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May 09, 2008

Comments

"Being transgender is not just no fun at all; it involves pretty serious surgery and a lifetime on hormones..."

Sorry to nitpick on a well-intentioned and typically thoughtful post, but: this is an overly narrow conception of transgender people. I know a lot of trans folks who haven't had any surgery and don't intend to; others who just have some limited cosmetic adjustments; every permutation you can think of. And the "no fun at all" part sounds grimmer than I think you intended. Certainly many of my friends were having no fun at all for some part of their lives, but they are now.

Hob: true enough. When I said "being transgender is no fun at all", I meant the whole span of one's life, both before and after one figures out what to do and then does it. So the part when your friends were having no fun at all was meant to be included.

I will, however, update. Thanks.

In today's segment they discussed a 10 year old boy who's parents allowed him to make the transition to being a girl. There is now a hormone-blocking therapy designed to delay puberty so that the child's physical appearance will conform to his or her gender identification. The point being that it's not necessarily about operations and a lifetime of hormone treatments. You should listen to the segment--it's very moving.

In today's segment they discussed a 10 year old boy who's parents allowed him to make the transition to being a girl. There is now a hormone-blocking therapy designed to delay puberty so that the child's physical appearance will conform to his or her gender identification. The point being that it's not necessarily about operations and a lifetime of hormone treatments. You should listen to the segment--it's very moving.

Wooh boy, can't wait to hear James Dobson and the boys weigh in on this.

How much irrefutable scientific evidence will it take to prove to such people that gender identification isn't a choice at all, much less a morally aberrant one?

One thing that becomes very clear when you listen to it is that these are not kids (biologically, boys) whose parents put the idea of being girls into their heads. They came up with it on their own.

This is what always troubles me about discussions like this. What do you mean by "came up with it on their own"? I ask this in all seriousness. Are we asserting that the children in question were born with a biological predisposition to, e.g., react enthusiastically to the color pink and lower-body coverings that are made of one large tube of cloth instead of two parallel smaller ones?

Gender is a social construct. I'm very wary indeed of declaring a preference for a certain socially defined set of behaviors as being somehow "innate". It strains credulity to assert these children acquired their gender identification ex nihilo. If you mean that they weren't coached to "be girls", that's one thing, but if you mean they were "born into the wrong biological body", um... that's a bit harder to swallow when the "wrongness" is purely in relation to a mutable social construct. [Concession: my viewpoint is hard materialist; a dualistic outlook might conceivably, depending on how it was constructed, be far more accommodating.]

And now that I appear to have firmly aligned myself with Zucker's conception of the matter, allow me to swing about and disgustedly reject his approach to dealing with it in favor of Ehrensaft's. I'm personally convinced that gender identification is not a innate biological state, but a learned social behavior. However, that does not even begin to say that enforcing rigid alignment to two narrowly defined gender roles is good, or just, or right. "Bradley" may not have been born "a girl in a boy's body", but if that's how he's become more comfortable being, then that's what he should be allowed to be. Just because it's learned and not "inherent" doesn't mean it should be homogenized away to shelter society-at-large's tender sensibilities...

I'm a computer geek. I've been a computer geek since first grade. I can, in fact, remember the exact moment at which I became one: My school had acquired a loaner Apple II. From the moment that I saw it, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. Since that day, there's never been a single moment when I've had the slightest hesitation about my passion for computers.

I'd say that my passion for computers is something that I "came up with on my own". Nobody told me to be interested in them. My parents certainly didn't have any interest in the things. None of the other kids at my school felt the need to spend late nights at the library typing BASIC into the TRS-80.

This isn't to say that computers aren't a social construct. Obviously if I'd been born a few hundred years ago, I wouldn't have been a computer geek; I'd have been a completely different person. I wouldn't be one if I was born the son of poor farmers in Nigeria, and I might well not be one if I'd been born to a rich family in Massachusetts rather than a middle-class one in Connecticut. The question of the roles of nature and nurture in determining who a child becomes is as yet not well understood.

But I think that I can understand, in some way, a boy who decides that he wants to wear dresses. I didn't choose my passion, and it wasn't imposed upon me. It IS me, even more so than my own right hand, for I could live without my hand and still be myself.

What Nombrilisme Vide said.

I could imagine some sort of innate polarity, I guess, which determined which side of the social construct of gender you'd favor. That is, if women (in some alternate world) predominantly wore green and men wore red, then the Bradleys and Jonahs of that world would innately incline toward green because that was socially identified with femininity.

In any case, the real problem here seems to be distinguishing that which is wrong from that which is merely inconvenient.

(There's also the more complex question of distinguishing the inconvenient preferences that are profoundly linked to identity--like gender roles--from the inconvenient preferences that are trivial enough to "correct"--like running through the house naked during a dinner party. But it's pretty clear, to me, that gender identity is too profound to address as a socially inappropriate behavior; as Hilzoy said, that's horrific.)

"When I think about Jona's future as a girl, I can see some obvious rough spots: adolescence, for instance."

Don't underestimate the strength of self-confidence for making it through adolescence unscathed.

I went to a fairly rough public high school in Seattle, and we had a few gay kids in my class. One of them was very obviously gay but also very obviously comfortable with himself and un-apologetic about who he was. To my knowledge, he barely ever got teased, and when he did, other people (even 'the cool kids') stood up for him. It was the kids who tried to be something they weren't, or the ones made vulnerable by low self-esteem, that got endlessly shit on.

I've confirmed this through a lot of other gay guys I know. The ones that are *genuinely* comfortable with themselves, most of whom realized they were gay early and had a nurturing home environment, didn't have as rough an adolescence as the more conflicted, self-loathing ones.

I really think Jona's got a good shot at being OK. American teens, especially these days, have more of a capacity for respecting difference than we give them credit for. It's respecting weakness or self-doubt (i.e., unfortunately, Bradley) that they punish the harshest.

I don't want to deny that some people may wish to alter their bodies for a variety of reasons, but it seems to me that underlying the idea that someone could be "a girl in a boy's body" or vice versa is the assumption that gender (i.e. the set of behaviours and preferences which are associated with one biological sex) should align with biological sex. And that, to me, doesn't make a lot of sense because I don't think gender identity is anywhere as simple as the binary opposition between "masculine" and "feminine" would suggest. There's also the fact that there's a wider range of possible sexes: there's "intersex" as well as "female" and "male."

As far as I can see, there's no reason why men shouldn't like makeup, wear high heels, put on lace outfits, prefer pink, show a great interest in fashion, have long hair etc. They did it, and it was accepted as the norm, in the eighteenth century. Equally, there's no reason why a woman who dislikes all of those things should have to think of herself as a man.

I'd suggest that each one of us will have a mixture of preferences, some deemed "masculine" (in the particular society in which we live) and some deemed "feminine" (in the particular society in which we live). Very, very few people will actually be wholly "masculine" or "feminine" in their preferences, behaviours etc. So each of us is unique, and it may well be that we have a body which doesn't match the gender label that society would slap onto us, on the basis of our preferences/behaviours. We may also, in the case of intersex people, have bodies which society tends to think of as inherently wrong, but that doesn't mean those bodies really are wrong.

It seems to me that in general society has a very limited, binary conception of the types of bodies, and the continuum of mixtures of preferences associated with gender, which are possible and acceptable.

I agree with NV here. I do not think there is a natural predisposition of the human female to the color pink, dolls or dresses (or are Scotsmen transgender by nature? ;-)). So the idea of what "makes one female" must have come from somewhere outside. But that simply seems to be the outer reflection, i.e. the way the boys express their inner feeling of "girlishness" and would probably express themselves differently, if the gender roles where different. Girls have it probably easier there these days because "male" clothing, toys etc. are now acceptable for them (at least in the West and parts of the (ex)communist world). If I had a daughter, I'd encourage trousers and primary colors (as opposed to skirts and pastel colors) but would not enforce it, if it really made her unhappy (the amount of pink would be strictly limited though, I hate that shade).
My approach would definitely be to try to steer into the "right" direction but abandoning that, if it turns out to be futile and only hurting the child or, worse, turns it into a hypocrite.
Btw, I played with dolls too without feeling female.

Both these therapists seem to share something: reinforcing the parents' intial take on the situation. No doubt this is because the parents have been therapist-shopping.

While I personally have a clear sense that one familiy's attitude is right and the other is wrong, it's not clear to me what actual therapy either therapist is providing, nor whether there would be any different outcome if those families were left alone.

It seems to me that in general society has a very limited, binary conception of the types of bodies, and the continuum of mixtures of preferences associated with gender, which are possible and acceptable.

Aye, this is exactly what I was driving at, albeit none-too-clearly (I waffled about throwing in qualifiers like "vague" and "fungible"). Very well put. Gender is not near so cut and dry as society (lazily) likes to pretend it is. Alas.

