What we Know about Abuse by Clergy – For Starters, Homosexual Priests and Modern Sexual Norms are Not the Problem

Feeling much pain after the media release of Cardinal Pell’s guilty verdict this week. Here’s a blog post offering perspective where I can’t:

AwayPoint

Clergy sex abuseSexual abuse perpetrated and hidden by clergy goes back centuries.

A priest with unsupervised access to boys grooms and then molests them. As the pattern becomes undeniable, the primary concern of church leaders is not for the children but for the reputation of the institution (a school) and the priest himself. So they simply move and promote him, as they have with other abusers. In this particular story, that includes appointing him headmaster and ultimately giving him administrative power over the religious order that runs the schools—before the whole mess implodes.

Stories like this have become mind-numbingly familiar, but in this case the abuser is Father Stefano Cherubini and the story takes place in the 17th Century. The superior who covers for him is Joseph Calasanz, a peer and correspondent of Galileo who, in 1767, will be canonized.

Sexual abuse perpetrated and hidden by clergy goes way back.

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The Day After Yesterday

I think it was Al Gore who I first heard talk about the oppressive Washington summer of 1988.  During this time James Hansen, the climate change scientist, was finalising his study demonstrating the link between burning fossil fuels and the greenhouse effect on climate change.

Hansen could choose the day to present his findings before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, so he chose June 28, knowing it was likely to be a scorcher. It was 38 degrees Celsius in Washington that day and there are stories about how the windows in the room of the Congressional hearing were kept open, so that the policy makers were visibly heat affected and the implications of Hansen’s findings were given maximum dramatic effect.

sun

I’m coming back to this page after a week. My point about the Hansen story was to illustrate how immediate physical sensations are always going to affect – perhaps erroneously – our sense of what’s real, particularly when it comes to something as ephemeral as the weather.

Anyway, down here in Australia, we have just had two weeks of frighteningly freakish weather. In my home town, it got ridiculously hot. I found my usual coping mechanisms didn’t work – usually I just figure out how to accept and enjoy the weather as it is. I try to move more slowly, I find a way to see the sweat trickling down my back as pleasurable, I take cold showers before bed.  I try to adapt and I try to teach the kids how to adapt.

But this time, I was frightened and as a result I didn’t cope too well. I was frightened by the conviction that this was not normal, that the next decade was going to get hotter and hotter and that no one – least of all me – had worked out how to manage this.  I haven’t even worked out how to effectively cope on a personal level, but it was also evident that if this particular hot spell had gone on for much longer all kinds of mechanisms and infrastructure would stop have working too. As it was, my workplace got daily notifications from the energy provider that the grid was at capacity and the city was in danger of ‘brown outs.’ In response, my work instigated rolling power cuts where rooms and buildings that weren’t being used were left without electricity. Those still in those buildings had to leave: it was too hot to work safely.

Other catastrophic events happened this January in the eastern states of Australia; there are still floods in Townsville and we lost a third of our fruit bat population. We also lost millions upon millions of fish.

Menindee fish
Dead fish in the lower Darling River, killed by a lack of oxygen due to high temperatures and algae blooms.

 

 

sun

One febrile, sleepless night in late January, I responded – albeit not directly – to The Orange One’s tweets about the polar vortex in the US:

My tweet

 

Insomnia made me do it.  But I want to write about how that response led me briefly into a parallel reality, one where climate change really was a hoax, perpetuated by power-hungry, conspiratorial politicians, and fanned by the mass media.

