When they interviewed me and my young trans daughter, both reporters seemed sympathetic to us and claimed to be trans-friendly. So why did they turn around and write such transphobic articles?
Over the course of the summer, I was contacted by two young journalists. One wrote for an alternative American weekly newspaper, the other for a venerable British magazine. Both wanted to interview me about my experience as the mother of a young transgender child. They were respectful and sympathetic. One of them even Skyped at length with my 9-year-old daughter. (“How do you want your body to look when you grow up?” “I want really long hair!”)
When their respective articles appeared, the first one in June and the second earlier this fall, I felt sick and saw red. I also felt like the world’s biggest rube, having chattily handed over my daughter’s story to those whose intention was to debate her very existence.
“Young people change their minds about lots of things,” warned the subtitle of Charlotte McCann’s piece for 1843 Magazine, an offshoot of The Economist.
Katie Herzog’s article in The Stranger, a Seattle-based weekly, was remarkably similar, devoting multiple paragraphs to considering the role of peer pressure, and quoting a parent who mocks transgender identity as the latest teen fad: “”We call it ‘trendsgender.'”
Both writers marvel at the startling increase in the number of transgender people. “Some under the age of 12,” notes McCann, as if this detail is significant (don’t most kids know their gender by age twelve?). “[N]o one knows exactly why so many people seem to have recently come out as trans,” writes Herzog, in a statement as ominous as it is vague.
The two articles express concern over the potential consequences, both psychological and physical, of allowing young people to transition, while parents, says Herzog, “worry that their kids are just going through a phase.” They also lace their writing with subtle references to the “social contagion” theory, which blames peer pressure for luring unsuspecting teens into the transgender lifestyle. (“It gave her a ready-made group of friends,” McCann writes of one young woman’s transition.) They then trot out the same old tired, debunked, and discredited statistic (that, zombie-like, just won’t die) claiming that the overwhelming majority of kids like mine (somewhere between 66 and 80 percent) will change their minds and decide they’re not trans after all. Both imply that it might be psychologically difficult for young people to “switch back” after transitioning, even though there is no data supporting this, and doctors working with these kids say it’s a non-issue. (Herzog even quotes notoriously transphobic writers Ray Blanchard and James Cantor. Hey, editors of The Stranger: WTF?!?)
This drumbeat of doubt is just the backdrop, however, for the real point of these stories, which is to introduce the reader to the “emerging population” (Herzog) of those who have fallen prey to the transgender siren, only to later regret their decision. “When Max was 19,” writes McCann, “just over three years after he came out as transgender, she realised he’d made a mistake.” Herzog’s piece likewise profiles a handful of people who switched genders (and yes, they did the medical stuff), but then had a change of heart. Her headline makes them sound a bit like sad superheroes: “The Detransitioners: They Were Transgender, Until They Weren’t.” Taken together, the stories are sad, sometimes joyous, and complex – like real life is.
Let me be very clear: These stories are worth telling. Some people do “detransition,” although neither article addresses the fact that neither “transition” nor “detransition” are simple, linear, or universal processes that are easily defined or that play out identically for all. Not everyone who transitions takes hormones or has surgery. What would detransition look like for them? Or for those who identify as nonbinary? And what about those who detransition as a self-preserving response to society’s horrific discrimination against trans people? (Only 21 states recognize my daughter’s basic civil rights.) Or those who de-detransition? These articles provide no such context or examples.
That said, the difficult stories of those who detransition matter. Their struggles, confusion, and regret should be heard, acknowledged, and included in the conversation. The real problem is context. The problem is situating these sad and scary stories, which are true but exceptionally rare, at the heart of an article that debates the pros and cons of allowing young children to transition. This would be like a journalist profiling the two percent of freshmen who regretted their choice of college in an article that debated whether the college was any good.