What Damien Neil said.

I mean his point, not the bit about being a computer geek myself. My sympathies are entirely with the kids, and what I see as hilzoy's main point - that Bradley is being told that who he is is wrong*. It really is who he is. I trust him on that.

*And that is wrong.

You quote from Jonah's experience, saying


'How's Jonah doing? Does [he] have problems with other kids?' and the teacher was like, 'God, I gotta tell you, you know, Jonah is one of the most popular kids. Kids love [him]...

The original NPR interview has "she" and "her" their. I don't know a lot about transgenderism, but I'm fairly certain this is one of the very rudest things you can do to transgender people: refusing to refer to them by their pronoun of choice.

If I had a daughter, I'd encourage trousers and primary colors (as opposed to skirts and pastel colors) but would not enforce it, if it really made her unhappy (the amount of pink would be strictly limited though, I hate that shade).

Good luck with that ;) - this is what you're up against, and from my experience most girls of a certain age absolutely crave and love that stuff ...

"but I'm fairly certain this is one of the very rudest things you can do to transgender people: refusing to refer to them by their pronoun of choice."

LOL! I can think of ruder things with no trouble at all. Sheltered very much in k-12, were you?

I heard this and thought that Zucker was a child abuser. Initially, the people with the problem were the parents. When the psychologist got through with them, the kid had the problem; Bradley had learned how to lie and hide. That can't be good.

In addition, the idea that gender identity is bound up with what colors a kid is attracted to, or even what clothes a child wants to wear, seems pathetically constrained to me. All those markers are arbitrary. There's nothing universal about thinking that pink is a "girl color." My highly educated partner says that in the 19th century, pink was coded as masculine.

Obviously having an affinity for colors or styles that run against current cultural patterns can lead an individual to feel dissonance with his/her culture -- but we're thinking small and rigidly if we imagine we can assign any single meaning to such dissonances. Like the gender spectrum itself, whatever meanings there exist are wildly diverse and individual.

I could imagine some sort of innate polarity, I guess, which determined which side of the social construct of gender you'd favor. That is, if women (in some alternate world) predominantly wore green and men wore red, then the Bradleys and Jonahs of that world would innately incline toward green because that was socially identified with femininity.

This is about the only explanation that makes any sense to me... the idea of an innate, immutable preference for pink things and skirts is frankly ludicrous.

But the idea that there is a part of your mind that works out how to act as a member of one gender or other by observing other members of that gender, and that this part occasionally for some reason fixes on the "wrong" gender to emulate - ie the different one from the gender of the body it's actually in - sounds plausible.

I think this problem is especially difficult from my perspective as an Orthodox Jew--for whom the "anathema" of transgender identity would presumably hopelessly outweigh the potential damage to a chld born with such an identity disconnect between their biological and psychic identities. Suffice it to say, based at least on the examples give, that I see the first case as a clearly superior solution to the second.

The fact is, of course, there's no good answer to this question--sad as it is, social stigma will probably outlast both children's lifespans. From a religious perspective, though, I'm particularly interested in exploring this issue. For me, the starting point has to be that no child should made to feel that they are in any way "bad"--according to Judaism, anyway, as I understand it, uncontrolled cirumstances simply don't fall into this defintional category (good/bad). That category is only applicable to human choices. Therefore, any solution has to hold the child's psychological well-being and identic (sp?) integrity at paramount value.
I can never say what I might do if my child had this difficult issue, but I like to believe that we in the religious community have an obligation to affirm that everything God creates is on equal footing--can some circumstances be "better" for someone, in the sense of more convenient, better equipped to live a normal life? Of course. Wealth is only a good thing, for instance, in that sense. And heterosexuality is clearly advantageous. But advantageous doesn;t mean inherently good, just as outlying cases aren;t inherently bad. God's creations, I think, are different from human creations (i.e. free choices) in this sense: human perception and understanding of good and bad are applicable to human choices, not to God's creations. Only God's infinite good, which is classically beyond our capacity to understand or even percieve, is inherent in His creations, and as we know, infinity is as distant from 100 (an advantageous situation, for instance) as from 20. Hence equality before God.
So good and bad are not at issue here, or shouldnt be. Sexual actions are still problematic because they are choices, however understandable and however painful it would be to make different choices. And I'm not prepared to extend the logic of circumstances to actions.

But I am prepared to say that any child's well-being and ego integrity must be our overriding aim in dealing with this. The first example doesn;t yield a perfect result. But it does at least reaffirm to the child his own value, and--whatever rough patches lie ahead--it at least increases the likelihood that--because he has a more solid positive identity--he will achieve a greater resolution.

I know probably very few readers here are Jewish, so excuse my rantings. I guess the posting here just made me exceptionally sad for that second child and I...had to formulate an answer, at least, for myself. Don't we all?

D Rosen -- one doesn't need to be Jewish to appreciate what you bring to the conversation. No excuses needed. :)

D Rosen -- one doesn't need to be Jewish to appreciate what you bring to the conversation. No excuses needed. :)

A couple of controversial points:
I read somewhere that we all start out female and that it is only as a result of a whole series of complex series of hormonal changes in the womb that some of us become male. If the default sex is female then that kind of explains to me why it seems far more men have gender/sexual identity problems. It seems to be that there are far more male than female homosexuals and far more boys who want to become girls than vice versa. Apparently, the changes in the womb don’t completely “take” and that’s how you get your gays and transgenders.

We should also understand that from a raw Darwinian point of view, that evolution probably considers homosexuality and transgenderedness to be suboptimal. Nature really does want two people of distinct sexes, happy with their roles and ready to reproduce the next generation. As Dawkins says bluntly, animals are there to reproduce. That’s job one from Mother Nature’s perspective.
That said, I think that homosexuality and transgenderedness (Is that a word?) are probably simply part of normal human variation and everybody should be treated with respect. IMO, gender identity is a lot like handedness. Most people are right handed, but some are left handed, and nobody really knows why. You can force left handed people to be right handed, but they won’t like it and won’t do as well.

I know probably very few readers here are Jewish

A lefty blog that skews toward the well-educated? Yeah, OW is practically the New York Athletic Club.

Thanks, farmgirl, much appreciated!

stonetools--I may be wrong, but I'd argue that Darwinian evolution--undersood through natural evolution--is designed not to impue "intent" to nature. It would suggest that hose born with clear gender distinction, and, as you suggest, happy and able to repeoduce, would naturally have self-selected and skewed the gene pool. But there is no inherent "preference" for one or the other--we merely see one based on the results, which are the natural selections of random mutation.

EDIT: I meant to write "understood through natural selection". Hopefully that came across.

I heard the first day's story, and I can't say that I was all that happy with the approach of either therapist, though Ehrensaft seemed more humane and flexible. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the gender identities and norms of young children can be very fluid, and telling a young girl that she can *be* a boy, or a young boy that he can *be* a girl, before they have any idea of what this would mean for the rest of their life, is potentially dangerous.

But Zucker's approach is to me, more dangerous and potentially counterproductive: Suppose a young boy's strongest desire is to play in ways or wear clothes that are conventionally considered for girls, and you tell him "No, you can't do those things, because you're a boy. Those things are for girls." Is this going to make him *more* comfortable with the biological gender he was born with? Or will it instead just strengthen his wish to be a girl instead of a boy, as well as teaching him that he should suppress his desires in front of his parents?

Maybe if we tell our boys that they can play with dolls, wear pink, play with girls, and still be *boys*, there would be fewer who later on insist that really are or want to be girls. I'm not going on research here but just on common sense. On a personal note, my son was about as feminine as they come at age 4: he socialized almost entirely with girls, loved to play dress-up, especially in the pinkest, frilliest princess dress he could find, loved his cousin's "Polly Pockets" and "Barbie" dolls. We encouraged him to play with a wider variety of toys, and with other boys as well as girls, but he showed little interest. But we never told him that boys shouldn't or didn't play with "girly" things, and let him choose his own toys and activities. At 6 he seems to have comfortably adopted more conventional male tastes and play types -- he recently said of a pink shirt he used to wear "I liked that when I was girly". I don't want to paint this as a "success" -- in some ways, I miss the boy he was at 4 -- but to point out that young kids are still deciding who they are, and shouldn't be forced to adhere to strict gender roles *or* encouraged to think that if they like activities of a specific gender then that's the gender they should be.

hilzoy, I think you've posted something deeply thoughtful and I really appreciate it, but I am really curious why you changed the pronouns when you quoted Jona's teacher. I don't think readers would be confused, because we know that Jonah is now living as Jona. Why not just refer to her with feminine pronouns?

I went to a tiny alternative high school in the late 70s and early 80s that was, on the face of it, pretty open and accepting, and which included a large number of openly gay and bi kids among the 100 or so enrolled students.

