How a Texas Custody Battle Over a Trans Child Became the Latest Flashpoint for Conservatives

How a Texas Custody Battle Over a Trans Child Became the Latest Flashpoint for Conservatives

“This is child abuse. People need to start to stand up against this bullshit. Enough is enough,” Don Jr. wrote on Twitter on Thursday morning. The president’s son, who has lately embraced the role of transphobic bigot, was referring to the case of a seven-year-old trans child named Luna Younger, whose mother Anne Georgulas has, for the past year, been battling her ex-husband Jeffrey Younger for custody of Luna.

Normally, custody proceedings, even contentious ones, would barely warrant a blip in the news—but because Luna is trans, the custody battle between Georgulas, who is supportive of her child’s gender identity, and Younger, who very vocally and publicly is not, has become the latest chapter in conservatives’ culture war against trans people. In the months that rightwing media has obsessively covered the case, Georgulas has become a villain, looking to abuse and “chemically castrate” her child, who in their minds has been pressured by her mother to identify as a girl.

On Tuesday, a jury in Dallas ruled against Younger, finding in an 11-1 decision that he should not get sole custody of Luna. In response to the news, a whole host of conservative blowhards waded in, delighted to use a seven-year-old child as chum in their ongoing efforts to paint gender-affirming practices as harmful to children. In a widely circulated tweet, Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk wrote that Luna “is being forced to become a girl against his will.” “Children must be protected,” Kirk added. Senator Ted Cruz echoed Don Jr., calling a parent allowing a child to medically transition (which is not what is actually happening in this case) “child abuse” and describing Luna as a “pawn in a left-wing political agenda.” Seizing on a story seemingly tailor-made to generate rightwing outrage—the maligned father, the tender age of the child, the “diabolical” mom—on Wednesday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced that both the state’s attorney general and the Department of Family and Protective Services were examining the case.

In the months since their custody battle became a public matter, Georgulas, a pediatrician, has faced threats, harassment, and vandalism, all because she supports her trans daughter. Conservatives have seized on the idea that Georgulas’s goal, as well as that of any other affirming parent, is to “chemically castrate” her child–a convenient talking point in rightwing efforts to demonize trans people and more specifically, to portray gender-affirming parents and clinics as part of what they see as a nefarious plot to prey on and abuse children.

Conflating gender-affirming care with “chemical castration” and “child abuse” is ludicrous on its face, but these accusations are central to the right’s interest in this particular case. They have wildly and deliberately misinterpreted what’s happening here: Georgulas has never, as the judge noted on Thursday, asked for Luna to undergo any form of hormone therapy or use puberty blockers. They’re conjuring up a phantom—a misleading but effective lie that has spread throughout the rightwing ecosystem and all the way up to some of the highest levels of power.

Younger and Georgulas, who married at the end of 2010, ended their marriage in 2016 after Georgulas filed to have it annulled; their twins had been born in 2012, through IVF. According to records from their annulment proceedings, prior to their marriage, Younger repeatedly lied to her about his past. Georgulas learned after the marriage that Younger had been married twice before (she was only aware of one previous marriage) and that he had lied to her about a host of things, including his military experience, his income, and his job experience. Younger, who claimed to have served for years in the Marines, including a stint in Iraq, had only been in the Marines for a short time while a young man; he similarly neglected to tell Georgulas that he had been discharged from the Army “due to an admission of homosexuality,” according to the court records. Younger’s lies didn’t stop there—he falsely claimed he had a college degree from the University of Dallas, and lied about earning a Ph.D.

They’re conjuring up a phantom—a misleading but effective lie that has spread up to some of the highest levels of power

The judge overseeing their annulment case found that “Younger committed fraud by inducing Georgulas into marriage.” Georgulas was also awarded $45,045 to cover the costs of a truck she purchased but was sold by Younger after their separation.

According to the Dallas Morning News, both Georgulas and Younger had joint custody of their twins after the divorce, and Georgulas was given “the right to make decisions about the children’s medical and psychological treatment, among other issues, provided she notified Younger.”

Shortly after their marriage was annulled, Luna, then a three-year-old still known by her birth name, began expressing a desire to wear dresses. Georgulas took Luna to a therapist, who told her that Luna had gender dysphoria. More, from the Washington Post:

At that point, the father was paying maximum child support and had standard custody in Texas: He saw the twins once a week for two hours and had them sleep over at his apartment two weekends a month. They spent the rest of their time with Georgulas, who had noticed that the child, known by the name James at the time, wanted to wear dresses and look like the female characters from the Disney movie “Frozen.”
Georgulas took Luna to see a therapist, who diagnosed the child with gender dysphoria — a mismatch between the gender assigned at birth and the one they identified with. From there, the therapist laid out steps on how to make the child feel affirmed, like letting Luna paint their nails and putting them in a dress, as the mother did when the twins turned 5.

