Saturday, July 26, 2008

On “The Transgender Child” and new transgender narratives

About two weeks ago I finished reading Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper’s new book “The Transgender Child: a handbook for families and professionals”. The book is incredibly well done, and while some of its suggestions are vague, the vagueness is a direct result of the great gender diversity transyouth (and adults) can have. Brill and Pepper do a good job of not pining and specific template of transgender identity on these youth. However, I was disappointed by the incredibly short sections on intersecting identity. For youth with (other) disabilities the section basically translated as "good luck!" and for the section on religious and ethnic intersections, it could be translated as "some communities are difficult, but your child is worth it". The book was written with a heterosexual married white adult in mind who has a well-paying job and is able-bodied. There were attempts to steer away from that metaidentity, but they weren't too successful. I feel compelled to forgive, as the book is still invaluable, yet still be upset because by now we should know better. [Image Description: The cover for Transgender Child. The upper 1/3 is a lime green color and carries a large quote which is illegible. The lower 2/3 are white, and carry the authors names and the title of the book, all in grey.]

I had requested The Transgender Child as an early birthday present for several reasons, the most prominent being that I feel a need to understand the great diversity of my community, including youth. Although I do not plan to have children or be in a position where transgender children will view me as a role model, I am often asked to speak towards their needs. Normally such questions would mildly irritate me, but seeing that my job involves me having a position of some authority on transgender issues I feel an obligation to stay informed.

Also, the story of my transition doesn’t involve me having any definitive feelings of male or genderqueer identity early in my life. So it interests me to read more about youth who already know, at such a young age, that they are male, female, gender variant, or gender fluid. As I read the book I realized that the increasing amount of transgender youth will be drastically changing the narrative that transgender adults have formed to discuss and provide resources for our identities. While there have certainly been a few stories of note about transgender children who were supported in their gender identities before the 2000s, there can be no doubt that more and more youth are coming out and being acknowledged these days.

For the lucky youth whose gender identities are affirmed and supported by their guardians this means that they will live a significant part of their life in the identity they desire. In any community this will still present issues and families will have to struggle with sports teams, legal identification, doctors visits, bullying, and public bathroom use among numerous other complications. However, it also means that youth will be affirmed as who they are before creating a second life – marrying, having children, serving in the military, obtaining degrees given in birth names etc that often make transitioning when older much more difficult. The models that those of us who have had to merge our young adult/adult life into our new life created won’t be relevant for this coming generation, as they may very well interact with their identity in a new way. The book even mentions how many of these youth don’t want to be called transgender - that they want only to be recognized as male or female. This is of course, absolutely OK. There are many adults who identify only as male or female and I absolutely support individuals claiming the correct language for their experiences. However it will change the landscape of gender narratives. Like all change it's initially exciting, but I wonder what the repercussions will be, and whether us older transfolk will ultimately accept these younger narratives.

Of course, there will always be transfolk coming out when they're 40 and 60 and 20. Our exploration of gender and sex will always be a continuing process, so the emergence of transyouth doesn't signify an end to older transgender identities. The main thought I had, though, as I read the handbook, was that these youth could come up in a world where they want to blend into cigender and heterosexual privilege, or they could be brought up to be proud of their transgender history, and I hope that they do feel pride even as they encounter great difficulty.

Finally, the most surprising part of the book, for me, was finding a passage that reflected a part of my identity completely. I had very little connection to the stories that wove the handbook together, but a quote from a mother of a transmale youth stood out. The young man, who at that time hadn't stated his transmale identity to his mother, had gotten his first period, and responded by hiding in his room and becoming depressed. The mother chalked that up to the depression many cigender women feel as their bodies change. However, she then discovered that her son wasn't using any tampons, pads, or other menstrual devices. It was as if he was going to will his period into disappearing. Which was when the mother realized something bigger was going on and found out (later) that her child was transgender. This is such a complete illustration of how I handle my period. When I go to work I behave like I should and take care of it, but as soon as I come home I remove all sanitary devices in the hopes that if I pretend it isn't happening it eventually will stop happening. Which is ridiculous, but clearly to at least two transmen this makes perfect sense.

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