New York magazine writer Jesse Singal has for some time been a voice of balance and sanity on the transgender issue. In The Atlantic, he just published a long, thoughtful report about what to do when children say that they are trans. The piece included interviews with “detransitioners” — people who had transitioned to the opposite gender, but who returned to their birth sex. It opens with the story of “Claire,” a teenage girl who came to believe that she was in fact a boy. She began to harangue her parents to get her on hormones and a double mastectomy. They hemmed and hawed. Excerpt:
Claire humored her parents, even as her frustration with them mounted. Eventually, though, something shifted. In a journal entry Claire wrote last November, she traced her realization that she wasn’t a boy to one key moment. Looking in the mirror at a time when she was trying to present in a very male way—at “my baggy, uncomfortable clothes; my damaged, short hair; and my depressed-looking face”—she found that “it didn’t make me feel any better. I was still miserable, and I still hated myself.” From there, her distress gradually began to lift. “It was kind of sudden when I thought: You know, maybe this isn’t the right answer—maybe it’s something else,” Claire told me. “But it took a while to actually set in that yes, I was definitely a girl.”
Claire believes that her feeling that she was a boy stemmed from rigid views of gender roles that she had internalized. “I think I really had it set in stone what a guy was supposed to be like and what a girl was supposed to be like. I thought that if you didn’t follow the stereotypes of a girl, you were a guy, and if you didn’t follow the stereotypes of a guy, you were a girl.” She hadn’t seen herself in the other girls in her middle-school class, who were breaking into cliques and growing more gossipy. As she got a bit older, she found girls who shared her interests, and started to feel at home in her body.
Heather thinks that if she and Mike had heeded the information they found online, Claire would have started a physical transition and regretted it later. These days, Claire is a generally happy teenager whose mental-health issues have improved markedly. She still admires people, like Miles McKenna, who benefited from transitioning. But she’s come to realize that’s just not who she happens to be.
Singal reports that the culture surrounding transgenderism — medical, activist, media — marginalizes voices that question whether or not transitioning is the right thing for all gender dysphoric kids:
The leading professional organizations offer this guidance. But some clinicians are moving toward a faster process. And other resources, including those produced by major LGBTQ organizations, place the emphasis on acceptance rather than inquiry. The Human Rights Campaign’s “Transgender Children & Youth: Understanding the Basics” web page, for example, encourages parents to seek the guidance of a gender specialist. It also asserts that “being transgender is not a phase, and trying to dismiss it as such can be harmful during a time when your child most needs support and validation.” Similarly, parents who consult the pages tagged “transgender youth” on glaad’s site will find many articles about supporting young people who come out as trans but little about the complicated diagnostic and developmental questions faced by the parents of a gender-exploring child.
HRC, glaad, and like-minded advocacy groups emphasize the acceptance of trans kids for understandable reasons: For far too long, parents, as well as clinicians, denied the possibility that trans kids and teens even existed, let alone that they should be allowed to transition. Many such organizations are primarily concerned with raising awareness and correcting still-common misconceptions.
A similar motive seems to animate much of the media coverage of transgender young people. Two genres of coverage have emerged. Dating back at least to the 1993 murder of the Nebraska 21-year-old Brandon Teena, which inspired a documentary as well as the film Boys Don’t Cry, a steady stream of horror stories has centered on bullying, physical assault, and suicide—real risks that transgender and gender-nonconforming (TGNC) young people still face.
Singal reports that the experiences of adults who transition is different from that of young people, because young people are so unformed. There could be many different causes for the dysphoric feelings children and teens have, and kids that young are not good judges of what’s best for them. Singal tells the story of Max Robinson, born female, transitioned as a teenager into a male identity (hormones, double mastectomy), but who found that it did not solve her problems:
Max was initially happy with the results of her physical transformation. Before surgery, she wasn’t able to fully pass as male. After surgery, between her newly masculinized chest and the facial hair she was able to grow thanks to the hormones, she felt like she had left behind the sex she had been assigned at birth. “It felt like an accomplishment to be seen the way I wanted to be seen,” she told me.
But that feeling didn’t last. After her surgery, Max moved from her native California to Portland and threw herself into the trans scene there. It wasn’t a happy home. The clarity of identity she was seeking—and that she’d felt, temporarily, after starting hormones and undergoing surgery—never fully set in. Her discomfort didn’t go away.
Today, Max identifies as a woman. She believes that she misinterpreted her sexual orientation, as well as the effects of the misogyny and trauma she had experienced as a young person, as being about gender identity. Because of the hormone therapy, she still has facial hair and is frequently mistaken for male as a result, but she has learned to live with this: “My sense of self isn’t entirely dependent on how other people see me.”
Max believes that the medical personnel who treated her did her a disservice, pushing her towards transition. Singal reports that this is happening more and more, and that within the trans community, one isn’t allowed to have second thoughts, or conflicting thoughts:
Within a subset of trans advocacy, however, desistance isn’t viewed as a phenomenon we’ve yet to fully understand and quantify but rather as a myth to be dispelled. Those who raise the subject of desistance are often believed to have nefarious motives—the liberal outlet ThinkProgress, for example, referred to desistance research as “the pernicious junk science stalking trans kids,” and a subgenre of articles and blog posts attempts to debunk “the desistance myth.” But the evidence that desistance occurs is overwhelming. The American Psychological Association, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Endocrine Society, and Wpath all recognize that desistance occurs. I didn’t speak with a single clinician who believes otherwise. “I’ve seen it clinically happen,” Nate Sharon said. “It’s not a myth.”
