The Sleepover and Adolescent Rites

It’s spring, the sky is smoky yellow and birds are fucking in midair. OK, that wasn’t how I was going to begin. It’s the season when feelings of change are palpable. This year I also feel unsettled. The bushfires have already begun and teenage-dom is contributing to my sense that everything is a little weird and a little undone.

O’s sister and I are travelling to Hong Kong and China next month. I’ll probably write about that in the future. But tonight I wanted to get down a few thoughts about adolescent rites and The Sleepover.

I’m beginning to realise that part of the reason O’s friends are flocking to our house at present is that we’re being more liberal than other parents in O’s age group. O is now 14 – his friends are mostly 13 and 14 – and it’s a tricky age for rule enforcing and boundary setting in any context.

Personally, I’m loving a sense of normality returning to our lives. I haven’t written much about how things were for our family in the last eighteen months but, suffice to say, a lot of our experience was frightening and isolating. I like having young teenagers lolling around on the couch or out the back, playing with the dogs or talking to me, and generally just being silly together. O is starting to thrive again, and that’s immeasurably important too.

Anyway, in the last couple of months we’ve let O hold several sleepovers – boys and girls. It was never something that O’s Dad or I were permitted at this age, so we did stop and talk about rules – but also why we felt OK with this. Here was our thinking:

  • It was important to us and to O that our house was a place where kids felt welcome and safe;
  • None of the kids in this particular circle are experimenting with alcohol or drugs at this point – at least in our presence! But this is part of our reasoning: we want these children in our presence as much as possible – and to have as good an idea as possible about what is going on;
  • Both our younger kids spent have spent much too much time in the last few years communicating online. We want them to build deep, strong friendships with their peers in person;
  • Sleepovers are lot of fun, if a bit exhausting. Our dogs (in particular) are thrilled.

There are definitely some well-documented problems with sleepovers. Firstly, there’s often not a lot of sleep and then there’s the thing where parents, in particular, worry that things will ‘get out of hand.’

I’ve found myself revisiting this second concern: basically, it seems that what adults worry about most is that teens will have sex. Specifically, teens will have sex in their house. When I was growing up teens were definitely not supposed to have sex at all. Of course, many did, but it was not talked about and not officially happening.

I still find it a bit hard to completely understand the origin of this fear of teenage sex. I am not sure if the biggest issue in the 1980s was that it was immoral to have sex or that someone might get impregnated. I tend to believe that it was more of the latter, although I have to recall that in my Catholic upbringing casual sex was always really, really wrong.

Madeleine bed

But O is transgender. He is also pre-puberty, which predictably enough is becoming more of an issue for him, week by week by week. O’s pretty sure he’s straight, which means he likes girls, and doesn’t believe this will change for him with pubertal hormones (although we’ve talked about how it might).

At the moment, this situation means that O is inevitably ‘friend-zoned’. He has some strong, genuine friendships with girls but they’re not particularly sexual with one another. I suspect some girls like him very much for the very fact that he’s ‘safe.’ O also has some longstanding male friendships and a lot of acquaintances through soccer and skateboarding. The need to socialise is strong in this one!

But here’s the thing – or part of it. Some of O’s friends are gay. Some are bisexual and some are straight. Some don’t know who they are attracted to as yet. So, with sleepovers, it seems ridiculous to insist on segregating genders. It might save some outdated notion of propriety but it won’t limit sexual behaviour. We could ban sleepovers, but then, inevitably, sexual experimenting will happen at the far ends of school property and in the bushes and the backs of cars, just like the ‘good old days.’

I feel a bit without a road map here and I think O’s Dad does too.  This is not how our parents or our friends’ parents handled this issue at all, but it’s safe to say that a lot of our own sex education was uninformed and just plain wrong.  It seems clear to me that the only sincere way forward – the only good way forward – is to ensure that all the kids in our care understand and practise mutual respect and enthusiastic consent.  I’m pretty confident that there are no young teens copulating under our roof at this point, but in the future this could well happen.  I’ve realised lately I’m far more concerned about O’s friendship group continuing to listen to one another and to treat each other with care and consideration than I am about anything else.

 

On that note, I should get to sleep.  I’m hoping we can all enjoy what is shaping up to be a long, hot summer – with added hormones.

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Selkie Poem

I came across this poem on Twitter today. Its author, Rachel Plummer, is releasing a children’s book of poems, based on Scottish mythology and re-told through an LGBT lens. I find this one beautiful. It reminds me of Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts or even Meg Rosoff’s What I Was. Anyway, you can order the book through The Emma Press.

 

Selkie poem

Male selkie

I don’t get to be right about everything.

