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?

Zucker’s office before he was fired in 2015.





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



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.

I need to talk about TERFs



Well, I still feel like I do. When I think about trans identity, my thoughts often veer back to this (loosely affiliated) group.  My writing often feels like it’s addressed to TERFs and I follow TERF articles, news reports and Twitter threads. I have an unresolved knot inside of me.


Here are some very personal views, unedited.

So, TERF stands for Trans Exclusive Radical Feminist. This stance has been around since the dawn of second wave feminism (so, since the 1960s and 1970s) but I agree that the exponential use of the acronym in the last few years altered the meaning, sometimes subtly, and sometimes like a sledgehammer.

I also sort of agree with the proposition that calling someone a TERF is invoking a slur that shuts down debate. Sort of. The closest equivalence that I can think of is calling someone a Nazi. An unapologetic white supremacist fascist doesn’t deserve the respect of a nuanced discussion about their views. They can just fuck off.  However, if someone is raising concerns, however ill-founded, only to be met with name-calling – well, that’s hardly helpful.

I became very tired of working through online shouting about TERFdom – from trans people, trans allies and feminists having problems/issues with current trans visibility. I’ve always detested polemics and often shouting seems to replace conversation on blogs and social media forums.

The 4th Wave Now blog even in its early days was a little too shrill for me –  but in the last four years it has, at times, hardened into nothing more sophisticated than a hate group. It’s a pity. My dilemma is that I agree with some of the concerns that parents of trans kid have expressed within this group. I really do.


I’ll try and outline my personal issues here. They might be pretty boring, so bear with me, lovely audience of two.

I would have called myself a radical feminist during my twenties, like many earnest white Catholic girls before me. In practice, I was a pretty crap socialist and definitely a Bad Feminist, but the theories as well as the aesthetics and lifestyle were more than just attractive to me.  Radical feminism felt critical in forming my identity – an identity that was distinct from the way that I had been reared and the way that my church, family and education expected me to be.

One ‘problem’ I hit early on is that I wasn’t really sexually attracted to women. I often find women beautiful, and infinitely better company than my male counterparts, but I’m only slightly to the left of being completely heterosexual.

My total sexual encounters with women are comprised of two incidences involving drunken kissing. Both occasions were pleasantly intriguing but I’ve been sure for most of my life that I wanted to find a male life partner and I wanted to have children with him. I spent a lot of energy when I was supposed to be writing a PhD trying to reconcile my feminism with this desire.

To cut a lot of ruminating and angsting very short: I spent my thirties (re)discovering that the world was still aggressively slanted in favour of straight white men. Pregnancy, childbirth and childrearing are still overwhelmingly women’s work in Australia. They are overwhelmingly undervalued.

I’m well aware it’s female bodied people that get pregnant and give birth and breastfeed – but where do men fit into this picture? One of my major wake-up calls was that if I wanted to breastfeed (and I did) it was something my child and I did alone. It was my body that was needed – and this meant I was not available for education/socialising/work schedules/sleep/exercise for the breastfeeding duration. My partner and I couldn’t make it equitable. It wasn’t equitable. Biological determinism slammed right up against my ideology at that point, and from that point onwards.

In my forties, my ideas about feminism have – perhaps inevitably – become more intersectional. I got sick of nice white feminism: in Australia, the cultural feminism of Jane Caro, Annabel Crabbe and Virginia Haussegger was of limited attraction to me, despite having some important things to say about social and political inequity in Anglo Australian society. I think attempts to understand the position of Muslim sisters, Indigenous sisters, South East Asian sisters . . . have been partial, at best

I don’t claim to have done a good at either understanding or at standing in solidarity with women in developing nations. I do know that it’s crucial that privileged women work harder to do this. I’m no longer able to separate the problems of capitalist society, or looming environmental catastrophe, from the problems faced by women world-wide.

I have long wanted to embrace sisterhood. Strength in diversity. Solidarity in oppression. Celebrating universalities despite difference, feeling body-centred solidarity. We all bleed. We can all bear children. We share a disproportionate chance, worldwide, of being violated, raped and killed. We don’t want to be seen as objects, valued only for our sexual attractiveness, our ability to breed, or our willingness to maintain the dominance of men.


But trans existence blows that last paragraph wide open.

Starting Again



Well, I’ve reached the point where my page views are down to nothing. I have to give a lecture on ‘privacy and online culture’ this afternoon and it occurred to me that this is a place I can hide in plain sight, for a time.

I’ve also just come back from a holiday in Bali. While I was gone, I’d decided to write an email to my family every day. It was to try and connect with them using words, I suppose – which in itself was an attempt to make words matter to me a bit more than they have in the last two years.

A lot has happened in two years. (Of course it has – how could it not?). I had grown tired of using words to process my life: in fact, despite teaching literacy (or perhaps because of it), I’ve wondered making sense of the world through linguistic texts was getting a bit passé.  But despite how much words tire me, how inadequate they are, how much I would personally prefer to look at pretty moving pictures right now, I’ve worked harder at writing than at any other creative expression. Writing helps me. And I’ve finally come back to thinking that it’s perhaps OK to have a few things that are simply there to help me, and not necessarily to help anyone else.

O was the one who said, “Mum, you should blog again.” I’d known for a while that, despite deleting my last blog because of him, he liked my blog and had liked reading about himself. Anyway, he liked my Bali stories and I liked writing about my amazement at all the CRAZY CRAZY STATUES and the almost liquid air and the monkeys and flowers and bugs and incense and hypnotic bells and call to prayer along the coast of Padangbai.

I’m trying to wake up again, I guess. I’d not travelled anywhere in years, and certainly not without the kids. I’m trying to let everything in again.

I don’t know how much I’ll write about trans stuff.  Last time, it got to the point where navigating our own lives against the grain of dominant narratives about transgender lives felt too hard. I still think it’s essential that O creates his own story about who he is. Stories that get too much attention in the public sphere can get rigid quickly.

But, O is still O. He didn’t desist. I realise now I wanted him to, at least some of the time. My engagement with GenderTrender and 4thWaveNow was partly about reconciling my (then) allegiance to radical feminism but it was also because I hoped there would be another way of “doing” O’s gender identity. O says he has been telling me the same thing for over four years now. It’s true.

In the past, I’ve skirted over the fact that my father, in particular, thought I was mentally ill, and that I was forcing O’s identity onto him. I now know that he had contacted lawyers and was actively planning to remove O from me. I was right to be scared and to keep our identity online a secret.  I wasn’t paranoid (and, incidentally, I wasn’t mad either – at least not like that).

I’m glad I was careful, but I’m sick of being scared, and trying to make peace with people who refuse to listen and to try to understand.

So, here I go again.