You Are Who I Am
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.