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Texas governor calls gender affirming care 'child abuse.' This family fights back

The Briggle family is fighting back after the Texas governor and attorney general said transgender children receiving gender-affirming care are the victims of child abuse.
Jillian R McKenzie
The Briggle family is fighting back after the Texas governor and attorney general said transgender children receiving gender-affirming care are the victims of child abuse.

Almost from the moment he was born, Grayson Briggle had an identity of his own. By the time he was 3 years old he was consistently referring to himself as a boy, although he was assigned female at birth. He insisted on short haircuts and boys' clothes.

By the time he got to first grade, his mother, Amber Briggle, knew it was time to face facts. "Are you my son?" she asked her 6-year-old. The child looked at her and quietly said, "Yes."

That was it: Family, teachers, friends' parents, their minister – everyone got briefed. Even though the family lives in largely conservative Denton, Texas, just north of Dallas, the news turned out not to be that big of a deal. Mainly, because everyone liked Grayson.

If you'd been looking at him for the previous three years on a regular basis, the official news of his gender identity didn't exactly come as a shock.

The Texas GOP has become increasingly hardline on culture war issues, such as LGBTQ+ rights

Grayson is now 14, and as he's grown older, the Texas Republican Party has steadily grown more conservative. At the end of February, with the Texas primary election just days away, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statement that gender-affirming care for trans children should be considered child abuse.

The Briggles and other families whose trans kids are receiving what doctors and therapists consider appropriate care now face investigation by Texas Child Protective Services, raising questions about parents' rights to care for their trans children and the state's right to intervene.

Amber Briggle learned of the investigation into her family while she was at her office, soon after Gov. Abbott's statement. She's a small business owner.

"So I get to the office on Monday, and I'm ready to crank out some payroll because, I'm responsible for paying, you know, 25 people on my team," Amber explains. "And I see the sticky note with the name and number and a message. It says, 'Urgent. Private.' And I pick it up and I give her a call and say, 'Hello, my name is Amber and I, you know, got this message from you.' And she cut me off and she said, 'My name is so-and-so, I'm with CPS. And I'm 30 minutes away.'"

Briggle says she told the Child Protective Services agent she wouldn't talk without a lawyer. That didn't seem to matter; the agent was on her way.

"And so I get off the phone and I, like, run down the hall and I found my assistant and I just threw myself in her arms, and I mean, she's tiny." Briggle says.

The shock of the call was almost too much.

"You know, she was physically holding me up and she said, 'What's wrong?' And I said, 'It's finally happening.' I said, 'CPS on their way and they're going to take my babies away from me, and I'm so scared,'" Briggle recalls. "And she held me tighter and she started crying too, and then I just fell to the floor. I just collapsed."

A Child Protective Services agent interviewed both Amber and her husband, Adam Briggle and interviewed their two children separately. The questions were cordial, but the family is still worried. Grayson continues living with his parents, but they fear for the worst — that their child could be taken from them. Amber Briggle says the investigation is not concluded and that they're "in a holding pattern, living on borrowed time for now."

Eight grader Grayson Briggle protests for his rights as a transgender person in Texas.
/ Amber Briggle
Amber Briggle
Eighth-grader Grayson Briggle protests for his rights as a transgender person in Texas.

The argument centers on whether gender affirming care for trans kids should be investigated as child abuse

On a recent weekday evening at their home in Denton, Grayson's father Adam Briggle is at the stove.

"My kids have to suffer through what we call 'dad dinners,'" he says. "So tonight it's cheese ravioli and breadsticks out of a box and broccoli."

When he's not preparing dinner, Adam Briggle is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of North Texas. In fact, his university department has issued a statement in support of the family and of trans children throughout the state.

Adam's son, Grayson, is now in 8th grade. The Briggles' younger child, a daughter, is a 4th grader in dance and on the swim team. She's also a Girl Scout.

Grayson is a busy kid. He's an A student, a talented gymnast and a second degree black belt in Taekwondo. He says he was inspired by the film Kung Fu Panda. He's plays the cello in the school orchestra and strums the ukulele at home to entertain himself before dinner.

And he's got a lot of good friends.

"We stay up all night at sleepovers," Grayson explains. "I usually am the first one to go to sleep because I think they're all crazy staying up all night and not sleeping at all," he says, laughing. "I try to get a little bit of sleep at sleepovers."

Amber Briggle has long been the public face of the family's battle for Grayson's rights. But with the state's decision to use the Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate them, Adam has joined his wife on the front lines.

"She's the forward leaning one publicly and I play support and I'm there for the kids in the day -to-day level when she has to maybe be out there fighting for their political rights. Now it's sort of all hands on deck," he says. "What's sinking in is the fact that there is a minority of people who are full of ignorance and hate that is knocking on our door."

The family thought they had made headway by introducing their trans son to the Texas attorney general

Amber Briggle has publicly fought for her son Grayson for years, refusing to hide.

In 2016, when Grayson was in 3rd grade, she successfully invited Texas Atty. Gen. Ken Paxton and his wife to their home for dinner. She wanted them to see and experience the Briggle family for themselves.

"You know, Mrs. Paxton brought a freshly baked dessert that was still warm from her oven because they just lived one county over, which makes us neighbors by Texas standards, right?" Briggle says of that night.

"They were lovely. They watched us engage with our children. Mr. Paxton and my son exchanged magic tricks. Mrs. Paxton told a funny joke about talking muffins. You know, it was like it was just a very wholesome, sweet, dinner."

And as the Paxtons drove away, Amber Briggle said to her husband, "We did it! Problem solved. Mission accomplished."

She thought maybe they'd changed the attorney general's mind.

"We were so proud of ourselves," she says. "You know, like no one got food poisoning and everything went great. And, you know, he drove away actually under a rainbow. There was a rainbow that evening. We thought, 'Well, this is fantastic!' "

NPR reached out to the governor and attorney general's offices to seek comment but did not receive a response. Child Protective Services does not comment on ongoing investigations.

Investigations have been halted for now, pending a trial this summer

On March 11th, in response to a lawsuit brought by the ACLU and Lambda Legal, State District Judge Amy Clark Meachum temporarily stopped Texas from using Child Protective Services to investigate families with trans children, including the Briggles.

The judge ruled Gov. Greg Abbott's actions were "beyond the scope of his authority and unconstitutional."

Later that same day, Atty. Gen. Ken Paxton tweeted, "I'm appealing. I'll win this fight to protect our Texas children."

Paxton did appeal the lower court's ruling on investigations, but a Texas appeals court has allowed Judge Meachum's order to stand.

The case is slated to go before Judge Meachum in July for trial over whether Texas can use Child Protective Services to investigate families seeking gender affirming care for their transgender children.

Amber Briggle is determined to continue to fight the state publicly. But recent weeks have been an ordeal that's not over yet.

"I'm not in a good place. No," she says. "I'm worried. I'm angry. I'm angry that so much of my...like I have better things to do right now than to be the target of someone's political ambitions. Right? I have better things to do than be picked on by Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.