Like most good liberals, I was totally on board with transgender “liberation.” After all, it’s the next civil rights struggle, right? I’ve marched against war, racism, for health care, for women’s and gay and lesbian rights. In the 1980s, I surfed the Second Wave of feminism, loving who I chose, dressing as I chose, speaking my mind, and living the life of equality first wavers like Susan B. Anthony, Charlotte Gilman, and Emma Goldman fought so hard for. I was a two-time election worker on President Obama’s campaigns. In the past couple of years, I celebrated as homophobic laws toppled, state by state, and gay marriage morphed into mainstream reality. And until recently, I’ve had the unexamined, vague conviction that the “T” in LGBT was part of the same good trend: more inclusion for the marginalized.
But that has all changed. I’ve shifted from the cookie-cutter progressive vantage point I inhabited only a few months ago. It’s not a 180 turnaround. I believe in civil rights for all people, and I don’t think trans people should face job, housing, or other discrimination. But I no longer see transgenderism as a liberation movement. From where I now stand, I see it as a profound and fundamentally conservative undermining of the gains of the Second Wave of feminism. It’s the Third Wave, a tsunami of narcissism, of post-modernist relativism run amok…a hall of mirrors, wave upon wave of shiny, YouTube transition videos and Tumblr confessions… where subjective feelings and ideas always trump physical reality.
Something has gone wrong. Very wrong. I’ve been asleep for 20 years, but now I’m waking up…because my own teenage daughter is being churned and tossed in this very turbulent sea.
When my daughter announced to me that she is transgender a few months ago, my initial reaction was basically positive—even though she had never before expressed the tiniest inkling of any such identity. In fact, she had always talked about how glad she was to be a girl. I’d raised her to feel that, like me, she could dress, act, or be anything she wanted to be and until very recently, that’s exactly what she did.
The change was abrupt. She admitted to binge-watching triumphant and ecstatic FTM transition videos for days on end. She started using jargon like “genderqueer.” But despite this turnaround, despite misgivings, I made an appointment with a gender therapist, ruminating on what it would mean to welcome a son into the erstwhile form of a daughter.
A researcher and scientist by profession and by avocation, I dived deeply into the Internet and medical literature on FTMs. And the more I read, talked, and emailed (and I delved a lot), the weaker my kneejerk-liberal “trans ally” position became.
I learned that everything I had taken for granted about women’s liberation has changed. A dislike of pink and traditionally (think: 1950s norms) female activities and interests now means a girl, a teen, is “actually” a boy. Instead of acceptance if a girl wears denim and button-down shirts, that’s called by the archaic term “cross dressing” and the girl is pressured to “transition.” Gender role conformity is more rigid than ever, which is the great irony of transgenderism. Girls who used to find their home as “butch” lesbians don’t have anyone to identify with or look up to anymore. Women’s or lesbian bookstores, discussion groups, bars seem to have vanished from the face of the earth. Everything has been subsumed under the “queer” label. And while nearly all FTMs start out as lesbians, they disavow it after beginning “transition.” They were never really lesbians, after all. They are “really” just crossdressers who yearn to be male.
And when it comes to “transition,” the holy grail, the magic elixir, is testosterone. It would be one thing if “T” could be used experimentally, then abandoned, with only temporary and reversible changes to the mind and body. Then you could say: Why not? Give it a try. But even a few weeks on “T” usually results in forever-thickened vocal cords, forever-thickened body and facial hair, and—by some accounts I’ve read—even brain changes that are hard to undo. If a girl or woman transitions and changes her mind, she will forever live in a modified, altered body, whether she likes it later or not. Sterility is another risk. And many FTMs on long term hormone treatment are plagued by chronic infections, heart trouble, high blood pressure, premature aging.