A few ways in which I think ‘gender criticals’ have a point:

It would appear that being transgender is seen as ‘cool’ amongst some young teens. This is what O tells me anyway. When I read articles online about trans kids I’m often struck by how many different stories get conflated. I don’t think that high school kids exploring gender and ‘bucking the binary’ are much like O, really. But yes, for some, Transgender is a Trend.

Gender is a social construct. As I’ve written before, there’s nothing about having a vulva that dictates that you must have long hair and like pink and princesses. A very thoughtful colleague asked me recently if I could define gender (he was trying to). I gave him the standard lines about “gender being between your ears and sex being between your legs”.  That definition – however glib – is helpful in distinguishing between sex and gender but it still doesn’t tell us much about what gender is

Linguistically, many things are defined by relativity (an apple is at least partly an apple because it’s not an orange). But what is gender, essentially? I only speak English and high school French. These languages are impossibly inadequate tools to use to describe gender. I don’t know if there’s better ones.

I suspect the reason so many media stories resort to stereotypes is because of the difficulty – even discomfort –  in trying to explain a deeply held internal conviction to others, a conviction that doesn’t make linguistic sense. Being a girl is not about liking dresses and being a boy is not about liking trucks, but it can become a convenient shorthand. Or so I surmise. Parents have to be advocates for their children – that seems fundamental to me. But until children can speak for themselves you’re often left trying to explain feelings you don’t actually have yourself. I have no idea what it’s like to feel that my sense of self is at war with my biology.

Finally, I agree with the ‘gender criticals’ that medicalising the transgender experience and altering the bodies of children is fraught with difficulty. I really really don’t like the idea that O might need to permanently alter his body – and that in choosing to take testosterone he would make his healthy young body always less than healthy. I’m not happy about that at all. In the article I reposted about Debra Soh, I concede I made light of this point at the time, as body alternation (by definition) is not a part of gender social transitions by young children. I still don’t think that medical professionals, the psychiatrists, the parents or the children themselves have resolved what the best standards of care are for adolescents with gender dysphoria. I will always be grateful that O himself has been treated with such care and consideration. I know it’s not the same everywhere.

I know what I want to do is to keep trying to tell our family’s story in a way that considers more than the typical – or what is becoming the stereotypical – story of having a transgender child. For me, part of doing what is best for O is to keep thinking, to keep thinking hard. Even when I get very stressed, it’s necessary stress. If I take his gender identity and his treatment too lightly I’ve done him a deep disservice.

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In our garden right now – and definitely not just for girls

Throwback . . . Wednesday? A Response to Debra Soh.

I wrote this in 2015. Many things have changed since then. In Australia, it’s no longer necessary for transgender children to go to the Family Court to access Stage Two treatment – cross sex hormones. In Canada, Zucker lost his job. Also, Debra Soh got her PhD and makes a living as a science journalist, promoting free speech and claiming that she has been shut down by trans activists.

Hardly the most important point – but I note that in her first article (2015) she says she is in her thirties whereas Wikipedia says that in 2018 she is 28. No wonder casual readers struggle to work out what is true.

Anyway, I found my old post in a document on my hard drive (I deleted my old blog). Soh came up in an online conversation, so I’m reposting. Here it is: 

 

I lie awake at night thinking about the future of transitioning for my child. I agonise over unknowns: do puberty blockers have side effects that haven’t yet been documented? Are there going to be ways to prevent sterility if O takes cross-sex hormones? Will O be happy and healthy (or even survive) if we don’t allow him to take puberty blockers?  How do we support O in the way that is best for him?

These are the terrible questions we are compelled to ask, and to keep asking. They are questions that need to be raised publicly. Families like ours want to be able to assess the effects of hormone blockers and we need honest answers about the risks for O in taking them, as well as the risks of not taking them. We need answers based on the best possible science and reasoning, without scaremongering.

Sometimes, I feel like finding these answers is simply too hard. But, as O’s parents, find answers we must. All of our lives and wellbeing depend on it. With my heart in my throat, I follow discussions, I talk to professionals, I talk to transgender people. I read the latest research. In the end, we will make decisions based on all these considerations. We will also be guided by a child who we love dearly, who tells us things about himself that no research will ever capture. I’m not aware of a family supporting a transgender child who does not do these things.

Last week, an article by Debra W Soh appeared in the Pacific Standard, titled ‘Why Transgender Kids Should Wait to Transition’.  When I saw the link in Soh’s Twitter feed, my heart pounded.  I was afraid to click on it, although I felt I had to.  The article has been shared over 5100 times, and as someone with a deep interest in the title alone, I can appreciate why. Dr Soh’s profile states that she is a sex researcher and neuroscientist.  Based on her professional profile, I thought she must have the results of new research, highlighting the dangers of transitioning for transgender kids.