Despite this general agreement, Edwards-Leeper worries that treatment practices are trending toward an interpretation of affirming care that entails nodding along with children and adolescents who say they want physical interventions rather than evaluating whether they are likely to benefit from them.
A decade ago, the opposite was true. “I was constantly having to justify why we should be offering puberty-blocking medication, why we should be supporting these trans youth to get the services they need,” Edwards-Leeper recalled. “People thought this was just crazy, and thought the four-hour evaluations I was doing were, too—how could that possibly be enough to decide whether to go forward with the medical intervention? That was 2007, and now the questions I get are ‘Why do you make people go through any kind of evaluation?’ And ‘Why does mental health need to be involved in this?’ And ‘We should just listen to what the kids say and listen to what the adolescents say and basically just treat them like adults.’ ”
And yes, social contagion is a part of this:
But some anecdotal evidence suggests that social forces can play a role in a young person’s gender questioning. “I’ve been seeing this more frequently,” Laura Edwards-Leeper wrote in an email. Her young clients talk openly about peer influence, saying things like Oh, Steve is really trans, but Rachel is just doing it for attention. Scott Padberg did exactly this when we met for lunch: He said there are kids in his school who claim to be trans but who he believes are not. “They all flaunt it around, like: ‘I’m trans, I’m trans, I’m trans,’ ” he said. “They post it on social media.”
I heard a similar story from a quirky 16-year-old theater kid who was going by the nickname Delta when we spoke. She lives outside Portland, Oregon, with her mother and father. A wave of gender-identity experimentation hit her social circle in 2013. Suddenly, it seemed, no one was cisgender anymore. Delta, who was 13 and homeschooled, soon announced to her parents that she was genderqueer, then nonbinary, and finally trans. Then she told them she wanted to go on testosterone. Her parents were skeptical, both because of the social influence they saw at work and because Delta had anxiety and depression, which they felt could be contributing to her distress. But when her mother, Jenny, sought out information, she found herself in online parenting groups where she was told that if she dragged her feet about Delta’s transition, she was potentially endangering her daughter. “Any questioning brought down the hammer on you,” she told me.
Delta’s therapist said that before they jumped into a treatment protocol that would result in irreversible changes to Delta’s body, that they first treat her depression and other things. Result: Delta’s dysphoria resolved itself. Had they rushed into transitioning, terrible damage could have been done.
Singal’s article is quite long and nuanced; read the whole thing. It’s bottom line is this: there’s so very much we don’t know about transitioning, especially about the psychology of children, adolescents, and teens. Therefore, we should slow down, because the consequences for kids who undergo these procedures are radical and irreversible.
Trans activists and their allies are going berserk over the article. A typical tweet from a transgender:
If you wonder if there’s anyone who I dislike more than the Nazis who assaulted me and nearly killed me, there is at least one person and his name is Jesse Singal.
— Emily G kmii (@EmilyGorcenski) June 18, 2018
Why does this guy have such a vested interest in reporting on trans issues, even when so many trans women—including Julia motherfu*king Serano, author of the seminal transfeminist text, Whipping Girl—keep telling him to stop? Why does he insist on covering these stories for no discernable reason? Seriously! What’s his fu*king deal???
Gosh. Trans people are telling this journalist to stop, and HE JUST WON’T STOP DOING JOURNALISM! What is the world coming to?!?
The writer of that Jezebel piece speculates on personal deficiencies that explain Jesse Singal’s inexcusable refusal to conform his journalism to the party line. A note at the end invites anonymous tips about Jesse Singal.
Jesse Singal is a brave man. These fanatics are out to destroy him. Let the rest of us take a lesson from this story — a lesson about this movement, its aims, its tactics, and its useful idiots in the media, whose number does not include the brave and diligent Jesse Singal.
UPDATE: Mrs DK comments:
Parents like those of us going through this, in our ever growing support group, consider this article a real breakthrough.
Think about it. No doctor, no endocrinologist, no mental health professional can tell me that my 19-year-old autistic daughter who is injecting testosterone won’t turn out to be a detransitioner. She says that she’s “really a guy”, since she “prefers male pronouns”. Every parent in my support group says that their daughter says the same thing — a statement that would be unthinkable to every person of common sense not that many years ago. She fits the bill of the 4thwavenow stereotype who is transitioning due to social contagion.
Her voice has already broken, and what testosterone is doing to her internal organs is serious enough that she will have to have a hysterectomy to avoid a higher cancer risk if she continues injecting. She can’t even buy a legal alcoholic drink for another two years, yet her university prescribed these non-FDA-approved hormones so she can be her “true self”, based on no objective tests whatsoever.
I hope many find this article eye-opening. Welcome to our world — and thanks to Rod for continuing the discussion. As he’s pointed out, it’s not Christians and conservatives who have the biggest problem with what’s happening. Almost all the parents I know who are going through this are liberal — and they are also livid at the complete abdication of the educational, mental health, and medical communities (and their fellow liberals!) in the face of this.