On January 22, the New York Times published an article titled “When Students Change Gender Identity, and Parents Don’t Know,” which paints a dramatic picture of transgender students seeking validation from teachers in their transition while keeping it a secret from their parents. The article asks, “Shouldn’t parents be involved in this decision?”
The article focuses on a family whose teenaged child had, while at school, been using he/him pronouns, the boys’ bathroom, and a new name. His mother learned of this change only when she saw an unfamiliar name at the top of his homework. The teenager had tried to talk to his parents about his gender before, but they had been dismissive, so he turned to his teachers for support. After finding out, his parents felt it was “a stab in the back” that the teachers had not informed them of their child’s transition, arguing that they had a right to know. The article goes on to stage a “discussion” about the “legitimate” concerns of “liberal” parents who want schools to inform them of their child’s transition.
The next day, the Times published an op-ed responding to the article, titled “Trans Kids Deserve Private Lives, Too.” This article takes the position that schools shouldn’t have to disclose students’ gender identity to their parents. It argues that children deserve the space and discretion to explore their identity independent of their parents, and that schools ought to respect that — a seemingly a trans-positive opinion.
Both articles, however, cleverly weave in transphobia under the guise of “being reasonable” and “allowing space for parents to ask questions.” Both articles claim to engage the question of whether schools should be legally compelled to disclose a child’s queerness to their parents. While debating forcibly outing children against their will is disturbing enough, this “discussion” put forward by the Times masks an underlying transphobic argument.
While these articles argue over whether schools owe parents sensitive information about their children, there is one opinion they don’t debate: we need to give space to parents who are “skeptical” of their child’s gender.
To quote directly from the gender-skeptical mother interviewed in the first article, “It’s almost impossible to have these discussions. There is no forum for someone like me.” These articles take as a given that we should be critical of the rise in children who identify as transgender — they don’t wish to debate that point.
Discussing “gender-skeptical” parents, the first article states,
Some parents didn’t think their teenagers were really transgender. Others thought it was too soon to know for certain. Most said their children had mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder, or autism.
Here they could ask: What if their children had been unduly influenced by their classmates to ask for hormone treatments and surgery? What if teachers were encouraging students to see their families as unsafe? And were right-wing partisans their only sympathetic audience?
These articles give parents’ feelings the same weight as trans children’s safety. They imply that transness is tied up in mental illness, and, alarmingly, they call on liberals to make space for transphobia to avoid pushing parents into the arms of the Right.
Students’ Safety v. Parents’ Opinions
Before engaging with these articles, we must define social transition versus medical transition. These concepts are interconnected but distinct, and they cannot be boiled down to one blanket term, transitioning. This reduction of social and medical transition into a single idea is often used as an anti-trans fear tactic — if we let children be trans, what if they change their mind?! This is a permanent decision!
But this is false.
When children socially transition, they are living their lives in a new gender. They typically use new pronouns, sometimes they choose a new name, and many children choose to express their gender differently, in the way they dress or wear their hair, for example. There is no medical intervention involved in social transition. If a child chooses to socially transition and then decides that they no longer wish to live in their new gender, they can simply change their mind. Social transition is not irreversible.
When a child medically transitions, they have sought out medical care to affirm their gender. Young trans people often take puberty-blocking medications, preventing secondary-sex characteristics from developing, and some teenagers may also choose to seek out hormone replacement therapy (HRT) — taking estrogen or testosterone to alleviate their gender dysphoria. Some trans folks also seek out specific medical procedures to serve this purpose.
Not every trans person seeks out medical transition, and medical intervention is not a necessary part of being trans.
In addition, medical transition is not necessarily permanent. If a young trans person decides to use puberty blockers, then later decides that this is not the right path for them, the effects are completely reversible. The effects of HRT are also largely impermanent: if a person stops taking estrogen, many of the effects will reverse, especially if they used hormones for only a short period of time. The same is true of testosterone.
What the Times articles address is socially transitioning at school without parental knowledge, yet the articles conflate medical and social transitions, leaning into the false notion that transness is a singular, permanent, and life-altering decision that must be considered for years.
Despite this fear-mongering oversimplification, the first article insidiously tries to frame the Times’ position as neutral, continually returning to the notion that the issue is complicated and that we need to find a middle ground:
Although the number of young people who identify as transgender in the United States remains small, it has nearly doubled in recent years, and schools have come under pressure to address the needs of those young people amid a polarized political environment where both sides warn that one wrong step could result in irreparable harm.
This raises the question: Harm to whom?
On one side of the debate are those arguing that students deserve to be gendered correctly and to be called the name they choose, whether or not their parents support them. If we don’t allow students the right to decide how they wish to be gendered — if they are not allowed to socially transition — we seriously harm queer children.
The first article itself cites a survey by GLSEN saying that hostile environments for LGBTQ children directly harm their mental health. Indeed, research has found that 82 percent of transgender people are or have been suicidal, and 40 percent of trans folks have attempted suicide, the highest rate of suicidal ideation being among trans youth. The most significant factors that affect whether a young trans person is suicidal are interpersonal microaggressions (including invalidation and refusal to acknowledge the child’s gender), and family’s emotional neglect.
It is extremely dangerous to downplay the detrimental impact of “gender skepticism” on transgender children. At the risk of alarmism: in this debate, kids’ lives are at stake.
We cannot take invalidating queer children lightly, especially now, when state legislatures across the country are launching the biggest attacks on trans youth on record.
The other side of this debate argues that parents have the right to know, weigh in on, and be critical of their child’s gender.
But what harm is caused by not allowing this? Parents will feel left out? They will feel like bad parents? Both articles focus heavily on these feelings, as if this impact on parents is comparable to the impact that gender invalidation has on their children.