 

This is not the case.

 

Instead, Soh’s article begins with the story of having been a ‘gender atypical little girl’:

My friends were all boys. My favorite pastimes included rough-and-tumble play and running around the house while waving my he-man sword high in the air.

People who regularly read about transgender children online (particularly the dreaded ‘comments’ section) will know what’s coming.  Soh is describing the experience of being a ‘tomboy’. There is no suggestion that she or anyone else considered that she might be transgender, or even that she experienced consistent gender dysphoria. This doesn’t stop Soh wondering if today she might be labeled as trans and she is grateful that her parents did no such thing. She is now a ‘happy, straight adult.’

Soh’s story follows well-trodden terrain– you can find other examples of her particular logic here and here. Despite its speciousness, it’s not surprising that it’s a common narrative, given the blurred distinctions between gender diverse and transgender children prior to puberty. As most people reading this already know, these uncertainties are partly why prepubescent children never transition in any permanent way. Being gender fluid or gender nonconforming is not the same as being transgender, but prior to puberty, it might be difficult to make that distinction.

 

But Soh worries hypothetically about ‘a young child whose gender dysphoria would have desisted without intervention’.

 

Guess what? If a young child’s gender dysphoria desists, there is no intervention, unless acknowledging preferred names, pronouns and dress is ‘intervention’. However Soh never states clearly what she means by ‘transition’ and in most cases she conflates the socio-cultural ways in which one might support a small child, as we have with O, with the most physically invasive aspects of hormones and surgery.

At one point Soh does assert that, “Even a social transition back to one’s original gender role can be an emotionally difficult experience for children.”  How does Soh know this? Based on what evidence or experience?  She doesn’t say.  By definition, for a transgender child, their original gender role was an “emotionally difficult experience”. I couldn’t work out what Soh meant.

Soh never defines the age of the children she’s concerned about. Four year olds? Twelve year olds on the cusp of puberty?  Seventeen year olds? As most people reading this would know, children with persistent gender dysphoria at puberty do not ‘transition’, medically or otherwise. At this point, they might be prescribed hormone blockers, which are reversible: if you stop taking them, puberty commences.

If gender dysphoria still exists four, five or six years later – in other words, at the end of childhood – cross-sex hormones will be an option for some.  Still fewer consenting adults – those with substantial funds – might choose surgery.

 

The whole premise of Soh’s article is more than alarmist, it’s just plain wrong, for several reasons.

 

Firstly, trans children do wait to transition, because they have to. All people legally taking cross-sex hormones will have undergone rigorous medical and psychiatric assessment. For children, these assessments will likely have gone on for a number of years. In Australia, sixteen to eighteen year olds must have this stage of their treatment approved by the Family Court. Promoting the idea that irreversible sexual transitions can take place at the drop of a hat is pernicious for the trans people and their families involved.

Secondly, Soh states that ‘research has shown that most gender dysphoric children outgrow their dysphoria, and do so by adolescence’. This is incorrect, because there are no studies that have ever been completed with accurate data on ‘’persisters and desisters”.  The article that she links to is recent, but the statistics in the abstract have been discredited. However, the idea that most gender dysphoric children “change back” is a persistent misconception.

You can acquaint yourself with some of the issues to do with the assertion that “most children outgrow their dysphoria” by looking at findings and analyses from the Dutch research here. One of the main issues with this research is that it wasn’t longitudinal: if children didn’t come back to the clinic, researchers assumed that they no longer experienced gender dysphoria. Other possibilities, such as lack of money or support – or simply moving away – don’t seem to have been considered. Unfortunately, the Dutch findings have been cited in hundreds of articles since, until the assertion that “most kids change back” has become conventional wisdom. It is not, however, good science.

Referring to research by Kenneth Zucker, as Soh does, is also problematic to say the least.  Zucker and his colleagues at the Toronto Centre for Addiction and Mental Health have worked for many years to decrease cross-gender behaviours and identification in children. Zucker and fellow researchers claim a high success rate in encouraging kids not to express gender nonconformity, because that is their aim. If this sounds like the ‘conversion therapy’ recently banned in some states of the US, that’s because it is. Zucker’s clinic is currently under review and is not accepting new patients.

It’s probably clear by now that Soh’s article enraged me.  She is far from the only commentator to use dubious logic and outdated data to support her views about treatment for transgender children.  You can find articles like that all over the internet.  My overriding problem with this article is that Soh published her opinion under the guise of being informed by her work as a neuroscientist and sex researcher.

Implicitly, Soh is claiming that she has privileged information about the risks of transitioning for young transgender people.  If she has ever conducted any study of trans children, or written any meta-analysis, this is not cited. Instead, she links to old data conducted by other researchers and tells an anecdote about her childhood.  Even in an op-ed, this is dishonest, because she implies that her opinion is an informed one.

