The topics of gender identity, transgendered people, sexuality, preferred pronouns – these topics saturate the political and media landscapes of late. We stand surrounded by the varied hues of the plethora of flags. Flags beyond plenty; vexillological monstrosities granting you acknowledgement of your innermost desires and preferences – most while disregarding the basic principles of design. Perhaps it should be so – after all, trans folks, non-binary people, the rainbow of human sexuality and identity – has been denied by the mainstream for many years, or at the very least, looked-askance at. At long last, large swaths of the population are beginning to reckon with the fact that the bichromatic rainbow that they had assumed filled all skies actually contains far more colors than are dreamt of in their philosophies.
Well and good, I say. The light of empathy puts the crumbling mores of social conservatives into relief. The rights of – broadly – gender nonconforming people¹ – their individuality, their sexuality, their very being seems to me to be completely without reasonable objection of any sort. A lot of this panic currently centers around kids, because while conservatives rightly realize they’re starting to fight an uphill battle vis a vis the rights of adults, “won’t somebody think of the children” works for moral panics of all sorts, and has for many years. We owe a special moral obligation to children to protect them, as a vulnerable population, and it’s all too-easy for conservative fuckwits to twist this obligation into a meritless argument for denying trans minors their rights.
The conservative hand-wringing over gender-affirming care, children using bathrooms that differ from the ones they were assigned at birth and (especially) pronouns is misplaced anxiety over a changing world and gender identity landscape. Like most moral panics, it will mostly succumb to time with a small, ossified minority of small, ossified people who will never cede their bigotry and will continue existing, fuming quietly by the sidelines.
We, society, owe it children to let them be who they feel they are in their hearts. All people deserve safety and security, and when one lives as a member of a group represented in a Twitter photo surrounded by angry white men holding hammers (to really double down on the distastefulness) while a government official crows “LOL” at it, well… it’s reasonable to assume you may need to check your six more than the average sleeveless knitwear-wearing old who’s had one too many daiquiris coming out of TGI Fridays. Trans and LGBT people (and youth in particular) have higher risks for depression and suicide, and are more at risk for intimate partner violence and bigotry from the general population. Even a young child who feels like they were mis-gendered at birth and who feels like a boy or a girl when their body parts don’t match that feeling should be allowed to explore that identity, use the restroom they feel matches their gender, wear dresses and lacy socks, or ripped jeans, or a bikini or swim trunks or high heels or cowboy boots or a tutu and not receive flak for it. Their preferred pronouns should be respected. Their parents should receive the support of the healthcare system. Their teachers should support them, their government should recognize them, and state legislators should stop spreading demonstrably false, idiotic rumors about litter boxes at schools. The monstrous cruelty with which various “conservative” government officials treat trans and LGBT people, and in particular children, is beyond the pale.
Governor Abbot can get fucked. There’s simply no way I can overstate this.
There is another aspect of this debate to consider, though. Children are – by definition – immature. Of course, we know young people are physically immature; they are, after all, quite short. Emotional maturity is more invisible, harder to quantify, and easier to overestimate, particularly when they profess to share beliefs that we do. Perhaps in part this is because our collective egos are stoked by ostensible conspicuous progressiveism, or perhaps it’s because society places a magical – and just as useless – Blue Verified Checkmark of “LEGAL ADULTHOOD” directly beside age eighteen. Pick a popular show that features 30-somethings playing high school students and witness conversations with more pathos than ten Shakespearean plays – the trope of the emotionally-mature and intensely smart teenager is all over the place. I think it’s difficult for people who do not have any children – as in living with them, full time – to understand the sheer inanity that kids – AND teenagers – are capable of. Their brains are still growing, their emotions and their emotional responses are still ruled to a greater or lesser extent by the passions of the moment – food, comfort, convenience, pleasure. This is especially true of teens going through puberty; their emotions and actions can be even more volatile and inscrutable than a toddler’s.
Crucially, most teenagers – and here I’m referring to middle and high school kids, around age twelve to seventeen – are discovering a capacity for self-direction and separating themselves from the opinions and wishes of their parents, often in a deliberately provocative way. This is appropriate and expected. Teenagers are going to have opinions – strong ones, on all the things we expect adults to have opinions on: things they care about, things they have to do and things they get to do, the broad contours of society, their friends, their parents, leadership and authority figures, food, music…all that makes us humans. We do not, and should not, expect these opinions to be informed, because there’s simply no way they could be. Most teenagers lack the life experience of most adults. Exceptions exist, of course – but the circumstances of those exceptions tend toward tragedy.
And teenagers play, like all people. They play with language, and slang, and clothing, and everything else in their lives at the moment. Relatedly, they tend to be more open to new experiences, new ways of thinking, than the adults in their lives. Again, this is not unexpected. Adults in positions to have similar life experiences will, by virtue of their being older, tend to have had more experiences and the time to contextualize them. Adults know what they like, what they don’t like, etc. The cumulative experiences of adults gives them perspectives that children lack.