A more apt comparison (given the reality of a suicide attempt rate upwards of 40 percent for trans people, which neither article mentions) might be a newspaper story debating the merits of administering a particular life-saving cancer drug, which prominently featured profiles of the two tragic cases out of 100 for whom the drug didn’t work. Of course, those two cases are significant – every life is significant – but do they belong at the heart of a debate about the safety and efficacy of a drug that saved 98 others?
I didn’t pull this two-in-one-hundred ratio out of nowhere. I got it from the articles themselves, which both quote a Swedish study in which just 2.2 percent of transgender people experienced “transition regret.” That means the other 97.8 percent didn’t. Herzog cites a therapist who had worked with transgender clients for more than 20 years, who “knows of only one client who fully transitioned and then later detransitioned.” (Let me just restate that: One client in twenty years.) The program manager of the Seattle Children’s Hospital Gender Clinic told Herzog that they have “never had a patient fully transition and then transition back.” (Never? Never.) And both articles point out that the number of people who regret their nose jobs is eight times greater than transgender people who regret their medical transitions. It’s actually kind of bizarre how these authors carry on about the perils of transition while simultaneously citing statistics and quoting experts that illustrate the rarity of both transition regret and detransition.
As the mother of a young trans daughter who has spent the past six years interacting with hundreds of families with kids like mine, the notion that detransition is rare strikes me as a statement of the obvious. In fact, the “80 percent of these kids change their minds” statistic feels a lot like Trump’s inauguration crowd size claims. If 80 percent of these kids are really desisting, where the hell are they? You’re telling me they’re there, but I’m just not seeing them. I’ve actually never met one. (That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, of course, but the fact is that we have no reliable data on how numerous they are.)
Perhap the most troubling feature of both of these articles is that they are, strictly speaking, largely “true” (with the notable exception of the bogus 66-80 percent statistic). Yes, some people change their minds. Yes, peer pressure exists. Yes, transition is not without its risks and complications. These are all important points to make. What’s wrong here is that the choices the authors have made about what to include and not to include add up to a highly misleading whole, one that makes transition look a lot scarier and more controversial than it actually is. When you’re telling a story, everything hangs on which details you include and which ones you leave out. For example, Herzog and McCann both highlight the potential health risks of taking cross-hormones, but make no mention of the far greater health risks that transgender people face: The widespread lack of access to any kind of quality medical care, let alone health care that is responsive to the particular needs of transgender patients. They also makes no mention of the alarmingly high rate of suicide attempts among trans people (upwards of 40 percent; but this rate goes down when people are able to transition). I’d call suicide a pretty significant health risk, wouldn’t you? Nor do either of them mention the fact that research shows children who transition exhibit levels of psychological health indistinguishable from their cisgender peers. In pieces that purport to be represent balanced presentations of the pros and cons of supporting the transition of young people, surely this kind of information merits inclusion, no?
I thought back to my conversations with McCann and Herzog. I had told them both the story I’ve now told about a thousand times, in which I try to explain how this actually works, and what kids like mine actually say and do, and how parents like me actually react (my apologies to the parents of trans kids reading this, because this story is so typical it will bore you to tears). I told them about the day my world was turned upside down, when my three-year-old “son” sobbed in my arms and said something had gone wrong in my “tummy” that had made him come out as a boy instead of a girl. My child asked to be put back inside me to fix this terrible mistake. I told McCann and Herzog how bewildered and terrified I was, and how I had spent a miserable, futile year trying to convince my child that he could be any sort of boy he liked, even one who loved princesses and dressed like one. But for some reason (probably the same unfathomable reason that our gender matters to any of us), that wasn’t enough. My child insisted and persisted, and I eventually gave in. (It’s important to note that for my child, as for ALL young trans kids, “transition” does NOT involve medical interventions; it just means changing clothing, names, and pronouns, period.) Today, I’m the mother of a nine-year-old transgender daughter who, over the past six years, has wavered in her female gender identity exactly as many times as the average cisgender girl does: Never. Not once. The suggestion that she might be mistaken, that she might be able to “switch back” to boyhood, strikes her as absurd and utterly distasteful, as well as unthinkable and impossible, like changing her blue eyes to brown. It also pisses her off: “Haven’t you been listening?!”
