Two days ago, the Huffington Post ran an article entitled “To The Gay Man at the Vigil: I Didn’t Think I’d Have to Protect My Trans Son from You.” The back story is a familiar one. The author’s child was a gender nonconforming girl with a history of hating “pink dresses” and liking rough and tumble play. Heartbreakingly, the author reveals that her daughter was bullied for her gender nonconformity, being called “lesbo.” Being derisively identified as homosexual, the child “forced himself into being a girl.” (This is a very important point. The child attempted to fit into female sex role stereotypes after being derisively labeled a homosexual. This fits with what we are hearing again and again – that it is more socially acceptable for a lesbian to become a straight boy.)
After being labeled (in a bullying way) a lesbian and subsequently attempting to pass as a gender conforming female due to homophobia, the child became depressed and engaged in self-harming behavior. Sadly, we know that suicidality is very high among gender nonconforming youth. One study shows the 37.4% of gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth had had a suicide attempt. Then two months ago, this young person announced that they were transgender. The author mom supported her child’s transition, and saw the depression lift.
This piece fits the happy transgender narrative we so often see in the media. According to this narrative, kids who were being bullied for being gender nonconforming or appearing gay or lesbian immediately become warmly accepted and supported by peers when they embrace the rigid sex role stereotypes of the opposite gender. The comments on the article are overwhelmingly supportive and positive of the mom and her decision to embrace her child’s transition. According to the current narrative, this mom is doing exactly what she should do – supporting her child’s immediate transition without critical thought or exploration.
But here is what the supportive comment writers on the piece perhaps haven’t thought through.
This young person likely won’t be happy with changing their name, pronouns, and hair style for long. Many young people who come out as transgender feel an immense pressure to pass. (Clearly the young person discussed in the article is not passing at this point.) As a result, they often feel an immense pressure to start cross sex hormones.
A natal female who takes testosterone for some length of time will have a permanently deepened voice; facial hair; and possible male pattern baldness. The long-term effects of testosterone on female fertility are not well understood. Taking testosterone may cause permanent sterility. These changes will not go away even if she stops taking testosterone.
There are some further health risks. Testosterone may have a negative effect on one’s lipid profile by increasing bad cholesterol and lowering good cholesterol. It may raise blood pressure and lower the body’s sensitivity to insulin. These changes increase the risk of stroke, heart attack, and diabetes.
Taking testosterone as a natal female increases the risks of breast, ovarian, and uterine cancer. Not much is known about how these risks might be affected by long term use. Young people going on these cross sex hormones is a relatively recent phenomenon.
But there is more.
Many young natal women who come out as trans decide early on that they would like “top” surgery, meaning a double mastectomy.
Mastectomies are a major surgical procedure that carry with them the usual potential for serious complications that all major surgeries have – infection, necrosis, blood clots, etc. It is a painful surgery, with a recovery time of at least a few weeks. And of course, having a mastectomy means one will never be able to nurse a child.
It is a principle of good medical care to choose the least invasive option possible when treating a condition. Identifying as transgender is NOT the least invasive way to address gender dysphoria because it often leads to serious, permanent medical intervention that can have life-long consequences.
The mom in the article insists it “isn’t a choice” to be transgender. The supportive comment writers (and presumably the HuffPo editorial staff) seem to agree with her. The gay man to whom she addresses the piece apparently does not. Empirical evidence is on the side of the gay man. It truly isn’t a choice to be gay. Sexual response can be — and has been — measured in the lab. Being gay means that as a man, you have an arousal response to men. This really isn’t subjective. Feelings of gender dysphoria certainly aren’t a choice. Intense feelings of discomfort with one’s body are not something most of us would choose. The decision to interpret these feelings as evidence that we are in the wrong body, however, is a choice. A choice with no empirical evidence to support it. No wonder the gay man in the article seems irritated.
Let’s support our gender nonconforming children. Let’s help them fight the homophobia that makes them go underground and feel terrible about themselves. Let’s allow them to defy narrow sex role stereotypes. Let’s look for ways to help alleviate their discomfort with their bodies without having to change those bodies.