One semester, a quiet, conservative young guy from a military family enrolled, and he never really fit in. Most students were quite liberal, while he was a Tory who couldn't wait to join the armed forces and usually wore army surplus camo to school. He got into his share of reasonably civil arguments, but while no one mocked him or overtly rejected him, he really didn't fully fit into the social scene, although he was one of the regulars who would hang out in the sunny, plant-filled smoking area where many of us would hang out all day before we went home and wrote massive essays in a single night.

One day, he approached me and asked if he could commission a portrait from me. He wanted to be painted as a girl. I remember feeling surprised but impressed (at both his uniqueness and his honesty) and I created a pen and ink portrait based on a current photo that wound up looking both like him -- he had a lovely oval face, beautiful eyes, and fine features -- and my younger sister. He really liked it, paid me for it, and disappeared from school shortly afterwards, which was par for the course for many of our students.

I really wish I knew what happened to him after that. I hope he had a chance to transition and start a happy life, because he obviously wasn't happy then. I'm ashamed of my shyness that kept me from getting to know him, rather than just providing him with a $10 portrait. I hope he's well.

(Now I see that you used shifted pronouns throughout all the quotes. Could you rethink that? I really don't believe that's necessary at all. A single sentence explaining what you're doing beforehand should stave off any confusion by the reader.)

Nombrilisme: "What do you mean by "came up with it on their own"? I ask this in all seriousness. Are we asserting that the children in question were born with a biological predisposition to, e.g., react enthusiastically to the color pink and lower-body coverings that are made of one large tube of cloth instead of two parallel smaller ones"

I meant something much weaker, along the lines of your "they were not coached." I wrote it because I've read a lot of reactions to e.g. stories about trans kids wanting to go to school as the gender they identify with that say things like: geez, these kids must have been coached by politically correct parents who seem to think that being trans is all the rage (??), or in some other way imply that the kids are being used as pawns to further someone else's political agenda. And my point was, basically: whatever is going on in this case, that ain't it. I didn't mean to commit myself to any biological anything.

Dylan and Mary: I was cutting and pasting from the NPR web page; they did the pronoun thing. I should have gone back and listened to it again, to see what was behind the parentheses. But you're right: it's awful not to refer to people with the gender they identify with, and want to be known as.

I'm of two minds about what to do about this: on the one hand, I'm cutting and pasting from a story that does this, so I can't change it w/o acknowledgment; on the other, I would not have done it myself. I am of only one mind about which pronoun I think is appropriate to Jona, namely: the one she wants.

On reflection, I'll go back and change the pronouns within square parentheses, to indicate that it's my editorial intervention. (On reflection, it's the fact that they used the same square parens that's making people think it was my change. It wasn't.)

stonetools - a couple of points:

1. From a raw Darwinian point of view, traits that remain in a population through high selection pressure tend to confer a benefit. Even spandrels are generally manifestations of other things that confer a benefit.

2. We don't understand many aspects of raw Darwinism (group selection, and many others) well enough to make a pat judgement about a trait being suboptimal. We also don't understand homosexuality or TG or IG well enough to even make reliable guesses about an evolutionary story.

3. It's interesting that you lump homosexuality and TG together, as though they would be "suboptimal" for the same reason.

4. Starting a post with "I read somewhere" seems ill-advised, especially if your point is controversial. Did you read it in _The Female Brain_? If so, have you looked at the arguments on the other side of the issue?

"To cushion the blow, she didn't take the toys away all at once; she told Bradley that he could choose one or two toys a day."

Nothing like a daily Sophie's Choice to enhance your child's psychological health.

I've updated, changing the parts where Jona's mom is talking. I'm less clear about whether I should change what the reporter said. As I said, though, if I were that reporter, I would certainly describe Jona as 'she'.

Guess who they named Chair of the Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders Work Group for DSM Revision

Jayzus. Whom do we write to protest this atrocity?

--Anecdotally, my friend's brother loved dressing up as a girl when he was Jonah's age. He's an adult now, gay but not transgendered.

Just a reminder that your kid's liking pink and dresses when he's 5 can point to different end results.

This is horrible. What happened to Bradley is mental rape very similar to what happens in cults.

I suspect there's a biological basis for this, and that children subjected to agressive therapy are being cut off from their authentic self.

In fact, I have wondered about a specific biological basis. We now know that some human beings are chimeras- they originated as two separate embryos who somehow combined. (See "Lydia Fairchild" in Wikipedia- her skin came from one embryo, her sexual organs from the other.) This might seem a bit off the wall, but I'm wondering if some trans folk are chimeras in which the brain developed from an embryo of one sex, while the sexual organs developed from an embryo of another sex.

The kids are FIVE YEARS OLD. When I was five, I wanted to be a bear. My little brother was like this when he was five, and he's not tg.

I found the segments fascinating, and horrifying, and a few posteres here have nailed what I found so horrifying about it:

These are kids. Kids at that age can imagine, or make believe, or enjoy being, any number of things. (I was a horse pretty constantly back then.) Why in the cosmos' name not just let them do what they want - play with dolls, wear pink, whatever - without assigning deep or permanent meaning to it?

In fact, this whole "children enjoying colors, clothes and toys which society has characterized as belonging to the opposite gender" thing horrifies me. SO WHAT if they like dolls or pink or wearing dresses? LET THEM. Either it does NOT mean they really want to be girls, in which case it's not even an issue, or it does mean that, in which case they should be allowed to *be* girls.

Hell and damnation, left to their own devises they might switch back and forth a few times before they settle on an identity.

The more I think about this the more it bugs me.

Childhood by definition is a time of plasticity. Why are we pushing kids to define themselves in adult terms? Why are we scared to death of letting them explore their senses of, and concepts of, selfdom when they're young enough, and flexible enough, tobe able to do so?

I suspect that the same parents might not have been so worried about a little girl who insisted on wearing trousers (pants in the US), preferred toy soldiers and cars to dolls, and went around climbing trees and playing football (soccer in the US) etc with the boys. They might have thought she was a bit of a tomboy, but the parents probably wouldn't be making the assumption that their little girl was transgendered.

It seems that feminism has opened up the range of possible and acceptable ways in which girls and women can act and dress, but the range of acceptable ways of being "manly" are still rather more limited.

stonetools - a couple of points:

1. From a raw Darwinian point of view, traits that remain in a population through high selection pressure tend to confer a benefit. Even spandrels are generally manifestations of other things that confer a benefit

Gay men, for example, have more nieces and nephews - their sisters tend to be more fecund than the average. This would imply that either a) they tend to be really good uncles in terms of helping look after kids, and so their sisters feel free to have more kids, though this seems unlikely - how much input does even a terrific uncle have in a Western society? - or b) the gene that predisposes to homosexuality in men also codes for higher fertility in women. In either case, it's a benefit in inclusive fitness terms.

"The kids are FIVE YEARS OLD. When I was five, I wanted to be a bear. My little brother was like this when he was five, and he's not tg."

Pretty much sums up my attitude; At that age my ambition was to grow up to be a Vulcan. Should my parents have paid to have my ears stretched? Massive biological intervention on the basis of what might just turn out to be a passing phase strikes me as pretty crazy.

Mind, hormonally delaying puberty might have academic advantages.

One thing that I did learn when I read a little of the research on gender-variant behavior in young children: only a few percent of kids with strongly gender-variant behavior grow up to be transgendered. The majority grow up to be gay, and most of the rest grow up to be straight. That's where I worry a bit about the Ehrensaft approach: if you could identify which kids are really going to end up with a transgender identity, by all means, let them start early. But if you can't -- and it's not clear to me that you can -- it seems better simply encourage them to accept themselves both for their biological gender and for their own, possibly atypical for that gender, interests and preferences.

By the way, here's a segment of WNYC's Brian Lehrer radio show from 2006 on the same topic.

Let me apologize in advance for my lack of specific details in relating this story, but I suspect someone will remember it from the general aspects I can produce.

At any rate, there was a boy born, I think, in the early Sixites - a twin, in fact. His circumcision was botched to the point that his penis was nearly gone. His twin brother's circumcision went normally. The parents sought the help of a doctor who insisted that he could change the gender of a child, regardless of the child's preferences. It was a horrible story. Not only was the general intent of the doctor misguided, his specific therapies were sick and cruel. I believe the subject ultimately committed suicide as an adult.

But what I've read here about Dr. Zucker reminds me very much of the doctor in the other story. (In a particular way. Dr. Zucker, from what I've read doesn't sound nearly as cruel.) Though one insisted on changing his patient's gender and the other insisted on fixing his patient's gender, they both seemed to me to be more interested in confirming their our theories than truly helping their patients.

