It’s a scene I know well: the awkward first moments when I’ve just stepped into a stranger’s house. Looking around, taking in the family portraits, the furniture, the smells, placating the family dog. The handshakes and offers of coffee or water. The first, tentative moment of introduction to the young person who knows she’s about to be asked all kinds of personal questions about her identity and desires. Who knows that, at some point, she will leave the room and her parents will tell a stranger all about her childhood, her gender development, how they feel about how she looks, what she likes to play with or do, who she is. In my fantasy, the journalist Jesse Singal felt similarly tentative when he met Claire, one of the pre-teens who appears in his recent Atlantic cover story, “When Children Say They’re Trans.” Claire, a gender-nonconforming child, for a time considers transitioning before deciding against it. (Claire is a pseudonym used in the article.) She is young, still living at home. Her life stretches before her, and we, the readers, are left to make sense of what she’s said.
I am a sociologist, and I have spent the last nine years studying trans and gender-nonconforming young people and their families, using interview methodologies not dissimilar from Singal’s. While it is true that there are “no easy answers” to the questions raised by significantly gender-nonconforming kids, believing that the most important issue is whether Claire is “really” trans misses the point of the complexity of gender transitions. Claire’s story hasn’t ended; she is still very much a young person and a work in progress. And it isn’t up to Claire’s parents, or Jesse Singal, or the general public to determine where she will end up in time. That is a question for Claire to answer herself, ideally with the love and support of parents and professionals who can be fully present and supportive, no matter how circuitous her journey may be. This is a distinction of great political importance. To position Claire as a “desister” in the way Singal did is to participate in an inherently stigmatizing discourse with a very particular and damaging social history. The frames journalists use to discuss these controversial issues are themselves political and moral decisions, and ones of great consequence. They set the terms by which the public understands trans youth.