Saturday, June 30, 2007

About 20/20

I'm still thinking about the 20/20 show that was on a few weeks ago about young kids coming out as trans.

& The thing I can't quite get past is how many people who are gender variant grow up to be gender variant but okay with the sex they were born. A gay friend of mine called after the show was over & asked, "So what's the difference between them & me?" because he went through most, if not all, of what one of the young MTF expressed. He did drag for most of his childhood, expressed the desire to be a girl as a child, and had a hard time dating guys who didn't want to date a queen. I didn't have an answer for him. I don't know what makes some of us gender variant & some of us trans.

But I do know that talking about my own gender variance causes some trans people to decide that I'm trans, which is exactly what worries me. Were I younger and expressing my gender variance, & someone told me that meant I was trans, I'm not sure I would have had the ability or perspective to say, "No, I'm not." I'm not sure my friend would have been able to do that, either. But both of us are quite happy being who we are, passing in & out of stages in our lives where our gender variance was expressed, hidden, or naturally waned.

There is a part of me that, like the director of The Gendercator, that is concerned that all gender variance is disappearing into transness, and that diagnosing gender variance so young will only affirm the binary, that our choices will become Mr. or Mrs. Cleaver, or even some 21st Century version of them.

Yet there is another part of me that says it's great kids can at least say something, or that some of them can, to some of their parents, & that they don't get kicked out of their homes or forced into therapy for doing so. That's a good thing.

The other reality - that so many gender variant children grow up to be gay or lesbian - is also a concern. Homophobia is so huge, so unspoken, and it concerns me that most parents would rather have a daughter than a nelly, a son rather than a tomboy. While of course they might just step from homophobia into transphobia, I suspect that plenty of these parents will opt for raising their child stealth - with no one knowing their child is trans, and so will sidestep transphobia and homophobia - and the awful fear of gender variance - altogether. For some it will be too tempting to disappear into gender normalcy. & Of course, some would say, that's a GOOD thing; everyone has the right to feel normal about their gender. I just don't agree. I think instead people should be more conscious of gender, & the ways that gender delimits who we allow ourselves to be.

But mostly I'm still uneasy about early hormone use.

The cause for my concern surprises me the most, because what worries me is the child's decision not to procreate. I'm surprised because I'm happily child-free and a Zero Population Growth type; the fewer reasons people have to have children the better, as far as I'm concerned.

But being who I am, I also know the astonishment people express when I say I'm happy not having children. We all know how much late-breaking couples will spend on fertility drugs in order to get pregnant at age 41. That is, having children seems to be a basic, undeniable component to most people's happiness, and raising children gives many lives meaning it might not have otherwise.

Going on hormones at a young age means the child or teenager gives up the ability to procreate, & that is a huge thing to give up. More than one trans person has told me they're quite pleased they didn't transition younger precisely because it gave them the chance to have children. The thing is, I'm not sure that a 15-year-old can know, necessarily, whether or not they might want children in the future. I knew that I didn't, and that never changed. But for others, it does; teenagers are notorious for growing up & changing their attitudes significantly, after all.

These are not easy issues, any of them. I don't envy any parent with a gender variant child. At some level I distrust parents, for the most part, as I suspect most would want to keep their child safe, above all else: safe means fitting in, dealing with the world as it is, and not changing the world to make it safe for those of us who don't fit in. Plenty of us, I'm afraid, would not be good at being gender normative men OR women, whether we transition or don't.


Unknown said...

Helen said: “Going on hormones at a young age means the child or teenager gives up the ability to procreate, & that is a huge thing to give up. More than one trans person has told me they’re quite pleased they didn’t transition younger precisely because it gave them the chance to have children. The thing is, I’m not sure that a 15-year-old can know, necessarily, whether or not they might want children in the future.”

