I’ve been wanting to write something about transgender issues. I’m waiting for the static in my head around the issue to stop being so staticky, but the more I read and think about it, the louder it gets, so here goes. I usually work through these things by writing about them, anyway.
Let me begin with a revelation that shakes me to my core:
I find myself largely in agreement with this Ross Douthat column.
People? That never happens. Until now.
It’s paywalled, and I’ll clip/paste/summarize as best I can:
After laying out some rather eye-popping statistics — that 21 percent of Gen Z identifies as LGBT, he notes:
Here are three possible readings of these statistics. The first interpretation: This is great news. Sexual fluidity, transgender and nonbinary experience are clearly intrinsic to the human experience, our society used to suppress them with punitive heteronormativity and only now are we getting a true picture of the real diversity of sexual attractions and gender identities. (Just as, for example, we discovered that left-handedness is much more common once we stopped trying to train kids out of it.)
So the response from society should be sustained encouragement, especially if you care about teenage mental health: This newly awakened diversity should be supported from the time it first makes itself manifest, at however young an age, and to the extent that parents feel uncomfortable with their children’s true selves, it’s the task of educators and schools to support the kid, not to defer to parental anxiety or bigotry.
The second interpretation: We shouldn’t read too much into it. This trend is probably mostly just young people being young people, exploring and experimenting and differentiating themselves from their elders. Most of the Generation Zers identifying as L.G.B.T. are calling themselves bisexual and will probably end up in straight relationships, if they aren’t in them already. Some of the young adults describing themselves as transgender or nonbinary may drift back to cisgender identities as they grow older.
So we shouldn’t freak out over their self-identification — but neither should we treat it as a definitive revelation about human nature or try to build new curriculums or impose certain rules atop a fluid and uncertain situation. Tolerance is essential; ideological enthusiasm is unnecessary.
A third interpretation: This trend is bad news. What we’re seeing today isn’t just a continuation of the gay rights revolution; it’s a form of social contagion which our educational and medical institutions are encouraging and accelerating. These kids aren’t setting themselves free from the patriarchy; they’re under the influence of online communities of imitation and academic fashions laundered into psychiatry and education — one part Tumblr and TikTok mimesis, one part Judith Butler.
There is no clear evidence that any of this is making kids happier or better adjusted; instead all we see is a worsening of teen mental health, blurring into a young-adult landscape where sex and relationships and marriage are on the wane. So what we need now is probably more emphasis on biology, normativity and reconciliation with your own maleness or femaleness, not further deconstruction.
I find myself solidly in Camp #2. Like most people I know, the second interpretation fits with my direct experience and observation. I have known trans people, know them now, see elements of it in younger people, and even in the young children of people I know. I am happy, proud even, to support trans people in every way I can. I’ll use whatever names or pronouns they might want, treat them with respect. Share a bathroom. Hell, share a locker room if that’s the ask. It seems pretty simple to me, very live-and-let-live. People exist across a broad, vast spectrum of individuality, and that’s what makes them so wonderful.
That said, I am uncomfortable with some of the radical treatments being made available to children, adolescents and even young adults. I’m talking surgery, hormones, puberty blockers, etc. I understand that an older trans man, weary of binding his chest, may opt for breast removal, and OK, your body, your choice. But I’m really leery of saying that to a 19-year-old, let alone a 14-year-old.
Here are some of the ideas and experiences that contribute to the static in my head these days. I offer them in no particular order, just as a slide show of my brain:
** Many conservatives like to say trans people are mentally ill. Having recently shared an evening with a trans woman (hi there, you know who you are), as well as many other encounters in recent years, I reject that out of hand. (Although I’m convinced this trans man has more than one screw loose, sorry. It’s impossible to look at the near-full-length photo of him, showing off the new, surgically constructed bulge in his tighty whities, and not see the enormous divot on his thigh, where the flesh to construct it was harvested, and not be appalled. That’s not to mention the still-obvious female waistline, and I shudder to think how that’s going to be rectified in some future operating room.) But mental illness? For living as a person of another gender? Sorry, no.
** I think back on, of all things, Edward Bodkin, whom you can google, although Hoosiers will remember him as the Huntington Castrator. In the less-edified fog of the late ’90s, there was lots of discussion as to who, exactly, would seek out the castration services of a man who practiced his craft on a filthy kitchen table. As I recall, the easiest answer was transgender women who couldn’t afford the services of a reputable surgeon. I also recall one of my colleagues hanging up the phone after an extended interview with the editor of some fetish magazine — was it Ball Club? Something like that — and coming over to my desk, rather shaken, for a debrief. The gist of the interview was basically that body dysmorphia is real, that it doesn’t always break down along clear gender lines, and that for whatever reason, some men might want to kiss their testicles goodbye.
** Not long after that, the Atlantic published a long story about people who seek out amputation of healthy limbs, sometimes by mangling the ones they have in self-inflicted injuries, out of nothing more than a sense that they are meant to be amputees.
