Gieselman dumped the girlie name bestowed at birth, asked friends and teachers to use Rocko, the tough-sounding nickname friends had come up with, and told people to use “they” instead of “he” or “she.” “They” has become an increasingly popular substitute for “he” or “she” in the transgender community, and the University of Vermont, a public institution of some 12,700 students, has agreed to use it.
While colleges across the country have been grappling with concerns related to students transitioning from one gender to another, Vermont is at the forefront in recognizing the next step in identity politics: the validation of a third gender.
The university allows students like Gieselman to select their own identity — a new first name, regardless of whether they’ve legally changed it, as well as a chosen pronoun — and records these details in the campuswide information system so that professors have the correct terminology at their fingertips.
March through the institutions indeed. What interests me about this story is not that there are people who believe that they are some sort of third gender, but that a university formally recognizes it. This is the institutionalization of the revolution.
The New York Times, whence that story, wrote this past Sunday a story about an “agender” high school kid in the Bay Area who was set on fire on a public bus by teenage thugs. That atrocity, as horrible as it was, is not the most interesting thing about the story, at least not to me, nor is the point of the story, which is to contrast the life, and life experiences, of Sasha, the victim, with Richard, the kid who set Sasha’s skirt on fire. This is the part that I keep thinking about:
After reading a web comic called “Poly in Pictures,” which explores polyamory, gender, sexuality and orientation, Sasha, then a 16-year-old boy named Luke, began an epistemological investigation of gender identity, asking friends and family how they knew what their gender was.
“At first I just assumed that I was this heterosexual man, because I didn’t have any reason to assume otherwise,” Sasha said one afternoon last year, sitting on the Fleischmans’ red sofa by a window festooned with a chain of paper cranes. “But I started thinking, Well, am I a guy?” Most people told Sasha that they just knew what gender they were, but Sasha didn’t feel that way.
“And so I started identifying as genderqueer,” Sasha said. “For me, at least, genderqueer includes an aspect of questioning. And that was a big part of it for me. The fact that I was questioning my gender meant that I was genderqueer.”
Sasha’s parents, Karl Fleischman and Debbie Crandall, work in education, and their relationship with their only child has an affable ease. Karl, a college-radio D.J. turned public-school kindergarten teacher, is the shyer of the two, with a dry wit and a quick grin. Debbie, a bookkeeper at a private school, is more emotional and effusive. But while they embraced Sasha’s new name (chosen for its gender neutrality) and mostly remembered to use the preferred plural pronoun, “they,” to refer to their child, they still found Sasha’s rejection of gender a bit perplexing. (Telling Sasha’s story also poses a linguistic challenge, because English doesn’t offer a ready-made way to talk about people who identify as neither male nor female. Sasha prefers “they,” “it” or the invented gender-neutral pronoun “xe.” The New York Times does not use these terms to refer to individuals.)
“I’m trying to get my head around it,” Debbie admitted, two years into the change. “I understand coming out as gay or even trans. But this is harder for me to understand. I support them,” she said, referring to her child, “but I just don’t understand what it means.”
What interests me about all this is the role the broader culture plays in the manufacture of these identities in teenagers. A couple of years ago, Margaret Talbot wrote a fascinating piece in The New Yorker about this phenomenon. Excerpts:
Transgenderism has replaced homosexuality as the newest civil-rights frontier, and trans activists have become vocal and organized. Alice Dreger, a bioethicist and historian of science at Northwestern University, says, “The availability of intervention and the outspokenness of the transgender community are causing a lot more people to see themselves as transgender, and at younger ages.” A recent survey of thirty-five hundred transgender Americans found that, the younger the respondents, the more likely they were to have had “access to transgender people and resources at a young age,” and to have identified as trans at a young age. In a follow-up survey, more than two-thirds of the respondents between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two said that they had known other transgender people before adopting the identity themselves, compared with a quarter of those fifty-three and older.
A kid today who hasn’t met other transgender young people can readily find them in popular culture and social media. Such characters appear on “Glee” (naturally) and on “DeGrassi.” On the Internet, Tumblrs and Listservs and thousands of YouTube videos chronicle the gender transitions of teen-agers. Shot on blurry Webcams in the family basement or in jumbled, poster-covered bedrooms, they variously resemble diaries, instruction manuals, music videos, and manifestos. Last spring, Warren Beatty and Annette Bening’s child Stephen—born Kathlyn—attracted attention after making a video of himself for the site We Happy Trans. Stephen, then twenty and a sophomore at Sarah Lawrence College, explained that, at fourteen, he had “transitioned socially,” adopting his new name and attending school as a boy. His monologue was smart, whimsical, and laden with jargon. “I identify as a transman, a faggy queen, a homosexual, a queer, a nerdfighter, a writer, an artist, and a guy who needs a haircut,” he said. He revealed that he was taking testosterone while “presenting in a femme way,” adding, “It’s nice to finally be able to have my identity be legible to people.”
