By Rebecca Stahl, CFCC Executive Director
Across the country, recent governmental actions are attacking LGBTQ+ children, specifically transgender children. Much has already been written about the impact on children and their families from these actions. I write as a child advocate. I have spent more than fifteen years representing children and writing about children’s rights and their voice.
These laws will harm children and families, and they will make the world less safe for children physically, developmentally, and emotionally. These laws undermine everything we know scientifically about childhood development and what I have heard directly from children about their needs.
The Current Climate
Within just the past few months…
- The Texas Attorney General declared that the definition of child abuse includes parents obtaining gender affirming care for their children.
- In Alabama, a recent bill makes it a felony for a doctor to provide gender affirming care for transgender youth.
- A new law passed in Florida states that if school personnel are aware of a child’s changing “mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being,” the school must notify the child’s parents. This includes if a child discloses their LGBTQ+ identity. The law has few provisions for determining whether it would be safe for a school to disclose this information to parents. The same law prohibits the teaching of anything related to sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade “or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”
- And in 2021, in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, the United States Supreme Court held that private foster care licensing agencies can discriminate against LGBTQ+ foster parents even though the State subcontracts foster care licensing to the private agencies.
The list goes on. These attacks come just seven years after marriage equality was legalized throughout the United States in Obergefell v. Hodges and less than two years after the Supreme Court held that the prohibition against sex discrimination in Title VII also covers discrimination against trans and nonbinary people in Bostock v. Clayton County. These recent attacks on LGBTQ+ youth and their adult guardians (and others who care for them) are not random. They are part of a planned and coordinated campaign driven by bigotry and fueled by a lack of scientific understanding of child development, gender, and sexuality.
The Impact on Children
The problems for children specific to the new legislation fall into two general categories:
First, the sharing of children’s identities with parents or caregivers, as the law in Florida requires, could put children with unsupportive parents at risk of physical or emotional abuse related to these disclosures. Specifically, Florida still allows conversion “therapy,” a harmful practice designed to “cure” people of their non-cisgender or non-heterosexual identities. There is no pathology to be addressed in these situations, and the practice of “conversion therapy” often leads to emotional and physical harm to children. Thus, not only are some children at risk of physical and emotional abuse directly from parents or caregivers because of this law, such disclosures can subject children to a practice that has been proven to cause harm.
The research is clear that unless they have loving, caring adults in their life who accept them and support their identity exploration, LGBTQ+ children (and transgender children in particular) are at higher risk of severe mental health issues, including suicidality. The numbers are staggering. More than 40% of transgender children have indicated they have suicidal ideation. Children who feel they can be themselves, however, tend to have mental health issues at the same rate as children who do not identify as transgender.
Beyond the numbers, the potential harm to children and their families is, in part, undefinable because the impact will not be seen in full for decades. How do we measure the loss that occurs when a child cannot be themselves? Or worse, when a child dies by suicide? With the Florida legislation, the potential harm to children who have unsupportive parents is that of increased mental health concerns, including suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and suicide completion.
Second, the governmental actions that target parents and doctors, such as those in Texas and Alabama, will take away the rights of supportive parents seeking to provide a safe space for children who are exploring and understanding their identity. If doctors can be convicted of felonies for providing gender-affirming care to children, those children will be unable to receive care that is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, among other scientific communities. Without the care of doctors who understand the medical issues involved in gender affirming care, families will be unable to make fully informed decisions about care for children.
Current Texas policy allows child welfare agencies to remove children from their parents if parents obtain gender affirming care for their minor children. Removing children from their parents is one of the most traumatic experiences a child can have, even when there has been abuse; removal when a parent is specifically providing developmentally appropriate, gender-affirming care for a child is even more detrimental for children needing such care. These policies result in parents being accused of child abuse for doing exactly what the entire medical and scientific community recommends for their children.
The risks of placing children in the foster care system cannot be overstated. Foster youth have higher rates of substance use, mental health issues, over prescription of psychotropic medication, and they are more likely to become unhoused or homeless. Foster youth also have worse educational outcomes than their peers who are not in foster care. There is also an unquantifiable impact of being separated from family and friends at the crucial time of adolescence when solid peer groups and a stable family are necessary for development.
Finally, for children who are placed in the foster care system, for whatever reason, the Supreme Court’s decision in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia will reduce the number of LGBTQ+ foster parents. LGBTQ+ foster parents help to support LGBTQ+ youth, who already disproportionately end up in foster care.