** I’ve been told most people do not regret assuming genders other than those assigned at birth. I accept that. But I reject that this number is so overwhelmingly large that those who do have second thoughts are outliers we can disregard. This essay, recently published in the WashPost, seems noteworthy:
When I was 19, I had surgery for sex reassignment, or what is now called gender affirmation surgery. The callow young man who was obsessed with transitioning to womanhood could not have imagined reaching middle age. But now I’m closer to 50, keeping a watchful eye on my 401(k), and dieting and exercising in the hope that I’ll have a healthy retirement.
In terms of my priorities and interests today, that younger incarnation of myself might as well have been a different person — yet that was the person who committed me to a lifetime set apart from my peers.
There is much debate today about transgender treatment, especially for young people. Others might feel differently about their choices, but I know now that I wasn’t old enough to make that decision. Given the strong cultural forces today casting a benign light on these matters, I thought it might be helpful for young people, and their parents, to hear what I wish I had known.
There follows a list of regrets, and they boil down to: I wish I’d been able to come to terms with my homosexuality. She concludes:
What advice would I pass on to young people seeking transition? Learning to fit in your body is a common struggle. Fad diets, body-shaping clothing and cosmetic surgery are all signs that countless millions of people at some point have a hard time accepting their own reflection. The prospect of sex can be intimidating. But sex is essential in healthy relationships. Give it a chance before permanently altering your body.
Most of all, slow down. You may yet decide to make the change. But if you explore the world by inhabiting your body as it is, perhaps you’ll find that you love it more than you thought possible.
One reason I am sympathetic to this view is my direct experience with a member of our commenting community here. Alex commented on this essay:
If I’d been given the opportunity to change genders at adolescence, I would have gone for it. After a dozen or so years of psychoanalytic work as an adult, I’m glad I didn’t. The counseling I underwent taught me many things, but perhaps most important of all, to accept myself as I am. My identity is no longer tied up in the arbitrarily rigid gender norms that I grew up with, and I find this so much more liberating than if I had gone under the knife and endured a lifetime medical regimen in order to conform to a physical ideal that I would have fallen short of anyway.
Gender fluidity is a state of mind, and a perfectly healthy one that needs no surgical augmentation.
Honestly, I think no one can make an informed choice who hasn’t had a sex life or gained significant social maturity beyond young adulthood. Not an easy message to impress upon young people who fervently believe that a sex change is the one thing they need in order to find fulfilment when they’ve gotten it from nothing else. But I’m willing to go out on a limb and risk being called a stodgy old fart and a buzzkill if I can persuade even one young person to reconsider. Next to getting myself some good counseling, it was the best decision I ever made.
Alex and I exchanged a few emails over “In the Darkroom,” Susan Faludi’s outstanding memoir of her reconciliation and short-lived relationship with her estranged father, following his gender change. I won’t share them; if Alex wants to, he knows where to do it. I highly recommend the book, by the way.
** Conversations with gay men on this topic all seem to end, maybe after a drink or three, with a lowered voice, a glance around to see who might overhear, and a confession that while they are supportive, etc., they sure seem to know a lot of hot-mess trans people. Maybe that’s because they’re treated so badly by others, so misunderstood. It can’t be easy.
** I know I’ll clash with some of you over this, but I’m a feminist who wonders why, once again, women are carrying most of the burden for all this societal enlightenment. Yes, I’m talking about That Swimmer, but also the issues J.K. Rowling is raising: What about women’s prisons? Domestic-violence shelters? What about…identity? Graham Linehan is affirmatively anti-trans, but it can be useful to check in with these folks from time to time. Do scroll through his recounting of the story of Jaclyn Moore, and make your own conclusions.
I’ve known radical feminists who are deeply offended by drag culture, who find it, at base, a mockery of womanhood. I’m not among them, but I feel that way about Jaclyn Moore, sorry.
** Speaking of identity, you know another bad actor in all this? The fucking Kardashians, who have steamrolled through the culture with this insane version of femininity that, had I confronted it at age 14 or so, might have made me call myself non-binary, too. The plastic surgery, the dieting, the fucking waist trainers, the laxative teas, the injections of fillers and plumpers and slimmers and all the rest of it — just fuck them all the way out of town. They are not helping. Has femininity always been this rigid? I thought we’d learned something during the ’70s, and here we are 50 years later, making the same mistakes.
** Language. Oy, the language. Here’s my declaration: I will never, ever be able to say “pregnant people” or “menstruating people” with a straight face. Never mind the they/them stuff. You should hear me talking to Kate about some of her friends, it’s like the who’s-on-first routine: “They’re going with you? X and who else?” etc. Language should make messages clear. This language does not.
Finally, I guess my conclusions are that I have no conclusions. I just have static. Some people are indeed walking around in a body that feels all wrong, and if they accommodate it in some way that doesn’t hurt others, that’s perfectly fine. Young people should be in counseling, maybe for years, before they undergo surgery or drugs that will leave them forever changed. And that’s it for me, for today. How’s everyone else doing today?