Trans Children Have Always Been Here
As legal efforts to eliminate trans youth ramp up, we must remember that being trans has always been part of childhood
I came out to my husband as nonbinary on my 38th birthday. It was, by anyone’s standards, a late transition, delayed in part because I’d spent more than a year privately agonizing about whether to do it. So many of the trans stories I’d heard from the media were about rejection, divorce, the loss of family. I had a loving marriage and a three-year-old; I was terrified of being single again or losing my relationship with my child.
I thought I would have to blow up my entire adult life in order to transition, and that thought alone was almost enough to stop me. The only way to avoid that fear would have been to build a trans life for myself before adulthood hit. That, in turn, would only be possible if I’d begun seriously exploring my gender the first time the question presented itself — which, for the record, was before preschool. At three years old, I believed myself to be a boy, and it was a shock to learn other people thought differently. At 13, I gave myself a buzz cut and refused to wear girls’ clothing or makeup. At 16, I ran off into the woods with other teenagers and secretly used a male name and pronouns for myself whenever we were together; some of those kids would also go on to transition in adulthood, and they used their chosen names with me, too. At 20, having met adult trans men at college, I told my boyfriend that I might want to try some new pronouns or a more comfortable way of presenting.
That boyfriend, let’s say, did not respond well. I could have transitioned at many points throughout my life, but each time something stopped me: corrected by adults, shamed by classmates, rejected by partners, just plain convinced of my own craziness by a culture that contained no images of people like me. Even the specific kind of transition I needed wasn’t clear until a few years ago, when images of nonbinary trans people became more visible in the mainstream. I tell you this not to issue invites to the pity party — my husband and I are more in love than ever, and the kid is just fine, thank you — but because trans children have become such a flashpoint that people tend to forget we’ve always been here. You just couldn’t see us until now.
Transphobes have, in recent years, been obsessively concentrated on trans children, framing young people as somehow uniquely prone to being corrupted by the “trans agenda.” It’s been a successful tactic for pushing anti-trans legislation that would be obviously discriminatory if aimed at adults; in the U.K., where organized transphobia is only slightly more entrenched than it is here, a court ruling found that children under 16 were not “competent to give consent” to puberty-blocking medication and could only obtain it under court order. Teenagers can still consent to most medical procedures in the U.K., but transition, specifically, is supposedly beyond their power to comprehend.
Pundits on both sides of the Atlantic have pushed the idea that trans identity is a teenage problem, typical adolescent discontent gone wild and viral. “Journalist” Abigail Shrier’s transphobic manifesto Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters frames transmasculine teenagers as the deluded victims of some bizarre new fad, as if gender transition belonged to the same class of human experience as eating Tide pods. Trans-obsessed columnist Jesse Singal has written approvingly about parents who cut off trans teens’ internet access to prevent them from learning about themselves or finding support. Both Shrier and Singal rely on the myth of “rapid-onset gender dysphoria,” a pathological-sounding name for several trans children in a friend group coming out at around the same time, as if children have not always chosen their friends on the basis of having important things in common.
When you deny trans children information, you aren’t making them cisgender. You’re just making confused trans kids.
The knee-jerk association of trans politics with younger people is so deep that whole classes of transgender identity — nonbinary identities specifically — are written off as faddish, silly products of youth culture, adopted for “attention” or social status. “Gender has become trendy, and being something other than female or male sounds exotic,” says Debrah Soh in the right-wing publication Quillette; this sort of identity-as-fashion-statement “could be expected in young people and especially teenagers.”
Again: I am as middle-aged and settled and uncool as anyone on the planet. I am also nonbinary, and I always have been. When I got high on second-wave feminist theory in high school and proclaimed that womanhood was a social construct and my inner nature was genderless, I was talking about nonbinary identity; I was just using the only language I knew, which wasn’t sufficient. I knew kids who earnestly floated “magic” as an explanation. When you deny trans children information, you aren’t making them cisgender. You’re just making confused trans kids.
So, while it’s true that younger generations are substantially more likely to transition, this probably doesn’t reflect a higher proportion of trans people in that age group. It just means that more young people know the relevant concepts and feel socially supported enough to transition. The rise in trans and nonbinary youth has been accompanied by a second wave of adults transitioning as their formerly unheard-of identities are normalized; high-profile “thems” now include everyone from 33-year-old Elliot Page to 70-year-old Eileen Myles. It is increasingly possible to envision a future where being trans or nonbinary is as unexceptional as being left-handed. In that world, conversion therapy for trans children will seem as barbaric and nonsensical as the stories about left-handed children who had their hands strapped to their desks until they learned to write “correctly.”
The Shriers and Singals of the world aim to prevent that future with disinformation campaigns. By framing trans children as diseased, deluded, and contagious, they’ve paved the way for a legal agenda that aims to eliminate those children entirely. Two U.S. states are currently proposing laws to criminalize trans healthcare for minors, and at least eight other states have tried. Other states aim to forcibly recloset trans children by shaming them, like the legislation to ban trans students from playing on the right sports teams, or the Oregon case claiming that allowing trans students to use the correct bathrooms would compromise cis students’ right to privacy. These efforts have so far failed — the Supreme Court refused to hear the Oregon case this past Monday — but the balance is more fragile than you’d think, and the transphobic agenda has much more wide-ranging ambitions than you’d suppose. In the wake of the U.K.’s puberty-blocker ruling, TERFs immediately began arguing that “the promotion of transgender issues on social media” should be criminalized as well.
The common activist response has been to say that these bills will kill children, and that’s true: The suicide rates for transgender teens are horrifyingly high. Yet having to put it in those terms somehow belies the real human cost. Trans people are forced to perform extremes of suffering to prove that we have a right to exist, as if only the utmost agony could excuse the otherwise unforgivable act of transition. Lots of trans people have been suicidal, including me, but not all trans people die. Lots of us just wind up in the position I was in on my 38th birthday — lonely, depressed, uncomfortable with other people, uncomfortable with ourselves, with a lifetime of relationships that didn’t work, with a history of drinking too much or getting high or playing video games for 24 hours straight to escape our bodies, tense and angry and tired, navigating every social interaction as if we’re playing piano blindfolded at gunpoint, but too afraid to do anything about it, because actually being happy might mean losing our jobs or our friends or the people we love. This is a livable condition. You don’t die from it, at least not right away. It’s just that it’s also not how anyone should live.
This is the goal of the moral panic around trans children: Telling trans people they’re “too young” to transition until the day they can tell us we’re “too old,” or until the day we believe we have no other option but to stay closeted for life. Banning trans childhood will not make a single child less trans, but it will potentially push those kids into the kind of denial and self-loathing that leads to worse lives and later, messier self-acceptance. Many will kill themselves, whether overtly or through the slow death of substance abuse. Others may lead long, transitionless lives that are miserable from beginning to end. None will be as happy as they might have been if they’d been allowed to explore their gender the first time it came up. It is never too late to transition, but in my experience, it is also never too early to take it seriously when a child says they might be trans.
As long as we frame trans childhood as a pathology, someone will always try to peddle a “cure.” But being trans is normal. It’s always been part of childhood, and it always will be. Trans children aren’t the problem, and they don’t need fixing. What needs fixing is the world that has refused to let them grow up into themselves.