Brett, I always assumed you were a Vulcan. Now, knowing that you're not, I can't figure you out at all.

hsh: This is probably the story you're thinking of. And yes, it's horrific.

So whatever happened to the old-fashioned tomboy?

And why are we thinking that this business about gender standards has to be inevitably sexual. Why can't girls go shoot guns and build hot-rods? Why can't boys go cooking and sewing?

And what might really matter is how these two cases were selected.

That's the one, Hilzoy. Does the Baltimore connection creep you out?

Wow, this story is really sad. It drives me *nuts* when people make a huge deal over "boy things" and "girl things", "boy colors" (red! blue! black! to a lesser extent green and purple!) and "girl colors" (yellow and pink). Why? What's the point of it?

--You know, when I was a kid I wanted rather desperately to be a boy. Why? Because I thought that only boys could have wallets. (And I really liked wallets.) It seems ridiculously obvious to me that teaching kids that "this is for boys, this is for girls" will only result in a larger population of "I want to be a {boy|girl}, then" than would ordinarily be the case.

"Boys would find his feminine interests unappealing. Girls would want more boyish boys. Bradley would be an outcast."

Experience says that *some* boys don't like boys who have feminine interests, and *some* girls want to hang out only with the "boyish boys"--but if I recall my elementary and middle-school experience correctly, *more* girls liked hanging out with the *less* "boyish boys". (Hey, wow, girls who have feminine interests prefer hanging out with people with similar interests, male or female. Who'da thunk it.) And I know that for me, losing the other two members of my (live-action fantasy role-playing, although we didn't call it that at the time) group to basketball and Pokemon was a serious disappointment.

So: as long as Bradley learns to love pink and makeup and fairies in elaborate dresses again, he'll do just fine with the girls. But if he grows up to be a gender-essentialist male chauvinist (which seems to be what they're training him to be) he'll only do just fine with exactly the wrong group of guys. Nice job, Dr. Zucker. (The parents, at least, are doing the best they can do with the information [and, yes, prejudices] they have. They're trying to help Bradley, however misguidedly they're going about it. The person misguiding them does not have ignorance as an excuse, and it doesn't sound like he's interested in helping at all.)

Well, I was a good old-fashioned tomboy. ;)

Looking back on it, I think that when I was a kid, I categorized kids as boys, girls, and people. I didn't like boys much, at least after they decided they didn't want to play with girls: they were thuggish, and they beat me up. I didn't like girls much either: they were boring and played with stupid toys like dolls. People, on the other hand, were great. They could be either male or female; they were more or less comprehensible, unlike boys and girls; they were interested in stuff; they reacted to other kids as individuals rather than as boys or girls.

I find the following diagram really helpful for analyzing these types of situations:

sex--gender identity--gender roles--sexual orientation

In modern Western culture (not true in all other times and places) there's the standard that sex (biological) which is linked to gender identity (person's subjective sense of having a particular identity) which is linked to gender roles (behavior) is linked to sexual orientation (attraction patterns) in a particular way. If someone is born with male genitalia, then they must identify as a boy (later a man), do masculine things (like play with trucks), and eventually be attracted to someone who is their opposite on all these dimensions.

Several of the posts on this topic make different assumptions about what links between these concepts stay intact or break when a "boy" takes on feminine gender roles. For example, Hilzoy's original post assumed that if someone changed gender identity, their sex would need to change as well. A few other posters pointed out that the fact that a child takes on feminine gender roles (liking pink, playing with dolls, etc) doesn't mean that child has to identify as a girl.

Personally, I say break all the links. There's nothing wrong with someone with male genitalia identifying as a woman, picking her gender roles with her clothes in the morning, and being attracted to someone who has very traditional linkages. Likewise, we need to get out of the mindset that there are only two mutually exclusive ways to be in each category. Why not identify as neither a man or a woman? Or as both? I highly recommend Kate Bornstein's _Gender_Outlaw_ if anyone's interested in a perspective outside the man/woman binary.

Laura Vivanco: I agree, the link between a gender identity of "woman" and feminine gender roles has been broken to a much greater extent than that between "man" and masculine gender roles.

I was appalled by this story because of the unspoken bias toward strict gender duality.

Both therapists responded to nonconforming behavior in these children by encouraging or forcing them to commit to either the "girl" or "boy" category in behavior and dress. Others have mentioned that gender is a spectrum of expressive behaviors strongly influenced by cultural norms, and is not necessarily linked to "biological" body form.

I see this tendency to want to have the "right" body or appearance for one's gender to be just another facet of our culture's pathological body issues. I fault our culture for not allowing these kids to be comfortable in the wonderful bodies they have, independent of their gendered behavior.

Regardless of my son's expressions of gendered behaviors, I'm going to instill in him a love of himself and his body for what he is. I will teach him to value the integrity of his body and his health, and to resist society's tendency to make us all feel inadequate in our own bodies.

In Jonah's situation from the NPR story, he is being set up for a lifetime of feelings of inadequacy and discomfort. He will eventually grow facial hair, get a deeper voice, etc. How is it helping him to tell him that, as a girl, this should disgust him, and it should be avoided with chemicals and cosmetic surgery? Teach him to love his hair, his voice, his penis even, and yes, his "girlish" personality and taste in clothing.

Oops, I put a "which" in the wrong place. It should read:

"In modern Western culture (not true in all other times and places) there's the standard that sex (biological) is linked to gender identity (person's subjective sense of having a particular identity) which is linked to gender roles (behavior) which is linked to sexual orientation (attraction patterns) in a particular way."

ErikaEM: "Hilzoy's original post assumed that if someone changed gender identity, their sex would need to change as well. A few other posters pointed out that the fact that a child takes on feminine gender roles (liking pink, playing with dolls, etc) doesn't mean that child has to identify as a girl."

I never meant to assume that something like liking pink meant that a kid had to identify as a girl. That's a different claim: that having some tastes or behaviors that are allegedly typical of one gender means that one must identify as that gender. What I was rightly criticized for was the different claim that if one does seriously identify as a gender other than one's biological one, one is in for a lot of medical intervention.

charles: I don't think anyone is forcing Jona to do anything. Here again, it's worth listening to the story: Jona wants to wear dresses, hates being outed as a boy, etc. Nothing in the story suggests that anyone is making Jona do anything, or for that matter suggesting that Jona do anything.

What you're saying about what Bradley's parents are communicating to him, and how he's reacting to it, is right. On. Kids will bend over backwards to adapt to parental expectations, because they depend on their parents for survival. It's really tragic.

The thing that challenged me about that story is the way that certain things that *are* gendered--dresses, pink, dolls--get interpreted by the families (and the kids themselves, obvs.) as meaning that the kids *identify* with that gender association. It's as if there's an idea that liking pink is "inherently" girlish, rather than that liking pink is an expression of internalized gender norms. For these kids, I think it really is the latter, but for my son--who heard this story on the radio with me the other day, and we discussed it--liking pink (which he does) is part of who *he* is as a boy.

I never know what to make of stories like this. I have known several tgs, pre- and post-surgery, but I never knew them in their pre-tg stage. I just can't imagine this kind of desperate need to be of one gender. If tg surgery were easy and reversible, as in John Varley's sf novels, I would want to try out being female -- but I would not expect it to change my sense of self more than, say, changing professions. I imagine it as less of a change than becoming a parent was -- and even that feels more like something I do than something I Have To Be. I just don't get this all-consuming, ineradicable issue it seems to be for tgs.

So it is hard for me to imagine that this is something qualitatively different than kids who want to be Vulcans or bears. But it must be different -- parents of kids who want to be Vulcans or bears don't feel driven to get their kids ear jobs or hair implants. And the kids don't grow up to do that either (generally).

Hilzoy, going by the facts presented, it sure sounds like Bradley's parents made the wrong call. But ex ante, I don't see how they could have known how strong their son's need was. A very difficult situation for a parent.

Hilzoy,
The influences on Jona may be more subtle than outright coercion, but our culture strongly channels behavior to fit pre-existing models, especially in young children. By teaching Jona that his options are "boy" or "girl," we *are* limiting his outlets for expression, and creating a false imperative to conform in behavior and body to those norms.

trilobite: I feel more or less the same way. I haven't known anyone who was (or: turned out to be) TG before s/he figured it out, but the person I got to know afterwards had, by her own account, a more or less constant sense that there was something deeply, deeply wrong with him (using the pronoun she identified with at the time). He just assumed that, well, there was something deeply wrong with him, though he never knew what.