That the frontal lobes of teenagers’ brains are not fully developed is now settled science, no more controversial than gravity or evolution. We now know that executive function—judgment, impulse control, planning, and self monitoring skills—don’t reach maturity in young people until at least the age of 25. Yet the medical and psychological professions are allowing—no, they are pushing—surgical and pharmaceutical transition as the “answer” for teens who are questioning
their identities. There’s a huge cognitive dissonance here: If adolescence is a time of limited executive function, how on earth can we be encouraging, let alone celebrating, such life-changing decisions being made by teen (and much younger) people?
How can it be that surgery and testosterone are now seen as the only viable solution to the feeling that a female doesn’t fit conventional gender stereotypes? What happened to: women can be anything they want to be? Shave your legs, don’t, cut your hair, don’t….love who you want, work on cars, have a child, don’t….that’s liberation as I’ve always understood it. But Second Wave feminism is considered stodgy and old fashioned now. Despite its fundamentally liberating message to women.
Right on! I am glad to see a sane, liberal parent voice on this madness. Anyone who understands teen development should get how kids are a YouTube binge away from thinking that the answer is that they were born in the wrong body. The evidence to support trans is nothing more than gender stereotypes. Please keep blogging!
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I wish you and your daughter the very best of luck in finding your way through this. I was a teenage lesbian in the sixties. I was isolated and troubled, lost among lies and silence, but at least there was no suggestion that I should or could turn myself into a pseudo-male by ingesting toxic chemicals and mutilating my body. I am appalled at what is going on now. I know you are doing a lot of research: have you found the Thirdwaytrans blog yet? His latest post, on ‘identity fusion’, may have some relevance to the situation you are grappling with. It includes a link to a post he made last July, which you might also find interesting. I rate ‘Thirdwaytrans’; not sure he is always right about everything, but he writes about the aetiology of ‘transgender’ cases intelligently and without polemic.
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There are some very odd features of the trans narrative, once you get to look. I’ve been thinking about why gender dysphoria is particularly common among army vets. Is it because soldiers are more likely than civilians to have innately feminine brains? Well, I don’t think so.
A 2013 study reveals that Gender Identity Disorder is roughly five times higher in military veterans than in the general US population (22.9 per 100 000 rather than 4.3 in 100 000 persons). Gender identity disorder has nearly doubled over ten years amongst US veterans. And ‘suicide related events’ occur 20 times more frequently amongst US veterans with gender identity disorder than they do amongst the total population of US veterans with health problems.
Not only are these levels of suicidality deeply worrying, but they also raise puzzling questions. Why are there more trans people in the military than in civilian life?
According to trans activists, brains are inherently gendered at birth. As Caitlyn Jenner recently explained: ‘“My brain is much more female than it is male” . This is a version of gender essentialism rooted in brains rather than bodies. If your brain is female but your genitals and chromosones are male (so the argument goes) then you are liable to suffer from a deep sense of misalignment, a form of body hatred that may ineluctably lead to suicide. If this is so, then medical transition is a life saving intervention.
If trans women are more common in the military than in civilian life, is it essentially feminine to fight?
The link between transitioning and the military seems to have been there from the start of medical (that is hormonal) transitioning in the twentieth century. Christine Jorgensen (1926 –1989) was the first trans woman to experience hormone therapy in addition to surgical transition. She grew up in the Bronx, and was drafted into the US army after graduating from high school in 1945. Hearing about transition surgery after her military service, she travelled to Europe and in 1951 underwent the first of a series of operations in Copenhagen.
In Jorgensen’s case military service was not a choice. But why should trans women be drawn to military service in the years after the draft?
Back in 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft was struck by similarities between women and soldiers, arguing that soldiers, particularly officers, revealed just what was so damaging about the education of her female contemporaries. You were as unlikely to find ‘any depth of understanding […] in the army as amongst women’, she thought and ‘the cause’ was ‘the same’.
Wollstonecraft believed that a professional army (a ‘standing army’ rather than an army of volunteers) develops a sense of identity based on obedience to authority rather than individual conscience and reinforces this identity through codes of behavior and of dress:
officers [like women] are also particularly attentive to their persons, fond of dancing, crowded rooms, adventures, and ridicule. Like the fair sex, the business of their lives is gallantry; they are taught to please, and they only live to please.
