7/9/18: PART TWO
This is Part Two 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.
2: Teens Get No Respect
Singal’s idea that we can’t trust teens to control what happens to their own bodies is dangerous, and I will outline the reasons why as this piece goes on. But first, let’s consider how much we already trust minors with. Teens need to figure out where/if/how to attend college, a choice that could affect their entire life’s economic outlook. We also trust them to drive safely, which cannot only endanger their own lives, but those of many others. But, for some reason, Singal wants to draw the line when it comes to teens making decisions about their bodies.
As I discussed in Part One, Singal argues that gender-affirming care should be restricted to protect teens from making permanent decisions that they might later regret. With a few anecdotes from people that did come to regret medically transitioning, he shows us what can go wrong when we trust teens with their own healthcare.
But these regrets are rare, and really, it is much more important for us to trust teens to explore who they are, particularly in conversation with a therapist and/or doctor who can help them decide what to do. But, as I detail below, Singal does not believe in giving teens the opportunity to explore; it is too “fraught,” too dangerous, and the risk of a mistaken transition is too high.
A: He/she/they say…
The title and magazine cover are the first indications of this piece’s disrespect for youth. Online, the title reads: “When Children Say They’re Trans” [emphasis mine]. As Samantha Manzella writes in her opinion piece for NewNowNext, this language of “say,” “suggests that trans youth don’t know or understand what they’re experiencing.” When we trust people, we relate their comments without reservation. If we state someone says they’re 21, we’re suspicious of them; whereas declaring they are 21 means we believe them. Starting from a place of believing what someone tells you is one basic form of respect, and Singal does not show it.
B: Telling what Your Teen’s Gender Is
Of course, the title just hints at what’s to come. The target audience for Singal’s article seems to been parents of teenagers. I base this idea off sections like the following one, in which the author attempts to empathize with the overwhelmed parents of trans teens.
“[W]hen it comes to the question of physical interventions, this era has also brought fraught new challenges to many parents. Where is the line between not “feeling like” a girl because society makes it difficult to be a girl and needing hormones to alleviate dysphoria that otherwise won’t go away? How can parents tell? How can they help their children gain access to the support and medical help they might need…”
Interestingly enough, the third question is the only one parents should be worrying about. It is not a parent’s job to “tell” what gender their child is. As Julia Serrano explains, “there is no test (medical, psychological, or otherwise) to determine whether or not a person is ‘really trans.’” The category of “transgender …[is] experiential.” [emphasis in original].
The child, in conversation with their care provider(s), is the only one who can truly decide which gender-affirming care, if any, feels right. It is not a “fraught” decision to respect what your kid is telling you and seek support for them.
Singals can present these decisions as complicated in part because he fails to emphasize that going to a gender clinic need not mean hormones and/or surgery, at least right away. Alex Barash explains that gender-affirming care “entails… giving children the space to explore their identities and listening when they speak about their experiences.”
Instead presenting a realistic view on the current standards for gender-affirming care, Signal reports that doctors are putting kids in danger of ending up like the cisgender transitioners he interviews (see Part One). The author’s warns about the dangers of the doctor’s office for two reasons. The first is that, according to one doctor he interviews, gender specialists are pushing to do away with readiness assessments. Singal, and the quoted doctor, fail to consider that changing the current system does not mean doctors want to give everyone hormones as soon as they ask.
The other factor Singal introduces is that parents may be inclined to press for immediate medical transition out of a fear that their child might commit suicide at any moment. I’m sure these parents exist, but it is a doctor’s job to advocate for their patient’s needs. It is clearly much riskier for a parent to completely refuse their child access to care than it is for them to try to influence a doctor’s boundaries.
In regards to teens’ mental health, trans-specific medical intervention can certainly be very important. Based on my experience talking with trans teens, however, legitimizing their experience through respectful conversation is just as essential. As a doctor Singal interviews explains, “‘Often for the first time having a medical or mental-health professional tell them that they are going to take them seriously and really listen to them and hear their story often helps them feel better than they’ve ever felt.’”
