Teens’ Gender Identities Are Neither A Trend Nor Contagious
The dangers of culturally incompetent journalism
Hello to everyone over 30, the line where Baby Boomers decided adults were no longer trustworthy, until they themselves crossed that line. I’m from Generation X, the last generation that took pleasure in opening a hard copy of the Sunday paper, thick as a small city’s phone book (if you’re under 30, a phone book was… uh, just Duck Duck Go it), and spread it out on the kitchen table or the floor to read with a cup of coffee. So foolishly, when I wake up in the mornings, I fire up Twitter to scan the day’s headlines, a practice that raises my heart rate to unhealthy levels before I’ve even gotten out of bed.
Here’s what greeted me this morning:
On the face, it’s a profile of “dissenting” trans therapist, Erica Anderson, who “questions” whether gender-affirming care has gone “too far.” In reality, it’s an opinion piece where the reporter seems to agree with Anderson and devotes her acres of space to her ideas and history, but grants mere inches to the majority of healthcare professionals doing this work who have set the standards of gender-affirming care for good reason. Journalist Jenny Jarvie — also Gen X —has written this piece from a place of ignorance, and it highlights why cultural competence is vital in covering this topic accurately.
The first thing to know is that there’s a big generational gap in the LGBTQ+ community around gender identity. Are you confused by the terms genderqueer, demi-boy, and bigender? Well, most LGBTQ+ folks of our generation and older are, too. Anderson is old enough to be my mom.
Many older trans folks — Caitlyn Jenner being the most obvious — still think of gender mostly as a binary, and transgender as moving from sex assigned at birth to the gender identity opposite that sex in the binary. Unfortunately, this also means that some older trans folks are working against trans Millennial young adults’ and Gen Z youth’s access to gender-affirming care.
These generations experience gender differently. They are creating a revolution, and the reality is that gender will never be the same. Our kids are creating — and living in — the gender future already. They don’t see gender as a binary, but as multi-dimensional with many possibilities to find a gender that accurately fits how they feel in their bodies and want to be treated in the world. We can’t stop them. We can try, and make a lot of teens miserable, or we can get out of their way.
Parents tend to have a lot of anxiety about medical transitions. The idea that kids somehow go down a “path of no return” towards a trans identity is frightening for most parents, because few have peers who have gone through the process. It seems shocking.
The truth is that undertaking medical transition is deliberate and has guard rails. A child’s primary care doctor cannot refer the child directly for medical transition. A therapist needs to assess the child.
For children starting the process before puberty, the first step once puberty begins is blockers, which can give the child time to see their peers go through this change before deciding what puberty to have themselves. (This means that prepubescent children are not on blockers or hormones. Pre-puberty, trans kids simply transition socially and have no need for medical transition.) Blockers are completely reversible. Yes, being on blockers for years can affect bone density, but 1) doctors monitor the child’s bone density, and 2) any density deficit will be made up when the child goes through their puberty of choice.
The next step is HRT, or hormone replacement therapy. If that sounds familiar, it’s because thousands of cisgender women use HRT every year as they go through menopause.
In fact, many of the processes trans teens and young adults go through — HRT, facial plastic surgery, surgeries to augment or reduce their breasts — are medical processes that cisgender people undergo all the time, without people questioning their identities. Cisgender adults may choose these procedures for medical reasons, or simply to change their appearances. These procedures are guided and overseen by doctors. If you’ve ever had to wait for insurance to approve a surgery, you know these decisions cannot be made rashly. The surgeries are considered elective even though they can be life-saving, so the wait is at least a month, and during the COVID-19 pandemic the waits have been months long.
Parents also hear stories of kids “de-transitioning”: changing their minds after living as trans and decide to “go back” to being cisgender. Media gives us a warped view of how often this happens. I watched a documentary on trans kids that profiled three trans children and one young adult who had de-transitioned. Your mind can’t help but absorb the idea that, therefore, 25 percent of trans kids will de-transition.
And yet, out of thousands of kids who are saved from depression, self-harm, and suicide by transitioning, only a few will de-transition. It’s incredibly rare.
Additionally, few cisgender people consider how hard it is to live as trans in many places. Do these adults de-transition because they were “wrong” about their identity, or because they couldn’t find enough support and were beaten down by constant transphobia? When gay men and lesbians join religiously conservative communities and “become” straight, have they “de-transitioned” from being gay? When they undergo “conversion therapy,” a practice that is increasingly outlawed, do they de-transition, or are they pressured and coerced into giving up their identities?
Far more common are kids who transition, then tweak their gender identities later. I have a friend who transitioned as a trans man. Later, they found being a trans man felt too limiting and realized they’re actually nonbinary. They have no regrets about transitioning — every step took them down the path to the gender identity that finally fits. They are still happy with their more masculine-appearing body from HRT and surgery. That’s maturing.
This is the knowledge Jarvie is missing. This article will be weaponized by relatives of trans kids everywhere who will wonder if the kids are “really” trans, or if they’re simply trying to be “trendy” and are succumbing to “peer pressure.” Yet few wonder if trans kids have been “peer pressured” into cisgender identities in the decades and centuries before now.
Not only is this attitude that teens’ genders are fads — a “phase” (does this sound familiar?) instead of an authentic identity expression — out of step with reality, it’s a paternalistic and patronizing view of children. It feeds transphobic ideas and policies that seek to block gender-affirming care for children and teens in the U.S., policies that we know from experience will lead to devastating outcomes for trans and gender-expansive kids.
I know as a parent: my kids have always been who they are. They came from my womb with personality traits that haven’t changed in the years since, no matter how their bodies have grown in the meantime. The process of maturing is finding out how to position themselves in the bigger context of the world. Those of us who care for children and guide them on their paths to adulthood know that our job is to help them be true to themselves — not make them who we want them to be. We have to trust them to lead the way.
(I keep my writing free because I want it to be accessible, but I still have kids to feed. If you can afford to, please support my work: https://www.patreon.com/jorjorian)