In short, I made contact with Jessie Jay @coopitupanotch. I don’t know if Jessie is young or old, male or female (or other), black or white. If I was going to guess from their profile I would say they were white, heterosexual and probably working class – but all I really know is that they’re American, they support Donald Trump, and that they’re aligned with conservatives on things like abortion, immigration and climate change. They’re also a bit of a troll, but nonetheless our superficial exchange was fairly polite. Here’s some of it (I’m @jackolanternC ):

 

Tweet

 

Tweet response final

 

sun

I decided to watch some of Lord Monckton’s videos. I didn’t watched Alex Jones, as recommended, and I only had a brief look at Marc Morano, also recommended and conclusively not as classy as Monckton. I lack the energy to respond in any sort of point-by-point manner to the arguments presented. But I will say this:

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how an ordinary person’s belief in climate change depends on whose words they decide to trust. This troubles me – a lot – and not just in relation to climate change. I don’t want to believe that individual attitudes – to LGBTIQ people, or asylum seekers or indigenous rights, for instance – are just a matter of where we are born and what version of authority we choose believe. But a lot of views on identity seem inextricably trapped in sociological bubbles: people’s views are predetermined by where they are born, who they are born as, and how their personal circumstances unfold.

Climate change strikes me as the ultimate challenge to subjectivity, in that changes are objectively, empirically happening. A physical world exists, which is shaped by we humans but it’s not created by us. So the words of someone like Christopher Monckton – erudite despite his quirkiness – depress me. Monckton makes a kind of sense and I can deeply appreciate that someone like Jessie Jay, already inclined to be skeptical of climate change, would grab hold of the arguments that Monckton makes. It makes me realise that unfortunately discussions about climate change are still socially constructed discourses: that is, they are value systems, rather than something human beings are capable of looking at without a particular sociological lens filtering the view. There are still no universal truths.

sun

I can agree with Jessie Jay about the importance of questioning authority and not blindly believing in a position just because most people are following it.  I can also agree that power distribution is desperately unequal right across the globe, both in democratic and totalitarian regimes.  I understand why Australia’s heat and the US’s polar vortex, freakish as they are, will never convince climate skeptics of incoming doom because it’s impossible for a lay person to extrapolate and provide proof that climate change is anthropogenic and that humans have indeed irrevocably altered the climate.

After conceding these things I get a bit stuck. I don’t see robust evidence that there’s a planetary Marxist conspiracy to take away the civic freedoms of citizens. I do see many challenges in organising on a large enough scale to halt environmental destruction, climatic or otherwise.

sun

 

I’m out of time for writing today, so I’m going to end with sharing two ways that I navigate some of these conundrums. They’re only partially satisfactory, but here they are:

First, I try to work on my personal critical literacy whenever and however I can. I work in an academic environment, and so I do have a privileged vantage point.  However, in the last twenty years, like everyone, I’ve had to build on the maxim of “don’t believe everything you read.” When I’m teaching undergraduates critical and information literacy, we use the C.R.A.A.P. test.  Like any acronym, it’s a bit crude and reductive, but it helps. Asking if information is current, relevant, accurate, authoritative and purposeful is useful to any reader trying to determine what is true. I would add to this that it’s important to scrutinise agenda, whether we’re referring to institutions, publications or individuals. And it’s important to follow the money, whether looking at Monckton, Breitbart, The Guardian or Al Gore.

I still struggle to express the other way I try to wade through the mire of words that confirm and deny climate change. For me it’s about returning to the non-human, trying to reengage, becoming aware again of being part of nature.

Yesterday I witnessed cultural training by two Koori men who were gifted in coaxing a diverse group of workers to share their stories about the place that they lived.  One man talked about how the water in our bodies has been part of the water in all of parts of the globe, and that the water molecules we each contain have also been in the oceans, the rainclouds, the rivers and the streams. We know that all the matter that has ever been in this world remains, that it just gets reconfigured again and again. So, we don’t have to reconnect with nature, as human beings. We are nature. And we just need to remember that.