All of this is perfectly in line with standard practices in how to treat trans children; when Luna began attending elementary school, she presented as a girl. According to Georgulas and in line with their custody agreement, Younger was notified about all of this. Younger, however, refused to accept his child’s gender identity. In 2018, Georgulas filed a lawsuit to modify her custody arrangement with Younger, writing in her petition that “in response to Luna’s choices, the Father has engaged in increasingly aggressive behavior, including physical force, toward the Mother,” as well as “emotionally abusive behavior toward the child,” including bullying her about her hair, then cutting her hair, not using the correct gender pronouns, and refusing to dress her in gender-affirming clothing. She also asked for a restraining order to prevent Younger from approaching Luna’s school or telling other parents, students, and teachers at the school “that the gender of Luna is different than a girl, named Luna.”

It’s worth mentioning here that Georgulas wasn’t asking for sole custody of her twins; in her petition, she asked that the court merely limit Luna’s overnight stays with her father “if he fails to affirm Luna,” and order Younger to attend counseling or classes “associated with being the parent of a transgender child or a potentially transgender child.”

Younger responded, however, by asking for full custody of both Luna and her twin brother. Not content with keeping their legal battle inside the courtroom, he then launched a full-on media campaign, complete with a website run by a family friend by the name of Sarah Scott and an online fundraiser to ostensibly cover his legal costs. To date, he has raised more than $86,000 from almost 2,000 people.

Rightwing media quickly leaped on the story. The first major news article about Younger came courtesy of the Federalist, written by noted transphobe Walt Heyer, on November 26, 2018. As Heyer, who claims to have transitioned and then later detransitioned, wrote, he met Scott, who told him of Younger’s custody battle, on a trip to Texas. “If we do not save James from a misdiagnosis, his next step is chemical castration at age eight, only two years away,” Heyer wrote. (Heyer here is referring to puberty blockers, which are typically given to children, at the very earliest, at the age of 10; far from “chemical castration,” if one stops taking puberty blockers, one’s development continues as it would have in the absence of the blockers.)

Heyer’s article set off the conservative shitstorm and handwringing. A few days later, both a writer at the Christian Post and the American Conservative’s Rod Dreher, who writes often and alarmingly about what he calls “transgender mass hysteria,” wrote about Younger’s custody case. “I don’t care what the propaganda says, I believe that almost no parent would want their son or daughter to become transgendered,” Dreher wrote, warning darkly, like Heyer did, that Luna’s mother “can start chemical castration at age 8.”

Georgulas has remained relatively quiet; news articles have suggested that she would prefer to not make both her and her child the target of rightwing news attention. (As the Dallas Morning News reported, she “sought unsuccessfully to have the court file sealed.”) Meanwhile, Younger has done lengthy interviews with rightwing media outlets and shared videos of Luna in an effort to make his case, coming off less like a concerned parent and more like an outright bigot who should have no role in parenting any child, let alone a trans child. In an interview on a podcast, Younger described Georgulas’s affirmation of Luna as “sexual abuse” and “torture.”

But Younger has won, at least for now. On Thursday, two days after a jury ruled 11-1 that Younger should not get sole custody of Luna, the judge in the case made a startling, if typical, decision, essentially disregarding the jury’s guidance in favor of the state’s default standard. The two parents, she decided, would share joint conservatorship of Luna, giving Younger a say in how and when Luna will continue to transition, if she chooses to do so in the future.

Who doesn’t want to protect children, after all?

While we may not hear much more from Younger, at least directly—the judge in her ruling also imposed a gag order on him, preventing him from speaking to the media—he is already being lauded as a hero by the right. As for Georgulas, as Buzzfeed reported on Thursday, she may soon be the subject of an investigation by the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services, after the attorney general’s office, in a letter, urged the agency to “investigate possible child abuse” against Luna, “whose mother has proposed chemically and surgically altering his biological sex based on her belief that he may identify as a girl,” adding that DFPS should “protect the boy in question [from] permanent and potentially irreversible harm by his mother.” As the Texas Tribune noted, Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer, who authored the letter, once described trans children as part of “Satan’s plan.” Republican state representatives in Texas have already promised to introduce bills that would, as one put it, “add ‘Transitioning of a Minor’ as Child Abuse,” as well one that would prohibit the use of puberty blockers for children.

Conservatives, who have launched a full-on attack on trans rights as the new front of their war on LGBTQ rights, have come to realize that painting trans children as the supposedly unwitting victims of child abuse is a potentially winning issue. Who doesn’t want to protect children, after all? But it’s clear that this is less about the well-being of individual children and more about enforcing gender roles. Conservatives are heavily invested in this battle, and the futures of children like Luna will increasingly become little more than political fodder.

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