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You Are Who I Am

You Are Who I Am
Jake Pyne

In an Op-Ed in the Advocate yesterday Riki Wilchins warned us that the end of the trans movement is in sight, thanks to a new wave of gender non-conforming / transgender youth who are accessing hormone blockers and transition care at earlier ages.  Children and adolescents it would seem, have some real growing up to do if they are going to get in line with the higher purpose of the transgender movement.

For those who are unfamiliar, access to medical care for early gender transition is rapidly expanding as we speak.  North American trans youth with supportive parents (and often class privilege) can now potentially access hormone blockers at the onset of puberty – blockers which can buy them some time to think and breathe without their body taking off in the opposite direction than they need it to go. As far as we know, puberty blockers are tested and safe and don’t necessarily lead directly to transitioning. Some youth decide to go off of them and let puberty take its course, while others decide that transition is the right thing for them.  Either way, ideally these decisions are driven by youth themselves, with parents and physicians following their lead. Reading Riki’s Op-Ed made it clear that we can now add trans adults and activists to the list of people who need to learn to take the back-seat and let youth do the driving.

Young people who transition early, will in all likelihood be far less visible than most trans adults are now. Riki is right about that. But according to her, this is the great disappearing act, a counter-revolutionary normalizing move, the end of a transgender movement based on radical in-your-face visibility.  Without that visibility, Riki asks “Who would I be?” An interesting question, but I might point out that for an article written about someone else’s experience (youth), there are an awful lot of “I’s” in it.

The Op-Ed begins with Riki describing herself glimpsing a trans girl who has transitioned while young. And then the girl disappears from the rest of the article and we get Riki’s reactions to her image, yes, her image. We do not hear any conversation between them, we do not hear how this girl feels or sees herself or what she wants for her future. We do hear what Riki wants for this girl’s future. This is perhaps the real disappearing act.  In place of youth voices, we learn what their images spell for the revolution.  It almost sounds as if the burden of ending harmful gender norms ought to be placed on children.  It almost sounds like trans adults should get to decide what gender non-conforming young people do with their bodies, based on our own needs and goals.

To be clear, I also personally identify with a transgender politic, rather than a more conventional transsexual narrative. Yet we don’t get to create space for ourselves at the expense of others. Riki treads dangerously close to this line. The transgender / gender queer movement has made a tremendous contribution to the world – Riki’s important work included.  Riki’s writing was formative for me as I came to know myself as trans in the 90’s and my generation is probably more grateful than she realizes.  But in her description of what the transgender movement accomplished, she neglected to mention a key mistake that the movement made when its leadership built their legitimacy by dismissing more conventional trans people as illegitimate. Not every trans person is gender queer or should be. In fact, brace yourselves, people are different.

If you spend some time listening to gender non-conforming young people and their parents, as I get to do in my work, it becomes very apparent that the kids who are gender fluid are not the same kids as the ones who emphatically say “I am really a girl” or “I am really a boy”. Setting up pathways for some young people to transition does not mean that they all will. Some will. Some won’t. Gender identity is profoundly personal and let’s face it, for many people, really not that malleable.  If I’m not mistaken, it was the trans movement that made this point.

Riki tells us that the trans movement is changing beneath our feet – that we will not recognize it in 10 years time.  Of course, for as long as the trans movement has existed, this has been the case.  Do I have concerns about this latest change?  Yes. I am concerned about who gets to decide which youth are approved for early transition and why. I am concerned that kids without supportive parents are often left without any options at all.  I am concerned that most clinics report that the families who manage to find their way through the information maze, are mostly white and middle-class.  I am concerned that some people think all gender non-conforming kids should transition into coherent normal roles, and that others think they should all not transition and stay in edgy gender-transgressive roles, and that none of these people appear to be listening to kids at all.

To sum up, Riki makes three classic mistakes. The first is the mistake that adults make when they see youth as extensions of themselves, reprimanding them when they dare to reflect back something other than that adult’s own image. The second mistake is the same one so many cis people make in response to trans people. Riki responds to transitioning youth as an abstract concept, offering her commentary on what their bodies and choices signify to her, rather than tuning into, and offering recognition for, what their bodies and choices mean to them. And finally, Riki makes the mistake so many people make when confronted with gender non-conforming youth – she over-determines their futures. We are told how they will live, what they will and will not struggle with, who they will be and what it will mean. The truth is, we don’t know who these young people will be, or what it will mean, because they haven’t told us yet. So in the meantime, we do for them what we ought to do for all kids – we check our own interests at the door, we listen carefully to what they tell us they need for a good life, and then we work as hard as we can to make it possible.


  1. Scott Turner Schofield

    I appreciate the author’s last paragraph very much: kind of a step-by-step for anti-ageism. In particular: “…we don’t know who those young people will be, or what it will mean, because they haven’t told us yet.” For me it was a game-changing perspective shift. Thank you.