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I walked in the bush this morning and thought about how the kangaroos and the rocks and the trees overhead don’t care about human politics. That’s not to say they’re not affected by politics; of course they are. I see everything around me changing: dams drying up, scrub and grasses dying, small animals disappearing and others taking their place. But it’s reciprocal, to an extent; the world also changes the human beings contained within it. So, there’s another way that I might – possibly – have some common ground with Jessie Jay.  Perhaps the politicians arguments about whether climate change is real or a hoax aren’t so relevant, in the end. We could ignore all of these arguments – maybe – if we had more control over the way we care for the land in which we live.  If we could all remember to care calmly and consciously for our natural environment, then maybe I’d worry less. The future might not look any brighter but the present certainly would.

 

 

Climate Change is About Everything

I don’t know how many people have been struggling with fragmented thoughts lately, but I have. I’m off overseas in a couple of days, and so far any attempts to summarise my year have been fruitless.  My head’s a mess. So, I’m just going to write in fragments. Perhaps this is counterintuitive, but I want to feel a bit more whole. So, firstly:

Climate Change Not Only Changes Everything: It’s About Everything 

I first remember a teacher explaining ‘the greenhouse effect’ when I was about 14 years old. I find it curious that this lesson sticks in my memory at all. It was about 1985, at the end of the Cold War, and we were taught that nuclear apocalypse was a real and present danger, far more alarming than any other possible catastrophe (movies like Threads and The Day After were made compulsory viewing at my high school). I found out later that my parents had seriously considered building a nuclear bunker in our back yard. Greenhouse gases seemed benign in comparison; in fact, if my memory serves me, my impression was that my arid homeland might become a lush rainforest, which was not an unattractive idea.

There were serious bushfires sometimes. One December afternoon, returning from the city with my parents, we could see billowing smoke over our suburb. As we drove closer, I realised it was the bushland to the west of us burning, but at night I dreamt of running and running from a fire that was always just behind me and always about to swamp everything.

Fire

In my late teens, I lived in Canada, and I joined a group at the college called SITE (Students Improving The Environment). I don’t really remember what we did – a lot of recycling, mainly – but I became aware of biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste. Canadians sorted their ‘trash’ long before we did. With the confidence of adolescence, and with the backdrop of perestroika, I was certain that my generation were the most self-aware to ever exist: more open and more politically galvanised.

So, I grew up with an awareness of impending global crises, but also a feeling of optimism that I suspect is common amongst colonials in the Antipodes: real life was always happening elsewhere. I also carried with me what now seems a particular sort of privilege: I felt certain that people were good and that everything would be alright in the end.

I also think I was fooled by my morbid, Catholic, literary attraction to apocalypse. At university, I studied both utopias and dystopias, fascinated by Wim Wenders and post-armageddon tunes by Morrissey.

For a while I lost sight of societal/environmental collapse as more than a concept, or an aesthetic. What a humourless and pretentious little shit I was!

In 2005, my Canadian English teacher sent me Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress , and this triggered an epiphany about the urgency of climate change: it was not Jared Diamond or Al Gore, as it was for so many others. Now I wonder why my understandings of various socio-eco crises came together after reading this particular little text: it’s a compilation of the 2004 Massey Lectures, and it’s about the collapse of former civilisations. But this was the book that finally sent me into permanent existential foreboding: I remember wandering the streets that Christmas time, thinking of my stepdaughter and my two small children, frustrated by the lack of a sense of crisis in the people around me. I had no idea how to live the rest of my life.

To paraphrase Tracy Chapman, talk of climate change sounded “like a whisper” in Australia, 2005. Environmental destruction was talked about, but only amongst some scientists and greenies. I don’t remember it having much traction in mainstream media.

Even today, I’m often struck by how hard it is for me to refer to climate change in professional situations, particularly as someone who is not a trained scientist. The very subject remains tainted with politics, though I can’t understand why it’s still often viewed as a partisan issue. Outside of Australian cities, as recently as last year, I witnessed tour-guides, geologists and farmers click their tongues in frustration whenever a trendy city person (like myself) brought it up.

There’s another thing  I struggle with, when I talk about climate change. I don’t know if I can articulate this well, but I’ll try.

