigators showing up at the doors of parents of transgender children on order of the governor.

Younger, who does statistical analysis for banking firms, says his story was the catalyst for a movement that was previously without direction.

“I believe I was the tip of the spear,” the 56-year-old Flower Mound resident said in an interview with The Texas Tribune this week.

And now, as a poster child for the cause, he is within striking distance of an elected seat in the Texas House of Representatives.

A story that resonates with the right

Younger is running for a House seat in a conservative-leaning district in the northern Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs. In May, he’ll take on Flower Mound Mayor Pro Tem Ben Bumgarner in the GOP primary runoff. The winner will be the favorite to beat the Democratic opponent, Denise Wooten, this November.

Younger’s custody battle is at the center of his campaign. On a section of his website called “Why I’m Running,” it’s the first sentence: “The State of Texas is trying to transition my son into a girl.”

The legal details are murky. Divorce records have been sealed, and both parents are under a court-imposed gag order that Younger is openly defying. His ex-wife’s version, according to media coverage from before records were sealed, is a story of a caring parent guiding a child through a complex process: Their child expressed a strong desire to be a girl from a very young age, therapists confirmed it and she began supportive social transitioning and therapy on their recommendation.

When the state investigated at the behest of GOP leaders in 2019, it ruled out child abuse.

Younger contends that his ex-wife responded too soon and too fast to their then-2-year-old child’s proclivity toward commonly feminine things and appearances. After about a year of wanting to wear dresses and similar choices, the child started getting counseling to help begin socially transitioning, he said.

Younger says the child wants nothing to do with the female identity when not at the mother’s house and that he fears the child is being railroaded by the schools, mental health experts and courts that have repeatedly sided with the mother and that he says seem determined to push the child to change genders.

He became especially alarmed when he learned that prescribing puberty blockers was being discussed, and he took his story public — writing a blog, tweeting at state leaders and walking into his state lawmakers’ offices trying to get some support for his case and outlaw the kinds of treatments his ex-wife was considering for their child.

Younger’s campaign site features multiple pictures of his child, along with detailed descriptions of the battle with his ex. It includes concerns about the child’s schooling and allegations that his wife wanted to put the child “on chemical castration drugs at the age of nine.”

Gender-affirming or transitional surgeries or irreversible procedures are not being performed on minors in Texas, doctors say, and puberty blockers and hormones are not being prescribed for prepubescent children. Younger’s own child is receiving neither, he acknowledged. His ex-wife will have to get his permission before starting anything like that, according to a court ruling.

Child development experts say puberty blockers, whose effects are reversible, are critical for children who don’t identify with the puberty traits their bodies are taking on. Going through puberty without blockers can put children at risk for suicide or cause them to act out, they say.

But Younger argues that gender dysphoria, which is officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, should not be a medical diagnosis. He also says that the higher rate of suicide among transgender teens is evidence that parents should not encourage their transitions, even though the American Medical Association has stated that taking away gender-affirming care can have negative mental health consequences for children.

And, he says, he believes the battle to stop the transitioning of children is being lost to the left and needs more warriors like him.

“It’s just reached that incredible level that no one could have ever contemplated,” he said.

Younger’s continued public dialogue on the case and refusal to take part in his child’s gender transition lost him custody of his twins. But it also has allowed his version of events to overshadow those of his ex-wife, who could not be reached for comment and who is reportedly obeying the gag order.

And his message has resonated with hard-right conservatives for years.

In 2017, Don Huffines — a Dallas real estate developer still in his first term as a state senator at the time — was in the dark about issues related to transgender chidren. He remembers being surprised when Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick floated a legislative priority of banning trangender people, including kids, from using the public bathrooms that match their identity.

“I personally was not familiar with the issue until it was brought up in the Senate,” he said.

It was during that time that Younger walked into Huffines’ district office and told his story, the former senator recalled.

“When Jeff told me about this situation, it was just really shocking that this could go on,” Huffines said.

The 2017 legislation never reached Abbott’s desk, stymied by opposition from the business community and then-state House Speaker Joe Straus, a Republican. But GOP leaders soon rallied around Younger. Abbott tweeted his support in 2019. The office of Attorney General Ken Paxton intervened, pushing for a child abuse investigation into Younger’s wife.

And the GOP focus on trans kids only grew.

This year, Huffines ran for governor, spending millions of his own dollars in a bid to convince primary voters that Abbott wasn’t conservative enough. Abbott trounced him in this month’s election primary, but many credit Huffines with forcing the governor to pay more attention to the issue.

A clinic for transgender children, operated jointly by UT Southwestern Medical Center and Children’s Medical Center Dallas, dissolved late last year after Huffines made hay about it — and the director reportedly indicated to staffers that they were facing pressure from Abbott. The governor’s directive for the state to investigate the parents of transgender children came after voting in the primary had already begun.

“My campaign put a lot of pressure on Abbott on this issue. And you see the results,” Huffines said.

Younger says his actions are an act of love for his child, who lives 20 minutes away with Younger’s ex-wife but whose “friends in the neighborhood ask about him all the time.”