Wollstonecraft is engaged in an attack on the gender essentialism of her own age. Her comparison between women and soldiers is designed to unpick the language of naturalness: if women are like soldiers, dress, flirtation and obedience cannot be essentially feminine. She ridicules the indoctrination of girls to ‘cultivate a fondness for dress, because a fondness for dress [Rousseau] asserts, is natural to them’. [my italics]
Wollstonecraft’s eighteenth century polemic takes as its target the gender implications of Rousseau’s liberatory rhetoric, influential in her circle of revolutionary sympathisers at the time of the French revolution. Yet the version of femininity she loathed is resurgent since the triumph of market capitalism in the 1980s. Rousseau’s ‘natural’ clothes-obsessed woman is the model for Caitlyn Jenner’s dream of femininity: ‘a cleavage-boosting corset, sultry poses, thick mascara and the prospect of regular “girls’ nights” of banter about hair and makeup.’ The politics of gender bear a complex relationship to a wider politics.
Transexualism in US veterans is hard to understand as the liberation of an identity present from birth. Trans as a symptom of acquired trauma makes more sense. But if this is the case, it calls for help deeper and more lasting than bodily change. And this raises a disturbing possibility. For if transsexualism is ever an expression of the multiple forms of trauma in modern life, then the treatment of trauma through chemical or surgical castration is a crime. In such cases, it may be treatment that leads to suicide as much as the (untreated) predisposing trauma.
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Thanks for this.Your thoughts (those of and Wollstonecraft) on the military and transsexualism have not been discussed before on my blog. Makes a lot of sense, especially since we know that childhood abuse and trauma is common in some people who identify as transgender.
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Reblogged this on I Really Think I Know What I'm Talking About.
“When my daughter announced to me that she is transgender a few months ago, my initial reaction was basically positive”
Mine was NOT, mine was absolute horror, disbelief and astonishment. This is crazy! my daughter is CRAZY! She’s never said anything before to hint as such a thing! My biology degree reinforces my understanding that you can’t really change your sex (and you don’t need a biology degree to understand that), and the whole woman in a man’s body doesn’t make sense to me. Don’t we all just feel? how is there a gender feeling with that? I also have very little tolerance for self-centered behavior which this is all about…but teenagers get an excuse. My daughter is 18.
Unfortunately my reaction, which came with a whole lot of tears, has resulted in my daughter not fully explaining herself, lying, and hiding from me what she is doing. So now I have to build a new bridge to her. Your cool-headed first reaction results in more open communication, no doubt.
I’ve always been a good liberal. I was asleep, like the vast majority of good liberals still are. We just go along with the next “social justice” issue without necessarily looking into it much. The transgender issue had not affected me on a personal level before this, so I was sort of caught unawares. But very quickly, it became clear that we weren’t just talking about an identity. We were talking about surgeries and injections on a healthy teenage body. That woke me up pretty fast.
I’ve also been a feminist for a long time, and it didn’t take long before the cognitive dissonance set in: How could this independent, healthy girl feel she could only be whole by hurting herself?
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…..I’m not into labels at all, but I’ll change “feminist” to “humanist”. May our daughters and our sons all grow up to live healthy, happy, fulfilling lives.
I have only ever thought of myself as a liberal…until this happened. I will never see myself as conservative, but my initial attempts to find like-thinkers about this issue led me to all kinds of conservative websites. Now I will just call myself independent, I guess. A scientist. And yes, a feminist. I dream for the day my daughter can join me in the feminist camp.
This business completely shook my confident, lifelong self-identification as a liberal. When I’ve seen the shallow feel-good affirming behavior and the suppression of discussion around this issue, I’ve come to realize that liberals can be just as dogmatic, autocratic, un-nuanced and fundamentalist as … well … fundamentalists. I don’t know who the heck I’m going to vote for at this point. That’s how shaken I’ve been by what I’ve observed.
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