I had my first kiss with a boy long before I transitioned. At 17, I knew I was a girl, but also that adults in my life weren’t ready for that. I figured if I couldn’t be a girl, then I might as well fake being a boy who likes boys.
It was the winter of 2004. I remember this because that was when my little heart discovered the Bright Eyes song “Lover I Don’t Have to Love.” On this perfectly executed, piano-driven, emotional roller coaster of a track, Conor Oberst sings, “I want a lover I don’t have to love. I want a boy who’s so drunk he doesn’t talk.”
On the desktop computer in the kitchen of my home in rural Maine, I opened up AIM and typed out an away message with that lyric and then, without waking up my parents, I crawled back upstairs to my bedroom to sleep.
The rumors spread quickly that I was gay, and in a conservative, blue-collar town like mine, this was devastating. My friends, afraid to be seen with someone who might be gay, started to distance themselves. Parents and teachers started to look at me differently. If I’m being honest, I was skeptical of my own actions. My classmates were skeptical too. In their eyes, I was straight until I was proved gay, just like we are innocent until proved guilty.
“If you’re a faggot then you’ll kiss him,” one classmate said, pointing to the only other gay boy in our class, who assuredly hadn’t listened to Bright Eyes yet.
My identity had always been a secret. Now it was on trial for my peers to determine the truth. What was so wrong with trying to find myself? Isn’t that what a high-school student is supposed to do anyway?
I did as my classmates wished. Under the bright fluorescent lights of my cafeteria, I let the boy kiss me. Though it was sweet, it left my heart empty. He kissed me like a boy kisses a boy. I needed him to kiss me like a boy who kisses a girl. But I was thankful to have at least tried it out. Exploration was so crucial in helping me come into my own as a young queer person.
If I had stopped exploring after I kissed that one boy in high school then I’d still be lost. Ultimately, it was years of pushing back on adults and navigating my identity alone that helped me find my way. Unable to find a doctor to prescribe me hormones, I’d go on to transition without them. I was presenting as a woman, but there was still testosterone flowing through my veins, which never felt right. That was difficult. So was the way I was viewed, and treated, by others. After a late-night walk home from work, three men shouted at me that I was a tranny. They would go on to physically assault me.
After that, I detransitioned. I did not detransition because I wasn’t trans. I detransitioned because cisgender people physically and mentally beat me down until I gave in.
After a few years of building my confidence back up, I would go on to transition again, this time with access to culturally competent health care. My anxieties could have been alleviated if adults had simply listened, paid attention, and trusted me. It shouldn’t be that difficult for the generations to come.
This is what I was thinking about while reading Jesse Singal’s feature for The Atlantic’s July/August issue. “When it comes to the question of physical interventions, this era has also brought fraught new challenges to many parents,” Singal writes. “Where is the line between not ‘feeling like’ a girl because society makes it difficult to be a girl and needing hormones to alleviate dysphoria that otherwise won’t go away? How can parents tell?”
Singal is eager throughout his piece to stress to his readers that young people who are exploring a trans identity might not be trans. Singal notes, “Some kids are dysphoric from a very young age, but in time become comfortable with their body.” With this, Singal is attempting to provide hope to parents that their child who says they’re trans might not be. He leaves enough doubt for you to consider gatekeeping your child’s identity. This is irresponsible.
Singal goes on to express how investigating that identity could cause harm, if adolescents begin physical transitions: “Some of these interventions are irreversible. People respond differently to cross-sex hormones, but changes in vocal pitch, body hair, and other physical characteristics, such as the development of breast tissue, can become permanent.” Here, it sounds like Singal is essentially trying to scare readers into not letting young trans people be themselves.
In almost every classroom in America are maps that encourage students to consider the vast world that surrounds them. Why are people so afraid of what will happen if young people are inspired to think through their own identity?
Singal’s feature relies on the fraught situation of a teen making a decision about their identity. But he fails to consider other fraught situations happening around the same time in a child’s life, situations that we accept as normal. The exploration of a teen’s gender identity happens around the same time that students are making decisions about college. Even though studies have shown that 75 percent of college students end up completely changing their major, we still ask young people to decide whether they’re going to go into thousands of dollars in student-loan debt in order to go to college. Young people all across the country are making difficult decisions about whether they should have sex, drink at a party, or leave their home and rent an apartment. Exploration and experience are precisely the things that bring about change to our identities—this is, and always has been, normal.
Singal uses this word, fraught, several times throughout his feature. He implies that if you are a parent of a child who is exploring a trans identity, then you should be in a state of panic. Moreover, it behooves you, as a parent, to draw a line in the sand, marking just how far you should let your child explore their identity. This is most evident when Singal discusses Heather and Mike, the parents of a 14-year-old he calls Claire (these are all pseudonyms) who ultimately decided that transitioning wasn’t right for her. Singal writes, “The most important thing she could do was affirm her daughter, which Heather and Mike interpreted as meaning they should agree with her declarations that she was transgender. Even if they weren’t so certain.” It’s perfectly normal for a teen to try out what feels right. But Heather and Mike postponed finding doctors who could help Claire, “telling her they were looking but hadn’t been able to find anyone yet.” They also cut off her internet access. When adults prevent young people from sifting through their identity, it leads to self-harm or worse.
Let me tell you a story. A few years ago, I was volunteering for a crisis hotline when I got a call from a teen in a state on the edge of the Bible Belt. They whispered their whole way through the call. They told me that they were trans and they couldn’t talk about it with their parents, but they desperately needed to talk with someone. I searched for a few resources in their city while we were on the phone, and when I asked them if they had a pen to take down a few numbers, I heard them breathe a sigh of relief. They were finally going to get some support.
When we got off the phone I let out a deep breath of my own. I was thankful that I was able to help this teen make it through the night. But this feeling of relief was soon replaced with frustration. That teen shouldn’t have had their moment of comfort with a stranger. It should have been with their parents. Would this teen go through life thinking that it was okay to be trans only as long as they were in a crisis? What precedent does that set?
There’s something so glaringly obvious about the people Singal interviewed for his feature on detransitioning. Did you catch it? They’re all alive.
In a 2015 study conducted by Pace, an LGBTQ mental-health charity, 48 percent of trans people under the age of 26 said they had attempted suicide. Additionally, 59 percent reported having considered it in the past year. For the sake of comparison, the Pace study also found that only 26 percent of cisgender people under the age of 26 had ever attempted suicide.
Leelah Alcorn was 17 when she committed suicide, leaving behind a Tumblr post about her struggle to be seen for who she was. Alcorn’s death attracted international attention. “The longer you wait, the harder it is to transition,” she wrote. “I felt hopeless, that I was just going to look like a man in drag for the rest of my life. On my 16th birthday, when I didn’t receive consent from my parents to start transitioning, I cried myself to sleep.”
Society has done nothing for trans youth for so many years. People have to trust that the youth who sway in the breeze of gender will land on their feet when they’re ready. Wherever that is, it’ll be beautiful.
In Singal’s feature, he talks about how there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for what parents should do for their child if they’re trans. He’s right. There’s not. But he goes wrong when he creates fear that exploring a nonnormative gender identity might lead down roads that are dangerous, or fraught. Singal writes, “Some families will find a series of forking paths, and won’t always know which direction is best.”
No one can ever know which direction is best. That’s part of living.