Part One: Response to “When Children Say They’re Trans”
7/9/2018: PART ONE
This is Part One of a four part series, plus a reader-friendly summary, in response to Jesse Singal’s article, “When Children Say They’re Trans.” While this might seems like a lot to write about one article, the original piece was about 12,700 words, and there is a lot wrong with it.
In its July/August Health Issue, The Atlantic published a long cover article on the medical gender-affirming transitions of teenagers. When my mom texted me about the piece I was excited that the mainstream media was paying attention to my community, but also concerned about the potential for miseducation.
After pulling up the article on my phone, the first thing I did was Google the author, Jesse Singal. When I saw that he was a cisgender man, I was greatly disappointed. How could the magazine expect a cis person to accurately portray the experiences of the transgender community?
As I read, my fears about the author’s qualifications were confirmed. In the article, “When Kids Say They’re Trans,” Singal cautions parents and healthcare providers about the potential consequences of making gender-affirming care available to young people whose conception of their gender may still be in flux. He argues that, because the medical community has yet to fully understand the experiences of transgender folks, they must be very careful about when/how they let kids medically transition.
Rather than educating readers about legitimate concerns within the trans community, Singal’s piece fans the flames of societal transphobia. I see him doing damage in three main ways: casting off trans people as strange, disparaging the autonomy of teens, and failing to address the issues that the transgender community cares most about.
It is exasperating that this mainstream cover article doesn’t shed light on any topics that I, and the many trans people I have talked to, are concerned about. Instead, this piece creates a more dangerous national consciousness for the trans community, and trans youth in particular. It is already difficult for trans youth to access gender-affirming care, and Singal’s piece will likely make it even harder.
1: Casting Out Trans People
It is shameful that, in this cover piece, Jesse Singal and The Atlantic present the trans community in a way that distances us from the rest of humanity. Because no trans people were involved in writing or editing this piece, it was all too easy to write of our community as completely different, a type of human that is yet to be understood.
We can see the danger of this sort of “othering” in many examples throughout history. Currently, the White House is using dehumanization tactics to support human rights violations against refugees and asylees. Whether in the case of immigrants or transgender people, presenting people as totally “other” is dangerous and irresponsible because it diminishes our ability to empathize with each other.
Singal’s piece others the transgender community in a variety of obvious and subtle ways. In his response piece published online for The Atlantic, Thomas Page McBee explains that tend cis people tend to take a certain perspective when writing about trans people: “Usually, the stories betrayed an underlying anxiety about technology, genitals, and gender roles, as if trans people were the Dr. Frankenstein’s monster of the 21st century.”
In this case of this article, the most overt dehumanization comes from the first few images that are used used for both the print and web version of the piece. Let’s start with the cover image (above). Out of focus, saturated with color, yet dimly lit, this photo presents its subject as strange and otherworldly. The lack of eye contact suggests an absence of connection with the reader. The child’s expression is sad and far-off, showing trans kids as troubled, part of a phenomenon to study rather than a community of humans to connect to. There isn’t even any indication of who this person is. Are they someone from Singal’s piece? We don’t know.
This aesthetic is carried on in the next two caption-less images in the article (above left). On the left, the multiple exposures on top of a black background create a series of eerie figures. All of the subjects hold distant expressions or have closed eyes, again removing the possibility for connection to the reader. Two of the figures also have their mouths covered by hands. It isn’t obvious whether the silencing is self-imposed or forced by an outside force. What this does say though, is that teens who are exploring their gender don’t have the chance to talk about their experiences.
Then there is the image on the right. The figure is distant and blurred towards the bottom. The subject looks down, avoiding our gaze, possibly noticing how their body is fading away. In none of these photos do the subjects appear to be clothed, and yet their nudity is cropped out. It’s as if their bodies are an enigma the viewer is can’t see but wants access to, and control over. As with the cover image, we are not told who these images are supposed to depict, adding to the mysterious quality.
These depictions fail to present gender questioning youth as anything other than peculiar, troubled, and disempowered. If you think I am reading too deeply into these images, consider that there were infinite possibilities for how to visually present trans kids and this is what they chose. To me, these photos are evidence of prejudice, conscious or not.
Let’s contrast these three images with the other pictures includes in the online article.