This is why I don’t see it as an option for parents to hum and haw about if their child is really transgender. Whether they end up wanting to medically transition or not, parents have a responsibility to validate their kid’s experience with gender affirming care (if requested, of course).
For anyone who is still in doubt about whether parents should put much worth into the experiences of legal minors, stay tuned. In other medical situations young people’s experiences are validated much more readily. Julia Serrano gives this example:
“[C]onsider a cisgender girl who has always been happy with her assigned gender. Then suddenly, at the age of nine or ten (as she is entering puberty), her body shows signs of masculinization, and doctors confirm that this is due to her body producing testosterone (for the record, this is not a hypothetical situation for some intersex children). If this child was horrified about these potential unwanted changes, and asked for hormonal intervention (which the doctor confirmed would be safe and effective), would you respect her decision and allow her to proceed with it? Or would you dismiss her wishes on account of her lack of maturity, and insist that she just deal with the testosterone until she is eighteen and capable of making an adult decision?”
I don’t think most readers would find it hard to let this child start taking puberty blockers (if not hormones) so that she could avoid feeling uncomfortable with her body’s development. The only reason anyone thinks differently when it comes to a transgender kid wanting to change their body is (conscious or unconscious) transphobia.
To wrap up this section, I think it’s important to point out that hormones and puberty blockers don’t lead to the kind of immediate permanent changes parents who read Singal’s article might have nightmares about. In the case of blockers, puberty proceeds as usual as soon as one stops taking them. For hormones, most changes revert when you stop. There are a few permanent differences as well, but these generally only become noticeable after a couple months of treatment. There is essentially a trial period for one to decide if the small changes that come with the early stages of hormone replacement therapy feel good or not. As the only fully permanent procedure, gender confirmation surgery tends to come with barriers such as a positive experience with hormones.
C: False Binary and Finality
In an era where young people are more readily reject gender norms than ever before, Singal’s focuses too much on the gender binary.
Although he mentions non-binary and gender non-conforming people in passing, Singal neglects to give us appropriate recognition. For example, in Claire’s story, he never diverts from the idea that she has to chose between being a (cisgender) girl or a (female to male transgender)boy.
Although Singal’s argument about teen’s gender is “it’s complicated,” he implies that when a young person decides they are actually cisgender, that is their final decision forever and ever. The contrast with cisgender transitioners is stark. Apparently trans people can change their gender at any time, but cis people can’t? There is a lack of recognition that teens who see themselves as cisgender may later realize they are transgender, like me.
I also want to acknowledge the possibility that kids like Claire and Delta who reportedly grow out of their dysphoria may later identify as non-binary. As Zack Ford writes:
“[These kids] may experience some degree of gender dysphoria, but may find ways to resolve that dysphoria that don’t require medical interventions as part of a transition. But that doesn’t mean nonbinary teens in any way justify Singal’s skepticism of transitioning. The solution in either case is affirmation and allowing young people to be who they say they are.”
Regardless of their decisions to take hormones or get surgery, non-binary teens deserve a space to discuss their gender just as much as binary trans kids do. In fact, given the dominance of binary gender in our society, these youth may even need more support in affirming their gender. Yes, non-binary people exist; you don’t have to choose to be a boy or a girl.
If you spend any amount of time around teens, you probably know that they are a lot more self-aware than society gives them credit for. As I quoted in Part One, Singal recognizes that “ adolescence is, by definition, a time of fevered identity exploration.” It makes sense that, at this time in their lives, teens are contemplating,and exploring, their many identities.
It is parents’ jobs to facilitate safe and respectful identity investigation for their kids. When a teen starts questioning their gender, comes out to their parents, and expresses interest in starting puberty blockers and/or hormones, this new identity must be taken seriously. Whether or not a teen ends up wanting to transition is not relevant to the initial search for providers who can help them better understand their options.
Parenting a teen who comes out as transgender isn’t inherently “fraught” or scary. In general, parents are expected to do their best to keep their kids safe and healthy. With gender-affirming care the protocol should be no different.
Click the link to read Part Three.