The infallibility of the oppressed: Story of one influential trans activist

by Overwhelmed

I recently came across this well-written article from a former social justice activist. It reveals how people with good intentions try to change the world for the better, but can end up doing just the opposite. Here are some quotes from the essay that I thought were particularly relevant:

 “I need to tell people what was wrong with the activism I was engaged in, and why I bailed out.

This particular brand of politics begins with good intentions and noble causes, but metastasizes into a nightmare. In general, the activists involved are the nicest, most conscientious people you could hope to know.”

“There is something dark and vaguely cultish about this particular brand of politics. I’ve thought a lot about what exactly that is. I’ve pinned down four core features that make it so disturbing: dogmatism, groupthink, a crusader mentality, and anti-intellectualism.”

“Perhaps the most deeply held tenet of a certain version of anti-oppressive politics – which is by no means the only version – is that members of an oppressed group are infallible in what they say about the oppression faced by that group. This tenet stems from the wise rule of thumb that marginalized groups must be allowed to speak for themselves. But it takes that rule of thumb to an unwieldy extreme.”

“Consider otherkin, people who believe they are literally animals or magical creatures and who use the concepts and language of anti-oppressive politics to talk about themselves. I have no problem drawing my own conclusions about the lived experience of otherkin. Nobody is literally a honeybee or a dragon. We have to assess claims about oppression based on more than just what people say about themselves. If I took the idea of the infallibility of the oppressed seriously, I would have to trust that dragons exist. That is why it’s such an unreliable guide. (I half-expect the response, ‘Check your human privilege!’)”

I believe that many trans activists have good intentions when it comes to gender-defying kids. I think they feel noble, that they are rescuing children from inevitable doom. Since these crusaders are transgender themselves, they label themselves experts and, along with their social justice allies, conclude they know best. When someone questions their cause, they easily discount any concerns as “transphobic.” They are so focused on doing good, they are blind to the negative consequences of their campaign.

One of these likely well-intentioned activists is Aidan Key, who appears to believe that the lives of transgender children are at stake if not affirmed as the opposite sex. Key seems particularly driven to educate the public, believing that stamping out ignorance will remove the reluctance of people to accommodate these kids.

aidan-4

Aidan Key

(Before I continue, I want you to be aware that I believe no one can actually change sex, just their outward appearance. But for this post I will be referring to Aidan Key using preferred pronouns as a courtesy. I am not out to brazenly offend anyone and would actually welcome constructive dialogue on this subject.)

Who is Aidan Key? He was born female (and originally named Bonnie) but started transitioning to male in his thirties. A self-proclaimed Gender Specialist, Key has a BA in Communication, Program Development, but he counts psychotherapy and mental health counseling among his skills.

Key CV

Key has worked tirelessly to bring awareness to the public that transgender children are a normal variation. He states that these kids don’t need to change their gender expressions or identities. Instead it is society that needs to change by accepting and affirming them as their authentic selves.

 The truth of the matter is that having a transgender child is an inconvenience to society because, instead of asking the child to change, we are asking society to change. This is a tall order.

Even though Key realizes that changing the world is a “tall order,” it hasn’t stopped him from trying. For over a decade, he has been involved in many different projects, attacking what he considers ignorance from all angles.

In 2005, Aidan and his identical twin sister Brenda were featured on an Oprah Winfrey Show titled “Transgendered Twins.”

 But early on, there was one major difference—Brenda was “the lady” and Bonnie was “the tomboy.” Bonnie hated wearing dresses. When playing house, she preferred to take the role of dad because she just didn’t feel like a girl. With puberty, the twins had trouble relating at all. “I got as boy crazy as I think you could get,” Brenda says. “I’d look at Bonnie and see her be so calm and levelheaded around these boys. [I’d think], ‘How does she do that?'”

During college Bonnie realized that she was a lesbian. Right away she came out to her twin sister. “She told me she had an encounter with a woman and kissed her,” Brenda says. “I got really upset about it because we’re twins. We’re supposed to be identical.”

For the next 15 years, Bonnie lived as a lesbian, married a woman and even adopted a daughter. But once again she began to feel that things were still not right. When she met two men who had transitioned from female to male, Bonnie felt a connection. She made the most difficult choice of her life—she decided to become a man.

(As has been talked about many times on 4thWaveNow, so many trans men formerly lived as  lesbians—but no one in the media ever really delves into why these women abandon their femaleness.)

