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Debunking one of the more bizarre anti-trans arguments making the rounds among pundits.
“Nobody in my life was particularly enthused that I turned out to be a man,” Liam told me. “My ex-girlfriend actually took my phone out of my hands when I was scheduling my first HRT consultation and hung up the phone. My mother cried. My father is still in a state of mourning.”
Liam (not his real name) is a trans man in his late teens who began transitioning a couple of years ago. He says he did not receive a lot of support from family, medical professionals, or peers.
Contrary to what some anti-trans pundits would have you believe, Liam’s experience as a trans youth has been sadly typical. It’s far from the fictitious anti-trans narrative that we live in an affirming-to-a-fault society with an out-of-control left-wing medical establishment hellbent on “transing” cis lesbian and gay children.
For instance, on Twitter, Andrew Sullivan wrote, “A gay friend confided in me the other day: ‘If I’d been born twenty years later I would have been put on puberty blockers.’ Protect gay kids from the TQIA+ extremists.”
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Sullivan’s evidence here doesn’t even rise to the level of anecdote; his friend is making up a story, not reporting on anything that actually happened to him. And in fact, there is overwhelming evidence—from studies, from experts, from parents and children—that Sullivan’s friend is wrong. People are not pushed to be trans. Instead, trans people in our society face many social barriers to transition and little encouragement.
Not even anecdotes
David Moulton, writing in Tablet, claims, “The interests of legacy gay rights organizations have increasingly become divorced from their traditional constituents, gay men and lesbians” and as evidence points out that the Human Rights Campaign is using the word “transgender” more than lesbian and gay in its annual report. That probably has to do with an assault on trans rights. HRC’s report details and pushes back against attacks on LGBT people. When states are passing hundreds of anti-trans bills, you say “trans” a lot. (“When bigoted lawmakers took aim at transgender youth, our volunteer-based organization defended them with determined vigor.”) The use of the term is evidence of how much discrimination there is against trans people, not the opposite.
Similarly, Katie Herzog argues that the decrease in lesbian bars is a sign that the trans and nonbinary establishment has made lesbianism uncool or embarrassing. But couldn’t the issue just be that lesbians are more accepted now and, as a result, feel more comfortable going to mainstream venues?
Both Moulton and Herzog are trying to pit trans people against cis lesbian and gay people by framing support for trans people as inherently homophobic. It’s a tactic picked up with glee by straight transphobes like Graham Linehan, who has penned condescending odes to “our baby homosexuals.” It’s also embraced by active homophobes like the Family Research Council.
Trans youth face enormous stigma
In the first place, there is a strong correlation between transphobia and homophobia; researchers found that “homophobia is likely to always be the ‘best’ predictor of transphobia and these two constructs probably share a common foundation.” Where transphobia and homophobia diverge, however, the evidence that trans people face serious stigma, and often worse stigma than cis gay or lesbian people, is extensive.
Most obviously, Republicans and conservatives across the country are pushing more than 400 draconian anti-trans bills through state legislatures. These bills criminalize trans health care, force trans youth to detransition, criminalize trans use of public bathrooms, force schools to out trans youth to their parents, and more. While these bills may harm gay and lesbian and gender nonconforming youth in some ways, they are particularly framed as an attack on trans people–hardly a sign that trans identities are seen as more acceptable and legitimate than gay or lesbian ones.
Homeless statistics mirror the current public anti-trans panic. Homophobic parents often throw their children out of the house or make life so miserable for them that they leave home. As a result, according to the Trevor Project, 23% of cis queer youth report experiencing homelessness or housing instability at some point in their lives. Those figures are however even worse for trans youth; 38% of trans women, 39% of trans men, and 35% of nonbinary youth said they had experienced homelessness.
Similarly, thanks to widespread social stigma, queer youth often experience severe mental distress and mental illness. According to the Trevor Project, 1 in 3 cis queer youth contemplated suicide in the past year, and 1 in 10 cis queer youth attempted suicide in the same period. Those are horrible numbers. But statistics for trans youth, again, are even worse. More than half of trans and nonbinary youth contemplate suicide, and almost 1 in 5 reports making a suicide attempt.