You can see where this is going, or rather, where it has arrived. Against the backdrop of a stupid and drummed-up “culture war” issue we have children coming of age, who are open to new experiences and identities and also interested in stickin’ it to The Man. Some of their friends might be gay or bisexual, or trans, or trying a new pronoun, and now – because teenagers want to fit in and experiment – they want to try the New Hot Things.
And try them they do. As kids become more aware of the various sexualities and identities that they can be, the temptation to start trying them on like hats, regardless of their actual sexuality, seems to become irresistible. To be clear, this is fine. Teens are going to explore their sexuality in the ways that they can, or the ways they can get away with, whether that is seeing if they feel more comfortable as a boy or a girl or as neither of those, or exploring feelings for the same sex, or whatever. Exploration is good and healthy. This is, if you will, progress.
However, and especially in the more politically-progressive circles of society that I tend to exist in, there is an unfortunate tendency for schools – and certain parents – to place more weight onto some of these experiments than I think is warranted, and I further think that – at times – our tendency to extend respect to the experiments is misguided. And there are negative social reactions, which I think are inappropriate, to not “buying into” these experiments.
Preferred pronouns are an excellent example. Pronouns typically change when a gender-nonconforming person requests that they do; when they feel that the old pronoun no longer applies to the person that they are. This is good and proper. In the past few years, though, middle and high school culture has latched onto this concept, but has adopted (perhaps while even having correctly understood the way gender non-conforming people use it) in a superficial, shallow way. At our kid’s previous school, there was a girl² who decided on new pronouns about once a week, until settling on what she called “mirror pronouns” where her preferred pronouns were whatever the speakers’ was.
This…is not how people talk or use language, constantly switching the pronoun (or noun) based on who’s doing the talking. That said, languages change, and they evolve, and if this person really felt in their heart of hearts that people using mirror pronouns made them feel happy and accepted and validated, then I would do my level best to accommodate that. But, there must be an understanding that that is a significant departure from the norm of how we use language, and it is asking a lot of people to request them to change up…basically how we use language in every other context. And it is, I think, unreasonable to expect society at large to bend itself to how you want to be addressed when it falls so out of line with how we use language to address and describe people.
Accommodating someone’s sincerely-held beliefs can be a good thing – looking askance at you, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. But, I have significant doubts that this child felt truly and authentically represented and seen by people respecting her “mirror pronouns”, a concept I have only heard of from this one person in all my years. It’s also worth noting that this this is a single child with parents who – as far as I could tell – cater to most of her desires and whimsy, without ever taking a step back to evaluate whether there was an appropriate boundary to be found between acknowledging a child’s whims and endorsement of them. Does this mean that all people who want to use mirror pronouns are, in some sense, “faking it”? Certainly not. Maybe (probably?) there are people to whom that sort of language would help them feel seen and accepted. But that’s sort of what makes the almost fawning approval by parents of teens going “against the grain” in ways that don’t feel wholly authentic really irritating. I don’t think they’re being authentic, because authenticity takes time to establish, and one loses credibility when one cannot seem to make up their mind. It degrades what is still an ongoing battle with people who actually feel very different from how their body is or was, and makes a mockery of it. It reads, to me, as a form of imaginative play, which is fine, but which does not rise to the level of needing to be taken seriously by adults. To be clear, there are moments when these sorts of things are serious, and those should be taken seriously. But not every – or even most – instances of pronoun choice are that, especially among children to whom such a concept is a fascinating novelty.
Similarly, another idea that middle and high schoolers have latched onto is the idea of choosing names, an idea that – as near as I can tell – they picked up from the trans community, including the concept of a “dead name”: a name that, for a trans person living as their preferred identity, represents a previous and sometimes painful version of themselves. Middle and high school students have decided that, because trans people choose names for a new and liberating version of their own sexuality, they similarly can choose a new name for themselves, with the attendant outrage for people choosing to call them by their birth name. To bring up another example from our kids’ previous school, one student decided that henceforth, she would be known as “Ghost”. Feeling, of course, that this was a silly name even for a comic book character, I referred to this child by her given name. Dear reader, I was immediately informed that this was her “dead name”, and that I should respect her chosen name, and that it was cruel on a level of not respecting a trans person’s new identity to not respect this girl’s chosen name. My eyes, had they been able to, would have leaped from their sockets and rolled, like a pair of dice flung by a craps player, across the table.
This is patently ridiculous. Trans people have actually been murdered for being trans, they face incredible uphill battles in terms of their acceptance within society, positive representation in all sorts of media, and a generalized phobia from the population at large. Conversely, this is a group of mostly white kids from mostly upper-middle class homes who decided that, because they heard about a thing, and because it’s somewhat of a fad amongst teenagers to be anything other than cisgendered and heterosexual, to adopt the gravity and seriousness of a transgendered person transitioning to a new version of themselves to essentially play-act.