That’s precisely the question I felt like asking these two writers. How could they have spoken at length to me and my daughter with a straight face, and then gone on to write articles that call into question both my judgment and her very existence? (McCann actually made no mention of us in her piece.) And even if they weren’t going to listen to us, why weren’t they listening to the experts and statistics they themselves quoted in their articles? Why did they go to such lengths to cherry-pick details that cast transition in such a negative, risky light?
Are they bad people? Do they hate transgender people? I don’t think so. I think they mean well and probably care about the truth. If I had to guess, they’re typical of other millennials in their support of LGBTQ rights. They probably have transgender friends and colleagues, and would likely vote with them and happily pee with them.
Perhaps we can blame their articles on the news media’s insatiable hunger for novelty. In late 2017, another story about happily transitioned people has no edge. (That’s so 2015. Yawn.) However, detransition, now there’s a fresh new angle! Activist Riki Wilchins made this point in the Advocate: “Having been hated and mocked, trans people have become the media’s darlings. But the media thrives on drama, not neat endings, and no drama works without the plot shifts.” Thus, in the gender identity drama, “detransition” is the latest juicy plot twist, and what could be juicier than a cover-up? McCann alludes to parents who “fear publicly raising issues that worry them.” Some of Herzog’s sources “refused to speak on the record, afraid of the potential fallout.” These must have been exciting sentences to write, but in a world that systematically dismisses and demonizes transgender people, the idea of a threatening, all-powerful transgender lobby is pretty hard to swallow.
While I do believe these articles represents a cheap and highly irresponsible attempt at novelty, I don’t think this actually explains why they were written, let alone published, or why similar articles regularly appear in publications ranging from The Wall Street Journal to the Los Angeles Times. It wasn’t until I read this piece by the brilliant transgender writer and thinker Julia Serano that the veil was lifted, and I began to understand why these smart, otherwise reasonable journalists were writing such misleading, fear-mongering junk.
According to Serano, these pieces are all rooted in “trans-suspicion.” Written by self-described “trans-friendly” pundits (invariably cisgender), they begin with expressions of surprise at the apparent sharp rise in the number of trans people compared to the past. (They’re everywhere now!) Not being trans themselves nor particularly familiar with trans issues, these writers are unaware of the true extent of the powerful forces that kept transgender people completely invisible in the past, and…they become suspicious, “worried that this rise in transgender people is actually due to people who are not ‘really trans’ (i.e., cisgender people) being inappropriately swayed or recruited into trans identities and gender transition.”
As Serano points out, by suggesting that a transgender identity might actually represent a nifty, cultish kind of thing one could sort of “slip into,” like Scientology or Crossfit, the “trans-suspicious” position simultaneously trivializes trans identities (You can put it on and take it off, like last season’s jeans!) and makes light of the crushing discrimination trans people actually face. (If it’s really so bad, how are they luring so many people in?)
But why would a well-meaning, “trans-friendly” writer put forth such a nasty, dismissive theory? When I spoke with them, McCann and Herzog were both very kind to me. I think they genuinely wished me and my daughter well. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t absorbed the transphobia that’s as rampant in our culture as racism, homophobia, and all the other awful isms and phobias. Because of course they have. And it’s this unexamined and no doubt unconscious transphobia that underpins their arguments and enables them to write such ridiculous articles in the first place. As Serano puts it, articles like these are invariably laced with “the transphobic assumption that cisgender bodies are valid and valuable, whereas trans people’s are invalid and defective.” Think Serano is wrong? Think I’m being too harsh? If so, why does neither writer express concern over the (far more likely, surely) scenario of someone who “made a mistake” and ended up cisgender when they’re actually trans? Hmm. No one seems too concerned about that. But a normal, natural, cis body erroneously lost to trans-hood? Heaven forbid! Serano puts it bluntly: “Denying trans people access to healthcare and living happy lives seems like a small price to pay if it saves even a few cisgender people from making such a horrible mistake with their bodies.”
