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Almost everyone agrees that rates of transgender identification are skyrocketing, especially among young girls. But nobody seems to agree on the cause. 

Is it social contagion, fueled by social media and peer pressure? Is it social acceptance, as a more tolerant society finally lets transgender kids embrace their true selves? Or is it just good business, as gender clinics profit by shuffling children through an expensive series of drugs and surgeries?

Maybe the answer is all of the above—at least to some degree. 

But one important contributor is often overlooked: the law. Over the last decade, a complicated network of state and federal laws has increasingly channeled children down the path of gender transition. These laws operate in a wide variety of settings—from public schools, to professional counseling, to custody disputes, to foster care, to adoption, to health insurance, to the practice of medicine itself. And in each setting, the law places a heavy thumb on the scale, pushing children and parents toward gender transition. The law operates, in effect, as a transgender conveyor belt.

Here’s how it works. But buckle up, because there are many stages in the process. 

First, school districts across the country have adopted curricula that require teachers to introduce the concept of gender identity as early as pre-K. In Montgomery County, Maryland, for example, the Board of Education mandated a series of “inclusivity” books for pre-K through eighth grade that promote gender transitioning and “disrupt students’ either/or thinking” about gender. The school district refuses to notify parents when these concepts are taught and refuses to allow parents to opt kids out of the teaching. Not surprisingly, some children exposed to this teaching (and social media and peer influence) begin questioning their gender identity.  

Once a child questions his or her gender identity, many public schools are legally required to affirm the child’s new gender identity with pronouns, bathrooms, and the like—and to conceal that identity from the child’s parents. California and New Jersey have even sued school districts that dared notify parents, arguing that it violates the child’s “privacy” and is “discriminatory” to inform parents that their child has a new gender.  

If parents find out about their child’s new identity and seek counseling, they will discover that twenty-two states and over one hundred local governments have now adopted so-called “conversion-therapy bans.” These laws operate as a one-way ratchet on professional counselors. Michigan’s law, for example, requires counselors to provide “acceptance,” “support,” and “assistance to an individual undergoing a gender transition,” while making it illegal to talk with a child about “behavior or gender expression” that aligns with his or her biological sex. This means counseling in many states can go in only one direction: toward a gender transition.

If parents nevertheless persist in affirming a child’s God-given body, some states have begun removing children from their parents’ custody. Illinois is considering legislation that would define child abuse to include a parent’s refusal to medically transition a child. And Indiana stripped Catholic parents of custody after a report that they wouldn’t call him by a new female name and pronouns. Even though the state concluded there was no abuse or neglect, it kept him in a foster home that would affirm his preferred identity, saying he “should be in a home where she is [ac]cepted for who she is.”

The law also favors gender transitions in divorce, foster care, and adoption. The California legislature recently passed a bill giving preference in custody disputes to the parent that affirms a child’s gender transition. Although Gov. Newsom vetoed the bill, Massachusetts and Oregon have denied loving parents an opportunity to foster and adopt solely because state officials deemed the parents insufficiently “affirming” to a child who might someday, hypothetically, seek a gender transition. These laws pressure all parents—biological, foster, and adoptive—toward enabling their child’s transition. 

If a child wants to pursue a costly gender transition, the law is also quick to help. The federal government has announced that employers and insurers across the country must provide insurance coverage for gender transitions, including for minors. If an employer’s plan excludes that coverage, the employer (and insurance company) can be punished for “sex” discrimination. That makes it much easier to afford a lifetime of expensive hormones and surgeries.  

Many doctors remain reluctant to perform gender-transition procedures, especially on children, given the risk of irreversible harm. But the law pushes the envelope there, too. The federal government has proposed a new rule that requires doctors and hospitals across the country to perform gender-transition procedures, including on children, or be guilty of “sex” discrimination. So if a doctor would prescribe hormones to treat menopause, or perform a mastectomy for a woman with breast cancer, he must do the same for a girl who wants to look like a boy—or else risk federal penalties.  

This, in short, is how the conveyor belt works: The school encourages the child to embrace a new gender. Teachers must affirm it and hide it from parents. Counselors must support it. Parents must go along or risk losing custody. Employers and insurers must pay for it. Doctors must perform it. All of this is imposed by law. And then we wonder why cases are skyrocketing.  

What can be done?  

The good news is that every step in this legal conveyor belt is now being challenged in court. And many of these challenges will succeed, because the transgender conveyor belt is a legal anomaly that conflicts with religious freedom, parental rights, free speech, and sound medical science.  

Take the first step—schools. My firm, Becket, sued the Montgomery County Board of Education, arguing that parents must be notified and given an opportunity to opt out when the school pushes controversial views on gender identity. Other parents have sued schools that transitioned their children behind their backs. These lawsuits are based on the timeless constitutional principle that parents have the primary responsibility to guide the religious and educational upbringing of their children. They can stop the transgender conveyor belt before it starts. 

Similarly, several counselors have challenged one-way-ratchet counseling laws as violating freedom of speech, because those laws silence conversations with clients who simply want to discuss embracing their biological bodies. Three Supreme Court justices recently expressed interest in this type of legal challenge. If the Supreme Court takes one of these cases and protects freedom of speech, it will ensure that children everywhere can access the biology-affirming counseling they need. 

What about parents? My firm defended the Indiana Catholic couple who lost custody of their son because they would not refer to him using a new female name and pronouns. We also sued Massachusetts for refusing to let a Catholic couple foster or adopt. These lawsuits, again, argue that basic principles of religious freedom and parental rights prevent the government from taking children away from loving homes.  

Finally, we sued the federal government—and won—for trying to force religious doctors and hospitals to perform and insure gender transitions, including for children. Two courts concluded that forcing doctors to perform gender transitions would violate religious freedom.  

But these doctors didn’t just invoke religious freedom. They also cited the mounting body of scientific evidence showing that gender transitions are harmful, especially for children. The typical regimen of puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and surgery imposes well-known harms—from cardiovascular harm, to reduced bone density, to loss of sexual functioning, to permanent sterilization. Meanwhile, the evidence of long-term benefit from these interventions is lacking. And most children who question their gender identity grow out of it naturally—meaning any medical intervention may impose serious harms for no reason at all.  

For that reason, state legislatures are now pushing back. In recent years, twenty-two states have passed laws prohibiting gender-transition procedures for minors, citing mounting evidence of harms. Children who were rushed into a transition and hurt by it are also fighting back, filing medical malpractice lawsuits against the healthcare providers who permanently scarred and sterilized them.  

The tide is turning even in Europe, which originally pioneered gender transitions for children. The UK is closing its only dedicated gender-identity clinic for children after an independent review questioned its safety, noting that staff felt pressured “to adopt an unquestioning affirmative approach.” Likewise, Sweden and Finland have pulled back from gender-transitions for minors, concluding that the risks outweigh the benefits.  

In short, the transgender conveyor belt is not inevitable. It is legally fragile because it contradicts basic principles of religious freedom, free speech, parental rights, and medical science. It should be stopped before it destroys more lives. 

Luke Goodrich is Vice President and Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The views here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Becket or its clients. 

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Image by Brainy J licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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