It’s also worth noting that researchers have found that “many if not most trans people are LGBQ following transition.” Liam, for example, had thought of himself as a lesbian before transition, but after coming out as a trans man, he also realized he was bisexual.
“I just never entertained the idea of being with a man until after I was presenting as a man,” he told me. “Being a straight girl was the farthest thing from myself that I could imagine.” If there is a sweeping plot to turn gay people straight by forcing them to be trans, that plot failed spectacularly with Liam. Trans people do not transition because they want to be straight. They transition because they are trans.
“I have never in my entire career encountered a parent who pushed their child to identify as trans”
Daniel Summers, a Boston-area primary care pediatrician, confirmed that in his experience, parents are “notably more comfortable with their children being lesbian or gay than trans.” Even supportive parents of trans kids see it as a challenge, he said; that’s not the case for supportive parents of lesbian and gay children. “I have never in my entire career encountered a parent who pushed their child to identify as trans if they did not already identify that way themselves,” he concluded. “Not once, for any reason.”
Kelly Storck, a therapist who has provided gender-affirming care in St. Louis for 15 years, agreed. Acceptance of gay and lesbian identity has improved slowly over the years, but, “most of my clients, regardless of age, still hold a lot of fear around having a gender that’s different than their assigned sex,” Storck emphasized. She added that her clients often have an “overwhelming fear of rejection from their families and peers.” That’s not what you’d expect if there were a successful coordinated campaign to make cis gay and lesbian people adopt trans identities.
Clara Baker, a parent of four in Bar Harbor, Maine, told me her son transitioned when he was three, and is now 12. Baker’s mother was a feminist scholar, and Baker was very familiar with third-wave feminism and gay rights. But she was “really ignorant” of trans issues. “My first thought was, if I let him wear boy clothes, will I turn him into a boy?” she said.
In order to deal with her son’s dysphoria, she educated herself and got him the care he needed, but “there was a ton of resistance from health care providers, family members who were super educated…” Even logistically, there were major barriers, since she had to drive an hour to an endocrinologist to get monthly blood tests. “I was so without support,” she said.
Sam (not his real name) an author and journalist, told me he had, himself, resisted when his son came out as trans at 15. Sam had close friends who were gender critical, and he read some feminist anti-trans books. “We had arguments about it,” he said, “where I’d say, ‘Do you think you’re erasing your female identity?’” Eventually, though, he said he realized that his concerns were “just because I was more comfortable with lesbian and gay people [than with trans people]. And so that was on me.”
Sikh freelance journalist Veerender Singh Jubbal was the one exception among those I interviewed; he said that his parents had more context for trans identity than for bisexual identity. In India, there is an established category of “Hijra” to refer to people who are trans or intersex and are viewed as a third gender, Jubbal said. As a result, he said, his parents, “definitely know more stuff in regards to transgender issues than queer issues.” That’s the “opposite” of North America, where people are more comfortable with queer identities that are not trans.
From the perspective of a culture that does, to some degree in some situations, treat trans identities as less stigmatized than some cis queer ones, Jubbal can say with some certainty that the US does not see things that way.
A pretext for discrimination
“With my mother assuming and my father asserting that I was in fact a lesbian (though I had told the both of them about my crushes on boys as a kid) it was incredibly hard to find myself until I moved out,” Liam told me. His experiences with the medical establishment were disheartening and discouraging as well. “I found a lot of the questions superficial,” he said. “If I hadn’t answered that I only own five shirts, would I have been rejected from medical transition? It left me wondering why it was necessary for me and other trans people to present in such a binary way to receive proper medical treatment.”
When you look at the research or speak to clinicians, parents, or young people themselves, it is clear that no one is being pushed to be trans. Instead, trans people face persistent discrimination and resistance from family, friends, doctors, and politicians when they try to be true to themselves.
The claim that trans people are somehow infecting cis gay and lesbian people is part of that discrimination. Framing trans people as a danger to themselves and others creates the pretext for anti-trans legislation, for parental rejection, for the denial of medical care. Building that foundation of bigotry empowers Christofascists, homophobes, and reactionaries. In the long run, and even in the short run, it will not help any LGBT youth, cis or trans.
Where indicated, some names have been changed to allow interviewees to speak freely.
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