I am one of those trans people, and I agree with what Helen said. This is what I wrote on the mhb boards some time ago, commenting on a television documentary about a 12-year old MTF child transitioning in Germany:

“I’m sure my views will surprise some people. Because, in so many ways, I would have been so much better off if I’d transitioned when I was 12. Or, for that matter, when I was 3, which is the earliest specific age at which I remember knowing that I was trans (not that I had a word for it, of course!). Looking backwards, there’s no question. But, looking forward, how could one ever be sure? I don’t buy for a minute the accuracy of that study purporting to show that most obviously gender-variant children turn out to be gay, but not trans. And I know I’m hardly the only person who’s questioned it. It’s not exactly recent, for one thing. But I still think there’s at least *some* percentage that would feel different after they reached puberty, and might actually begin to like being their birth gender….

I, on the other hand, hated puberty when it finally arrived (ushered in by those years of testosterone pills!), and hated the manifestations of maleness it brought. It made my body dysphoria *much* worse, even though it had existed before. I would have been very happy not to go through male puberty; I have an extremely distinct recollection of being told at age 11 that I was being given testosterone pills, and fervently wishing it was estrogen.

But, how would you know for sure, even about someone who was like me? If you gave people medication to prevent puberty, how the hell would you ever, ever know how puberty would have affected their feelings? How could you ever be sure? And, what percentage of “mistakes” would be acceptable, to allow the “right ones” to transition that early? 10%? 1%? one in a thousand? None? I don’t know the answer, but, to me, it isn’t necessarily that simple.

And there’s an even more important issue, imo. Namely, reproductive rights. Which are, after all, a basic human right. If anyone forcibly sterilized a 12-year old child, or a 16-year old child, or any child, and deprived them of the ability ever to reproduce, it would be seen as a horrifying human rights violation. And nobody would think that the parents’ giving their permission would make it OK. Here, of course, there’s nothing forcible about it; the child not only gives consent but very much wants to start transitioning. But. Can a 12-year old ever truly give “informed consent” to giving up the ability to reproduce? I don’t think so. Nobody that age can possibly understand what they’re giving up…. I firmly believe that there is no twelve year old on the face of the earth who is mature enough to make an informed decision on something like that, or truly understand what they’re giving up in agreeing to potentially permanent sterilization.

At age 12, I would have transitioned in a minute; I would have signed away my soul for that, never mind my theoretical ability to have a child someday. And I probably would have been much happier as a girl. And, at 18, I probably would have continued to feel the same way, and had surgery. But I wouldn’t have my son. And, given what I know now, I would go through all the pain and difficulty of all those decades of being trans, and desparately fighting against it, 1000 times, before giving up my son. So, I have serious questions about people medically transitioning that young, for that reason alone. At least until it’s possible to give trans people the ability to reproduce in their target gender. If that ever happens….

Please remember that I’m not unalterably opposed to this kind of “early transition.” I was simply raising what I see as some important issues that, to be honest, I think sometimes get lost amidst trans people’s desire (which I share) to be supportive about this kind of thing. And are worth thinking about.”


-julia said...

Hi Helen,

I didn't see the show, but I hear what your saying. Trans folks are constantly forced to defend our decisions to physically transition from those who condescendingly equate our surgeries/hormone therapies with purely “cosmetic” ones (nose jobs, liposuction, breast augmentation, etc.). As a result, we sometimes develop a knee-jerk reaction against discussing the very real issue of people who later regret their physical transitions (whether they be children or adults).

Since I am treading into sensitive waters here, let me start by saying that this is not a cut-and-dry issue at all. I know several people who have physically transitioned, only to later decide that it was a mistake, that they were not transsexual after all. I also know folks who transitioned to female or male, but then later opted out of the male/female binary, but who nevertheless do not regret their previous body modifications. I also, know a number of transsexuals who started to transition at an earlier date, then backed away feeling as though it was a mistake, and then five or ten or twenty years later they transition again but this time are happy having done so. And then there are the countless transsexuals who never experience regret.

Suffice it to say, it’s a complicated issue, and I believe that people who regret their decision to transition may do so because either 1) they are gender variant, but not actually transsexual, 2) they are potentially transsexual, and what they regret is not the physical transition per se, but the negative social consequences of not passing as non-transsexual, or 3) they are happy with the physical changes but unhappy with change in social gender roles.

