Why Is the Media So Worried About the Parents of Trans Kids?

Journalists are constantly reporting on trans children from the perspective of their parents. Why not focus on the experiences of the kids?

Brendan McDermid / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series of responses to Jesse Singal’s Atlantic article “When Children Say They’re Trans.”

The first time I remember reading a story about parenting trans kids was in 2011, the same year a nurse at Fenway Community Health Center in Boston gave me my first injection of testosterone. An hour after my appointment, I was back at my desk at the Boston Phoenix. My job at the paper was to think and write about culture and, as one of very few out trans journalists working in media at the time, I was both personally and professionally captivated by the stories told about trans bodies. I clicked link after link that summer, surfacing ostensibly anthropological, yet ever-more-breathless coverage of this new (to journalists) trans “phenomenon.”

I found that these stories, by reporters who inevitably were not trans, fell broadly intro three genres: tabloid stories that highlighted trans people who “pass” particularly well; transphobic crime reporting from metro desks the country over (“The body of a man in a dress was discovered this weekend…”); and, with greater and greater frequency, what I came to call the Parenting Story.

The Parenting Story irked me in its purported sophistication. It had a few key hallmarks. A cisgender reporter would find a “way in” by centering a parent’s sympathetic plight. More often than not, the Parenting Story focused on a middle-aged, middle-class white couple who were stand-ins for a very particular kind of “average Joe-and-Jane” Americans who were just trying to make sense of their child’s “condition.” Usually, the stories betrayed an underlying anxiety about technology, genitals, and gender roles, as if trans people were the Dr. Frankenstein’s monster of the 21st century. The child’s role, meanwhile, was mainly to frame trans bodies in the simplest biological terms—these children asked about their missing penises as soon as they could talk, making clear that they weren’t the product of faulty parenting.

In the Parenting Story, the hero is the parent—and their heroic act is not abandoning their child in a society that wishes trans kids didn’t exist. How challenging, how painful, integrating us into a family must be for Joe and Jane! The reader is left with a deeper empathy for these parents—presumably straight, cisgender people like themselves—than of the trans child. Never mind that it’s empathy for trans people that could help reshape the culture that marginalizes us, and spearhead demand for policy that could change (or even save) our lives.

It’s been seven years since I first discovered the Parenting Story. Some progress has been made. There are a few more trans journalists, though not many more. Occasionally, stories about trans people apply a lens that avoids othering trans people—that is, dehumanizing us by focusing on how we fail to conform to some perceived norm. But only occasionally.

The Parenting Story, however, appears to be as alluring as ever. Jesse Singal’s Atlantic cover story, “When Children Say They’re Trans,” is the latest entry in the genre. Like the stories of years past, it creates a paper tiger: It purports to be about what to do with kids who “say” they are trans. But Singal unearths nothing solid to prove his thesis that there is a widespread problem of parents wandering in the wilderness with no idea how to care for a child exploring his or her gender identity. Nor does he provide compelling evidence that families are being bewitched into prematurely pushing kids into medical transition by social pressures or by irresponsible doctors. (Complicating this weakness of Singal's reporting is the fact that Singal himself is a controversial figure in many trans communities, and has written stories in the past that many trans people and others have criticized.)

A reporter must answer two compelling questions for his reader: Why now? and So what? It’s hard to imagine what, exactly, Signal’s response would be to either question. His article begins with an anecdote about “Claire,” a tween-age child exploring her (these are the pronouns Singal says Claire uses) gender identity in what appears to be developmentally appropriate ways. She discovers the existence of trans people through YouTube, and wonders if she is trans. Her parents are more or less supportive, but also (for reasons that don’t totally make sense, and that Singal fails to explain) don’t trust information they read online about therapists who specialize in gender issues, and therefore decide to stall for time rather than bringing their child to such a specialist for any sort of evaluation. Eventually, Singal writes, Claire came to believe that she wasn’t trans, but rather felt restricted by normative gender roles. “I think I really had it set in stone what a guy was supposed to be like and what a girl was supposed to be like. I thought that if you didn’t follow the stereotypes of a girl, you were a guy, and if you didn’t follow the stereotypes of a guy, you were a girl,” she told Singal.

