Wearing a bright red jumpsuit, a white clergy stole, and wraparound sunglasses, Remington Johnson limped her way to the podium on the steps of the Texas Capitol. A crowd of hundreds had gathered that April afternoon for a Transgender Day of Visibility rally. Johnson, a transgender Presbyterian minister and health-care chaplain based in Austin, had injured her leg in the morning during a flag football game, and she had nothing prepared except the word “speech” at the top of her Notes app. But she wasn’t going to miss her opportunity to take the stage. “I’m limping a bit because I do everything hard,” Johnson told the crowd. “If you’re gonna show up, you better go hard.”
Then she turned to the news: six weeks earlier, Governor Greg Abbott had ordered the state’s child welfare agency to open child-abuse investigations of families who allow their transgender children to access gender-affirming medical care, whether through surgery or medication. Abbott’s order was based on a non-binding opinion from Attorney General Ken Paxton, who had written that such care, even when prescribed by a physician, could constitute child abuse. Paxton had specifically identified as grounds for investigation “sex-change procedures”—typically performed only in adulthood—and the use of medications that delay puberty, which are recommended by the Texas Medical Association and Texas Pediatric Society for young children with gender dysphoria. The investigations advocated by Paxton and Abbott could result in the removal of transgender children from their parents and in criminal charges against the parents.
“I am crackling with anger if you can’t tell,” Johnson told the crowd. “And I want you to know, I want [lawmakers] to know, we are here. And we will be perceived. . . . We will push evil policies and incompetent leadership from the public square.”
In response to Abbott’s order, the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal, an LGBTQ civil rights organization, filed a lawsuit in March against Abbott and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to block investigations of families with transgender children. A Travis County district judge granted a temporary injunction that month, blocking investigations until May, when the state Supreme Court overturned the injunction and the welfare agency resumed its targeting of families of transgender kids. The ACLU and Lambda Legal filed another lawsuit in June. In July, the district judge granted a second injunction and the state filed another appeal.
As the issue has proceeded through the courts this summer, families with transgender children have been stuck in limbo. Some who have the means to do so have decided to leave the state. Other parents have hired attorneys to preempt an investigation and have taught their children what it means if a Department of Family and Protective Services agent shows up at the door. “I had to sit [my daughter] down and say, ‘Not everybody understands transgender people and there are people in power who don’t get it,’ ” a mother of an eight-year-old transgender girl said. (The parents of transgender children in this story have been granted anonymity for fear of investigation by the Department of Family Protective Services). Johnson has served as a sounding board for families, answering questions about how cisgender parents should provide support and comfort to a transgender child.
Johnson is one of a handful of progressive faith leaders in Texas who mobilized in response to the governor’s order. In Dallas, Daniel Kanter, a Unitarian minister with a transgender son, pleaded with Texans to vote out politicians who seek to take transgender children away from their families. In Houston, an Episcopalian rector pledged that her ministry will stand by transgender children. These leaders are often outliers among Christian communities: while Abbott’s order has not been polled, a 2022 Pew Research survey found that 87 percent of white evangelicals and 63 percent of white mainline Protestants believe gender is determined at birth. For Johnson, however, her time as a chaplain for hospitals across Austin, including Ascension Seton and St. David’s, and her experience preaching have only made her more comfortable advocating on behalf of fellow trans Texans.
Growing up in an apolitical family in the Oklahoma Panhandle, Johnson is reluctant to call herself an activist. She was introduced to the world of caregiving by her mom, a nurse, and her family was deeply involved in its church. She attended the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, where she studied to become a chaplain, and spent a decade working in hospitals and providing spiritual care for patients on their deathbeds before recently becoming an ICU nurse.
Johnson got into advocacy in 2019, when she was invited by Texas Impact, an interfaith advocacy group on which she now serves as a board member, to give a sermon praying for legislators and Texans at a service at the Capitol. Afterward, she began regularly testifying before the Texas Legislature, where she became quite a fixture in the 2021 session, testifying five times and speaking at three rallies. In one memorable instance, she testified against a bill that requires student athletes to play on sports teams that correspond with the genders listed on their birth certificates. That bill ultimately passed.
Johnson is now gearing up for the 2023 legislative session, which begins in January. She believes that Texas Republicans will try to pass bills allowing health-care providers to refuse care to all transgender Texans. In June, the Texas GOP updated its party platform, calling for a ban on gender-affirming care for anyone younger than 21 and stating that homosexuality is an “abnormal lifestyle choice.” One East Texas representative plans to file a bill to ban drag shows in the presence of minors.
Through her advocacy, Johnson has developed close ties with many mothers of transgender kids, who felt they finally had someone dedicated to working on their behalf. “There were times that I couldn’t make it [to the Capitol] and Remington was there every single time,” said a Dallas mother of a twelve-year-old transgender girl. “She set the stage for the rest of us . . . and everybody always looked forward to hearing her speak because she’s such a powerhouse. You can feel her passion when she speaks, and it makes you feel safer.”
After the 2021 legislative session ended, a few families of transgender children held a picnic with activists, including Johnson, who has a young son. Despite the long hours they spent together in the Capitol, Johnson and the families found they barely knew one another outside of the building’s halls. She organized a game of tag to interact with the kids in a less formal setting. Later, when a mother told her eight-year-old daughter that Johnson was transgender, her child was awed. Another mother of a ten-year-old transgender girl spoke to Johnson’s influence on the children. “Our kids, who are hearing about how people want them to go back into the closet and to deny parts of themselves, are seeing in Remington this astoundingly beautiful, intelligent, fierce badass.”