I thought I wanted to write a column about gender affirmation care for trans adolescents. I have since figured out that there is no need for me to write such a column, or more accurately, what I now want to write is very different from what I originally thought. This is a cautionary tale about how we form opinions — and possibly a more promising one about how we learn.

This past weekend, I spoke with a friend at a barbeque who is working on an article about the debates surrounding medical procedures for trans people. I was particularly interested in the situation regarding adolescents, whose parents face complicated, confusing choices as well as scary statistics about the suicide rate among trans kids. “Would you rather have a living daughter or a dead son?” is the way the question is sometimes posed to parents who resist their child’s gender journey, which might move from name-changing and wardrobe selection to taking puberty blockers and hormones and wanting to have gender-affirming surgeries. And, as I later read in a Reuters long-form investigative piece, the majority of kids currently seeking treatment are assigned female at birth, a statistic that has flipped in the last decade. 

As the conversation continued, with everyone worrying about the possible backlash our friend might invite by wading into these waters, I drifted immediately into a line of thinking that I will call “How Is This News Really About Me?” As I considered these young transition seekers, I remembered my strong feeling as a preteen that I didn’t want to be female —that I was more male than female. I even told people to call me Mike one summer at camp, and cultivated what I saw as “macho” behaviors, like pulling off bottle caps with my teeth. I’ve heard similar stories from many women over the years. A lady who came to clean my house in Glen Rock once told me that despite her triple-H bra cup she’d always felt she was more man than woman. 

I think many girls experience a sense of unease when we lose our originally androgynous bodies, our tomboy selves, and become saddled with the physical and social realities of having a woman’s body. Coming-of-age stories for girls are full of the dismay caused by budding breasts, menstruation, unwanted male attention — a whole raft of appalling downsides. Not to mention the social expectations around femininity, which, as noted, made me want to open bottles with my teeth, and later develop an eating disorder. Whatever womanhood was going to be, it seemed impossible I would succeed at it. 

But, look! I was so wrong about that! And doesn’t this relate to what trans kids might be feeling and how their lives might unfold? I bet it does, I thought. Maybe, I mused, I should write about this!

But knowing how easy it would be to do nothing but get my ass canceled by even broaching the topic, I consulted my neighbor and dog-walking partner Karin, an academic who works on sexual minority issues. Her reaction was dubious — was it possible I am not the best person to write about this topic? — and she suggested I try to talk to some trans people before moving forward.

Yes, good idea! I contacted Josh Cole, a trans writer and activist who came through the creative writing program at the University of Baltimore, explaining my angle and assuring him that I was not planning to take a side.

“My job,” he wrote back, “is to make sure kids like me don’t kill themselves because they can’t receive care. There is no such thing as not taking a side. It is a cis privilege to not take a side or to not have an opinion. Not having an opinion is, in itself, an opinion.” He compared the gist of my argument to thinking that abortion should be illegal because you yourself don’t want to have one. He also sent a bunch of links and resources he thought could be helpful to me. 

To begin what I now realized was a necessary process of educating myself, I started with the website of Schuyler Bailar, Pinkmantaray. Then I read an article about gender-affirming care in Texas that refocused my concern on protecting trans kids from people like Greg Abbott, as well as the Reuters article I mentioned earlier.

While I was trying to learn how to support trans people —and I picked a good time for it, with anti-trans bills being passed all over the country — I watched a couple of episodes about the J.K. Rowling controversy on the great Baltimore-based YouTube channel, ContraPoints, the video essays of a trans cultural critic named Natalie Wynn. J.K. Rowling has become the queen of a movement called “trans-exclusionary radical feminism,” (TERF) which has more problematic aspects than I can possibly go into here — check out ContraPoints or other resources for details. Within the first three minutes of the show, in reference to the 1970s anti-gay activist Anita Bryant, Natalie says, “I think it’s really noble how she’s able to project all of her emotional baggage onto the marginalized group whose rights she’s trying to take away.”

My jaw dropped.

Thank you, Natalie. You have explained so many things to me over the years. And your penchant for sorting carefully through the logic of fallacious arguments inspires me here. To the extent that my epiphany inspired empathy, it’s a beginning. But it’s not enough. The inner lives of 1970s apples can’t be assumed to have direct implications for 2023 oranges.

What’s more important is what trans kids have to say for themselves. When I asked my daughter Jane’s dear friend Jamie, 22, to comment, he recalled for me the “the heavy reality” of his early transition, and the immediacy of his need. “It was life or death for me. Gender-affirming health care is the only reason I have flourished in the ways I have, and have been able to experience all the beauty that follows the pain.”

Perhaps I do, after all, have one piece of emotional baggage that might be relevant. As a person who tried to kill herself in 7th grade—not because of gender dysphoria, and who can say at this point what-all was in the mix of my abject misery—I understand that the stakes are very high. The landscape of 2023 is quite different than that of 1970, but the adolescent capacity for self-annihilating despair and impulsive solutions seems to be about the same. No matter what age you are, it can be so hard to see past the immediate present. The most important thing in this situation is that trans kids get the care and support they deserve.

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik is the author of "The Big Book of the Dead,” “First Comes Love,” and several other books, and the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her...

3 replies on “How Is This News About Me, And Other Bumps in the Learning Curve”

  1. Wonderful column as always. Thank you for not shying away from controversial issues Great advice and so simple really-everyone deserves care & support. Let’s give it.

  2. Both you and Wynn are able to expose the heart of the issue without being righteous or pedantic. Thank you for your insights. Also, hot damn, I hope ContraPoints is lucky enough to come into possession of your painting.

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