Of course, like most complex issues, this often gets oversimplified, where one person’s “transsexual regret” is used in arguments to claim that sex reassignment in general doesn’t really work, or that it’s to risky or that it’s “experimental” (much like how the religious right uses the existence of “ex-gays” to make the case that homosexuality is merely a “lifestyle”). This makes trans people reluctant to talk about the issue, but that’s also a mistake, because if we don’t address it, then we leave the doors open for the greater non-trans mainstream to draw their own (often overly simplistic) conclusions.

I remember a trans friend of mine recalling how offended he was when a non-trans dyke acquaintance of his used the phrase “trendsexuals” to describe the growing number of folks transitioning in the queer community. He was offended for the obvious reason: she meant it to dismiss transsexuals, to imply that we are merely lemmings haplessly following a trend rather than being driven by our own very real personal self-understandings. But at the same time, having spent a lot of time in the queer women’s community, I have to say that in some instances it *is* somewhat trendy to transition (at least for folks on the FTM spectrum). In fact, trans guys are sometimes even practically “fetishized” (I use the term loosely here, not psychopathologically) by a growing population of self-identified queer female “tranny chasers.”

Helen, I thought it was interesting when you mentioned the plot of the Gendercator film (i.e., the fear of gender-variant people transitioning in order to become heteronormative), because when I first heard about that film (and the controversy surrounding it), I had the “opposite” reaction. While there maybe some people out there transitioning in order to achieve heteronormativity, I feel that in the queer women’s/FTM community physical transitions and gendered-body modifications are often held up as being transgressive, as undermining the concept of binary gender. In other words, I think some folks transitioning today maybe doing so as an expression of queerness/gender-transgressive-ness, rather than as a way of achieving gender normalcy.

To be honest, I do worry about this. Having been so uncomfortable being male-bodied, and feeling so much more at home in my own skin since transitioning, I don’t believe that our bodies are merely a superficial shell that we inhabit. I think that if somebody decides to transition for any reason other than their own personal relationship with their own body, then there is a potential for some really deep and profound disappointment.

I also have to admit to having some really strong mixed feelings about the rise of people transitioning at earlier ages. Don’t get me wrong, I think that if you identify as female as a child, you should be given the opportunity of living and being respected as a member of that gender regardless of age. But the idea of physically transitioning at an early age somewhat scares me. When I was 18, I still hadn’t sorted out the differences between my sexual orientation, gender expression & gender identity, and I’m not sure that transitioning at that age would have been the best decision for me.

On the other hand, there is a part of me that is extremely jealous of trans kids now. I mean, maybe I wouldn’t have had the confusion I felt as an eighteen year old if I was given the opportunity to grow up as a girl, to transition at an earlier age. I can’t help but imagine all of the lost time and experiences I missed out on not having had the opportunity to live in my identified sex during my young adulthood.

And there is another issue here that needs to be mentioned: Once I had a conversation with a trans woman in her 30s who was just beginning to physically transition. During our conversation, I mentioned that if I was given a choice of having my life the way it is now, or starting from scratch having been born female, that I’d choose my life the way it is now. For me, this was a statement of trans pride. But the woman I was speaking with said that she couldn’t say the same was true for her. Then she gestured to her body. She was quite tall and had a very male bone structure. And I realized then that I was speaking from a place of privilege, being very small and among the minority of MTF transsexuals who pass easily as non-transsexual women.

This brings up an issue that is sometimes overlooked in conversations about people transitioning during their teenage years and/or young adulthood. While taking hormones or having surgery is an irreversible, life-altering change, one that is sometimes followed by regrets, so too is puberty when you’re a young trans person.

Anyway, it should be clear by now that it is not my intention to answer/solve this dilemma. Like I said, it’s super-complex. If I had the chance to offer any advice to trans children, parents, advocates and allies, it’s that we recognize that each person is different, that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. We have to live with the fact that some people may make the wrong choice by transitioning. But at the same time, other trans folks shouldn’t have to suffer by being denied treatment just because of other people’s mistakes…

ambivalently yours,

A. Velorucion said...

You mention two issues: diagnosing a child / whether gender variance at a young age necessarily implies transsexualism and the ethics of sterilizing a minor.

