News Analysis

The political battle over gender transitions for children is just getting started

South Dakota House of Representatives

With states across the country introducing bills to ban gender transitions for children, the issue of transgenderism, or as Church documents often call it, gender ideology, is heating up in the United States. As of late January, in eight states legislators had introduced bills to ban child gender transitions, with a handful of others likely to be added to the list when the spring legislative session begins.

In South Dakota, the ban on child gender transitions has passed the lower house of the state legislature (pictured) before dying in a senate committee on Monday. The bill was supported by the South Dakota Catholic Conference, who said it would “ensure children, especially those experiencing distress concerning their sex, are given the chance to develop and grow in understanding the gift of their created nature without pressures towards harmful medicalization.”

The Economist estimates that there are “perhaps 50” clinics providing this sort of treatment to children nationwide.

While transgender advocates have already taken aim at Catholic hospitals – two lawsuits were brought by the ACLU – an equally important battle is shaping up in the realm of education. The intersection of gender ideology and public schools has already prompted debates about parental disclosure, bathroom rights, and the participation of biological boys in women’s sports.

Describing a second South Dakota bill that would mandate disclosure to parents when children tell school officials they think they might be transgender, a Vox writer said it would “require any teacher, school psychologist, or social worker to out any students they suspect may be suffering from gender dysphoria to the student’s parents.”

The issue this bill attempts to head off is the problem of a progressive public school official coaching a child through a gender transition, calling them by different pronouns and perhaps a different name, all without notifying the child’s parents – a situation that would be disturbing to any parent. This is not a notional concern: last August a father wrote in USA Today that Illinois public schools rejected his requests to call his daughter by her legal name, and that “the school social worker was advising her about halfway houses because he thought we did not support her”.

“When her mother and I first found out, our feelings of helplessness and astonishment made it difficult to get through each day. But I feel my daughter is a victim more than anything else,” he wrote.

The Obama administration put out guidelines in 2016 asking that school districts affirm the gender students say they are, but the Trump administration has rescinded them. If one of the choices in the 2020 election is between a party instructing public schools that it’s OK to coach a child through a gender transition without informing his or her parents, and a party that won’t, that seems like a message some savvy Republican campaign consultant should blanket the airwaves with.

The bishops so far have not waded too far into this debate, though they did put out a letter applauding the repeal of the Obama-era guidelines in 2017. Over in Rome, however, the Congregation for Catholic Education released a document last June deploring “calls for public recognition of the right to choose one’s gender, and of a plurality of new types of unions, in direct contradiction of the model of marriage as being between one man and one woman, which is portrayed as a vestige of patriarchal societies.”

“It needs to be emphasized,” Pope Francis writes in Amoris Laetitia, “that ‘biological sex and the  socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated.’”

Of the state-level child transition bans, critics claim that surgical gender transitions for children are rare. But according to data published in Pediatrics in 2019, one in five patients at a pediatric gender transition clinic “underwent gender-affirming surgeries,” mostly masectomies.

What is remarkable about the transgender issue in comparison to other ostensible civil-rights issues is that there is much less certainty about the claims being made. Not even transgender supporters seem to have a handle on what exactly is being advocated. Joe Biden, despite calling transgender rights the “civil rights issue of our time,” responded to a question about how many genders there were with “at least three.” Elizabeth Warren isn’t sure what her transgender education policy is going to look like, but she knows she’ll give a transgender child a veto over her education secretary pick.

Moreover, we are perhaps decades away from seeing the effects of early gender transitions later in life. The use of these sorts of hormonal and surgical treatments is still fairly new. As Michael Brendan Dougherty has pointed out, there’s the possibility of civil liability for parents or school officials who are thought to have pushed kids to go through with their gender transitions. One big successful lawsuit could change these school policies fairly quickly.


Jordan Bloom