7-year-old caught in high-profile custody battle exposes additional gaps in trans rights, protections

ABC(CHARLOTTE) -- Rachel Gonzales knows her family looks typical, but where they live in Texas, she says they are a target.

Every day is a fight to stay safe, she said, specifically for her 9-year-old daughter Libby, who is transgender.

“We needed to be able to create a sanctuary where all of our children feel safe and loved no matter what, because we can’t control what happens outside of our house,” Gonzales said.

She has reason to worry. Her close friend, Anne Georgulas, is in a custody battle over transgender rights that went from private family court to global headlines this year.

The central issue of the case asks, at what age should a child be allowed to identify as not their birth gender?

Georgulas and her then-husband Jeffrey Younger split up in 2015, sharing custody of their young twins. When one of the kids began identifying as a girl, Georgulas, a pediatrician, supported it. Younger did not.

“She was explicitly asking her father to affirm her as a girl by allowing her to wear girls clothes and use the name and pronouns she uses,” Gonzales said. “And [Younger] refused to do that.”

Younger eventually filed for sole custody, starting a website and giving interviews about the custody battle, including to the conservative website “Lifesite.”

“I’m not trying to cross dress my son and mislead him into thinking he’s a girl and I’m not pushing my son towards medical transition,” Younger told “Lifesite.” “This is my son’s life and I’m not backing down, and I was not surprised at all that Americans stood up for my son.”

In October, a Texas jury ultimately decided 11 to one that Georgulas should have sole custody.

But Judge Kim Cooks imposed a gag order on both parents. She overturned the verdict, instead ruling the former couple should share custody.

Gonzales said she’s in touch with Georgulas “multiple times a day,” and said Georgulas is exhausted.

“She receives at least 10 phone calls an hour,” Gonzales said. “She gets incessant text messages of people just sending her messages of hate.”

The disapproval over this case has extended to the state’s highest ranking officials and beyond. Sen. Ted Cruz, Donald Trump Jr., and Sen. Rand Paul all tweeted about the case, calling it “child abuse.”

Cruz tweeted, “For a parent to subject such a young child to life-altering hormone blockers to medically transition their sex is nothing less than child abuse.”

Transgender advocates were outraged by the tweet and Gonzales called it “a bold-faced lie.”

“These politicians absolutely know that no prepubescent child is going through any kind of medical transition,” she said. “There’s no such thing as surgery or hormone therapy for prepubescent children. That just doesn’t exist.”

“It's really hard to understand and to hear the senator of Texas call us child abusers,” added Gonzales’ husband Frank Gonzales.

Dr. Mary Romano, a pediatrician and an associate professor of adolescent medicine at Vanderbilt University’s Children’s Hospital, said a grade school child would undergo what’s called a social transition. A medical transition comes later and only if the child choses, she added.

“For younger kids who are nowhere close to starting puberty, the transition will be purely social,” she said. “Maybe the child chooses to dress differently. The child chooses different names, different pronouns, and really all that’s happening at that age is a social transition.”

Gonzales said the misinformation has led to her friend Georgulas receiving disturbing threats.

“They put a dead animal in front of the doors of her pediatric practice,” Gonzales said. “Someone had thrown a rock through her window while her children were there asleep at home. It’s been really difficult to watch.”

Gonzales said it’s also been hard on her daughter Libby to watch her friend, Georgulas’ child, go through this and “not be able to live the life she needs to live.” Even at 9 years old, Libby said she understands that her friend doesn’t have full support from both of her parents.

“I think it might be very hard for her,” Libby said.

Dr. Romano agrees, adding that the level of support that a transgender child receives at home can help determine how well they will do later in life.

“Having parental and family support is probably one of, if not, the most important thing that these kids can have,” Romano said. “Forty percent of all homeless youth are LGBT. These kids come out, they get kicked out of their home, which means they can't go to school, which means they can't get a job, which means they can't get health insurance, which just sets them up for this cycle, unfortunately. To have a very, very, very difficult life.”