The thing is: we spend so much time in Western societies, capitalist societies, consciously forming our individual identities. We do Myers-Briggs tests, to see what kind of personality we have. We make conscious decisions about our style of clothing and hair, music, living space, occupation and leisure habits (as well as the more subtly ingrained aspects of gesture, speech and taste – what Bourdieu would call habitus). We assert our sexuality, our gender identity, our alliance with some groups and our opposition to others.

Some of these aspects of self are chosen; many are pre-determined or innate. My attempts to comprehend what is innate and what is chosen is one of the subjects I keep returning to in this blog.

I don’t have a good way to say the rest of it: fighting environmental destruction is now the core responsibility and task of every human being on the planet. But I find the environmental activist aesthetic unattractive and it mucks with my personal identity. I know now that I will spend the rest of my time on this planet being conscious of how my own life reverberates with other lives, and with our shared biosphere.  But I’m no scientist. I don’t much like dirt.  Environmental activism sounds sort of . . . ugly and khaki-coloured. It smells like mould and mud.

fracking.jpg
I know I’m being petty and these are actually the best kind of people. I agree with their activism entirely.

I’m not good with sweaty earnest tree-huggers.  I like abstraction, poetry, beautiful art, impractical clothing, cityscapes, the exhilaration of air travel.

I’m trying to reconcile myself with environmental imperatives and my personal sensibilities. I suppose part of what I’m coming to terms with, like every living human being, is what is already lost.  I’m also trying to work out what can be saved. I remember reading Station Eleven: at the close of civilisation, people mourn simple things, like orange pekoe tea and warm baths.

Everything around me is so precious. I love our garden (what’s left of it); the bush; the stars at night; the handmade quilt on my bed. Our dogs, my husband, our crazy beautiful, mixed-up kids. I don’t want to let any of it go.

So . . .   Adani Must Be Stopped

 Adani is an ‘energy and infrastructure company’, a subsidiary of India’s Adani Group. Adani plans to build the Carmichael Coal Mine and Railway in the Gallilee Basin in Central Queensland (yes, close to the area last month that had ‘once in a century’ bushfires).

There’s more about this coal mine here, but suffice to say it’s projected to be Australia’s largest coal mine and one of the largest in the world. There are grave concerns about groundwater, the Great Barrier Reef, further desecration of indigenous sacred sites and, of course, the effects of carbon emissions. A Greenpeace report showed the output from Carmichael would exceed the yearly carbon dioxide emissions from fuel combustion in many countries.

Thirty overseas companies have refused to finance it, but the Australian government has pledged to subsidise two billion dollars to build it.

This is, inevitably, deeply political. Here’s our dickhead Prime Minister giving his infamous ‘coalphobia’ speech (when he was Treasurer):

Yeah. I do have an ‘ideological, pathological fear of coal’ if it continues to be dug up. Thanks for that, Scott Morrison.

Then there’s these pathologically tone-deaf words from Federal Energy Minister Matt Canavan:

Matt Canavan.png
NB: Adani is not ‘a little Aussie battler’: it’s an Indian multinational conglomerate.

 

In response, my children, like hundreds of thousands of others around the world have taken to the streets:

children in Sydney

Canavan also had this to say, but he’s already demonstrated his complete disinterest in the future of kids and the climate around the world.

 

The Personal and the Political: The Big and the Small.

I tweeted last week that articles like this make me consider not tweeting about identity politics – including gender and transgender politics – ever again. How can individual concerns continue to be important in the face of global destruction? How can we care about our own lives and the life of everything on the planet at the same time?

I have a good friend at the annual UN Climate Change Conference at Katowice in Poland this week. She’s a climate scientist and has spent a lot of time in the small, rapidly drowning islands in the South Pacific: the Marshall Islands; Kiribas; Tuvalu. When my friend and I meet, we don’t discuss climate change much, really, but I once asked her how long she thought we had left to avert certain catastrophe. She replied, “Two years. Sorry.” That was a year and a half ago.