Given the subject of this blog, it’s ironic to take issue with the pronoun that Soh uses throughout her article – and it’s not even a gendered one! Soh uses ‘I’ throughout her piece, which only works if she’s either telling her personal story or telling us about her scientific work. As good researchers know, it’s fundamentally flawed to form a general theory based on specific personal experience, but this is what Soh has done.  On the basis of being an informed expert, Soh is advising parents and others who care about transgender children on how to help them – as well as warning her readers that many are getting it wrong.  This message has reached thousands and thousands of people, including some that are desperate for answers.

I’ve taken the time to write this because articles like Soh’s distress and confuse people, like myself, who are trying to navigate their way through information and misinformation in an effort to support their children.  There would be no problem if Soh had published her personal opinion in a blog as a private citizen – but then she wouldn’t have received her 5100 shares, would she?

26-kenneth-zucker-gender-identity-office.w710.h473.2x
Zucker’s office before he was fired in 2015.

 

 

 

 

I’m probably going to be thinking about TERFs for a long, long time.

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I have a lot to do today, so just a few thoughts:

I might give the impression that I’m unaware of issues like this and this. I’m not. In the time I’ve been following transgender issues, it seems that social media has gone from being preoccupied with bathrooms to being focused on the GRA (by the way, poorly played, The Guardian. Oh, and you too, Jesse Singal). Whilst these things have happened overseas, it’s not as if there haven’t been comparable wedge issues in Australian politics and society.

I feel like I want to expel a lot of my contradictory ideas and positions in this particular space, primarily for myself. So, I’m going to keep workshopping some aspects of my own make-up that don’t thrill me.  The first on my list is my battle with needing approval, and needing to be liked. I’m a classic oldest child, in this regard.

I also want to talk again (later) about how fearful I’ve been of trans-exclusive feminists, particularly online. I don’t know if others have been as frightened of figures like Gallus Mag or Cathy Brennan (although trans people would have a reason to be). I’ve even feared Miranda Yardley, who has personally been very courteous to me, though less so with others. I want to dissect the reasons – founded and unfounded – for my fear as I’m sick of it.

Finally, I’m going to drop the word TERF for now. It dehumanizes.

I still need to talk about TERFs

 

My starting point in supporting trans people is realising that trans people exist. That they’ve probably always existed. That, for the majority of trans people, they have little choice about who they are. It’s not an identity taken up for fun, or for protest, or in response to the various forms of gender oppression imposed by current societies. It’s something innate, resolute, something central to being alive.

I’m starting here because I think statements like the ones above often do cis people’s heads in. They do MY head in and I’ve spent the last four years finding lots of different ways to challenge O on their truth. Personally, I would love it we could find demonstrable neurological proof for being transgender tomorrow. If I had proof, it would let me off the hook. It would release me from feeling that there’s anything different that I could have, should have, done.

I was one of many kids in the 1970s and 80s educated to believe that gender was a construct. That there was nothing linking pink shopping carts and fluffy dresses to having a vulva, or linking a love of Power Rangers and articulated machinery to penises.

I still don’t believe there’s a link. We haven’t raised our children to make this connection, either. My partner does all the cooking and shopping in our household. He likes it: I don’t. I’m the more highly educated, academic one and at the moment I’m the breadwinner. I’m happier that way. I also like jewellery and flowers. My partner loves football. There’s no contradictions in that, and we saw none in our children. O has always been very aesthetic, empathetic, chatty and interested in babies. He’s athletically vigorous, and likes footballs and skateboards more than reading or being arty.

His sisters very much like make-up and fashion. They’re also strong, forthright and well-read. Until O was eight we thought we were doing a really good job at parenting without sexism and gender conformity.

When I tried (tried!) to tell my parents about O being transgender, my father blamed everything on me, on my books and my feminism. I was accused, by many on both sides of our family, of pushing an agenda.  Apart from the fact that I wasn’t pushing anything (apart from my terror to one side) I found attributing O’s gender identity to my feminism wildly ironic.

By the time O came out, I hope I wasn’t imposing any ideology on the lived experience of my family. I don’t think I was. But I still had beliefs, and my feminist beliefs didn’t include understanding and supporting gender identities that seemed to conflict with biology. I had deeply wished for my children to be at peace with their bodies, to not suffer a mind/body split as profoundly as I and countless women had.

Moreover, I wanted my children to feel empowered through their female bodies, through what they were (free from masculine impositions) and through what they could do. I wanted them to rejoice in the strength of their bodies, to fully inhabit them and to think and feel through them.

O’s testimony was in utter conflict with what I had most desired for him.