    Rikki is right, things really are changing, and fast. I have been working in the trans movement for 10 years, teaching trans cultural competency in high schools and universities, and I have watched a rapid and incredible shift occur in the way that young people view and understand gender – from cis to trans to genderqueer and all the rest surrounding those identities. I feel like a dinosaur myself, at all of 32 years old. Guess it’s time for me to go back to class – some place like TYSEN in Minneapolis, maybe, where the needs of T-spectrum youth – mostly without resources – are being met in radically fantastic ways, from providing a pronounless space to home/family resources to hormone shots, and a lot more.

    But I do want to say, let’s not discount Rikki’s editorial for all the things it is not. What it is is classic Rikki Wilchins: an honest, first-person account of a cultural phenomena that means huge things about gender in the United States. Rikki could not opine for or even near the youth in the blue dress, as it is not Rikki’s right to do so, and Rikki knows that. This is about Rikki’s experience – it never pretended to be anything else.

    What Rikki said resonated with me because I see it happening too, and I wonder, too, what the next step in this process will be for all of us in the T spectrum. Cultural amnesia is a real and terrifying thing not only in the US at large but especially in the queer community – ask Sarah Schulman. Hell, ask anyone over 40. That’s scary! I grew up in a world where Trans did not exist, too, and I never want a repeat of that for anyone. And yet, I do my job hoping to put myself out of business someday. But a world without history is doomed to repeat it.

    I am grateful for this article for all that it articulates around what Rikki Wilchins wrote, which is key to the entire subject. And I am grateful that Rikki, as always, went out on a limb to articulate something that can’t be described, because it is happening as we speak. I need (at least) both to think about it at all.

    I hope the opinions about this major cultural shift continue to come with I-statements, personal truths, loving reflections, and the smart, eye-opening perspectives that make me grateful to be in queer community. And for the scathing critiques that drive me away from queer community time and time again, what would it do if we started saying “Yes, and…” instead of “This is how you’re wrong?”

  2. Yes!! Jake, you are the best. <3

  3. JJ

    Should we add to the list of the concerns the long-term effects of these ‘puberty blockers’ and hormone treatments for youth?? When I was in high school, we all seemed to be on Paxil, Prozac, Zoloft — you name it. And now we’re told these are not safe for youth, or even young adults. I still wonder what we’re saying when we confirm that a person’s natural body is ‘wrong.’ How can a body be wrong? This disconnect with Nature is something I can’t understand. By nature, I am in no way promoting some idea of gender norms, just that person’s body is their body is their body . . .

  4. krin zook

    Thank you Jake. I was so uncomfortable reading Riki’s piece as it felt as if I were hearing some adult saying “When I was your age we had to walk 10 k to school. Now you have it so easy.”
    Thank you for reminding us that we need to listen and to ask questions so we can learn what is really happing for youth or anyone marginalized rather than make broad assumptions based on our experience. This is how oppression of all sorts keeps getting reinforced.

  5. Yes, thank you for this. We need to listen to trans youth instead of projecting our own issues, insecurities and political agendas onto them. Moreover, they will evolve their own ways of self-identifying on an individual basis and honestly don’t need our help or pronouncements in that regard.

  6. yep

    And then the girl disappears from the rest of the article and we get Riki’s reactions to her image, yes, her image. We do not hear any conversation between them, we do not hear how this girl feels or sees herself or what she wants for her future. We do hear what Riki wants for this girl’s future. This is perhaps the real disappearing act. …The first is the mistake that adults make when they see youth as extensions of themselves, reprimanding them when they dare to reflect back something other than that adult’s own image.

    yeah, i hated to join the pile-on, but this is exactly what i thought when i read wilchin’s article, too. though i think there is definitely value in acknowledging the perspective of someone who has been around for a long time (and, i certainly agree with her, that the next generations conceptions of what gender is/can be are gonna be a lot different than ours) — what you pointed out, is exactly a thing that lots of writers make about a lot of stuff. other people are PEOPLE, not symbols of something. talk to them and figure out their stories as best you can, as opposed as to using them as a dart board for your own projections and theories, and it will make for much more interesting writing.