As a trans person, when I read Claire’s story, I see a kid who might in fact be trans, or gender nonconforming, or not, and parents who are overwhelmed and skeptical due, at least in part, to past reporting like Singal’s—reporting that presents the kind of gender exploration Claire was engaging in as an inherent problem, or evidence that she’s fallen prey to some sort of trans “fad.”

As a rule, I believe children when they say they are experiencing gender dysphoria. I also think it’s developmentally normal for children to sometimes know what they aren’t before they know what they are. Like a lot of trans people I know, I would never recommend that a child undertake any sort of medical intervention without a lot of counseling and exploration first. Claire seems to me like a kid who, like all adolescents, is figuring out who she is, though she’s having to do it in the long shadow of her parents’ anxieties about gender.

Claire is also, now, the lead anecdote of a Parenting Story, and her presence in the article was clearly designed to answer that crucial question: Why now? But her story doesn’t answer that question, unless you believe Singal’s interpretation of the parents’ “plight”: that the mere existence of trans people creating community on the internet, and of the gender clinics that specialize in serving them, is potentially problematic for young people of all genders.

The Claire anecdote, and others throughout the piece, create a mosaic that seems intended to frighten parents into thinking that kids who aren’t trans are being influenced by YouTube videos and then encouraged to undertake physical interventions by over-eager doctors. Despite stoking panic throughout, though, Singal doesn’t present a compelling case that kids are medically transitioning before they’re psychologically capable of it. As Singal allows, the guidelines for medical intervention with minors are affirming but stringent—and they seem to be effective. In the only long-term study tracking trans kids, very few have had any regrets about medical interventions, and Singal turned up little in his reporting to challenge that study. Anecdotes about a tiny fraction of trans adults who “detransition” because they’re unhappy with the process, and evidence from a lone UK clinic that there’s been an uptick in referrals, do not prove that waves of kids are making decisions they can’t undo.

Neither does the conversation he describes among the clinicians he spoke to, all of whom seemed to be debating the most effective and compassionate way to support kids exploring gender identity holistically and affirmatively. Ideas that doctors are either hucksters pushing cures or sages who know what’s best for children are also features common to the Parenting Story. Trans people know that doctors (who are almost always not trans) have only recently started listening to us when it comes to defining who “we” are. Historically, they have been the gatekeepers of therapy and technology that make our lives better, and for too long they used extremely traditional notions of gender to decide who among us was deserving of intervention. I was heartened to see the questions being debated by the gatekeepers interviewed in Singal’s story. It struck me as evidence that trans kids are in better hands than ever before, not worse. So again, Why now?

For some journalists, not much has changed since 2011. The decision to cover trans people by tapping into a supposed cultural anxiety around parenting is a cagey move. Deeply invested in doing right by their progeny, and perhaps compelled at least a little by the narcissistic impulse that children are an extension of their own identities, parents read these stories. And, after that, parents share. They share on social media, they share on blogs, they share at the playground and at work. Parenting is also one of the last frontiers where it is socially acceptable, or at the very least allowable, to justify prejudice as a protective instinct.

But the truth is that trans kids aren’t anything new. It’s just no longer socially acceptable to beat or shame the trans out of us. (Though that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.) Instead of scary parenting stories, perhaps a different lens would be better. As a culture, what we owe our children is a world that doesn’t malign people who challenge gender binaries. We could investigate the invention of gender together, as parents and children, writers and readers, by asking ourselves questions about the gender expectations and powerful prejudices that might exacerbate the suffering of kids (and anyone else) exploring their gender identity. We owe it to our children, and each other, to ask these questions not out of fear, but with a deep and abiding humanity. That’s the Parenting Story I want to read.