Politics & Media
Jul 28, 2016, 06:54AM

Fear of a Trans Planet

Worries about desistance are overblown and transphobic.

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What happens if a child transitions to another gender, and then, later in life, decides that they transitioned in error? Jesse Singal of New York has raised this question in a number of pieces—most recently here. Singal's concerned by studies suggesting that many young people who experience dysphoria—the painful sense that they are the wrong gender—will eventually decide not to transition. When gender dysphoria resolves itself without transition, it's called "desistance." Singal concludes, "It appears that about 80 percent of kids with gender dysphoria end up feeling okay, in the long run, with the bodies they were born into.”

Gender dysphoria is poorly understood and studied, and desistance is even less scientifically attested. Singal cites a handful of studies. In one, all subjects who the researchers lost contact with over time were counted as desisting—which seems methodologically dicey, despite Singal's protests to the contrary. Nor is any distinction drawn in Singal's article between people who desisted because dysphoria disappeared, and people who desisted because they decided living with dysphoria was preferable to the powerful social stigma of transitioning. Many critics also worry that dysphoria is conflated with non-gender conforming behavior—that is, boys who play with dolls are marked down as dysphoric. Singal insists this is not what is happening, but I'm skeptical.

Putting such concerns aside, if, as Singal asserts, desistance is common, what does that mean? Singal doesn't offer policy prescriptions, but merely suggests, vaguely, that high levels of desistance could mean that some children are, or could be, pushed into transitioning who should not be. "How young is too young to help a child socially transition—that is, to change their name and pronoun, and possibly the way they present themselves? To prescribe them cross-sex hormones to begin the process of physically transitioning?" Singal doesn't answer, but asking the question implies strongly that there is some age which is too young, and that children may be harmed if adults get the answer wrong.

Despite these worries, Singal, strikingly, offers no evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, that early transition actually hurts anyone. Where are the people who switched pronouns at 10, switched pronouns again at 25, and found the experience traumatizing? Where are the people who received unneeded medical interventions and were permanently, or temporarily, harmed? Hormone therapy can have side effects, but transgender hormone treatments have been found to be quite safe in most cases for adults. Similarly, puberty blockers are in general a safe treatment, though using them for trans children is relatively new. Caution is warranted—but the danger from desistance seems small. Many children take puberty blockers for a while, then stop, with no ill effects. If a child has dysphoria, takes puberty blockers, and later wants to go off the blockers, what’s the harm?

Doctors try to avoid unnecessary medical interventions. But if a child is experiencing painful dysphoria, the fact that the dysphoria may resolve later doesn't do the child much good right at the moment. Childhood asthma sometimes resolves itself too; that doesn't mean you shouldn't provide children with asthma medication.

In his book Trouble on Triton, Samuel Delany imagines a future in which sex change technology is widely available and painless. As a result, people change their gender not because they know that they want to be a man, or a woman, forever, but because being a man, or a woman, is what feels most comfortable to them right at the moment. And if they change their minds later, they can change back.

The difference between Delany's world and our world is, in part, technology. But even more than that, the difference is a lack of stigma. Trans people in Delany's future aren't seen as broken, or wrong, or freaks. Changing gender in the future still takes some time and effort; everyone doesn't do it all the time. But it's something lots of people are willing to experiment with, at some time in their lives. The line between cis and trans isn't policed, and so on Triton that line isn't as rigid.

Back here in the present, trans people are more visible and more accepted than they’ve been in the immediate past. But they’re still heavily stigmatized. Finding personal and medical support to transition is still a huge struggle for the vast majority of trans people. The social pressure on cis people to become trans, on the other hand, does not exist. Singal says his goal is to help children. But who is helped by ginning up fears of amorphous harms done to vaguely defined victims?

Singal's article is less a call to help children, and more a confused reaffirmation of stereotypes about queer people seductively converting straights. The truth is exactly the opposite; cis people enforce cis identity with stigma and violence. As a result, transitioning requires substantial courage. Maybe, at some point, we'll get to a future more like Delany's, and some cis child might be trans for a little while. That's only a danger if you see living as trans (even temporarily) as a bad thing in itself.  

  • People are actually worried about an entire trans planet? Cis people are crazy.