I think that our society gives very little agency to children and youth- to a fault. The three examples in the 20/20 documentary (one mother whom is a friend of mine) were all cases where the child diagnosed themselves. Each child very clearly stated "I AM [non-birth sex]". Upon parental confusion and seeking of advice, the children's diagnoses were then confirmed by psychologists. What you described in yourself, Helen, and what many youth experience is less extreme gender variance. You describe typical human behavior- having a somewhat fluid gender alignment that doesn't always conform perfectly to the barbie/ken model. Unless you forgot to mention (not trying to be facetious) that you were intentionally injuring yourself because you hated the body you had for not matching your self-perceived gender/sex when you were a kid, there is a huge difference between most kids (who show various gender varying behavior) and trans kids. The difference, I would say, is in consistent insistence that one is not one's birth sex. I say we trust kids to know themselves, before our society's transphobia and homophobia get to them and their intuition gets buried in piles of inhibition and fear.

As for the sterilization, I agree that, clearly, the child can not know what they might feel about lost fertility once they are in the position to raise children.

I disagree, however, with the assumption of fertility as a "human right". It's a privilege, just like being straight or white. I think the essentialist view that reproduction is a cornerstone of human experience is flawed . . . because many people are sterile. Many people cannot have children, because their bodies don't function the way that most people's bodies function. For whatever reasons, those people must either adopt or use surrogate parents. Transkids today will be in that position as adults. When our society stops essentializing sexual reproduction, we'll have more prospective adoptive children in homes, more non-biologically related families legitimated by neighbors and extended families, and more transkids looking forward to a future as parents.

It's a privilege to look back and say, "I would go through all the pain and difficulty of all those decades of being trans, and desparately fighting against it, 1000 times, before giving up my son," (Donna, comments) but the reality is that if Donna had transitioned as a youth, she would never know about her current son. She may have chosen to adopt a child as an adult woman and she would love that child with all of the maternal love that she now experiences for her son.

Let the kids decide who they are.


helen_boyd said...


First, I agree with you wholeheartedly about de-essentializing sexual reproduction: there are a lot of ways to be parents other than giving birth to them yourself. & Even without children, there are other ways to parent, or fulfill a need to. (Likewise for the creative act.)

I guess I should have clarified that it's the parents I'm worried about: that they will view any expression of gender variance (eg., "I want to wear a skirt" by a male-bodied child) as "I'm not a ____," or "I'm really a ________."

The kids know mostly, I think. But I also think adults panic, & are homophobic, & are unaware of genders that aren't binary.

But thanks for your thought-provoking post. I'm going to be looking at children's issues (in general) differently as a result.

Jane_S said...

I generally don't post on trans sites that aren't password protected or otherwise inaccessible to search engines (it feels weird to me to post on this topic where cispeople can gawk over it) but try to help kids going through what I went through and this is exactly the sort of page that parents are likely to stumble across...

Just sort of a reality check:

1. Sperm banking is an option. I did it just before I started hormones and both my husband and I are glad I did because it gives us more options in planning our family. Maybe starting hormones at 11 would prevent this, but starting them at 14 won't. But 14 year olds won't be able to afford it... it takes parental support for that to even be vaguely possible. And in my experience, kids with parents who don't actively obstruct their access to medical care are the privileged few :-(

2. The only studies that have been done on young transitioners were in the Netherlands. Transitioning young leads to normal or above normal pychological adjustment and functioning relative to non-trans youth... Youth who didn't transition but wanted to were less so :-(

3. Transwomen who actually pursue transition as far as having SRS experience almost no regrets. Regret is far and away the unusual outcome and when it happens it's "wishing my particular surgical results had been better" not "thinking this surgery thing was a bad idea in general". Check it out.

4. I'd recommend this book for moms trying to raise a MtF transsexual. My mom read it and I'm glad she did :-)

helen_boyd said...


Thanks for posting. The whole point of this blog is to get to hear from everyone, so I really appreciate you stepping out of your comfort zone to do so.

I've always highly recommended Mom, I Need to Be a Girl, too, & had the wonderful chance to meet Evelyn, the author, some time back, who is exactly as cool as you'd expect her to be.