This week’s issue of The New Yorker includes a feature by Margaret Talbot, on the rise of young kids and teenagers identifying as transgender. While the concept of transgender isn’t new, there’s a trend emerging; kids as young as three are identifying as trans. Depending on the openness and support of their parents, many of these kids are begin to transition before they even reach puberty.
Talbot’s article opens with the story of Skylar, an attractive and popular teenage boy who just happens to have been born a biological female. Skylar was open with his parents from the beginning about feeling like he was born in the wrong body, and thankfully, they supported his decision to live happily and healthfully as a boy. Still in high school, he got “top” surgery to remove his breasts, but doesn’t plan on getting bottom surgery. What’s more, his identifying as trans wasn’t some desperate desire to make his gender match up with a heteronormative sexuality: Skylar now identifies as a gay man.
“The whole sexuality thing never seemed like a big deal.” he says. “I never came out to anybody as gay. Sometimes I forget that coming out in terms of sexuality is a big deal.”
Skylar is lucky: again, his parents are supportive, and he happens to live in a liberal suburb of New Haven, Connecticut, where his school and friends were, if not enthusiastically supportive, at least respectful of his choice. Many, many, many transgender kids are not so lucky, and we’d be remiss to ignore their reality — one study reports that 41 percent of transgender people attempt suicide at some point.
But here’s where things get interesting…
Thanks to so many kids identifying as trans at such a young age, the dialogue and culture around trans identity is shifting. Where 10 or 20 years ago, the discourse around transgendered living was about “passing” (for example, a female-to-male trans person would worry about having the proper vocal modulation, or dressing enough the part to fit in with other cis-gendered males), many transgender kids are now rejecting that model. Instead, they prefer to live in the murky in-between. This isn’t necessarily anything new: groups of people have always lived between strict masculine and feminine constructs. Take the hijras of India, the Fa’afafine of Samoa or the muxe of Southern Mexico. Known as the “third sex,” in Australia, it’s even a legal category: you can choose male, female or “x.”
But it’s becoming more widespread these days, writes Talbot:
Many people who consider themselves transgender either can’t afford treatment [FTM genital reconstruction can cost upwards of $100,000] or don’t feel the need for it. … Trans people are increasingly choosing to place themselves somewhere between male and female: taking hormones for a while, then going off them; styling their appearance in gender-confounding ways but abstaining from medical procedures.
Or, as Skylar puts it, “I identify as a transman, a faggy queen, a homosexual, a queer, a nerd fighter, an artist and a guy who needs a haircut.” There is a vocal online community of transgender kids who seem to prefer a plurality of identies. Take the website Trans Enough, whose mantra is “Trans*Enough means that you are enough, as you are, right now. It means that however you identify is right for you, and that you don’t need surgeries or hormones or outside approval to make it so.”
It’s an important sentiment because some trans kids who choose to exist “in between” say that other trans people judge them for not “passing,” for not being masculine or feminine enough. “I believed I was Not Trans Enough to be Transgender,” writes Maddox, the blogger behind the site Neutrois Me (tag line: The adventures of a non-binary trans person in a binary world). “Not Trans Enough to have surgery. Not Trans Enough to get a name change. Not Trans Enough to ask for a pronoun change.” But on the flip side, says Skylar in the New Yorker, “passing” may not feel right either. Writes Talbot, “He didn’t feel that ‘going steal’ was totally right or even desirable. … He felt an obligation to keep talking about being trans.” In fact, to drive home his trans status, Skylar opted to get breast removal surgery that left scars (there was a non-scarring option that he turned down). “I ended up opting for the scars knowing they are forever–almost like a proof of what I’ve been through,” he said.
As blogger Nick writes on Original Plumbing (a magazine for sexuality and culture of FTM trans guys),
There is no direct correlation between our bodies and our identities. Choose your pronoun, choose whether you want to birth a child, choose the gender-connotation of your name, choose your gender, choose not to modify your body, and you are, and will always be, trans enough.
The language of “choice” has always been a touchy subject when it comes to gender and sexuality. The idea that gay people “didn’t choose to be this way” has long been part of the discourse around homosexuality. But the problem with “choice” rhetoric around gayness is that it presumes there’s something wrong with being gay. The subtext is, “Well, I didn’t choose this, because if I had a choice this obviously wouldn’t be it.” Maybe actress Cynthia Nixon said it better: “Why can’t it be a choice? Why is that any less legitimate? It seems we’re just ceding this point to bigots who are demanding it, and I don’t think that they should define the terms of the debate.”
Okay, so why should non-trans people care about what’s going on in the trans community? Because the debate around “passing” as one gender or another and the discussion about what makes someone masculine or feminine impacts everyone. The dialogue we’re now having around the gender binary actually grew out of the radical feminist movement of the 1970s, which saw the binary as a repressive construct meant to confine not only women but also men. Radical feminists like Judith Butler, Adrienne Rich and Germaine Greer argued that the gender binary, especially in as much as it equates masculinity with strength and femininity with weakness, actually served as a tool of the patriarchy. (Ironically, ’70s radical feminists had to contend with disagreement in their own camp in the form of ’70s essentialists, who argued that women’s roles were inextricably tied to their biology.)
The masculine/male - feminine/female gender construct is just that: a construction. We have a bunch of traits we’ve traditionally designated as feminine, and a bunch of traits we’ve arbitrarily determined are masculine. Traits are traits are traits. But we as a culture have ascribed valuations on them — valuations that are confining and confusing for people who don’t necessarily fall into the proscribed “correct” category. Acknowledging a third sex, or even a multitude of sexes, of options and choices and freedoms, opens up a whole world of possibilities for trans people and non-trans people alike. As trans activist and writer Kate Bornstein explains, “Gender is not sane. It’s not sane to call a rainbow black and white.”
And the rainbow’s colors continue to expand, illuminate and bleed into one another. How confining is a world in which there only two narrow categories of expression? Trans man Skylar was accepted to the University of Chicago, and continues to speak out on trans issues. This past fall, he challenged his high school’s “Homecoming Queen and King” competition because “not everybody fit into that label,” and the school renamed it “The Homecoming Court.” Skylar won a seat on it. As trans kids embrace the “choice” to be in the middle, to choose a gender, an identity, a body or a sexuality that’s carved out of their unique experience and feelings, they are showing us another alternative. A possible future world in which biology doesn’t have just one destiny.
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