From the new Jennifer Finney Boylan op-ed in the NYT yesterday, which was all about halloween costumes:
"I still remember the first time that I ever saw a boy dressed as a girl on Halloween, in a skirt and a wig. As a transgender child, I remember being shocked."
Were you a transgender child? This seems like such an odd term to describe a child who will, 30 years or so in the future, eventually identify as a transgender person. It’s like if I told you a story about me as a kid and identified the kid as a New Yorker because later that kid would grow up and would move to New York.
I wonder what the implications are of historicizing our lives like this in a broad way— are we making an argument that all transgender adults were transgender as kids and, THUSLY, is the next logical step to orient our services and resources to helping/discovering (proto)transgender people when they are kids?
The Philadelphia Trans Health Conference has so much programming for trans kids and teens and parents thereof, and while I’m really happy that that space exists, it’s also really weird to be a trans adult in close proximity. Folks are constantly looking over their shoulder to make sure they aren’t saying something that might be inappropriate for kids or their straight, easily-shocked parents.
And it’s not just PTHC—NPR and the New York Times, and various other mainstream liberal media organizations, have a palpable fascination with trans kids. I don’t know how many of those news stories they publish aren’t just voyeurism and intense exploitation. Do I believe they are helpful to a lot of trans people? Not really. Do I believe they get a lot of clicks, comments, shares and attention on their websites? Yep.
I think that some trans adults, perhaps Ms. Boylan, are comforted by the notion of trans kids as a way to legitimize our experiences as adults. Trans kids become proof: a way to say, “Hey, we’re not crazy, look, even KIDS can be trans, it’s natural,” as if nature had ever done anything for us.
The trouble begins when you admit that not all trans people experience gender or sexuality in nearly the same way. Some people were oddly-gendered kids and others were kids who fit in better. The result of this kind of re-historicizing is a dichotomy where people are more or less legitimate based on their gender expression as a child. Equivalent barriers are already set up around lesbians —“gold star” lesbians vs. women who come out when they are 40 (vs. trans women, right Lisa Vogel?).
But the really dangerous part about this focus on trans kids—or gay kids—is the immediate implications for the direction of activist movements. When the gay activist “movement” becomes wholly focused on about bullying and homecoming kings, adults are summarily infantilized. You can be out as gay, but can’t talk about sex, you can’t talk about AIDS, you can’t talk about systemic homophobia and transphobia because the trans kids (on This American Life) aren’t homeless, they aren’t sex workers, they aren’t worried about finding jobs or apartments, they aren’t in abusive relationships that they can’t leave, they aren’t losing custody of their children because they decide to transition. And in the end, I worry that the net effect of this “trans kid” tack is that there’s no room for conversations for adults because our leaders have hidden us behind defenseless queer children.
We all know that the first pride parade was a riot. But let’s not forget that before Stonewall was a riot, it was a bar you guys. Queer people hang out with each other because we like to have fun, get naked, drink alcohol, do drugs, have sex, play punk rock, smoke cigarettes and have lots more sex. Yeah, yeah, you can still be queer if you’re a kid or a sober person or a celibate person, OF COURSE, but why build a movement utterly void of sexuality? HIV infection rates for transgender women in the US are higher than HIV rates in West Africa, so hey, maybe sexuality is kind of an important part of the discussion we should be having.
Why are we still so ashamed of the sex we’re having? The drugs we’re doing? Is the portrait of liberation letting a little boy wear a dress or is it letting a trans woman wear whatever the fuck clothes she wants to wear?
I also worry that any gains it might seem like we’re making on the backs of these kids—“acceptance” of trans people by cis/straight people— rollback pretty quickly once adult trans people get involved. Will the same cis lady who feels sorry for the little boy who wants to wear a dress when he’s 8 be ready to give the 18-year-old trans woman a job, or rent her an apartment, or let her access the DV shelter? (Or publish her novel with graphic depictions of sexuality.)
And maybe the best argument for not using the needs of trans kids to try to change hearts & minds is that using kids for anything sounds like a pretty bad idea. We cringe at objectifying trans women on Sons of Anarchy but then we turn around and tear up and sniffle at the objectification of the trans kid in the New York Times? That smells fishy to me.
This charade may look harmless until Cathy Brennan gets involved with Fox News and a trans kid has born the brunt of the viscous attacks of cruel people—all because, as a political organizing strategy, we decided we were born this way and we put kids in front of the cameras. (Who can forget the creepy scene in Chaz Bono’s documentary when he gets into the jacuzzi with the trans kid? Jesus.) I think kids deserve better from us. I know we deserve better than one our most visible community leaders squandering her op-ed in the New York Times on a discussion of popular Halloween costumes.
Personally speaking, I don’t know if I was a transgender child, or if there’s something in my genes or if something was wrong with my intrauterine environment that made me a transgender fetus. I was a weird, tortured kid for sure, but my problems didn’t come from secretly being a little boy who wanted to wear ties instead of dresses, my problems mostly came from the fact that my parents hated each other so much that I could have been wearing a tuxedo that was on fire and no one would have noticed. I had bigger things to deal with than which bathroom I used at school.
For a few reasons, including the fact that children are consistently America’s poorest citizens, I think it’s going to be a very long time before more trans people come out as kids than as adults. What I hope we do for trans kids today in 2013 is work as hard as we can so that when these kids turn 18 (and age out of the interest of the SundayStyles section editor) they have the best world we can possibly make for them. I hope their experience of being an adult trans person is one with positive experiences at the doctor; is living in a safe home; is having a job; is being treated with dignity by their partner and the police, and everyone in between; is believing they deserve to be alive and have a future. I hope they have music to listen to, and books to read, and bars to drink in, and art openings to be bored at. I don’t think we owe the next generation anything less, whether they come out at 8 or 18 or 28 or 80.