Skylar told me that “the Internet, and the fact that there are resources readily available,” had made a big difference in his decision to change gender. “That makes it much easier for ideas to spread,” he said. “And this is just another idea to be spread.”
This is just another idea to be spread. I think that is actually a profound insight — but a particularly devastating one for teenagers, in the grip of all the confusion, hormonal and otherwise, that they’re going through. Talbot continues, talking about another case, this one involving a mother she calls “Danielle,” and her daughter “Anna”:
Danielle, who was divorced, had younger children at home, too, and they readily accepted the proposition that their sister was trans. Anna was now using a male name—I’ll call him Aidan—and his siblings quickly adopted it. Danielle’s ex-husband, with whom she had a trying relationship, didn’t balk at Aidan’s switch, either. While Danielle was at her college reunion, on the East Coast, he took Aidan to a clinic that administered testosterone. But Danielle, a lawyer who had studied literary theory in graduate school, told me that she found herself puzzling over Aidan’s desire to transition: “I feel like a lot of these kids, including my daughter, might be going through identity struggles, a lot of them are trying on roles.” We were having coffee at a pie shop in the Mission, at a long communal table. (At one point, the college student who’d been studying across from us politely interrupted to say that she, too, was about to transition to male.) Talking about Aidan, Danielle slipped back and forth between “she” and “he,” saying, “I’m still not convinced that it’s a good idea to give hormones and assume that, in most cases, it will solve all their problems. I know the clinics giving them out think they’re doing something wonderful and saving lives. But a lot of these kids are sad for a variety of reasons. Maybe the gender feelings are the underlying cause, maybe not.”
Danielle said that she had met many teen-agers who seemed to regard their bodies as endlessly modifiable, through piercings, or tattoos, or even workout regimens. She wondered if sexual orientation was beginning to seem boring as a form of identity; gay people were getting married, and perhaps seemed too settled.
“The kids who are edgy and funky and drawn to artsy things—these are conversations that are taking place in dorm rooms,” Danielle said. “There are tides of history that wash in, and when they wash out they leave some people stranded. The drug culture of the sixties was like that and the sexual culture of the eighties, with AIDS. I think this could be the next wave like that, and I don’t want my daughter to be a casualty.”
Talbot reports that the media’s uncritical embrace of transgenderism carries with it serious risks for children and teenagers who will make decisions that cannot be reversed. Some of the kids who think they’re transgender may really be trying to process their emerging homosexuality:
There are people who are sympathetic to families with kids like Jazz but worry about the rush to adopt the trans identity. They point out that long-term studies of young children with gender dysphoria have found that only about fifteen per cent continue to have this feeling as adolescents and adults. …
Alice Dreger, the bioethicist, said, of cross-gender hormones and surgery, “These are not trivial medical interventions. You’re taking away fertility, in most cases. And how do you really know who you are before you’re sexual? No child, with gender dysphoria or not, should have to decide who they are that early in life.” She continued, “I don’t mean to offend people who are truly transgender, but maybe a kid expresses a sense of being the opposite gender because cultural signals say girls don’t shoot arrows, or play rough, or wear boxers, or whatever. I’m concerned that we’re creating feedback loops in an attempt to be sympathetic. There was a child at my son’s preschool who, at the age of three, believed he was a train. Not that he liked trains—he was a train. None of us said, ‘Yes, you’re a train.’ We’d play along, but it was clear we were humoring him. After a couple of years, he decided that what he wanted to be was an engineer.”
Go back to Skylar’s claim: This is just another idea to be spread. What happens when those in authority — parents and institutions — accept the idea too, or are made to feel that if they question it, they are bigots? This is where we are headed. If Skylar is right, and this is an “idea,” then its truthfulness, its validity, is also questionable, and debatable. Except you cannot do that, because increasingly, this idea is interwoven with personal identity; to reject the idea, or even to critique the idea, is construed as rejecting the person.
To be clear, I don’t think pretending that a kid isn’t struggling with gender dysphoria is any kind of answer, nor is flat-out forcing the kid to deny those struggles. I’m not denying that gender dysphoria is a real thing. What I question is the way we take it up as an idea in society, and in particular, how that meme affects teenagers.
We don’t know where this vast social experiment will take us. But we are going to find out.