Chase Strangio, a deputy director who works on transgender justice issues for the ACLU believes the high rates of suicide and suicidal ideation among trans youth are not “because there's something wrong with being transgender -- It's because we live in a world that prevents transgender people from being who they are. And we push people to the point where they feel they cannot live at all.”

Gonzales said her daughter doesn’t have a lot of friends in her age range in Texas that identify as transgender. But there are other kids in Texas going through this, like 11-year-old Max.

Max’s family has been at the forefront of the battle for transgender rights in Texas. His mom Amber Briggle says it started a couple years ago, during the fight over the so-called “bathroom bills.”

“I had finally realized that Max had been holding his bladder all day at school, and that for me was an ‘ah-huh’ moment,” she said. “He’s holding it at school all day, and I set him down and I was like, ‘Baby like are you using the potty at school?’ and he’s like, ‘No.’”

“The honest truth was that he felt more comfortable going in the boys room, but he’d go in the boys room and people who knew him as a girl, [and] would send him to the girls room.”

Max would attend demonstrations. At one point in 2016, Briggle even invited the state Attorney General Ken Paxton, to dinner.

“When you get to know someone on a personal level, it’s hard to hate up close,” she said. “They were here for almost two and a half hours. We’re like, ‘Hey, as long as we got you… next time a piece of legislation comes across your desk…”

“Just remember us,” her husband Adam Briggle added. “Remember Max, keep that face in your mind. And that’s why we feel so betrayed.”

“He said he would – he said he’d remember,” Amber Briggle said, adding that she thought Paxton understood their family’s position.

But in October, Paxton’s office released a letter saying “the children at the center of this dispute are in immediate and irrevocable danger.”

In a statement to ABC News, Paxton’s office said, “I trust that DFPS [Department of Family and Protective Services] will act immediately upon our request, conduct a thorough investigation, and protect this child.”

“After meeting a mother like me, meeting me in my home, meeting my child, breaking bread at my table, engaging with my children, and then acting like family’s like mine should not exist, it’s infuriating,” Amber Briggle said.

The pressure from local officials is not letting up either. GOP lawmakers in three states -- Georgia, Kentucky and Texas -- are proposing legislation banning trans-related health care like puberty blockers, or hormone treatment, to anyone under the age of 18 -- in some cases, making it a felony.

Texas Republican Rep. Matt Krause tweeted about such a bill and says he’ll consider it in his home state.

“I do think there is some concern about making these life-changing decisions at an early age before these children fully understand the consequences and the ramifications of their decisions,” he said.

Dr. Romano said it’s important for legislators to understand are some medications are not permanent.

“If they start to enter puberty and they have that distress, they may get a medication that is called a puberty blocker. That medication is reversible and all it is is a pause button,” she said. “It pauses puberty.”

Krause said he wants to be “well informed on any policy or piece of legislation” he puts forward and would welcome all evidence and statistics surrounding the matter.

“You can’t say that we’re going to remove your necessary treatment as a policy matter and hope you survive the next five years,” Strangio added. “That is just gambling with people’s lives.”

In recent years, Strangio has become a visible advocate for transgender rights.

“That is essentially the state coming in and saying, ‘What we want is for transgender children to die,’ because they are disregarding all of the evidence that says a child needs to be affirmed and we are going to block that affirmation in every way that we can,” Strangio said.

And as legislators are still debating this issue, Georgulas filed two new motions this week -- one to request that the judge in her custody battle be removed from the case, and one to request that the jury’s verdict to grant her sole custody be reinstated.

“There were some media sources that said [Georgulas’ child] went to school in boy’s clothes and was fine, but that was not true, she immediately changed into girl’s clothes as soon as she had the option at school,” Gonzales said.

The Gonzales and Briggle families say this issue has far-reaching consequences.

“It’s not your life to live, it’s your child’s life to live,” said Frank Gonzales.

“Just follow your heart and follow your child’s lead,” Amber Briggle added. “Just live a life of love. It’s the easiest thing in the world.”

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