A Black woman smiles as she holds up a colorful "Trans Rights" sign at a Pride event in London.
WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via AP

‘Girlhood,’ Interrupted

In a new memoir, a mother recounts the trauma of being investigated for supporting her trans daughter.

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Carolyn Hays, a pseudonym used by the author of the new book, A Girlhood: Letter to My Transgender Daughter, divides her life into two distinct parts: before the knock at the door and after. The man knocking was an agent with the Department of Children and Families. An anonymous source had called to report Hays’ family simply because they supported their trans daughter. 

In Hays’ book, she doesn’t specify which southern state her family was living in when the knock occurred—she wants first and foremost to protect her daughter’s privacy. But for Texas readers, the events of the story feel close to home, especially as the state’s political leaders continue to aim their battering rams at families with transgender children.

The cover of "A Girlhood: A Letter to My Transgender Daughter," by Carolyn Hays, shows an illustration of a deer protecting her fawn.
Carolyn Hays, the pseudonymous author of “A Girlhood,” fled the south with her family after they came under CPS investigation due to her transgender daughter.

Earlier this year, Governor Greg Abbott instructed the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate parents and medical professionals who help trans youth seek gender-affirming care, a broad category that includes puberty blockers, hormone therapy, and surgery. The directive—which the state’s highest court has ruled was nonbinding—led immediately to an explosive court battle. This summer, a judge put an injunction in place that protected hundreds of Texas families from these investigations. But the threat of the policy in full force—and a world in which many more parents have to fear a knock at their door—looms large in Texas.

The Texas Observer spoke with Carolyn Hays about the climate for trans youth in Texas and what parents can do to prepare. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

You talk about wanting the book to feel outdated in the future. What needs to happen to make that a reality?

What happened to us—getting a knock on the door and being investigated for child abuse simply because we were supporting our transgender daughter—10 years ago felt like a really, very bizarre mistake. Someone was confused; they lacked the education; they didn’t understand. And they made an anonymous call.

In a million years, neither my husband nor I would have ever imagined that it would become a policy as it is in Texas to do that to families. It’s terrifying and it’s threatening to live in that constant state of fear. Texas is an enormous state … It’s bigger than a lot of European countries. If this law had passed in a European country just five years ago, I think everyone would have condemned it. It would have been just shocking to Americans that parents were being targeted in this way simply for supporting their trans kids.

To make things different, people need to go by best practices. We need to work with pediatricians and the American Academy of Pediatrics for guidance. There’s so many common sense ways for things to change.

In your book, you talk about your fear that these knocks at the door will become more of a reality, and that they could result in more children being removed from loving homes. Here in Texas, we’ve unfortunately made headlines because of the governor’s support for investigating the families of trans kids. Have you been keeping an eye on what’s happening here?

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We’ve been following the moves of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Governor Greg Abbott because we’re concerned about them being trendsetters. One of the fears is that this law will be picked up by other Republican-run states, making it a policy that trans families are targeted, reported, and investigated. 

[Last week], Ken Paxton was subpoenaed at his home, and he got in his car and drove away. It’s interesting to me that he got a knock at the door, and it was somebody doing official business for the state. And he ran away. We didn’t have that option. We saw the process through, and Paxton left because he was scared for his family. But we were scared, too. So to me, there’s some hypocrisy there. 

“Ken Paxton was subpoenaed at his home, and he got in his car and drove away. … We didn’t have that option.”

Someone once told you that being investigated by the state for having a trans kid was a sort of rite of passage. What would you say to a family who fears going through the same thing, given how common these situations are?

Be prepared. We created a safe folder that included letters of support for us as parents. We also reached out to people who knew our family in different ways: friends, people from my kid’s school, the pediatrician who was super supportive of us. Parents should also document their research. What experts have you reached out to? Who have you worked with in terms of maybe therapists or doctors who have advised you? 

It would also be helpful to take some contemporaneous notes about your kid. What do they like to play with? What are they saying to you about their gender? How are they expressing themselves? 

You and your family chose to move out of the South. What were your thoughts then? How do you feel about that decision now?

Everybody was unequivocal: If you have the means, go to another state. But I have huge admiration for the people who stay. 

I couldn’t stay. But in some ways, I regret not staying and fighting. Because those people who stay in unfriendly states are so courageous. They refuse to be erased. And that’s actually how the fight gets won. I’m fighting in my own way and doing the best I can. But I still admire those families who stay.