AUSTIN (KXAN) — LGBTQ+ youth have been pushed to the forefront of state and nationwide political discourse as several states enacted restrictions that affect them and activists fight those laws in court.

KXAN spoke with several students in Austin about their experiences and how the current political climate and discussions affect them.

LGBTQ+ youth at the center of political discussions

In February, Gov. Greg Abbott directed Texas’ Child Protective Service to investigate families with transgender children. This came after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton declared treatments such as puberty blockers could be considered child abuse under Texas law.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick tweeted his desire for Texas to copy Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” bill (also called the “Don’t Say Gay” law by its opponents). The law does not allow school districts to discuss sexual orientation or gender identity with those below fourth grade, among other less controversial measures. In the same week, Paxton, who currently faces a reelection fight, cited state law in a letter to the Austin Independent School District over its Pride Week in March, calling the celebration an illegal “instruction on human sexuality.”

Other state legislatures passed laws that affect transgender and gender non-conforming students. Last year, Tennessee passed a law allowing people to sue if schools let transgender students use restrooms consistent with their gender identity. In March, Utah joined Texas and 10 other states in enacting legislation that bars trans youth from participating in sports teams that match their gender identity. Within the past week, Alabama joined Arkansas in making it a crime for doctors to provide puberty blockers or hormones to trans youth as part of gender-affirming care.

The Department of Justice issued a letter to Texas and other states that said policies blocking gender-affirming care for children violates the constitution. President Joe Biden also spoke about these actions during International Transgender Day of Visibility at the end of March.

“Like so many anti-transgender attacks proliferating in states across the country, the [Texas] Governor’s actions callously threaten to harm children and their families just to score political points. These actions are terrifying many families in Texas and beyond. And they must stop,” Biden said.

KXAN spoke to three LGBTQ+ teens with parental approval. KXAN is not naming them to ensure the families’ privacy.

E, AISD 11th grader

E, who uses she/they pronouns, is a junior at an Austin ISD high school. They say they struggled with depression and felt limited by their assigned gender before coming out as nonbinary in high school.

“I always felt like I didn’t need to be binded down by he or she,” E said. “[Coming out] made me feel 10 times better.”

She said her teachers were supportive and accepting of her coming out, and that they’ve done everything possible to make her feel safe. E also started finding friendships and community in high school after a tough time in middle school. 

However, the political targeting of LGBTQ+ youth disheartens E, who wishes people would accept the LGBTQ+ community.

“Trying to change somebody based on who they like or who they choose to be, is really messed up because they’re still the same person,” E said. “We’re no different than the person next to you, or the person in front of you, or the person behind you. We laugh the same. We feel the same things.”

E wants adults who support LGBTQ+ rights to vote, but also reach out to and support the LGBTQ+ community.

“A lot of people in the LGBTQ+ community already feel alone, and then they see on the news that people aren’t supporting them, that nobody likes them that much,” E said. “But knowing that somebody is going to be there for you, no matter what’s going to happen, is very helpful in the long run.”

D, AISD 10th grader

D is a nonbinary youth in AISD and identifies as queer. They are out at school, and feel their teachers accept them and that AISD’s Pride Week is a step in the right direction. Although the school environment is positive, D wants the schools to offer an elective course on LGBTQ+ history.

“I have never been bullied at my school, but I’ve definitely had conversations with transphobic kids who said that ‘if someone looks like a male then I’m going to call them out’ and stuff such as that,” D said.

The political climate around queer identity weighs heavy on D, who otherwise has a supportive school, loving parents and positive friendships. They call themselves lucky for how their life is otherwise.

“I thought that I’d be able to handle it, and not be emotional or cry,” D said. “But when you go to protests and you hear from younger trans kids, it hurts that they don’t have the opportunity that older trans kids have.”

D encountered transphobic counter-protestors at these protests. These individuals yelled obscenities at them and other attendees, including calling trans children “pedophiles.”

“It was really gross and I didn’t know that people could be so heartless that they’d yell that at kids,” D said.

D said people who oppose gender-affirming care do not understand the transgender community.

“I hope that they have a transgender kid so they know what it’s like,” D said. “I hope that parents don’t see coming out as losing a kid, but that they are gaining a child who can be themselves around you.”

C, Round Rock ISD 9th grader

C, who uses he/they pronouns, is a demiboy, meaning that he identifies only partially with masculinity. They came out as nonbinary before entering the 7th grade, then found demiboy to fit better. Like E and D, C feels supported by family and at school.

“I’d like teachers to have more training, like with using the right pronouns,” C said, “A lot of my teachers don’t do it on purpose, but they misgender me a lot. Most of them correct themselves — they just forget.”

C wants to see more LGBTQ+ topics covered by the school, including lessons that teach what homophobia and transphobia look and sounds like. According to C, homophobia is commonplace at his school, but C also notes other students might not realize it as such.

“Some in my classes just make jokes about it, they don’t take the struggles of it seriously,” C said. “It’s a lot harder than people tend to think. It’s not a choice, and it’s not really something that you should joke about. A lot of people are in dangerous situations because of their gender or sexuality.”

When it comes to transphobia, C said that people tend to avoid talking about transgender people at all. This caused C to feel isolated before they came out and unable to talk about their feelings with people who might understand.

“When I was trying to figure out stuff like my identity, I had a lot of trouble because there wasn’t anyone that I could explain how I was feeling to. I had to look a lot of it up on my own,” C said.

C does not have anything that he wants to say to anti-LGBTQ+ politicians.

“Honestly, I don’t think it would matter what I would tell them, I don’t think they would hear it. Like, they wouldn’t understand it. I feel like they wouldn’t even care if I told them all the stuff that I’ve been through,” C said.

Researcher shares solutions

Dr. Stephen Russell, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has studied LGBTQ+ youth for nearly 25 years and authored some of the first studies that used national LGBTQ+ data on the topic.

“What we understand now are the important and terrible vulnerabilities, suicidality, mental health, substance use, abuse and victimization that LGBTQ+ kids experience,” Russell said. “We have really strong data now that we didn’t have a decade ago, and there are things that make a big difference.”

Russell recommends schools and states make clear policies that protect and affirm LGBTQ+ youth. He also said teachers should get training on the topic and teach a curriculum that includes LGBTQ+ youth. These recommendations resonate with C, D and E, who each asked for more teacher training and inclusive lesson plans.

“There’s data from different levels, comparing aggregated data across states and comparing states that have inclusive policies versus those that don’t, all the way down to data from individual kids,” Russell said, “In classrooms when these policies exist, that climate is safer and individual kids feel safer. It shouldn’t be controversial.”

Russell’s fear is that the current political climate undermines the well-being of gender diverse and transgender children, and referenced the 2008 Prop 8 vote in California, which banned same-sex marriage and was later overturned. He said that studies showed “an exponential increase” in homophobic bullying in schools.

“There is still prejudice and discrimination against LGBTQ people. It seeps into our everyday life, because of the dominance of cisgender and heterosexual norms,” Russell said. “But what’s happened in the last 20-30 years is that visibility and social changes allow young people to understand and see themselves better.”