Thus, the impact of these governmental actions in both the short and long term is clear. The harm of these actions will be seen across multiple systems and against everyone who wants to use science to support children.
The Importance of Listening to Children
We create the space for children to thrive when we give them the space to be themselves, to express their identities fully, and a community in which they feel they belong. Science and research are clear about these well-documented needs of child development.
The recent government actions outlined above not only ignore the science. they actively remove the supports that have been proven to allow LGBTQ+ and specifically transgender children to thrive at crucial stages of development. These laws and policies erase everything an already vulnerable population of children needs to thrive. They also ignore the human and personal realities of children’s experience, which can only be understood by speaking directly with children and building an understanding of their needs as individuals. Humanizing people by speaking with them is often the best way to understand what people need.
As a child advocate, I have spoken with hundreds of children and listened to their stories about their identities. Their personal stories touched me and moved me. It is almost impossible to have these conversations and not want to do everything possible to assist children and their identity exploration.
Children and adolescents are not as incapable of understanding themselves or the world around them as many adults believe. On the contrary, children are thoughtful and perceptive about their own experiences. What I and other children’s advocates quickly discover through our work is that children and youth are in touch with their own lives, their own needs, and their own identities from a very young age. Very young children may not have the sophistication to think through all the outcomes of their feelings, but they always are the best people to explain how a particular decision or outcome will affect them in the moment, the short term, and often the long term. As adults, we must learn to listen in a way that honors that understanding of youth and does not ignore it.
I can recall countless conversations around identity with children and youth in which they explored how it felt to be bisexual or nonbinary or transgender or any other non-cisgender heterosexual identity. We discussed the implications of coming out to their families, to the other adults in their lives, and to their peers. My clients were always able to make decisions about their lives with the input of the people in their lives they trusted, including their doctors. I have never seen a transgender child start hormone blockers or hormone replacement therapy without significant time and discussion with a doctor and with other adults in the child’s life.
I have had child clients who were open about their identities with me, a person who had a duty of confidentiality to them, but who were afraid to talk about their identities to their parents and caregivers. I have met LGBTQ+ youth who feel safe in foster care, thanks to their LGBTQ+ foster parents. The children of all ages I have spoken with were always able to articulate their own experiences, and they understood their own identities better than many adults do.
Recently, I was talking to several teenagers about trauma and stress. I asked them what causes them stress, and one young person said, “when people don’t believe me or see me.” This young person articulated exactly what we all want and need in life—to be seen and to feel as though we belong exactly as we are. What all these governmental actions have in common is that just as youth are beginning to speak about themselves, share who they are, and come into their own identities, the government is coming in and taking that away from them—making it unsafe for them to be themselves. Even when this does not result in suicidal ideation, it removes a child’s sense of agency at a time when agency is the most important aspect of their development.
All of my experience as a child advocate supports the data of developmental science that demonstrates the need for agency and identity development. These governmental actions harm children. They take away support for the most important developmental milestones children need, and they put children who are already vulnerable at a much higher risk of suicidality. What these new laws and policies also do is ignore children and youth and dehumanize them by not listening to them. Those of us who work with youth have always known that children are the most able to articulate their needs, and we should listen both to them and to the science. We must all stand in opposition to these actions if we want to protect children and their families.
Learn More & Take Action
Human Rights Campaign tracks anti-LGBTQ+ legislation across the country.
Freedom for All Americans has a tracker focused on new legislation in 2022 that includes information on bills focused on youth healthcare, sports, and school policy.
Lambda Legal offers ongoing coverage of LGBTQ+-focused laws and amendments, their impact, and opportunities for advocacy.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offers a comprehensive guide to resources for LGBTQ+ youth, friends, and supporters, as well as resources for educators and school administrators, parents, guardians, and family members.
The Trevor Project is a national nonprofit providing 24/7 information and support to LGBTQ young people, as well as information for allies and advocates.
FreeState Justice offers a resource guide for LGBTQ+ youth in Maryland.
Live Out Loud has assembled an extensive list of LGBTQ youth organizations, hotlines, and service providers.
A Community Resource Guide from CFCC
CFCC believes that one simple way to prevent child welfare intervention is to make it easy for families to access the services they need, so we are creating a series of Community Resource Guides. New issue-focused guides will be published on a regular basis. New this month – Domestic Violence..