He did not, at the time, connect it to always having wanted to play female characters in superhero games, etc. But that was partly because it was made so clear to him that when asked "who do you want to be?", "Batgirl" was Not The Right Answer (nor was The Right Answer to "what do you want for Christmas?" "A Suzy Homemaker Oven"), and moreover that was made clear to him so early, that by the time he was actually in a position to think about stuff, wanting to be Batgirl and the sense that something was horribly wrong with him were just two separate unalterable and apparently unrelated things.

charles: did you listen to the piece? Because I didn't get the sense that anyone was trying to constrain Jona's options. Jona's parents certainly had a malleable enough conception of what being a boy could involve that it encompassed e.g. buying him dresses (back when they still thought of Jona as 'him'.)

Hilzoy: I did listen to the story, and I'm not faulting the parents or the therapist for their actions. Jona couldn't ask for a more supportive family environment. But my criticism is directed (hopelessly) at society-at-large, for its imposition of strict and arbitrary roles that link Jona's taste in toys and clothing with a whole suite of body issues.

--Anecdotally, my friend's brother loved dressing up as a girl when he was Jonah's age. He's an adult now, gay but not transgendered.

And my younger brother, surrounded only by my two younger sisters (but older than him) became a human doll. Came back from my freshman year to find him dressed in a pink bathrobe. Now he likes monster trucks and welding heavy equipment.

Same thing happens to my 3-year-old with his four older sisters. He occasionally wants to play in a dress. In the mud. With his trucks.

My question is whether these kids would be attracted to some sort of universal feminine standard (can't think of what that would be exactly). Polly pockets and pink are not universal feminine identifiers. What would they be doing in Africa (besides doing all the hard work?).

The kids are FIVE YEARS OLD. When I was five, I wanted to be a bear. My little brother was like this when he was five, and he's not tg.

Amen.


I suspect there's a biological basis for this, and that children subjected to agressive therapy are being cut off from their authentic self.

And at the same time, being a parent is not letting a child always be his or her authentic self. My boy, for example, thinks he is currently either a) the local water district manager; b) Kevin Costner in Waterworld (horrible movie; hate even mentioning it) or c) God at the time of Noah. I'm thinking of turning off the outside water and letting the yard die just to keep my water bill from bankrupting me.

Also: aimai has a very nice piece about this, and about her two kids, who sound wonderful.

I very much liked this (about her eleven year old):

" For instance, she and her co researcher asked the kids “what their favorite activity” was hoping to sort it out into distinct categories like “sports” or “dance” but often got answers like “I like to punch the air.”"

Nonetheless, it seems to me that the gender identities and norms of young children can be very fluid, and telling a young girl that she can *be* a boy, or a young boy that he can *be* a girl, before they have any idea of what this would mean for the rest of their life, is potentially dangerous.

But isn't allowing Jona to 'be' a girl letting her gender be fluid? I would think that trying to force her to be a boy full-time would be far more wearying, even if her parents didn't go as far as Bradley's. She's learned she can self-identify as a girl if she wants; what would prevent her from 'becoming' a boy again later on?

Jona's therapist also said there are very, very few cases who seem as 'fixed' and determined as she was/is.

Btw, speaking of kids, did everyone see the pictures of Daniel Eytan Marshall?

Awwwwwwwww ;)

What a great thread.

Some relatively random offerings:
My former fiancée had a condition known as Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. She was male with undescended testicles but not knowing that grew up as a girl. When she was fifteen, without her permission, her undescended testicles were surgically removed, a clear breach of medical ethics. Her parents must have given their permission but to this day she doesn’t know.
After the operation her breasts developed and her hips filled out. Her experience was one of violation and its psychic scars remain.
This seems somehow at least tangentially pertinent to the conversation, but I’m unable to tease out an unambiguous relevance, except in the theme of medical malpractice, though clearly Zucker’s judgment has not been regarded by his colleagues as such.
hilzoy’s professional expertise might shed some light on the matter, and I’m more than happy to submit to her adjudication.

For myself, and only as an elaboration of the complexities at work; I’ve never been other than devotedly het (twice, in the early and late eighties, I fainted when feeling a subliminal sexual tension while in engaged conversation with another man) while at the same time being happily embedded in the gay community (being family in the notoriously gay theater here in Toronto) to the degree that the lesbian technical director, gifted poet and dear friend once told me I was “as queer as they come”. It had nothing to do with gender identity but rather an extremity of standing outside the mainstream.

When I was a child I spent a lot of time imagining trading bodies with a (non-specific) girl. Perhaps if I were that child today I would imagine myself to be TG, but in the early fifties, in a self-isolated evangelical/fundamentalist subculture such categories didn’t exist, nor of course would they have been acceptable if they had.

And gee, D.Rosen, please don’t imagine yourself to be an outlier here. I speak as a still, God willing, inextricably evangelical Christian, though still settled very far from that particular mainstream. I, for one, am more than happy to stand with you in your analysis.

Parenthetically, to hilzoy; the armed-and-dangerous kitty has received a request for your proffered pdf.

I blogged about this over at If I Ran the Zoo because my eleven year old daughter just gave a science class presentation on gender sterotyping and gendered behavior in kindergarten and I saw these two posts dovetailing.

I want to agree with people who have posted that feminine attributes or gendered notions about masculine and feminine are, of course, arbitrary and culturally derived. The color "pink" isn't a feminine color in any existential sense. and nor are skirts, or long hair, or even makeup universally or existentially "feminine" or sports, labor, short hair, camoflage colors universally "masculine."

But its important to grasp that culture is what a child is born into and they don't come to value or enjoy anything outside of their local culture. And that culture and gender notions impinge on a child from the moment they are born. Every walked through a store with a little baby girl and had people stop you, pet her, and compliment her on her smile? Sure, they do that to boys too, to a certain extent. But within a year or so and right up through adulthood the way boys and girls are treated diverges so sharply that no male is ever approached by a stranger and touched or abjured to "smile, you'd be so much prettier" while most women have had this experience.

What does that have to do with these boys? Well, from the moment they were born society and their parents have been showing them that there were two kinds of people in the world--people who liked one set of things or the other--and also telling them that there was no middle ground. You can't be "Jonah" and keep playing with girl things and with girls. We are forcing the child to choose because we are saying that when they choose what they like (and its a whole linked set of things: barbies, pink, cooking, caring, sharing, girls, etc...) that they are understood to be unfitting themselves for dipping back into that other category of stuff which we have arbitrarily labled "boy" stuff.

Of course there are kids who move freely back and forth between these categories--and families and schools where the categories are so flexible we don't even see it. In my daughter's kindergarten all the children make their own dolls out of flannel and then play "daycare" and "hospital"--its simply not gendered. You often see boys walking around with a pushcart strolling with their dolls. When they stop wanting to do that, they will stop doing it.

In both these stories the two boys are seen as crossing some permanent barrier between two kinds of people. One family "gives up" and simply lets the boy cross over. The other family is fighting it and hoping to force the child to cross back over to the boy side while failing to grasp that if it were so natural and inevitable he'd do it on his own. And if it is not natural, and therefore naturally inevitable to this child, they are doing him irreperable harm.

aimai

Jona couldn't ask for a more supportive family environment. But my criticism is directed (hopelessly) at society-at-large, for its imposition of strict and arbitrary roles that link Jona's taste in toys and clothing with a whole suite of body issues.

This is worth emphasizing: the children are not growing up in a vacuum. The family may be extremely supportive and flexible about this, but they're not the only influences. Every day Jona spends at school as a girl is another that reinforces the notion that doing any of these things that seem compelling means doing ALL of them. Conformity to a binary standard is the norm, and just because Jona has been told it's okay flip to the other gender doesn't mean that the options aren't limited. Jona was told picking a gender was okay, but is still under pressure to conform to a single set of "proper" gendered behaviors. The parents may not be doing it, but it's being done.

Also: what Aimai said.

These poor babies. How the f**k did the trappings of gender (pink, blue, dresses, pants, Barbies, trucks) come to be so f**king loaded that parents freak out when their kids are drawn to one or the other? It means exactly nothing, and parents' freaking out serves only to add energy to a child's attraction to whatever the object(s) of attachment. AGH!

I have four kids -- 7, 12, 15, 17, three boys and my daughter's my oldest. When the two oldest were little, my son (now 15) loved to put on his sister's dresses and twirl. She hated Barbies and loved bugs. WHATEVER. I read somewhere that kids learn what they need to from the average toy within 18 minutes or something. And then they move on. The things that catch their imaginations -- the things they learn from, those things they hold on to for as long as they need to, and then they let go and MOVE ON. I couldn't read all the comments, but someone above said something about how it probably would have been best if those families had been left alone. I'd submit that those children should have been left alone.