This side also argues that children can’t decide this kind of thing at their age, that they could change their mind.
Here, the article quotes clinical psychologist Erica Anderson, who is transgender. Anderson — who has sold out her own community and become a shill for the anti-trans lobby — writes, “Transitioning socially is a major and potentially life-altering decision that requires parental involvement, for many reasons.” She goes on to argue that schools should forcibly out trans children to their parents, whether or not their parents are supportive.
But what harm is done by a child deciding to socially transition and then changing their mind? Dr. Anderson doesn’t elaborate.
Certainly she’s right that social transition is a major step, but she uses the term “life-altering” to imply that this transition is irreversible. And she’s right that the decision to socially transition at school is a big one, and supportive parents are extremely important, but having unsupportive parents certainly does not mean that a child should not socially transition in the spaces where it is safe to do so — it actually makes it more important for us build supportive communities for these queer children to be themselves.
Coming to queer identity is a dialectical process. Understanding one’s gender is not usually a straight line, and trans people rarely have a “lightbulb moment” when they suddenly know exactly who they are and what they need. Queer identity is a long and winding road, and often there is no final destination.
Why aren’t kids being afforded the opportunity to journey this path? What harm is caused by allowing a child to go by a certain name and set of pronouns to see if it relieves their gender dysphoria, and then changing course if they find it doesn’t suit them? Isn’t this introspection positive? How can we argue that children exploring their identity and figuring out what is right for them is harming them just because they may not get it “right” the first time?
Again, the Times argues that “both sides warn that one wrong step could cause irreparable harm.”
But one side is warning against the very real and extremely dangerous harm that is caused by invalidating young trans people.
The other side is warning against what? Harm to parents? “Harm” caused by a child’s shifting understanding of who they are?
If students are socially transitioning to see how they feel, and then change their minds? More power to them. Once again, the “harm” from this decision would simply be parents’ discomfort.
It is irresponsible to pretend both sides of this issue can cause the same harm. Children’s safety matters more than parents’ opinions.
Transness Is Not Illness
Both articles give space to parents’ trepidation about their child’s gender by pointing to the mental health conditions or disabilities that these children often have.
To justify a parent’s resistance to validating their child’s gender, the first article notes,
Doctors had previously diagnosed [the trans child] as being on the autism spectrum, as well as with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, PTSD, and anxiety. He had struggled with loneliness during the pandemic and, to his parents, seemed to not know exactly who he was yet, because he had repeatedly changed his name and sexual orientation.
What are they arguing here? That if this child weren’t having mental health struggles, he wouldn’t be trans? Isn’t this the very same article that cites a survey showing that hostile environments and failure to validate young trans people causes mental health problems for queer children?
It is true that trans people are more likely to struggle with their mental health, but the framing of these articles implies — very sneakily, so as to not set off any alarms — that transness is caused by mental illness, rather than the truth: mental health problems are alleviated by affirming and caring for trans children, and harm to children who socially transition only comes when they are harassed for doing so.
According to the above quote, this child was anxious, traumatized, and lonely, and therefore didn’t know who he was. Therefore, his transness is invalid, because he is expressing these feelings only because of his mental health issues.
It is much more likely that the reverse is true.
If a person were prohibited from living in their gender, would it not make sense that they felt anxious, traumatized, and lonely?
Is it not an isolating experience to feel gender dysphoria, name it, accept that you are experiencing it, find the courage to share it with trusted adults, and then be told that you are wrong about your own feelings, and even worse, that you are not allowed to take steps to alleviate them?
We cannot claim that mental illness is causing trans feelings, but rather we must create space for and validate transness in order to alleviate symptoms of mental illness.
Transphobia Has No Place on the Left
A particularly alarming aspect of both articles is that they include a warning: liberals must make space for parents to be “gender skeptical” in order to prevent parents from “careening rightward,” as the second article puts it.
The first article warns that these parents could find the right wing to be their only “sympathetic audience,” quoting a “skeptical” father who says, “It’s politically weird to be a very liberal Democrat and find yourself shoved in bed with, like, the governor of Texas. Am I supposed to listen to Tucker Carlson?”
This argument that room must be made for intolerance is common among Democrats: the Left has become too radical, and we’re scaring people off into the arms of the Republicans, who are responsible for the alarming number of anti-trans bill proposals across the US. This is being used as a fear tactic to pacify the Left and appeal to moderate voters. Democrats have repeatedly shown that they have no real interest in protecting trans children, but rather using queer kids’ vulnerability at the hands of Republicans to leverage their own position. They lean into the fear mongering these articles use to rally votes, claiming we are endangering trans children by not ensuring that Democrats defeat Republicans at the polls, but the Democrats are not Left, they do not protect us, and they will not save us.
While we can certainly feel sympathetic for parents who are navigating a new situation for the first time and give them space to ask good-faith questions in order to support their child, we cannot make room for “gender skepticism” — invalidating a child’s gender can literally be deadly and must not be tolerated. Rather than entertaining thinly-veiled transphobia, schools must work to create an environment where both students and parents are supported. Teachers unions should push for parent workshops on queerness, trans identity, and mental health in order to ensure that parents are supported, but also that children are not invalidated.
In a time when trans people are under attack like never before, these articles are pushing to pump the brakes, when now is the time to hit the accelerator. We need a mass movement for trans lives. We need to break from the Democrats to fight the Right. We must take up the struggle against all anti-trans legislation and attacks, and fight for universal healthcare and social services to support trans children. This fight does not happen within the Democratic party, but in the schools, in our workplaces, and in the streets. We cannot be complacent while trans children die.