I’m using the portrait of cisgender detransitioner (a group which I will discuss later), Max, as an example (left). As with most of the images included in the piece, it is artsy and odd. The differences, however, with the first group of images are stark. First of all, there is a caption that informs us who the subject of the image is. The combination of Max’s written story and their photo help the reader understand their experience.
Although the image is edited with double exposure and blurred edges, there are a few characteristics that keep it much more grounded in reality than the above examples. First, in both exposures, Max is holding eye contact with the viewer. This suggests the possibility of connection. In addition, instead of a dark place-less background, we have a natural scene of calming green colors behind Max.
My interpretation of this image is that Max, as a cisgender detransitioner, is more grounded in reality than the gender questioning teens above. Despite her mistaken transition, she knows who she is, and therefore can connect confidently to the reader.
Trans people deserve representation, including photographs, that helps others connect to us. We are only harmed by being further mystified.
B: Social Contagion
Now, let’s get into Singal’s text. A particularly dangerous section comes when Singal talks about how cisgender teens are being socially pressured (in person and/or online) into identifying as trans. This concept, popularized by anti-trans parenting groups, is called social contagion.
I see two glaring problems with Singal’s recognition of social contagion. First, the wording implies that an increase in transgender people is a problem; we are sick and cis folks should take care not to catch our disease.
I don’t understand why, even if trans identity proliferates among friends, we should frown upon teens are encouraging each other to explore their gender? Singal himself writes that “adolescence is… a time of fevered identity exploration.” Given this assertion, I believe it would be revolutionary for teens to encourage and affirm the identities of their peers. Trans writer, Robyn Kanner, says about their own time of teenage gender exploration: “What was so wrong with trying to find myself? Isn’t that what a high-school student is supposed to do anyway?”
When it comes down to it, labeling social affirmation instead as social contagion is transphobic. In the words of Julia Serrano, there is an “assumption that cisgender bodies are valid and valuable, whereas trans people’s are invalid and defective.” As his piece wears on, Singal will continue to argue that being trans and/or exploring one’s gender is dangerous.
The second issue at hand is that the gender one is assigned at birth is the legitimate contagion in our society. It’s easy to see if you think for a second. Even among young people, transphobia and traditional gender norms still prevail side by side in our country. Gender norms are so heavily pressed upon us throughout our lives that it is almost impossible to resist “catching” the mindset that being born female means one thing and male another.
To give an example, I served water to two young kids (4–5ish) at work last summer. I placed a cup with a blue straw in front of the girl and a cup with a pink one front of the boy. The cups barely hit the table before the kids traded them to align with the color associated with their gender. And Singal is telling us that trans identity is the phenomenon youth should be wary of!
It doesn’t surprise me that Singal is only able to find “some anecdotal evidence” (a single story) that supports his argument about the danger of trans identity as a social contagion. The anecdote is about Delta, a girl who reportedly started identifying as genderqueer after “a wave of gender-identity experimentation hit her social circle in 2013.”
Delta explains that she stopped identifying as genderqueer after she got treatment for anxiety and depression: “‘I got better and I didn’t want anything to do with gender labels — I was fine with just being me and not being a specific thing.’” To me, this sounds like someone who identifies as genderqueer, non-binary, and/or agender.
It’s not that Delta isn’t allowed to be cis while not connecting to gender labels, but it is interesting to examine what she says in her familial context. What Singal doesn’t mention is that Delta’s mother is a vocal member of the anti-trans parent group, 4th Wave Now. This organization, and others like it, popularized the concept of social contagion under the (not medically recognized, and highly critiqued) name, Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria.
Delta’s mother also may have influenced her child’s definiteness about not being transgender and has an incentive to spread Delta’s story as an example of social contagion.
In the absence of other evidence, Delta’s reported experience is the only thing giving Singal’s social contagion argument any hint of legitimacy. This allows him some basis upon which to write that teen’s proclivity to be “susceptible to peer influence, more impulsive, and less adept at weighing long-term outcomes and consequences” makes them vulnerable to getting a medical transition and regretting it later. The implication is that, if Delta had been free to access gender-affirming care, she might’ve made impulsive decisions about transitioning that she would later regret.