The world has already warmed by 1 degree celsius. It’s unlikely that we can prevent 1.5 degrees of warming, though many scientific and environmental bodies are still trying.

Personally, I still struggle with my sense of conceptual dissonance. I’ve lived on this planet for almost fifty years in a manner that now seems stupidly and fatally disconnected from the non-human world; now I, my family and everyone I know needs to figure out how to live in a fundamentally different way.

In the midst of all of this, I have a home to look after, young people to teach, two children still to raise. I have health issues and gender services to navigate. I still have individual aspirations: to learn the violin; to teach yoga; to publish a short story and to be a better cook. And while it sometimes makes me cringe to acknowledge it, I have a lot of personal healing to do, a lot of grief to accept and overcome. Sometimes, keeping myself balanced and functional is a full-time job, particularly when I spend so much time hunched over a computer screen, neglecting my physical health. These efforts makes me drink too much wine and then consult naturopaths about why I’m gaining weight and feeling so tired. But naturopaths and alcohol both cost a lot so then I deal with the residual guilt about my over-indulgent life.

They’re first world problems, but problems nonetheless.

I’ve written before about how the American educator and philosopher, Maxine Greene, made me aware of how we can misconstrue what is ‘big’ and what is ‘small’.  Green regarded ‘big’ things as being about the intricate and complicated lives of individual students. ‘Small’ denoted bureaucracies and institutions that could only conceptualise demographics, not people. Greene wrote:

To see things or people big, one must resist viewing other human beings as mere objects or chess pieces and view them in their integrity and particularity instead.  One must see from the point of view of the participant.

In terms of where I put my attention, I feel I’ve been incessantly zooming in and panning out most of my adult life.  Is the big life or the small most important? I feel giddy, distressed – and unfocused.

 

How do We All Stop Screaming At One Another?

This is a poem I return to frequently:

The Place Where We Are Right
by Yehuda Amichai

From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the Spring.

The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.

But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.

 

I know that there’s little to be gained from adopting a hard line and then screaming at all who oppose it. One of my problems with activism is that a position needs to be adopted and maintained, often violently.  I despise ‘us’ and ‘them’ rhetoric – partly because it is never effective. I have never known anyone to shift their position or capitulate when they’re kicked to the corner.

In my climate conversation with my scientist friend she predicted that as global resources continue to be depleted, and to be inequitably distributed, there will be more terrible, unresolvable conflicts like Syria. As I write today, the yellow vests are rioting in Paris in response to Macron’s austerity measures. I fear – I know – my friend is right. Historically, the ability to not choose a side is a luxury. It’s also frequently amoral. Many people – including me and those closest to me – will have to fight. In some ways, we already are.

On social media too, virtual as it is, there’s a lot of yelling. Inevitably, I’m particularly aware of the angry divisions within transgender and feminist alliances and it fills me with dismay. I don’t see how anyone suffering gender oppression will be helped while this polarity runs so deep. I’ve equivocated lately about some feminist issues and I now feel regret, even though I know it was absolutely personally necessary to dwell with my uncertainty for a while.

I’m running out of time today to articulate everything exactly as I wish but finally, I wanted to write that I value kindness. It’s not a soft or a weak emotion: it’s so bloody hard to maintain. I want to be kind – and I want to be unafraid. As well as a bit less earnest, sometimes.

 

To conclude, for now:

I intend to focus inward a little more in the next year, to pay close attention to my friends, my family and my inner life.  It feels like the right time to reimagine what is big and what is small.

I know this seems like an odd choice, given everything I’ve articulated above. The planet and our lives upon it are tumbling out of control.  But I can do my best and most urgent work by guiding and enabling the young people closest to me, as we head into this unknown, burning, swirling future.

 

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.

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 alteration (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.