Prior to this interview with Oprah, though, Key was already becoming well known in the transgender community of Seattle, Washington. In 1999, he founded the Gender Diversity Education and Support Services. And in 2001, he launched the first Gender Odyssey conference.

Gender Diversity,  a non-profit, has the goal of increasing awareness and understanding for gender diverse individuals of all ages. The organization facilitates many support groups for families with gender-variant children. And training sessions for workplaces, health providers and K-12 public and private schools are offered. The following is information about their school trainings.

Increased awareness and education regarding gender identity enables all children to achieve a more holistic and confident school experience. Our aim is to not only assist a school in the optimal inclusion of transgender students, but to highlight the ways that creating a more inclusive environment benefits all students.

Scheduling a training or consultation with Gender Diversity will help you…

  • Understand, adhere and fully implement a school’s anti-discrimination and inclusion policies
  • More fully incorporate the topic of gender within the school’s existing diversity programs and commitments
  • Support a transgender student through a gender transition
  • Increase the school community’s understanding of gender identity and expression as it relates to all students
  • Seek specific guidance relating to gender-segregated spaces such as bathrooms, locker rooms, sports and other team activities
  • Adequately and confidently answer questions from parents or other students
  • With one-on-one lesson planning or problem-solving with a teacher, staff or administrator
  • Develop age-appropriate classroom instruction on issues related to gender and gender diverse identities and expressions

An ideal educational package includes training for all school personnel, parent education and age-appropriate gender education for students.

Gender Odyssey  is an international conference geared towards transgender and gender non-conforming teens and adults. It includes “thought-provoking workshops, discussion groups, social events and entertainment.” Conference programming for 2016 has not yet been released, but the schedule for 2015 is still on their website. Last year’s keynote speakers were Kate Bornstein and Andrea Jenkins. Over the course of three days, there were numerous workshops with a wide range of topics including, but not limited to, the impact of trans identities on relationships, how to change identity documentation, increasing awareness of anti-discrimination legislation, hormones and surgeries.

Quite a few workshops focused on medical intervention. One workshop presenter was Dr. Tony Mangubat, who regular readers will remember from 4thWaveNow’s post on a 15 year old gender dysphoric girl who had her breasts surgically removed.

Mangubat workshop

Another surgery workshop is presented in part by Dr. Curtis Crane, a doctor with “penis-making skills that have won him a global following.” Crane’s burgeoning top surgery business was discussed in this 4thWaveNow post.Crane workshop

This show-and-tell workshop, with the euphemism “chest surgery” in its headline, makes me particularly sad.

chest surgery

The annual Gender Odyssey Family conference was started by Aidan Key in 2007. It is tailored for families with gender variant children and “provides real tools to support and encourage your child’s self-discovery in regard to their gender.” Below is a small selection of workshops from the 2015 lineup.

 Some presentations, like this one, concerned social complications that arise as a result of a transgender identity.

kid with crush
The next three workshops were presented all or in part by gender specialist Johanna Olson-Kennedy, the subject of a recent 4thWaveNow post highlighting Dr. Olson-Kennedy’s desire to lower the age for genital surgeries because trans kids are being left in “limbo” after being on puberty blockers–the theme of the third workshop below.

Olson non binary.pngolson puberty suppression

Olson limboThe Gender Odyssey Professional conference, the newest in the series of conferences, first launched in 2012. It is geared toward professionals, and participants can earn Continuing Education credits.

Leading experts will offer sessions discussing best practices for therapists, legal considerations related to transgender issues, current medical protocols, and educational considerations including model policies for gender variant students ages K-12. Continuing Education and Clock Hours available.

The 2016 conference includes this workshop by Asaf Orr, which sounds like it is designed for teachers and school officials. Orr was one of the lead authors of “Schools in Transition,” a set of transgender-inclusive guidelines for schools, which I wrote about here.Orr schools

And here’s a workshop that seems to focus on the inconvenience of pesky gatekeepers.

gatekeeping

Then there’s this talk by Mara Keisling, a trans woman and founding Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. Because the trans rights movement needs even more momentum.