  7. Zoe Tuck

    I’m pleased to see a response to this article on prettyqueer, one of my all time faves. However, as someone who is generationally between Wilchins and the transgender and genderqueer youth she considers in her article, I take issue with Jake Pyne’s chiding remarks. In terms of Wilchins “three mistakes”: 1) to wade into the difficult water of treating global changes over time is not the same as being ageist, or expecting youth to be a perfect mirror. 2) This is an Op-Ed piece, not a full length book or academic article. Wilchins doesn’t give much more time to her own experiences than her brief interaction with the 13 year old person. I would be excited to see Wilchins (or another member of her generation) edit or collaborate on an anthology of younger voices, or perhaps younger and older voices in conversation, but an Op-Ed is just not the venue for it. This is just quibbling, though. 3) I disagree very much with the assertion that, “Riki makes the mistake so many people make when confronted with gender non-conforming youth – she over-determines their futures”. I keep looking the article over, and I can’t find a moment when Wilchins says what younger gender non-conforming folks’ bodies ought to be or mean to them. When Pyne writes, “It almost sounds like trans adults should get to decide what gender non-conforming young people do with their bodies, based on our own needs and goals,” he totally misses the speculative and, to an extent, wistful tone of Wilchins’ piece and projects his own fears onto a pretty innocuous bit of speculation by someone many people (myself included) consider an important trans activist who seems to be moving towards a sort of elder status. On the whole, I feel like Pyne sets up Wilchins as a straw woman, critiquing her for points she hasn’t made. I’m saddened by this, as this article leads me to believe that I share, even emphatically support, many of Pyne’s stances.

    • Jake Pyne

      Hi Zoe, thanks for taking the time to articulate your concerns so clearly. There’s much to appreciate in what you’re raising… first and foremost in the respect you show Riki, as, in your words, a would-be elder. I think she is deserving of that. If I were to write it again, I might state more clearly that I do think we stand on her shoulders.

      When I read through it again, using your lens of “wistful”, I saw what you meant. There was something wistful in it, which is not how I took it the first time.

      I also like that you point out the way I am also responding to my own fears. I think that’s a good observation.

      But innocuous? I’m sorry, but I just don’t agree.

      Telling trans people who pass, or live stealth, or who live less than really visible lives, that they are not trans (which she does) is not innocuous. The context of this is of course transgender movement history, in which activists who saw themselves as the vanguard belittled people who simply wanted to transition. (And the belittling has gone both ways). I understand that the battles for trans legitimacy played out in the 90’s for a reason, but this is not the 90’s and Riki ought to know better than to pull this out now. I knew as I was writing that my tone was quite combative, and I considered softening it, and then realized that I think a little combativeness is justified at this point.

      The other part of the context, and this where your point about my fears is correct, is that we are living in a time in which everyone has an opinion about what gender non conforming youth do with their bodies. And as trans people, we know that having an opinion about other people’s bodies, even as you say, in only an Op-Ed, is not innocuous either. Especially not for youth. Gender non conforming youth are dependent on adults to hear them and respond to what they need. In the two pages she had available, she never once affirmed their authority over their own bodies. In a time when that authority is threatened or completely absent, I think that’s wrong.

      Zoe, you mentioned that Riki doesn’t tell us what these early transitions mean, but I think she does: “Our memories, our accomplishments, our political movement, will all seem to only be historic. Feeling transgender will not so much become more acceptable, as gayness is now doing, but logically impossible.” I really don’t think this is just wistful. She is saying trans youth are spelling the end, and again, that they are not actually trans: “if you could take a pill that would stop you from being transgender, would you take it? That’s now a possibility for every young trans kid with understanding parents.” She also says: “Androgen blockers […] had made this blond 13-year-old into an entirely non-transgender transsexual.” Riki doesn’t get to say what this young person entirely is. Lastly, I think naming them “Blocker Babies” is objectifying, it diminishes their integrity, and I chose not to say this in my post but for me this was what made it clear that she was, at least partly, trying to diminish them.

      I do hear your points about her historic role in the movement and that this piece is her reflecting back and looking forward. I see that a little clearer now because of your comments, so thank you. But I stand by my main point that many of her statements are an imposition on trans youth. I’m not on-line this weekend but will check back to see if you want to leave more thoughts. Thanks.

      • Zoe Tuck

        Hi Jake,

        I’m delighted to read your thoughtful comments! I think I read Riki’s article through rose-coloured glasses and more than a little bit through my own fears about what it means to age with/against/alongside of an ever-shifting movement – or collection of movements, really! You definitely prompted me to give “Transgender Dinosaurs…” a harder stare. I think your emphasis on affirming the body autonomy (especially for for children and young adults) is absolutely merited. I’m grateful on principle that you didn’t pull any punches in your article, which is why I initially felt empowered to respond. I just hope my response wasn’t snarky – because that wasn’t the spirit in which it was written. I hope to read more in the future about your (and others’) work with gender independent children – which is absolutely the best term I’ve learned today.

        • Jake Pyne

          Hi Zoe, and thank you for your thoughtful reply as well! You’re not the only person who has brought up the issue of aging trans people who have bodies that others deem unacceptable, alongside this new generation who will be regarded much more positively precisely because their bodies will be more acceptable. I think you’re right that there needs to be space to talk about that, and to feel something about that. And I’m thinking about all that Riki has been through, and contributed, a little more now. Thanks! Jake

      • Adam

        “Telling trans people who pass, or live stealth, or who live less than really visible lives, that they are not trans (which she does) is not innocuous.”

