I usually steer clear of hot-button issues like this one. Except, perhaps, when it touches my own field of business, a large part of which is writing for children. I try to keep my ear close to the ground regarding hot books and publishing trends (you should feel how my ears ring sometimes), and it doesn’t surprise me that MG and YA novels, even picture books, with transgender themes are buzzing in the book world.
There’s no question that some children experience a real struggle with gender identity, and the adults in their lives should be gentle and encouraging. Sometimes the struggle is due to actual physiognomy, sometimes to neurological cross-signals, and sometimes to we know not what (more on that later). That said, here are five reasons why it may be too soon to celebrate if a pre-pubescent boy or girl decides they are really a girl or boy.
- Males are overwhelmingly more likely to experience transgender feelings than females. Three to one. Maybe that should be perfectly understandable (Girls are better!) (Just kidding, of course) except that males also experience more identity issues in general: more likely to be exclusively gay (as opposed to bisexual), more likely to fall on one side or the other of the IQ bell curve, more likely to commit suicide, more likely to be geniuses or criminals, statesmen or tyrants. This means something. It may mean that the male identity is more precariously balanced than the female, and can be more easily tipped. I have my own ideas about why this is so, but if transgender identity is simply a matter of being born in the “wrong” body, why don’t girls experience it as often as boys? There’s something here we need to understand better before we go full-speed-ahead.
- Children are impressionable and suggestible. When I was growing up, my sisters and I and the neighborhood kids would occasionally put on plays in our backyard. I always wanted to play the boy parts. In my imagination (which took up way too much of my time) I pictured myself hunting bears like Davy Crockett or fighting in Civil War battles. I never thought this was because I was “really” a boy—neither did anyone else. That’s a significant phrase: neither did anyone else. Nor were there cultural hints or markers to incline me to think my identity was more male than female. The word “identity” was not commonly used that way at the time. But if I were starting school right about now, at the height of public debate and interest in transgenderism, I might have questioned my femaleness instead of taking it as a given. Is it too much to conjecture that a little boy (for instance) whose first-grade teacher puts Jacob’s New Dress in his hands during reading time, might interpret his occasional interest in cross-dressing to mean that he’s really a girl? And if other factors gang up on him, such as an absent father or mother, academic challenges, bullying, etc., might he possibly start rooting all his problems in his gender identity?
- Children are in process. Growing up involves a lot more than height, hormones, and rapid cell multiplication. It’s an integrated, multi-layered enterprise: mental, physiological, spiritual, emotional. We all know “good” kids who took a walk on the wild side for a while—who knows why—and straightened up later. We know “bad” kids who turned out surprisingly well. We know kids who went through phases and obsessions that made us wring our hands in despair. The point is that they’re going through: identities will be picked up and discarded along the way. At the age of six, they don’t know yet who they really are. It’s said that eighty percent of children who experience some gender-identity confusion before puberty will come to identify with their biological sex after puberty. So why push it before?
- Children are already confused enough. Growing up has always been tough, but never tougher, perhaps, than right now. Kids need stability while navigating the constant shifts and challenges of personal development, and fewer of them have it. Whatever our personal feelings about divorce or revolving-door parenthood, in the vast majority of cases, lacking one or both parents is not good for children. It’s terrible, in fact: it pulls the rug out from under them. Moving house, changing jobs, changing relationships, and all the other adult vicissitudes their children are subjected to multiply the instability. Most of them (the vast majority—well over 99%) could at least cling to a few basic identity markers: I’m a human being. I’m an American. I’m a girl. I’m a boy. But now even those stout pillars are getting shaky. Can we at least agree that it’s best for all if a child’s gender identity agrees with the child’s anatomy? The alternative is a severe mind/body split, years of futility and unhappiness, costly therapy, even costlier hormone treatments, and—if the victim takes it all the way—astronomically costly “reassignment” surgery that, in many documented cases, does not solve the problem.
- We don’t know enough yet. Cross-dressing in itself isn’t new. Lord Cornbury, the royal governor of colonial New York, raised eyebrows when he borrowed his wife’s clothes for special occasions, and we’ve heard of brave ladies who disguised themselves as men in order to go to war. Those examples may or may not be instances of what we now call transgenderism, which dates only back to the first successful “sex change” surgery on Christine Jorgenson in 1952. That’s within my lifetime; I remember the buzz over Myra Breckinridge and Victor/Victoria. One of my best friends in college, ca. 1970, became convinced that he was a woman (the conviction was temporary, last I heard). The phenomenon has mostly been a sidebar except for some high-profile cases every twenty years or so; now it’s front page again. All of which is to say that there hasn’t been enough serious scholarship on the long-term effects of transgenderism on individuals—not a group, not a movement, but boys and girls and men and women. We don’t know if this is ultimately liberating, or even healthy. We don’t know, and it’s worth waiting a little longer to find out.
So what do you do in the meantime? Be patient. Take one day at a time. If your child is being bullied at school, help him or her deal. Consider home schooling. Love a lot. Remind them that, God willing, they’ll be around for a while and bad days don’t last forever and we’ve got some time to figure this out. It’s not easy, but changing genders isn’t easy, either. In fact I suspect it’s a lot harder than we’re being led to believe.