He hasn’t been allowed to see or speak with either child since last summer, he said.

He blames the GOP for not doing enough and says it’s his primary reason for running.

“I also thought it was also a good way to let my [kids] know that I still love them and I’m still fighting for them, to protect them,” he said.

“A big issue” in GOP races

Younger said he also had conservative members of the Legislature urging him to run.

“The reason for that is they perceive me as a strong conservative and they also perceive that the Legislature has very few of those,” he said. “They really put pressure on me and made good arguments. The argument that mostly convinced me was that they needed my help to get some key bills passed — election integrity, border security and the transgender bill.”

He said he believes strongly in the idea of federalism, which grants more power to the states, and social conservatism. He calls the center left, which he says he agreed with for much of his young adult life, “an eminently reasonable position,” particularly when it comes to its support of some social safety nets, especially for children.

“We all have to love one another and we have to take care of one another,” he said. “I believe in taking account of opposing positions.”

His campaign, and the news spotlight, keep him busy, with 10-hour runs of endorsement interviews, candidate speeches and appearances on podcasts and radio shows. On Thursday, he was a guest with Paxton and an attorney for the mother of a trans teen who is under state investigation for child abuse on the Mark Davis Show, a popular conservative radio program in Dallas.

If Younger makes it to Austin, his first order of business will be to pass legislation outlawing the medical and surgical gender transition of minors, he said.

The primary runoff appears to be a close race. Younger finished second to Bumgarner in the first round of voting, but trailed by less than 2 percentage points. The turmoil surrounding Abbott’s directive and Paxton’s legal opinion could pour more attention — and money — into the race.

Two days after the primary, Younger had to be escorted from a classroom filled with raucous protesting students shouting “fascist” at him during a speaking event at the University of North Texas in Denton.

A few days later, the national hard-right conservative channel One America News Network featured the event’s defiant student organizers, leaders of the Young Conservatives of Texas, one of whom also had to be evacuated from the classroom during the event protest.

Whoever wins the runoff will be pitted in November against Wooten, a local developmental specialist and a Democratic newcomer. She predicted she stands a better shot at beating Younger than Bumgarner, a local civic leader who she says has broader appeal than Younger.

But Wooten said she’d still rather see Bumgarner win the runoff, because he has not exploited trans kids like Younger and his supporters.

“We cannot let that man in there to do damage to people,” she said. “Because I don’t for a minute think he’d stop with the transgender community.”

Bumgarner could not be reached for comment.

Few things would crystallize the fight over trans kids’ rights better than a political matchup in November between Younger and Wooten. It would be, Wooten said, a chance for her to combat a campaign of misinformation and oversimplified messaging about the complex issue of transgender youth.

“A lot of regular people don’t have the information they need and don’t know how to get the information they need about transgender issues,” she said. “The average person on the street knows nothing about it. And so they hear all this crud in the talk shows and they get a mistaken impression.”

But it will be far from the only race in which the care of transgender kids will factor.

In a nearby Tarrant County district, a GOP member of the Texas House leadership is fighting for her political life against a candidate who criticized her in the campaign for not passing a bill last session banning puberty blockers and gender-affirming surgery for minors.

"It's going to continue to be a big issue in our race,” House District 91 candidate David Lowe said in an email to the Tribune. Lowe pushed Fort Worth Republican Stephanie Klick, chair of the Texas House Public Health Committee, into a runoff in the GOP primary.

Attempts by the Tribune to reach Klick through her campaign were unsuccessful.

And Paxton continues to press the issue as he faces a runoff challenge from Land Commissioner George P. Bush.

Advocates for the more than 17,000 trans children estimated to live in Texas say they’re in the midst of what they call the biggest fight facing the LGBTQ community right now, responding to the child abuse investigations around the state. But they are closely watching Younger, whose election could prove devastating to gay and transgender Texans, “despite the majority of Texans in both parties who know and love someone who is part of our community,” said Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas.

“A handful of billionaire lawmakers who don’t share the values of most Texans are continuing to obsess over children’s private parts in an attempt to avoid the hard work of solving actual problems Texans face,” he said. “Now a person who has blasted his child’s photo and private personal information all over the internet … is running for office by exploiting his own child. … We cannot allow candidates like him to make policy for all Texas children.”

Republicans have always been good at using LGBTQ issues as wedges to splinter the left, but since gay marriage was recognized in 2015, “gays and lesbians aren’t scary anymore,” said Maria Gonzalez of the Texas Transgender Nondiscrimination Scholars, a research and advocacy group in Houston. A new target was needed, she said, so they began to focus on transgender people.

Families are now hiring lawyers. In the short term, they say, lives are stake: Trans kids are far more likely to attempt suicide than their cisgender counterparts, and cutting off medical treatment can be deadly for those who depend on it, families and advocates say.

“They're our most vulnerable population, and especially the transgender people of color,” Gonzalez said. “It’s hard enough to raise a human being in Texas, but Texas just continually tries to make it harder.”

Disclosure: UT Southwestern Medical Center, the University of North Texas and Equality Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.