        I live a very visible life. I live openly as male and everyone who sees me sees that I am male. I do not “pass” as male, I am male. I passed as female for far too many years. I am not “stealth.” I do not hide the fact that I am male. If others assume that I am cis, that is cis supremacy in operation. I am not hiding anything.

        I know we’ve all internalized cis supremacy. Let’s work on eradicating it together.

  8. Cindy

    Thank you for this Jake. As a parent of a gender non-conforming child and a cisgender queer ally to trans and gender non-conforming folks, I am so grateful for this post. So much more to say, but for now, just wanted to say thank you!

  9. Hi Jake,

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece and response to the problematic article from Wilchins.

    One thought I keep having myself in response to her words is that it is representative of a larger, unfortunate trend in mainstream trans activism, which is just an endless obsession with “visibility.” For example, consider the following article from trans activist Gunner Scott, which oddly focuses on the need for visibility as some kind of antidote for violence experienced by trans women of color:

    The fact is that vulnerable trans women are not experiencing discrimination, harassment and even violence resulting from a lack of visibility… on the contrary, I think it would be more accurate to say that hypervisibility is at work in these cases.

    Meanwhile Riki Wilchins in her piece actually seems saddened or nostalgic to think that binary-identified trans people might not grow up facing the oppression that she experienced. It’s just bizarre. (Even more so when we consider that those social advances will likely only benefit a privilege few in any case).

    In my view, what this represents is a kind of confusion among many trans activists about visibility and what role it plays or should play in our movement. It’s true that visibility may be a useful tool in advancing our goals in some cases, but the fact is that visibility is at most only that: a tool. Visibility is not a core issue for the trans community and I see no reason why it should be.

    On the contrary, it seems to me that meaningful trans activism must start with bodily autonomy and work outwards out from there. And for Riki Wilchins to actually seem saddened at trans children who might have to “pay the price of visibility” in order to obtain bodily autonomy seems to me to be a deeply and profoundly confused position.

    In summary, it seems to come from some tendency within the movement to fetishize “visibility” (merely a tool) rather than prioritizing core issues (bodily autonomy, confronting violence against trans women).

    • Jake Pyne

      Hi Savannah, thanks for your comments. Yeah, you’re totally right about the focus on visibility. I’m sure Riki is right that it was really key in the shift in trans politics – visibility would have been the lynch-pin in the shift away from the one medicalized narrative – but it seems a not so useful thing to get caught on now, at the expense of other things that people prioritize for themselves. Nice point!

  10. Erich P.

    It also seems that there is policing of what counts as a transsexual and/or a transgender experience., as if to say that being gender conforming is somehow less than being gender non-conforming.

  11. I agree with some of what she said except this part: [For the blocker babies, there is no residue. Their transgender-ness is there, and then – poof! — it’s gone.] – which is the basic premise of this piece. So, I guess I’m saying that I disagree with much of what she has to assert.

    For the “blocker babies” – their experience of self as not having the physiological history of cis folks will be part of their identity. Whether or not that experience is based in shame has a lot to do with the way we as a culture value and experience norms around reproductive choice. Making space for “blocker babies” to exist in our culture is explicitly supporting the probability of a reproductive-free life. At every stage of reproductive maturation, the “blocker baby” will have a significantly different experiences about a facet of human life and development that’s deeply ritualized, institutionalized and romanticized. Being sexually “normal” is highly valued and that’s not going away anytime soon… Which is to say, the experience of being a cultural “other” (and facing possible rejection, oppression and abuse because of it) is a certainty for the perceivable near-future.

    Lastly, her labeling of these kids as “blocker babies” belies her vision of a Judith Butler utopia. The term “blocker baby” has already differentiated their sexual maturation experience as non-normative. “Blocker babies” will have language to talk about their experience and they will want to share their experience with another who understands. Jargon + a shared specific life-altering experience *will* produce both identity and community. The terms may change, but there will be a “community” for the foreseeable future.

    • Jake Pyne

      Well said Christan!

    • Judithe

      Thank you Cristan, I completely agree!

  12. You misapprehend what “ageism” means. Of course, given all things appropriation, this does not shock me.

    • Shaed

      I think I’ll take Maggie Kuhn’s word over that of a career bigot on whether ageism includes both adultism and jeunism.

  13. Judithe

    While not meaning to downgrade Riki’s contributions to the trans movement, I sensed (as I posted elsewhere) a shred of jealousy toward the “blocker-babies” in her article. What she experienced, in another time and place, is HER experience; what someone growing up now will experience is not directly related, in any way. It shouldn’t have to be.
    To further that point, my experiences as a person, trans or not, are wholly different than my children’s, I would not want it any other way. Some of the experiences that I survived, I would never wish upon them, regardless if they are trans or not. To say or wish otherwise would be disingenuous.

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