Again, playing is not the issue here; I don’t care whether teenagers want to choose nicknames for themselves, and I don’t care they want to – informally, or among their friends – play with their gender identity. What I am against is pressure on teachers to address students by their “chosen name”, and I am against the idea that it rises to the level of insult if they do not want to. I’m against taking seriously pronouns that change on a daily basis and with no apparent relationship to how the person really feels inside, and putting social pressure on other people to respect these chosen names and mirror pronouns of children who are playing. These are not usually good-faith requests made because the child feels deeply about their sexual orientation or because they really feel in their heart that they are “Ghost”, and teachers and other adults should not be forced or pressured into respecting such play. Parents give names to their children for matters of practicality, for reasons of family tradition, honoring ancestors or loved ones, or any other number of personal reasons. These reasons do have weight: they don’t override all preferences, of course, but they’re not worthless considerations, either.
Children, and teenagers, want attention, they want to put themselves out there as different and cool. But just as when our younger children play pretend we as adults do not typically stop what we’re doing to join in the fantasy, there is no reason for adults to indulge this sort of exploration with grave seriousness and buy-in. To provide a similar example: parents should provide a listening ear and empathy when a teenager talks about serious topics like their school romances, because that’s a healthy and expected part of growing up. But it goes beyond reason to be heavily emotionally invested in these or go out of their way to encourage them, because they tend not to last and we realize – and to a certain extent, the kids do, too – that they’re short-lived and experimental.
Language isn’t the only issue for concern here, either. There can be higher costs to rushing into things – for instance, emerging evidence points to puberty-blocking drugs having some unintended side effects. Finland and Sweden have both placed restrictions on the use of blockers, citing the bone-related risks, the steep rise in young patients, the psychiatric issues that many of them exhibit, and concerns over the degree to which their mental health should be assessed before treatment. I must be crystal-clear here: I am not “against” gender-affirming care for trans youth or children. But giving children life-changing drugs and therapies must be done with the utmost caution, and with research ducks in neat rows. It should go without saying that I believe politics has no place in this area – these are purely medical issues to be researched and have recommendations issues by medical experts, not woo-y parents of “Indigo Children” or moist GOP dog turds like Abbot…and not even by children wishing to transition. It is for medical professionals to research and understand the uses of drugs and medicines. When decisions are made, it must be a team effort between informed parents, informed kids, and doctors and medical experts who have done the research. A perfect example of this sort of care are the drugs used to treat depression or other mental health disorders. They are, indeed, life-saving for some people who need them, and life-changing for many others, in good ways. They are absolutely a tool in our toolbox. But with power comes the potential for danger if they are over-used or used irresponsibly. Nobody but the medical community and the patients in collaboration with their parents has any business making those decisions, but those thorny issues still exist. To do otherwise is irresponsible. We need not rush into non-researched waters just because the other side is foaming at the mouth to grab their AR-15s and kill
trans children everybody.
If any of our children – younger or older – came to me and told me they didn’t feel like a boy, or a girl, or felt the opposite of their gender assigned at birth, or whatever – that would be a serious conversation that I would welcome. But parents also know their children, and if that teenage child had never before indicated feeling any of that before, and had many years of, in fact, conforming without any apparent discomfort to the gender they were assigned at birth and to their name, I might be skeptical, and that doesn’t make me or anyone else a bad parent. Because I don’t have any problem with a child being gay, or lesbian, or bisexual, or transgendered, or anything else. As it is, when one of our children did come out to us, it was neither a surprise nor a big deal. Kids do not wake up one day and go “I’m trans!” or “I’m gay!” or “I’m Ghost!”. They figure it out over time, and parents and teachers see the attendant changes and development that their kids are going through, and respond accordingly.
I am not interested in calling a teenager “Ghost” because I don’t have that relationship with her, and it’s not her name, and I don’t think it’s appropriate to force a teacher to buy into that, either. Asking all of society to remember your pronouns that you keep changing puts an undue burden on them, and asking them to do the mental work of keeping track of “mirror pronouns” in conversation is…quite an ask for a fourteen-year-old who almost certainly has no fucking clue who they are yet, anyway.
Transgendered people and LGBT people all deserve more respect, and more protections. Trans children in particular need more and better protections for their health, their mental well-being, and research into medically safe and effective ways to help them feel at peace with who they are inside, whether that matches their gender assigned at birth or not. Medicine should be practiced by doctors, not regulated and warped for cheap political points by either side. (Though one side seems to, with almost perfect consistency, get it wrong.) People with pronouns and gender identities different from what we’re used to should have them respected when they are being serious. But this does not mean wholesale buy-in of teenager’s play and experimentation, and it does not mean respecting children co-opting a hard-fought (and still being fought for) trans right because it’s cool this week.
Exit, stage left.
1) For the sake of broad categorization and to avoid being too specific, I’ll prefer the term “gender nonconforming” for everyone on the transgender spectrum.
2) This was her gender assigned at birth, I have no idea what she prefers now.