The Luna Younger Case Is Really About the Power of the Patriarchy
The custody battle over a trans girl in Texas is what happens when men blame moms for children who don’t adhere to gender norms
Luna Younger, a seven-year-old trans girl who was diagnosed with gender dysphoria at age five, has become a national news story thanks to a custody battle between her parents.
Late last month, a jury awarded Luna’s custody to her mother, who affirms Luna’s gender identity. However, Luna’s father Jeffrey Younger — who claims a religious objection to Luna’s gender — was able to drum up substantial right-wing media coverage by claiming that his ex-wife was “forcing” the little girl to transition. Donald Trump Jr. accused Luna’s mother of “child abuse,” and the Texas attorney general demanded an investigation from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. In the midst of the furor, a judge overruled the jury’s verdict and awarded Jeffrey custody.
This story, dramatic and wrenching though it has been, is not unique. Custody battles over transgender children are happening all over the country and, as in the Younger case, they often center on a male partner who blames the mother for his child’s gender identity. This is a new field of study, and data is still emerging; collecting it can be complicated, in part because parents fear losing their children if they disclose too much information. Still, the academic and research journal Family Court Review has published a study — widely cited in the wake of the Younger case — which covers 10 divorced mothers of trans children; all 10 were accused by their ex-partners of forcing their children to be trans, and four lost custody. Ten may seem like a small sample size, but it lines up with a growing body of anecdotal evidence: In 2016, Susie Green of the U.K. charity Mermaids spoke to the Guardian about similar families that her organization had assisted through custody battles, noting that “all the ones that have come through so far have been the mum who has custody and the father is unsupportive.”
Which is to say, even as the right lasers in on trans children, it’s also engaging in another time-honored conservative pastime: blaming mothers.
In the wake of the Younger case, GOP lawmakers in Texas, Louisiana, and Georgia have proposed banning gender-affirmative health care for trans children. The most extreme piece of legislation, Georgia’s “Vulnerable Child Protection Act,” would make it a felony to prescribe puberty blockers, hormone replacement therapy, or gender affirmation surgery for anyone under the age of 18. Some of these treatments aren’t even prescribed to minors — surgery typically happens after the child turns 18, and many physicians wait until age 16 to prescribe hormones — but others, like puberty blockers, are common and life-saving. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association, among others, agree that gender affirmation is the best treatment for gender dysphoria — in the words of the AMA, “every major medical association in the United States recognizes the medical necessity of transition-related care” — and, left untreated, dysphoria kills. In one recent study, 29.9% of trans girls, 41.1% of nonbinary teens, and over half of trans boys had attempted suicide. Parents are being put in an impossible position: If they give their children the healthcare they need, they may be accused of child abuse, criminalized, or have their kids taken away. If they comply with the state’s demands and deny healthcare to their children, they may kill them.
“When you are a parent it is your job and your moral responsibility to seek the best medical care you can find when your child has a medical issue,” said Susan Maasch, director of the Trans Youth Equality Foundation, which provides resources and social support to trans children and families, and mother to a college-aged trans boy. “If it was any other medical situation these same people would cry negligence if the parent ignored the child’s medical situation… you never turn your back on science and best practices in a medical field when your child’s life is at risk.”
“Is a picture drawn by the child too feminine? What makes a backpack feminine?”
Yet this is what mothers of trans children are increasingly being asked or told to do. Cammy Bellis, one of the researchers on the Family Court Review study, works directly with the affected mothers. In an email, Bellis said the situation for women who are ordered to stop affirming a trans daughter is impossible.
“These moms are forced to take pictures of the child’s room and belongings and then a family court professional (presumably with their own implicit biases) decides what is ‘too feminine’ to be in the room,” she wrote. “Is a picture drawn by the child too feminine? What makes a backpack feminine?”
When mothers insist on providing health care for their trans children, it’s often framed as an “ideological” choice or a pathology. The Family Court Review study describes mothers being accused of warping their children with stereotypically sexist language: They’re told that they are “over-responding” to their children’s stated gender identity, doing “‘too much’ mothering,” or being hysterical. In three cases, the ex-partners alleged that these women had “psychological problems due to current or past trauma (e.g., sexual assault) or mental illness (e.g., Munchausen syndrome by proxy; addiction), and that these issues were the root of the child’s gender nonconformity.”
There’s no evidence that parents can make their children transgender, but this language has its roots in previous panics. For example, the idea that mothers of trans children are doing “too much” mirrors Freud’s famous theory of male homosexuality, which he said was “produced or favored by too much love from the mother.” Katherine Kuvalanka, the lead researcher on the Family Court Review study, said the language is “reminiscent of how lesbian mothers were treated in family courts in the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, many lesbian mothers lost custody of their children to their heterosexual ex-husbands who argued that the mothers would ‘turn their children gay’ or would otherwise be threatening to the children’s well-being.”
For many of these families, the fight over the child’s gender is an outgrowth of a deeper power struggle. Five out of 10 mothers in the Family Court Review study said the non-affirming partners were abusive to them prior to divorce, with partners extending the preexisting patterns of control and intimidation by repeatedly threatening to take away custody if the child’s gender is affirmed. Even in non-abusive situations, sources say, the choice to affirm a trans child’s gender identity often raises powerful insecurities about a father’s ability to “control” his family.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of these cases involve mothers of trans girls,” Kuvalanka said. “We couldn’t help but wonder about the underlying misogyny at play here, along with the perceived threat to masculinity, as the fathers are depicted by many as wanting to ‘save their sons’ from their evil mothers who are supposedly aiming to harm them.”
Katelyn Burns, a reporter who has covered the Luna Younger case extensively, notes that while fathers are typically judged less harshly, they too face social pressure to deny their trans children’s gender identities.
“Dads who affirm are judged in their own way by the patriarchy,” Burns said. “I think this is especially true for fathers of trans girls, but the question is ‘What kind of man is a father who can’t project the masculine ideal to their male child?’ I actually think that dynamic is what is driving Jeffrey Younger, along with a newfound ability to make cash and become famous… This is why there are constant photos and videos of Luna with short hair and boys’ clothes coming from his camp. It’s a signal. ‘I’m masculine.’”
Now that the GOP has decided to make a crusade out of refusing medical care to small children, it’s difficult to tell what would shift the balance in the favor of the parents trying to protect them. The best hope advocates have is that so much of the panic — from the laws banning surgeries that aren’t actually happening to the specter of a mother who can will her child into being trans — is not based on reality.
Kuvalanka said things began to change for lesbian parents in the 1990s “when courts became aware of research showing that parental sexual orientation did not have negative implications for children’s well-being, so we are hopeful that with more research and growing awareness and education that the tide will turn for affirming parents of transgender and gender-diverse children as well.”
“The key here is the the bad players are not educated about this issue — they tend to be anti-science anyway — [and] they did not do their due diligence and learn what’s new and newly understood about trans children,” Massch said. “And that’s where this issue gets dirty. These politicians and extreme right-wing people are speaking out of ignorance. And they don’t care. They aren’t parents of trans children.”