Marcus lives in the United Kingdom. He can be reached at @LogicalMarcus on Twitter. He has provided an extensive bibliography at the end of this piece.
I’m twenty-four and it is the mid 2000s. I am coming out to my parents. I planned it carefully. They have never made a homophobic remark but I have read accounts of coming outs going poorly, so I have waited till I am an independent adult. I tell them I have a boyfriend called Matt. They take the news with no real rancor. My father tells me to be careful about AIDS and my mother cries because I will not have children. We continue to love one another.
Every gay and lesbian person has a story of how they came to accept themselves. Realizing you are gay can take a long time. It took me at least ten years, much denial, some unhappiness, and lasted until I was a grown man. There was never a moment as though a sign turned on in my head to say “You’re gay.” For a long time I tried to ignore it or bargain it away: I didn’t want to be one of “those” people, who seemed to be on the margins of society. Self acceptance and coming out were gradual, constant negotiations between my feelings and what I felt safe and comfortable saying, to myself and others. But I am just who I am, a gay man, and there is nothing wrong with that. The rest is society’s problem, not mine.
As an adult I hoped growing up gay would be easier for children today. With what’s commonly called LGBT acceptance, gay and lesbian people are full legal citizens in many Western nations, and can marry, and have basic protections from prejudice. We are not yet full social equals – holding hands and kissing as a same sex couple can attract unwanted attention and be dangerous, “gay” is still a playground slur, and we rarely see our lives reflected in the media. But when I see young gay couples walking around, I feel intense pride and happiness that the situation is improving.
Recently I have read many accounts of parents raising so-called “transgender kids”. This is a new thing, specific to wealthy Western nations and in particular the US, that did not exist when I was growing up. These are children who are held to be “female brains in male bodies”, or vice versa. The science does not support this claim: science shows that there are no male or female brains. These “transgender kids” are not diagnosed by scanning their brains. They are boys who prefer, in some way, “girl things”, or the other way around. These children are dysphoric, that is unhappy, specifically with the kind of things they can do as boys or girls. They can be as young as three or four. For example:
For such children, an increasing number go through the following regimen: social transition (dressed as the opposite sex), then subjected to increasingly invasive medical treatment: puberty blockers, then cross-sex hormones, followed by sexual reassignment surgery at adulthood or even mid teenage years. Transgender kids seem to be a trend in the USA and UK, and the numbers reflect that, with steep increases at “gender clinics”. But how is it possible so many children are just now being declared to be in the “wrong bodies”? This looks alarmingly like a kind of conversion therapy. Studies (links below) have found that most children who express “gender identity disorder” did indeed desist and become gay adults in the past.
As a gay man, who also has struggled at times to accept myself in a society that does not always accept me, it is troubling to see children encouraged to think their bodies are wrong for the way they behave or the way they feel. The root of this seems to be a conservative enforcement of the same stereotypes that make gay people suffer. Even when these children are said to declare they are in the wrong body I think it is plausible they are doing so out of an awareness some kinds of bodies are being allowed to do some things, but not others, and if you want to do those other things you had better have the other kind of body. But surely it is better to tell all children that they can do, wear, and enjoy whatever they want without it being “wrong”.
I think there is a fad, or a contagion, going around parents and medical professionals, being pushed by motivated activists and fed by well-meaning liberals and echo chambers on social media, for declaring children to be transgender. Although society recognizes this as real, for example in educational material and school bathroom use, there does not seem to be solid science or evidence behind this condition being more than a cultural issue. I am concerned this fad will harm children through unnecessary medical treatment with permanent effect – sterilization for example, or the irreversible effect of testosterone on the growing female body.
In particular, a trend for transgender kids seems to target those children who do not conform to stereotypes society expects them to obey on account of their sex: who very often grow up to be wonderful, happy, effeminate gay men and butch lesbian or bisexual girls. We need years or decades to grow into ourselves as gay adults and the medicalization of difference through transgender seems like an attack on our personhood, an attack on our right to process being gay, painful and confusing and messy as it can be.
I have known dozens of gay men and lesbian women who might well have been “trans kids” today. Some of these gay men like to paint their nails, or dress up in women’s clothes (drag), and they care very much about clothing, and have some effeminate mannerisms. Some of these lesbians are rough and tough and they like short hair and clothing cut for men. They are happy and comfortable being who they are. I admire these non-conforming gay and lesbian people very much, because most never had the luxury of the closet, like I did. If they had been made into “trans kids” in order to produce humans who conformed better to a standard I think the world would be a poorer place and they would have been harmed. If the prevalent view of transgender is wrong then harm is being done to children and we cannot remain silent.
I have also met transgender people, in real life and online, and I have listened to their pain over their “wrong bodies”. But I also do not understand how transgender can be destined or “real” in the same way that being gay is real. Transgender and gay are not interchangeable. There are profound differences between gay and transgender. The idea of transgender as a biologically destined, permanent, fixed identity should be justified on its own merits, not by a silencing tactic where activists claim their cause is no different from gay rights and scream “Transphobia” at all questions. Gay activists never had to silence, shame or threaten opponents, because our cause is just, cohesive and reasonable, and stands by itself.
Nobody has ever shown being gay can be “cured” but there is evidence that transgender people do sometimes stop being transgender. People do detransition. One way in which gay people have also argued against a notion that being gay was wrong was to point to gay animals. There are gay animals everywhere, and our closest ape relatives the bonobos are thoroughly homosexual, but mammals do not change sex. Nobody has ever seen a transgender sheep, where a ewe becomes a ram. A dominant female hyena can take on a male role but it is still a female that has a different, natural, hormonal balance, not a male hyena.
Most importantly “the mind does not match the body” is the opposite of what being gay is about. At the end of our coming out stories, gay and lesbian people are comfortable being just who we are. There is nothing wrong with us, nothing wrong with the way we were born. Our problem is society’s prejudice, not our minds or bodies. Lesbian, gay and bisexual people have always demanded freedom from persecution and acceptance as the social and legal equals of straight people, which we are.
There is no need for medical intervention, hormones and surgery to be gay. In fact the words transition and conversion are synonyms. There are alarming similarities between the discredited notion of conversion therapy against gay children and so-called gender transition therapy. Reinforcing this, conservative Islamic nations such as Iran, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan, all punish homosexuality, but encourage or mandate a conversion of gay men to transgender women via sexual reassignment. It is appalling to contemplate supposedly liberal parents replicating Iran-style erasure of gay people on their own children.
Seen this way transgender could be compared to anorexia, because here too there is great unhappiness about the body. Anorexia is a real and serious condition, and anorexic people must have their human dignity respected, but it would be dangerous to say we should accept anorexia, or tell children anorexia was okay. Magazines that promote anorexic models and celebrities are criticized and there is an attempt to stop the fashion industry from doing this.
I probably would not have been a “trans kid” if I had grown up today. I was not effeminate but bookish and a science geek, and with the trend for medicalized childhoods, I might have been diagnosed with something else. There is a broader and long term trend of over-medicalizing children. A diagnosis like ADHD seems to often reflect an attempt to contain rambunctious childhood personalities. Of course medical treatment is not always bad but it must also be based on the best evidence that it is necessary and not harmful. What kind of evidence should we demand before assigning a child a medicalized identity, setting them down a road that can end in sexual reassignment?
I think parents and children should not always pursue instant gratification even if medicine seems to offer it.