Like the subtler forms of racism, this type of transphobia is insidious and everywhere, and goes largely unnoticed and unquestioned. Unless, of course, you’re on the receiving end of it. As the parent of a trans kid, I get fed a steady diet of the unconscious double-standard that takes it for granted that being trans is something less: Less natural, less real, less valid, less “good.” There are the questions journalists ask me that they’d never dream of asking the mother of a cis kid (“Do you think your child will change her mind about her gender?” “She’s lived happily as a girl for six years, so, umm, no.”). There’s the wide-eyed wonder at the idea that yes, I do fully expect that my daughter, like pretty much all humans, will want to have a body that aligns with her gender identity. (“You mean you’re going to let her take cross-hormones?” “Hell, yeah, if she wants ‘em.”) There’s the pregnant coworker definitively declaring her unborn child’s “gender” to me, and in the next breath expressing shock that my 9-year-old trans daughter could “already know” that she’s a girl. There’s the refusal, inherent in every baby shower I’ve attended or heard of, to even entertain the possibility (a small one, I grant you), that the child about to pop out might not have a gender matching the parts the parents saw on the ultrasound. If there is nothing bad or unnatural – nothing less than – about being trans, nothing inferior about my transgender daughter, then why do people ask me such stupid questions and express such surprise at my daughter’s ability to know, like all cisgender kids get to, who she is and what she wants? If there’s nothing inferior or invalid about being trans, why do parents regularly stand before me announcing with confidence that their unborn child won’t end up like mine? Would that really be so awful? (I promise you this: It wouldn’t. Y’all should be so lucky as to have a kid as cool as mine.)
And then there’s Herzog’s tepid acknowledgment of the validity of my transgender daughter’s girlhood, when she writes of her, “it seems unlikely she’ll desist.” (Gee, thanks. I’ll let her know.) Can you imagine someone writing that sentence about a cisgender kid? Let’s try! “It seems unlikely that nine-year-old David, who has been saying he is a boy since age three, will desist in his cisgender status.” Umm, duh. (You can try this trick at home, kids! Just take a sentence, swap in a cis person for a trans one – or vice versa – and POOF! Your transphobia will magically appear before your very eyes!)
And what about McCann’s somber declaration that “The question of whether a child can really know herself remains unanswered.” Really? Surely she doesn’t mean all children, because that would mean we have some really big changes to make, starting with eliminating gender markers from birth certificates, giving all kids gender-neutral names, and raising kids without gender labels or roles until they’re…what? Twenty? (Say, these might not be such bad ideas!) But of course that’s not what she means. She doesn’t mean all kids, silly! She doesn’t mean the “normal,” cisgender ones. She doesn’t say that, of course, and she doesn’t need to, because we know exactly what she means. She means kids like mine, whose identity can (and presumably should) remain in question. And this type of undeclared double standard, which dismisses and downgrades my daughter’s humanity, is more commonly and accurately referred to under the ugly names of prejudice or bigotry. In this case, dear reader, the particular flavor of ugliness is transphobia, plain and simple.
Of course, as the proud mother of a trans child, this gets my hackles up. But more than that, it terrifies me. How can I trust the world to give my child a fair shot when mainstream publications, even unabashedly left-leaning ones like The Stranger, hit us with “trans-friendly” fire? And what will happen to the transgender child whose parents are reading these articles and falling prey to their cleverly crafted fear-mongering? Will the child be taken seriously? Or will the worried parents, recalling those articles in well-respected publications that said it is likely just a passing phase, tell the child to cut it out and be quiet? If they do, the statistics don’t predict a pretty future, and it is not melodramatic to say we may have just lost yet another child.