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  • "Where are the people who switched pronouns at 10, switched pronouns again at 25, and found the experience traumatizing? Where are the people who received unneeded medical interventions and were permanently, or temporarily, harmed?" I transitioned FTM at 16, was on testosterone and had a double mastectomy by 17. I'm 20 now and back to understanding myself as a lesbian, like I was before I found out about transition and latched onto it as a way to "fix" body issues created by the challenges of growing up in a deeply misogynistic and lesbian-hating world. I don't know if he's ever planning on using the interview directly but I've spoken to Singal at length about what happened to me and I know at least one other woman who transitioned underage and talked to him, too, so he knows women who went through this are out there. He is not speaking in the hypothetical. I absolutely am traumatized by what happened to me, and I'm not the only one. I'm a part of support networks for women who stopped transition that have over 100 members, and that's just the individuals who have gone looking for others with this experience and found us. I've met more than a dozen of these ladies in person at different times... we're definitely real. If you're interested in learning more about this experience, here's a publication by some of these women (not focused specifically on pediatric transition although I believe at least one contributor did transition underage). http://www.greenwomanstore.com/blood-and-visions.html Plenty of others who transition, whether they continue or not, live with complicated feelings about what happened. Not all of us name those experiences the same way, search for community to process that pain, or ever "go public" to any degree. This is trauma. Hormone therapy really wasn't that safe, in my experience. I remember being 17 and watching my pediatric endocrinologist literally Google dosing information right in front of me. Didn't inspire confidence. The doctors controlling my HRT had no idea what they were doing, at least with patients like me. They were all just as confused about how to treat me medically as they were about how to interact with me as a human being. When I was on testosterone and taking Adderal for ADD, I got heart palpitations, chest pain, and shortness of breath. I didn't tell anyone because I didn't want to have to choose between a psych med that was making a huge difference in my ability to function in the workplace and hormone therapy, and I didn't want to acknowledge that what I was doing was dangerous. Early in my transition, I went through menopause. This caused vaginal atrophy and drip incontinence that has persisted for years. I piss myself slowly all day now; it's really not cute or fun. I refused to acknowledge it was connected to the HRT-caused vaginal atrophy that immediately preceded its onset until months after going off testosterone. Yeah, I signed a paper saying I knew that could happen. I also thought this treatment was my only hope for coping with the intense feelings of alienation/disgust with my femaleness. I was wrong. Transition didn't help. It did harm, harm that I now have to learn how to live with on top of all the shit I thought transition would fix. I know plenty of others who had a wide range of even more concerning side effects on testosterone, and many of us didn't ever say a word about these health problems until we were "desisting". Nobody wants to be told they need to go off it; many of us are willing to lie or risk our health in order to stay on testosterone. My double mastectomy was severely traumatizing. I paid a guy, a guy who does this every day for cash, to drug me to sleep and cut away healthy tissue. I did this because I believed it would heal all of the emotional issues I was blaming on my female body. It didn't work. Now I'm still all fucked up and I'm missing body parts, too. There is no surgery that will undo what's been done... adding synthetic materials to resemble the tissue of mine that was incinerated years ago would not help me. It took 3 years of stuffing down every negative feeling about my mastectomy before I was ready to face that what happened did harm to me. I was off hormones for months before I admitted to myself that I deeply, deeply regretted this surgery. The best way I can think of describing the loss is like, killing a family member who I blamed for being a burden on me, and then realizing years later that the blame I put on them was extremely and tragically misplaced. It was not their fault, but they're gone now anyway, because I wanted them gone. I have lost my breasts and I have lost the chance to reconcile with my breasts. It wouldn't be easy, but it would be work worth doing. Now the work before me instead is reconciling with what I've done and with the chest I have now- flat, scarred, assymmetrical, and nerve-damaged. "The social pressure on cis people to become trans, on the other hand, does not exist. Singal says his goal is to help children. But who is helped by ginning up fears of amorphous harms done to vaguely defined victims?" I think the victims are defined pretty clearly: those who ultimately end up feeling that transition did them harm. It would have helped me to have not been subjected to this shit, so yeah, I appreciate writing that acknowledges women like me exist. The framework of cis vs trans is extremely limited- which do you think I am? Am I cis, because I was born female and describe myself as a woman? Funny, because my driver's license still says Maxwell, and it still says male. My chest is flat, I grow a beard that I don't usually shave. So does that make me trans? This dichotomy leaves no room for women who experience severe alienation from their femaleness but still choose to claim it, and it leaves no room for women who claim their femaleness after transition has transformed their material circumstances. Please don't give me the "you're nonbinary" gotcha, either... I'm not. I'm a woman. This happens to women. I know it would be a lot easier for a lot of people if I would just lie about what I am, but I'm done convincing myself to believe convenient lies about me that deep down, I recognize as false. I invested so much in this idea that, by making myself superficially distinct from other women, I could erase the harm done to me because of my femaleness. That lie gave me hope, but it's just not true. I have an awful lot more in common with butch lesbians who never transitioned than with anyone born male. "Singal's article is less a call to help children, and more a confused reaffirmation of stereotypes about queer people seductively converting straights." Really? Is it? I went from being a lesbian who was seen as a lesbian to being a lesbian who was seen as a man, after a string of heterosexual doctors did a bunch of shit to my body. Who's trying to convert who? I started dating my girlfriend when I was already living stealth at school and in public. We were never seen as a lesbian couple until this year, and even now, I'm not usually recognized as female. Yes, I asked for the treatments I got, I pushed for them hard. I did that because I genuinely had no idea that a woman could feel the way I felt. I didn't know a woman could hate her breasts, could hate the way she was treated, could hate her own femaleness. I didn't have enough empathy for women under patriarchy, including myself, to realize that these feelings were an entirely reasonable response to all of the horrible shit that had already happened to me by the time I was 16 and begging to be put on hormones. Pediatric medical transition is a relatively new phenomenon, and it takes a while to get to a place with your trauma where you're comfortable going public. Give it a few years and there will be an awful lot more of us. I wish this wasn't the case. I wish you were right, that this treatment wasn't doing harm, that all of these children were going to grow up and be just fine. I wish that I was just fine. I'm not, this destroyed me in a lot of ways. I will never be the same. Transitioning does require courage, but so does recognizing that transition has done you far more harm than good. Disagree all you want but try to remember that you're talking about my trauma and the trauma of others like me; the least you can do is acknowledge that we exist. This is not Triton. What happened to us was not painless. It makes sense that I'm concerned about these treatments that did me so much harm as a teenager becoming increasingly available to children.

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  • christ almighty lol, didn't know your comment box didn't allow linebreaks, my bad!!! Reposted it on my wordpress so that you can actually, you know, read it.

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  • https://b0rnwr0ng.wordpress.com/2016/07/28/response-to-fear-of-a-trans-planet/

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  • Yeah, that no-line-breaks shit can sneak up on you.

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  • Thanks for your comments gooddog (and for linking to the version with linebreaks.)

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  • I didn't even notice the lack of line breaks.

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  • What an ill-informed article. Thank you, Gooddog, for your comments. Just shows why a white cis-male shouldn't speak like they're the authority on trans issues.

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