I heard the second segment, about 10-year-old Violet. I wonder if, had she not been thwarted starting so early and for so long, if she might not have moved through whatever she was stuck in once she got what she needed from the trappings -- and they are trappings, the dresses, the girl's toys -- she so craved. He. She. Hell, some of us are neither fish nor fowl, and there is exactly nothing wrong with that, evolutionarily, spiritually, psychologically or otherwise. The hormone treatment -- I'm ambivalent about that. Messing with hormones, in so many other contexts, has turned out to have pretty hideous long-term consequences. Apparently those parents are concerned that male puberty-related changes will devastate Violet, who seems to get upset by her boy parts when she bathes. How did THAT get so loaded?

And then again, maybe it was exactly the right thing to do. As I keep saying to myself about my own children, I don't HAVE to understand everything, just to respect it.

As parents, the best thing we can do is allow our children to unfold on their terms, keep them safe, lift them up, give them boundaries, tell them no for the right reasons, and say yes even more.

My boy in the dress -- who also loved to play Pretty Pretty Princess -- turned into a football jock. (Thank god he's moved through that, too! Heh.)

And then again, maybe it was exactly the right thing to do. As I keep saying to myself about my own children, I don't HAVE to understand everything, just to respect it.

As parents, the best thing we can do is allow our children to unfold on their terms, keep them safe, lift them up, give them boundaries, tell them no for the right reasons, and say yes even more.

Tina, thank you for adding that. I think people are awfully quick to blame the parents for causing these situations.

One thing that bugs me here is that, well, we're stuck reducing a complex situation down to a single story, and extrapolating from that.

And it introduces a VAST possibility of error.

Now, as noted, from the story it's rather odd to determine -- with certainty -- both children are transgender. After all, many have pointed to anecdotal -- but real -- examples of behavior similar to that in the story in which the child in question turned out not to be transgender.

But is that comparison valid? We're comparing anecdotes from a child's life -- chosen for a news article to personal anecdotes.

Anecdotes chosen to represent -- to the masses, not to psychiatrists and psychologists -- that the child was transgendered. Thus limited. Simplified. Slanted towards mass understanding at the expense of detail and, well, accuracy.

"She liked pink and wearing dresses" isn't the sort of think a psychiatrist will use as a determinative test for gender orientation. But for a short-hand news article, it's EXACTLY what will get reported.

So I think stories of how your kid, or your cousins, or your siblings, did something similiar and turned out to have no problems with gender orientation are interesting -- but hardly comparable. Because we really don't KNOW those two kids. We've seen what comes out in a non-scholarly news piece.

I don't think it's a good idea to blandly dimiss either of the two approaches as "universally wrong", since none of us have even a remotely clear view of the children's mental state.

Having said that -- Zucker's approach seems unnecessarily rigid and uncomfortably close to things gay reparation therapy. But before I wrote him off -- or his treatment of this child -- I'd want real information. Not the sort of stuff that shows up in a news piece.

Seriously, I don't see how a psychiatrist determines that a child is 'transgendered' that far in advance of this thing called "puberty". Being a professional doesn't imbue you with magical powers. And at that age children don't HAVE much in the way of gender.

I can scarcely even imagine what would constitute persuasive evidence at THAT age.

Brett: Gender identity -- like sexual orientation -- forms WELL before puberty. Possibly before birth.

As to HOW you would determine that, given a child generally lacks the references and experience to explain how they feel fully, is undoubtably challenging and certainly not 100%.

But that's a diagnostic/assesment issue.

So, at least in the "children don't have much in the way of gender identity" issue -- you're simply wrong. They don't express it like adults do, they don't perceive it like adults do, and don't have nearly as much baggage associated with the concept as adults do -- but they DO have a gender identity.

And research as shown -- including some rather barbaric and distatesful types of 'research' that'd get you tossed on your ear today -- that it's simply not malleable.

Brett: Gender identity -- like sexual orientation -- forms WELL before puberty. Possibly before birth.

As to HOW you would determine that, given a child generally lacks the references and experience to explain how they feel fully, is undoubtably challenging and certainly not 100%.

But that's a diagnostic/assesment issue.

So, at least in the "children don't have much in the way of gender identity" issue -- you're simply wrong. They don't express it like adults do, they don't perceive it like adults do, and don't have nearly as much baggage associated with the concept as adults do -- but they DO have a gender identity.

And research as shown -- including some rather barbaric and distatesful types of 'research' that'd get you tossed on your ear today -- that it's simply not malleable.

Shame it's a busy day at work. I heard the NPR pieces, and was outraged at Zucker. But I'm TG, and I've known that the gender center that he works at is a deeply awful place.

I don't have time to read the comments in detail for a few hours yet, but I'm going to chime in a few points from my own life before I go back to working.

Since I was 8, I have *known* that I wanted to be a girl. I've also known that I was stuck with this damn male body. Many transfolk that I've met have said that the "trapped in the wrong body" meme doesn't fit their experiences. It does mine. I've been torn between hating my body for doing this to me, and hating myself for wanting this obviously wrong thing for 30ish years. Growing up in south Texas, the land of *strong* gender roles didn't help.

I've moved to San Francisco, found myself a good therapist, and I'm working through it. I would just have hoped that we had made more progress than this. Reading Deborah Rudacille and Julia Serano helped. Earlier int he thread, someone mentioned Dr. Money, and the patient he drove to suicide. I hope that Bradley gets through it better than the other patient. Zucker's arrogance took my breath away.

Back to work,
Bethany

Morat: how exactly can alignment with a narrowly defined social bifurcation occur before birth?

Oh, and someone above asserted that MtF transfolk are more than 50% of the trans population. False. We are roughly 50%, and get something like 98% of the media attention. Turns out that discarding male privilege is still a spectacle, and trying to claim it is of course understandable, tho our media would never put it in those terms.

more power to you, Bethany, for having that kind of integrity toward yourself. I'm sorry it's been such a tough ride. Sending good juju.

"But within a year or so and right up through adulthood the way boys and girls are treated diverges so sharply that no male is ever approached by a stranger and touched or abjured to "smile, you'd be so much prettier""

I've had this experience quite a few times over the years, from perfect strangers. At least a dozen or more times.

I'm generally considered male, unless it's name-calling time.

I think "never" may therefore be an overstatement.

"Also: aimai has a very nice piece about this, and about her two kids, who sound wonderful."

Just so.

I've been champing at the bit to respond all day, but because I was at work I didn't dare.

As someone who has lived it, perhaps I can shed some much-needed light on this deeply misunderstood phenomenon.

I believed that I was female at a very early age; if not at infancy, it was shortly thereafter, whenever it was that I had the cognitive ability to differentiate between male and female. My parents have a black-and-white home movie they made when I was age 2. It shows me stark naked running around in my mother's stiletto-heeled pumps and demonstrating remarkable agility, considering the enormous size of those darned things.

(No, there's no innate love for the color pink. But the observant child recognizes what the world around him/her deems masculine or feminine. Funny, but in the cinematic conventions of the 1940s-60s, women always were seen burying their faces in their hands when weeping. I asked my mother if this was how women cry; I meant adult women because I hadn't observed any girls or boys doing this and it struck me as unnatural.)

It wasn't long before my parents didn't find my antics in female garb and my forms of play cute anymore and pretty soon they were doing to me, quite a bit more forcefully, what Bradley's parents are doing to him. I felt suffocated. I felt that nobody understood me. And in hindsight, after a long and complicated life, and ten years of intensive psychoanalytic work, I realized that I perceived at that very early age that my parents were deeply ashamed of me. It made me very vulnerable. It made me inconsolably sad. It also made me dress up with a vengeance at every opportunity. Today in my little hometown I'm still remembered as the boy who tried to wear dresses and carry purses to school.

My parents felt very strongly that they had to break my will. I was on the receiving end of a lot of verbal, mental and physical abuse at home, and in turn I attracted abuse wherever I went. At length my parents put me into military boarding school thinking that this would change me. It's a wonder I made it out of there alive. I spent four very miserable years there and came away at age 16 totally unprepared for the world, improperly socialized and deeply despondent.

The physical abuse that I experienced wasn't sexual, but I very definitely had a libidinal awareness as a child. I was fascinated by snatch and totally disinterested in dick. I played "doctor" (or rather "nurse") with the neighborhood girls so I could see what it was that I'd been denied. I used to keep my own penis clenched between my thighs pretending to them that I too had a vagina. But interestingly, by the time I reached puberty my libido changed dramatically. I was attracted to men. I understood myself to be homosexual.

When I left military school at age 16, I had blossomed physically. I was an attractive young man and found myself getting hit on right and left by older men. And I craved it. For the first time in my life I felt wanted, although the love I sought and really needed continued to elude me. I would pay psychically years later for having allowed myself to be used. But I spent the next decade or more in pursuit of encounters to the point that I was dysfunctional in most other respects.

