But What About the Parents? New York Times Falls Into the Anti-Trans ‘Parents’ Rights’ Trap

Image of concerned parents from Pretty Little Liars (Freeform TV)

What do you call parents who side with the ADF, a right-wing legal advocacy group, against their own transgender teens? “Bigots” would be one valid response. So of course The New York Times recently published an article deeply sympathetic to the parents in question, playing up tropes associated with the anti-trans Right and so-called trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) in what members of the trans community and allies have long since recognized as a troubling pattern at America’s “paper of record.”

The article, written by Katie J.M. Baker, focuses on the resentment some parents feel when they discover their children have been allowed to socially transition at school, using names and pronouns in the classroom that are different from those they use at home. In some states, such as California, when high school children don’t want their parents to know about their correct names and pronouns, the sensible policy is not to inform the parents. In other states, such as Alabama, the cruel policy in place is to legally compel teachers and school administrators to out trans children to their parents should the children come out at school.

In a September 2022 announcement welcoming Baker to the Times as “a correspondent covering the social and cultural conflicts that divide the U.S. today,” Baker’s editors noted her “empathetic eye.” But empathetic to whom? When it comes to the matter of trans minors’ safety, Baker’s empathy seems to be lacking. Instead, her reporting gives pride of place to the resentment of parents who seem to think they have the right to control every aspect of their children’s lives—an attitude that often leads to the suicides of trans youth.

Baker seems concerned to reassure readers that these parents aren’t right-wing Christian zealots, so she uses diagnoses like autism and ADHD to invalidate a transgender teen’s understanding of himself before quoting his mother saying “It felt like a stab in the back from the school system” and, “It should have been a decision we made as a family.”

This is fine, Baker’s reporting indicates, because the parents “accepted their teenager’s new gender identity,” even if “not without trepidation.” His mother, after all, was just concerned that the school might be putting her child “on a path the school wasn’t qualified to oversee.” And if parents like her join up with the Christian Right to protect their “parental rights” and start voting for Republicans—as some of the mostly “liberal” parents interviewed for Baker’s report did—well, who could blame them?

While Baker focuses on such parents, her article quotes very few trans people. She does,  however, quote a single “expert,” Erica Anderson, a transgender psychologist who has become the darling of TERFs and other transphobes for her willingness to side with them and against the rights and safety of trans minors.

Let me, as a transgender person, say one thing very clearly right now in response to those concerned that schools might be putting kids “on a path [schools aren’t] qualified to oversee.” No one puts anyone “on a path” to being trans. Being trans isn’t some contagious curse. And being trans is hard—increasingly so as the environment for trans people in the United States (and elsewhere) becomes more hostile. No one who decides to “try on” a transgender identity to be “trendy” or “edgy” is going to persist in it for long, because, again, being trans is hard.

The people who believe that a cabal of doctors, teachers, counselors, and assorted queers is out to “trans” their children are deluded conspiracy theorists. At best they may be ignorant and persisting in unacknowledged transphobia. When they’re parents of trans minors, they’re likely also motivated by a variety of factors that may include valid concerns about whether their children will be safe, less valid concerns about how their child’s transition will reflect on and impact their family socially, and misdirected anger over a sense that they don’t know their own child (often projected as insistence that they know the child better than the child knows themself).

“Parents know better” was, of course, one of the rallying cries of Margaret Thatcher’s Section 28 policy in the UK, which from 1988-2003 barred local government actors—including teachers and school administrators—from “promoting homosexuality” or teaching “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” This policy is now widely recognized as having done immense harm to gay minors, and we risk doing the same to trans minors—and indeed any and all LGBTQ and other at-risk minors—if we persist in treating “parents’ rights” to determine their children’s beliefs and identities as more or less absolute.

Homeschooling and Christian school survivors—many of us exvangelicals—have been arguing for years that the right-wing Christian insistence on the absolute authority of parents, and especially fathers, over children, allows abuse to proliferate. The deregulation of homeschooling and the lack of regulation of Christian schools that facilitates abuse is a cornerstone of the “parents’ rights” approach that supposedly “liberal” parents of trans minors are now openly embracing because of their unwillingness to face the fact that their children do not feel safe being fully open with them.

And there’s an irony here that Baker misses. Many parents who are upset that social institutions are privy to knowledge about their children are taking legal action to require schools to keep them informed. At the heart of their argument is the belief that schools shouldn’t dictate family relationships. Putting aside concerns about individuals’ autonomy, by forcing schools to betray their children’s trust these parents are in fact asking schools to make family decisions on their behalf. They’re suing to require their children to talk to them or to struggle alone. 

Rather than do the hard work of asking themselves why their children don’t feel safe and comfortable talking to them about things like sexuality and gender identity, they’re pressuring schools to force their children to do it or remain in the closet at school. 

It may not be ideal for children to use names and pronouns at school that their parents are unaware of. Ideally, parents, teachers, and administrators would partner in a healthy way that nurtures children as they become themselves. But we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a world in which most American states enlist teachers and school administrators as mandated reporters because we know that far too many parents violently abuse their children.

We also live in a world in which many parents attempt to force children into roles the children cannot fit into, as exvangelicals or survivors of extreme childhood indoctrination of any kind can tell you. State intervention may not be possible in those cases, but that doesn’t mean that the indoctrination isn’t wrong and psychologically harmful, or that authoritarian religious ideology doesn’t easily provide cover for the kinds of physical and sexual abuse that we do deem appropriate causes for state intervention.

Schools should provide a supportive environment for children to be themselves—an environment in which bigotry and bullying are not tolerated. To report responsibly on the cultural battles playing out in state legislatures and school districts across the United States regarding the accommodation or forced outing of transgender students, one should empathize above all with the trans students. Instead of uncritically adopting right-wing tropes about parents’ rights, reporters should also explicitly consider the issue of children’s rights. 

And instead of focusing on why parents may resent states and school districts that afford their queer minors safe spaces without explicitly informing the parents, reporters ought to ask why so many queer and especially trans minors feel unsafe coming out to their “liberal” parents. Anyone who’s ever been a teenager who felt like they couldn’t tell their parents something important should be able to muster up the empathy with ease. But apparently that’s too much to ask of The New York Times.