Keisling

School indoctrination is a big focus of trans activists, and the conference features another workshop geared toward elementary school teachers. Johanna Eager is part of the Human Rights Campaign’s Welcoming Schools project.

welcoming schools

Aidan Key has accomplished a lot with these organizations, and his activism doesn’t even come close to stopping there. Besides juggling support groups, conducting trainings and putting on conferences, he has teamed up with Kristina Olson, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington, on the TransYouth Project.  You may remember 4thWaveNow’s analysis of the first study generated by the TransYouth Project here.

The TransYouth Project aims to help sci­en­tists, edu­ca­tors, par­ents, and chil­dren bet­ter under­stand the vari­eties of human gen­der devel­op­ment. Based out of the Social Cognitive Development Lab at the University of Washington, we are cur­rently leading the first large-scale, national, lon­gi­tu­di­nal study of devel­op­ment  in gen­der non­con­form­ing, trans­gen­der, and gen­der vari­ant youth . In addition to our primary goal of supporting the first major study of transgender children in the U.S., we are also conducting research about the origins of anti-transgender bias, and have plans for outreach projects in collaboration with some of our partner organizations.

Another one of Key’s many talents is writing. He authored the transgender child chapter of Trans Bodies, Trans Selves and has written blog posts for the Huffington Post and Welcoming Schools.

In addition to the Oprah Winfrey Show, he has appeared on Larry King Live, National Public Radio, Inside Edition and Nightline.

And that’s not all. Due to his “expertise,” Key has designed and helped implement policies and procedures for the rights of transgender school children in grades K-12 with the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), the Washington Intercollegiate Activities Association, and Seattle Public Schools.

There is still more. He is also involved in film. In 2005, Key started the annual TransLations Film Festival, which shows movies featuring transgender personalities. And, more recently he has become the Primary Consultant for the upcoming documentary “Inside Out.”

Inside Out, a 90-minute documentary, takes us deep inside the world of transgender and gender non-conforming children. Ranging in age from pre-school through high school, these children feel they were born with bodies that do not match their innate gender identity. Each yearns to live an authentic life – and live Inside Out….

In a culture that is deeply invested in gender norms, the discovery that “boys will not always be boys” has frequently led to fearful responses and an attitude of intolerance. Indeed, many view transgender rights as the next civil rights front. The stakes are high: over 40% of transgender youth attempt suicide at least once before their 20th birthday. This forces many parents to ask themselves, “Would we rather have a live daughter or a dead son?”

You would think someone as steeped in transgender research and activism as Aidan Key would know that the 41% suicide attempt figure (repeated uncritically ad nauseum in the press) is based on a faulty interpretation of the survey by the Williams Institute. 40% of trans-identified people don’t actually “attempt suicide.” In fact, gender nonconforming people (not just those who ID as trans) have more suicidal thoughts and self-harming behavior over their lifetime, and it is not at all clear that “transition” is a solution for most. But scaring parents with the worst imaginable nightmare is standard practice for trans activists, and Key is obviously no exception in using this emotional blackmail technique to quash dissent.

Why did I just enumerate the prolific accomplishments of Aidan Key? Well, I intended to convey his great influence on countless numbers of children and adults, and point out that he is only one of many trans activists doing so. These people are the drivers of the international rise in transgender-identifying youth.

GIDS increase in trans kidsOf course many activists, like Aidan Key, think this increase in trans youth is a positive thing. Here is Key on a live chat at the Seattle Times:

Seattle times

I predict that unless something drastically changes, we will be seeing many more youth like ours caught up in this trend: Kids who have been educated that being transgender is a normal variation of the human condition; that it is possible to change sex; that society needs to accommodate them; and that transitioning will solve all of their problems. These messages are especially attractive to children who have difficulty navigating the turbulent adolescent years.

Initially, the goal of trans activists may have been to make it more acceptable for boys to wear dresses and play with dolls and girls to be on soccer teams and play with trucks (which I think is a noble aim), but the activism has gotten out of hand. Now there are many confused children that are convinced that altering their bodies is the only option for happiness. And it has literally become a nightmare for many families.

I wonder at what point, if any, trans activists and their allies will start to question their crusade. I hope for the sake of our children that more of them, like the social justice warrior quoted at the beginning of this piece, wake up to the harms that their campaign is causing.

And, I hope that more people will start challenging the premises of trans activism. We need more people to realize that members of an oppressed group are not infallible. Being transgender doesn’t mean they know best. They are human like everyone else and their views should be assessed as such–not as all-knowing experts.