It's a wonder I made it through college. I had almost no friends at all and was absolutely disinterested in my studies. I was there because I felt I had to be there. I had been conditioned to be at the mercy of my parents and the world. I didn't completely lack direction. I had interests that I wanted to pursue. But I lost more than a few jobs over the fact that I was gay. Not openly gay, mind you. I didn't divulge anything. I would work hard and earn praise and the littlest thing, a kind word, meant so much more to me than to anyone else. Sometimes I couldn't wait to get away from praise so that I could be alone to cry. What would happen, eventually, is that I'd get called on the carpet and told that someone had dropped a dime on me and no they didn't want my kind there. And I didn't fight it because I didn't know how.

I made my way to the big city. I managed to find decent employment and make friends. And I was living a lie. Not about being gay. I found myself perfectly welcome in that respect. But I felt I had to rewrite the history of my first two decades because I was so thoroughly ashamed. I had an extended period of estrangement from my parents. They didn't know their proper boundaries with me and they were unwilling to believe that my childhood had been anything but perfect and happy. They were presumptuous enough to tell me that I had a happy childhood, that I'd become sick in the head and that my perceptions were warped. They were still trying to tell me who I was and how I felt without any regard for who I was and how I felt.

I had problems with addiction. Still do. I followed the path of least resistance careerwise. Still do. But the best investment I ever made in myself was psychoanalysis, which I pursued doggedly. It was hard work tearing down the false walls I'd put up and accepting that I'd endured some really horrific stuff. But in doing so I came to feel much stronger and capable. Once I learned to be honest with myself about my own motivations (which were external and fear-driven, for the most part) I became much more comfortable in my own skin. And found it much easier to navigate the world because I now had the courage to look inward even more deeply than most. Once I understood myself I found I had a much better understanding of others.

I'm not sure what ever happened to my desire to be female. I think it may have literally been beaten out of me. I identify as a masculine male. I live with a partner who's a hypermasculine male whose biography is remarkably the same. (Actually, he got thrown out of junior high school after confiding to a male teacher that he had a crush on that teacher. The teacher proceeded to humiliate him in front of the whole school. When H***** responded with a threatening letter, he was expelled from school and committed to a juvenile mental health facility. And this was just one of many episodes of shame and abasement that he endured.)

But we have a happy life together, relatively. I feel that this is the body that nature gave me and I wouldn't change it. And I feel that this life is the unique challenge that God, if there is a God, gave me also.

I don't know if my life would have worked out differently if I'd been indulged by my parents or schools the way that Jona-without-an-H is being accepted by his, but I do believe that if I'd been allowed to be myself at home and given unconditional love and encouragement, I would have withstood the abuse of my peers and would have been spared immeasurable heartache.

As gender and gay go, I really don't know. Maybe homosexuality is something else. Maybe it's what you default to when you can't be you. But for better or worse I'm a middle-aged gay man. I had the courage to come back to my hometown. I'm well employed and don't get harassed by anyone and I think it's because I'm calm, centered and loving toward my fellow human beings.

"But the observant child recognizes what the world around him/her deems masculine or feminine."

Yes. How much one cares, though, is an another question.

BethanyAnne and Been There: thanks, and good luck to both of you.

Brett: "Seriously, I don't see how a psychiatrist determines that a child is 'transgendered' that far in advance of this thing called "puberty"."

What on earth does puberty have to do with it? It doesn't manifest in one's genitalia. It has nothing to do with who you get a crush on.

Gary Farber's remark here:

"But the observant child recognizes what the world around him/her deems masculine or feminine."

Yes. How much one cares, though, is an another question.


Reminds me of that old English saying "don't care was made to care." Its pretty clear from first hand testimony like that of Been There and others who didn't want to conform to what the world around them deemed appropriate that they were, in fact, "made to care" and even sometimes physically menaced for failing to care appropriately. There is no child who transgresses the rules who isn't made to care. And those children who observe and follow the rules? Well, they are only "not caring" by some utterly phony definition of the term. If you are lucky enough to belong to the unmarked category, to conform so perfectly that your desires and those of society jump together perfectly, you can afford not to think about the world around you as other than utterly natural. But anyone who has anything to do with child rearing will quickly grasp just how very unnatural and forced the entire process of acculturating a child is. Most people work incredibly hard to structure the world of the child, and the world for the child, to produce a standard product outcome. Try checking out the boys clothing rack and offering any other explanation for the fact that from age zero on you are expected to dress your little future warrior /king in nothing but camoflage or sports gear.

aimai

"Its pretty clear from first hand testimony like that of Been There and others who didn't want to conform to what the world around them deemed appropriate that they were, in fact, 'made to care'"

Yes. I didn't suggest otherwise.

I did not hear these first two stories, but did hear the one about Violet yesterday. It was compelling to listen to, but in the back of my mind was a little voice saying, "Couldn't this attraction be as much due to having an older sister as anything?" What if this little fellow identified with his mother? (I identified with my father and it did cause some confusion, although I don't think I ever qualified as gender confused.) But let's assume that he did, and maybe he sees the approval that his sister is given for all her 'girlish interests.' Might that not be enough to make him want to be a girl? For a time? I spent years trying to kiss my elbow which was reported to be how one changed into a boy. And yet by age 13, I was a perfectly normal girl, gender-attitude speaking, LOL. With that in mind, I find myself reading amai's post with great interest and agreement. At least, with Violet, they chose the route of allowing her this option without closing the door to either gender when she was old enough to choose. However, I look at our society and wonder why this would ever be expected to be settled by such young ages? Might we not find that there was much to learn in experimenting with being of the opposite gender while young? I found the whole question deeply troubling and very sad for all concerned.

I am a mother of a 7 year old boy and am utterly appalled to hear about Zucker's approach (or whatever his name is.) IMHO that child should be taken AWAY from those parents and let wallow in freaking pink for years.

Good heavens.

Who on earth cares about the stupid gender stuff?

And what type of parents would take such a "you are a bad child if you follow your own desires" approach so early in a child's life.

Oh. My. Goodness.

Way to turn out a totally screwed up adult.

Sorry. The post made the mommy in my hyperventilate a little bit. And Zucker sounds like he belongs at freaking Dachau.

My kid has some delayed social issues and we've seen just how difficult some of the integration stuff can be for young children. We've been through evaluations and counselors, and all types of things, and the main thing that I do is stay grounded, stay as my child's guardian and his cheerleader, and work to do things for his best interest.

Not the neighbors (or their opinion.)

Hmmph.

When I say who cares about the stupid gender stuff, I mean that, at five, six, or so, if a child feels an immensely strong urge to wear a dress or pink, what's the big deal? Let them wear pink.

I found this posting tremendously upsetting and will get my mommy buddies to campaign against Zucker.

This is one of the most fascinating discussions that I've come across in the blogosphere in a long, long time, and thank you, Hilzoy, for bringing this to us.

Those who know me online know that I had a very dysfunctional excuse for a childhood, which may or may not have shaped my brain differently than children with "healthy"/"normal" raisings. Depending, of course, upon your definitions of those descriptions.

At any rate, I remember, as a very small child, understanding two things about sexual identity and power: 1. That when I grew up, I wanted to wear the "power suits" that were advertised on television from men's stores, because I wanted to be a "businessman," whatever in the hell that was, 'cause they had way the hell more money than we did, and that males and men and boys got ALL of the fucking respect; and 2. That Samantha was a total and complete sellout, for sacrificing her witchly powers to be a hausfrau, when obviously her neurotic and barely-closeted husband was the one who brought home the bacon and got to throw the hissy-fits. Partial opposite of life at home with the then-BeastMaster. She didn't make any money, but she ran that house with an iron fist (sans velvet glove, but of course).

I always wanted Tonka trucks and building blocks and an electric train, because I wanted to blow them up like Gomez did. I also wanted art supplies and piano lessons, and never got those, either. My "mother" and my grandmothers gave me baby dolls and books and stuffed animals and an ironing board with toy iron. I learned how to build jury-rigged bombs with old fireworks and petroleum-based plumber's putty. Little bit o'rage, I was. And yet I still was THRILLED when I got a frilly, girly dress, even though I was hardly ever allowed to actually wear them, for whatever reasons.

For economic or whatever reasons, my jeans zipped on the "wrong" side (hand-me-downs) until I hit puberty and the hips that ate Chicago came in and I had to give up Wranglers and switch to Chics. I coveted my mother's cocktail dresses and my father's cowboy boots both. I was thrilled with my first pair of pantyhose but I wanted my own pellet gun at a very young age. The boys always got the BEST toys, dammit! What in the hell are you gonna build with baby dolls besides a very profitable Beatles album cover?

None of this leads to any conclusion, I'm still pondering the quandaries at the advanced age of 37+, and following the so-called "relationships" that I've had with males AND females, I am now happily an avowed spinster. Most days, I dress like a roadie --- whatever's clean, comfortable and produces the least sweat. But every once in a while, even though I never go anywhere or do anything, I still wanna look all girly and wear a dress. Go figure.