C: Cisgender Detransitioners
Another way in which Singal disparages our humanity is by telling stories about trans people who were actually just mentally ill and confused cis people. In order to give weight to the danger that Delta, and other kids that momentarily identify as transgender, are in, Singal introduces three anecdotes about cisgender detransitioners (CDs, for short). Those who identify as CDs went through medical gender-affirming transitions only to later regret treatment and start identifying as cisgender. The technical term for this is desisting.
If not for well-informed and careful parents and doctors, Delta and company could’ve become CDs, Singal implies. Just look at what happens if we don’t adequately restrict gender-affirming care: cisgender women end up with deep voices, beards, and masculinized chests.
Despite the fact that CDs make up a small proportion of people who receive gender-affirming care, Singal centers their experiences over those of trans people to serve his argument. As Slate writer, Alex Barasch, points out, Singal fails to include an example of a “single happy, well-adjusted trans teen among its host of central characters for the first 9,000-plus words.”
Singal’s telling of CD’s stories not only decenters trans people but is also disrespectful towards those whose stories are being told. CDs are shown as nothing more than examples of healthcare gone wrong. In the words of Julia Serano, Singal falls into the common trap of using “people who detransition as pawns.” I don’t want to pretend that the stories of cisgender detransitioners don’t matter, but is not appropriate to use their already-visible stories as evidence that trans-specific healthcare should be restricted.
Next, Signal attempts to back up the CD anecdotes with data about desistance. Although he calls the evidence that desistance exists “overwhelming,” there is no supportive data in the three links he provides. Two of his sources simply mention desistance, without evidence. The authors of the third source cite study Singal infamously misinterpreted (along with two similarly-structured studies) in a past article. They write: “[S]everal research studies categorized 30% to 62% of youth who did not return to the clinic for medical intervention after initial assessment, and whose gender identity may be unknown, as ‘desisters’ who no longer identified with a gender different than sex assigned at birth.”
Even the authors of this third source imply they are skeptical of this desistance data. It reads to me like: “Some other studies categorized these kids as desisters, so I guess we’ll mention it.” I think the folks who wrote the above quote see the loophole (that Singal previously missed) as clear as I do.
Here’s the issue: the studies’ data for desistance is based on kids who “did not return… after initial assessment.” When a child does not return to the for treatment it DOES NOT prove that they don’t identify as transgender anymore. Maybe they decided a medical transition wasn’t for them; you don’t have to take hormones or have surgery to be trans. Maybe they wanted to wait longer to consider their options. Maybe their parents pressured them out of it. We don’t know why the kids didn’t return and that is why this data cannot be used as evidence that 30–62% of kids who initially seek care aren’t “really trans.”
Singal hasn’t yet finished with his Swiss Cheese arguments. He continues, “I didn’t speak with a single clinician who believes [that desistance doesn’t happen].” Of course, there is not going to be an 100% persistence rate, but data shows that detransitioning rates are low: around 2–4%. This estimate includes folks who detransition for reasons other than realizing they are cis, meaning CDs likely make up less than one percent of those who receive gender affirming care.
It is not uncommon for transgender folks to give up on transitioning (desist) because they are unsafe or not accepted as their true selves. As Robyn Kanner writes in their response piece published online by The Atlantic, “I did not detransition because I wasn’t trans. I detransitioned because there were cisgender people who physically and mentally beat me down until I gave in.” It is likely that desistance is much more often a result of societal transphobia than the mythical social contagion.
To conclude, Singal attempts to show us how social contagion can increase rates of desistance in order to argue that gender-affirming care should be more restricted. The data, however, shows that restricting gender-affirming care would protect around one percent of those who seek it, at the expense of the 99%.
We have data sets that show how lack of support severely impacts suicide rates (and other mental health problems) among trans youth, yet Singal says the tragedy is what happened to three people who were given overly-aggressive care. No, we shouldn’t give out gender-affirming care like Halloween candy, but this isn’t even close what’s happening, or what the standards of care recommend. Pretending that creating more accessible gender-affirming care will make CDs the new norm is irresponsible. Don’t we care enough about the kid on the cover, and others like them, to see past Singal’s attempts to dehumanize the trans community? I sure hope so.
Click the link to read Part Two.