This story broke my heart, it honestly did. Those poor babies shouldn't have been dragged to therapy, they should have been loved and accepted and their parents should've pulled their Münchhausen heads out of their asses and LET THEM GROW. Just let them be children. They'll figure it out, believe it or not. Kids are a helluva lot smarter than we give them credit for, especially in this uber-baby-proofed, hyper-reactionary, no-adult-areas-allowed, Disney-fied country of ours. Stop dumbing them down and trying to extend their infancy so that you can relive your own, LET THEM GROW, DAMMIT. Stop embodying your own neuroses in them so that YOU get more attention for being a martyr and dragging them to every blood-sucking shrink on the fucking planet. Yes, a small minority of shrinks actually HAVE saved some of my friends' lives, and I'm sure that there are a few others out there who do the job TO HELP PEOPLE, but let's face it, it's an industry run on narcissism by people who want lots and lots of money.

Here's a radical fucking idea: STOP BREEDING Better for the planet, help some kids who are ALREADY HERE and who aren't being served or helped WHATSOFUCKINGEVER by the bibul-banging batshit-crazy so-called "christians" and every other cult who hates teh women and hates teh gheyz --- ADOPT, FOR FUCK'S SAKE!!! There are hundreds of thousands of kids in this country who NEED GOOD PEOPLE IN THEIR LIVES, how'zabout we sink a few billion into THAT instead of paying it to FERTILITY SPECIALISTS?!?!?!? Let the stable, long-standing gay couples adopt as many kids as they can afford to raise effectively and lovingly, end the hateful and horrible revolving-door of abusive foster homes and pedophilic "children's charities" and other predatory motherfuckers who treat children like MEAT. Hook the Uterine Repo-Unit Tow-Truck's rusty ol' chain up to every Spears, Hilton, Ritchie, female offspring of Howard Stern, and Rush Limbaugh's rotting prostate, going all the way back to their grandparents.

All of the smart people that I've ever known have long-since stopped breeding or boycotted the orgy altogether, which is all the more the pity, 'cause from down here in Hillbilly Hell-Hole, Louisiana, aka West Bumfuck's Asshole/West Redneckistan --- pretty much looks like ONLY THE STUPID MOTHERFUCKERS ARE DOING IT, AND THEY WON'T FUCKING SLACK-UP TO EVEN DRAW BREATH!!!! I give you The Duggars, if you doubt me. That's a case for Child Protective Services-enforced MASS STERILIZATION if I ever saw one.

Okay, down off of my pulpit.

Beautiful, heart-wrenching work, Hilzoy. Keep it up.

Charles: "In Jonah's situation from the NPR story, he is being set up for a lifetime of feelings of inadequacy and discomfort. He will eventually grow facial hair, get a deeper voice, etc. How is it helping him to tell him that, as a girl, this should disgust him, and it should be avoided with chemicals and cosmetic surgery?"

None of that is true. If Jona does indeed still want to be a girl at puberty, then she will be a very lucky girl! Most trans-women do have to worry about facial hair, deep voice, large hands, adam's apple, narrow hips, etc., and taking care of all those things varies between expensive and impossible. However, if a trans woman realizes that this is what she wants early enough, and her family are supportive, there is no need to go through male puberty at all, she can go through female puberty instead! I'm not sure if the treatment is to block the male hormones, so to just load-up on female hormones, but whichever is the case, Jona will be only be distinguishable from a bio-woman by her genitalia.

The people who keep writing about how they, too, experimented with wanting to be the other sex, or identifying with the opposite sex parent, or older sibling, or whatever but then "Got over it" have a valid point. But its not relevant to the case at hand. Any more than the fact that lots of kids have tantrums but learn to control them affects whether a kid with severe bipolar can "get over it" using the same technique, or mere time, as an ordinary child. In both cases the parents and the therapists are the first reporters and first responders and they, presumably, have quite a bit of experience with whether the children in question are simply playing around imaginatively or whether there is something much more profound going on. Even each set of parents and each therapist came to radically different solutions all four, from a wide experience, came to the conclusion that what these boys were doing was qualitatively as well as quantitatively different from "I think I'd like to be a truck" or "my sister gets attention for dancing."

aimai

sorry "effects" not "affects"

aimai

Rebecca, I guess my point was that children should be made to love their bodies as they are regardless of gender identity, and not be made to feel as if they must fit some idealized caricature of either femininity or masculinity.

I have the same issue with "non-transgendered" men and women being conditioned to feel disgust with their bodies for having the wrong proportions, or hair in the wrong places, or even for just *having* genitalia.

Nobody should be made to feel disgust and shame for her own body to the point of using chemicals or cosmetic surgery to "fix" what is wrong.

For me this isn't a gender issue so much as it is a body issue. But teaching Jona that being "100 percent girl" involves avoiding male puberty is doing him a disservice.

Charles:

Speaking purely from my own experience, I believe your assertion that Jona's parents are teaching her to feel hatred and shame toward her body is quite strange.

My sister (born biologically male) identifies as transgendered and came out to the family a couple of years ago. I simply do not believe that the same parents who have always taught me to love my own body and to be myself regardless of what society says I should be, and who have found it in themselves to respect my sister's identity and need to transition despite serious reservations about the long-term effects of hormone treatments (and similar feelings to many posters here that gender role is socially constructed and should not be biologically determined) also somehow communicated that my sister's male body was something to be ashamed of.

I do agree with some of the posters who have suggested that if we were all truly free to follow our interests and not constantly told that some interests are wrong for us but right for others, fewer people would feel so strongly and painfully that their bodies were not right for the people they are - but that's my gut feeling and based on an attempt to empathize and a talk with the facilitator of the support group my sister sometimes attends. I can't really know.

That said, I also agree with morat90 that a lot is being read into personal anecdotes and a news story that has to be brief.

Since I've enjoyed this post and the comments about it so much, I did link to it from my blog, but don't for the life of me know how to make the damned trackbacks work (shaddup, I haven't written code other than template HTML since we did BASIC on TRS-1000s in gifted class in '81!), so if someone would care to enlighten me as to that usage, I would be immensely grateful.

Again, good work, so glad to see it.

http://anntichristscoulter.blogspot.com/2008/05/blog-envy-to-sixth-power.html

Not exclusively blog-whoring, just passing the word that I appreciated this post and envied it to the sixth power.

P.S.: Aimai: Of my anecdotal incidents, I never once said that I "got over it." There's far too much in my life that I never "just GOT OVER." But I've never been ashamed or obsessed or upset about how I felt about those things when I was a child. And I still want those damned electric trains!

In a vindictively sexist state that tries to regress to the 13th century in every possible way, I've been swimming uphill all of my life to just be a WOMAN and not be discriminated against in all things, especially because I've never been a woman whose life goals included marrying-up, breeding, or belonging to the "right" organizations/neighborhoods/lifestyles/etc.

Maybe my "boy" side has been a help, maybe it's been a hindrance, but it's never helped me shatter the glass ceilings that fearful, paranoid males have used to persecute me based upon my estrogen and genitalia. Honestly, when I was a prepubescent "tomboy" most of the time, I was a whole lot happier, other influences/abuses aside, and nowadays, unless I have to attend a funeral or wedding or other ceremonial event, that's pretty much how I dress now. Comfortably.

My wife and I heard this on NPR and stop and sat in the parking lot when it was first on. Thanks to some of the circles we run in within the alternative lifestyles, we know a large number of transgendered folks both FtM and MtF, and for most of Zucker's portions we were seething at the radio.

One of his parts rang out as something it took us a while find a cogent argument against, "If the kid was "black" and wanted to be "white" what approach would we take?"

If my life has taught me one things, identity, especially self-identity, is a fluid item, it can change from day to day, or from major life event to life event, Jona may cease to identify as female, or she could grow up and always be "female".

Considering some of the horror stories I have heard from my friends regarding their transitions, their surgeries, I can't but wonder if perhaps catching it this early is best.

I still don't get how playing with "dolls" as opposed to "trucks" means a child is the wrong gender? Why do we rigidly enforce gender roles, in 2008? Let kids be kids, and play with whatever toy they want. Why aren't "action figures" dolls? I played with GI Joes when I was young, does that mean I wanted my penis removed? or that I wanted to have sex with other men? Grow the hell up I say. BTW, even if a parent does not consciously shape and reward a child for certain behavior, does not mean it doesn't happen unconsciously. What do you suppose the gender confused twin enjoyes the attention he gets when he does "female" things, as opposed to if he was just one of a set of normal twin boys.

Wow! What a article. I do believe that a person when they are born, they know whether they were born to be a boy or girl. Just let your child be him or her self and don't try to change who they are. It's very simple and I believe. My 2 cents anyway.

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