It was always an awkward feeling, waiting to pick my kids up from school as a visibly transgender person. This was a middle-class school, with mostly liberal-minded parents. Nobody was rude or hostile, more like uncomprehending. I was outside their frame of experience—and maybe too much of a reminder that, given the size of the school, the odds were that somebody’s kid would turn out to be trans like me, too.
While only the latest in a series of bad-faith journalistic interventions on this “debate,” a recent New York Times feature examined the “wrenching tension” school districts face in deciding whether to disclose students’ transition to parents. As a parent, I know what it’s like to worry about one’s kids. As a middle-class parent, I know the kinds of worries middle-class parents have, about the future success of one’s offspring, and the possible impediments to that success. One thing we can probably all agree on is that being trans—and being unable to hide it, as I was when my children were school-aged—is very likely a huge obstacle to success in this relentlessly transphobic world.
As a trans person, I know so many trans people whose families of origin could not deal with their transsexuality at all, reacted aggressively to it, or took a very long time to even start listening and accepting. Even with a lot of supposedly progressive-minded families, the sad reality is that when they realize their kids will not be the kind of success they’d imagined, they’d rather not have them as kids anymore at all.
This is why it is important that trans kids are able to figure out their gender at school without fearing that the school will inform on them to their family. They need somewhere they can try to find the names, the pronouns, the presentation that will let them stay alive and hopefully happy enough to study and play, make friends, do all the stuff kids do. Schools are far from perfect institutions, however, and I’m not sure that as a trans person I would trust a lot of schools to actually be the kind of safe space that trans kids need.
I’m not alone in my anxiety about schools. Middle-class parents like me, with time and resources, often want to be very involved in our kids’ schools; this cuts across the liberal/conservative divide. The obsessions may be different, but the worry, the skepticism about schools, the surveillance of them, are much the same. Middle-class parents think they know better than teachers what’s best for their kids. The devaluing of teachers is part of this, too.
Less charitably: Some parents think that schools, like their own kids, are their property. In well-heeled school districts, parents often raise a fair chunk of the school budget and that gives them leverage. Principals have to negotiate with parents who feel a lot of entitlement. It’s very hard to make the case that schools should keep some things about a child from a parent. It’s an easily exploitable issue with ostensibly liberal parents. Which is exactly what the far right is doing when it makes “concern” about trans kids in schools a wedge issue. There’s both a parental anxiety and a sense of entitlement, which is all too easy to manipulate.
Even open-minded parents usually have very little knowledge about transsexuality and tend to see it through the lens of the things they do know. In the face of anxiety about the unknown, what parents think they know offers an emotional safe place. Middle-class dads will gleefully mansplain transsexuality, even to me. Middle-class moms are more interesting: They usually know a lot about how to negotiate cis-gender performance in a misogynist world. Their success depends on it. They sometimes misapply this knowledge to thinking about trans-ness.
As a parent, I get the anxiety other parents feel watching their kids flounder about trying to come to a gender expression and a sexuality, even a cis-normative one. We watch helplessly as our kids make all the same mistakes our generation made, but in new, confusing language. What I know, from experience as a transsexual, is that there’s something different about trans lives that can’t be resolved with the accumulated wisdom and means available to negotiating cis genders.
We’re different. We know things cis people don’t. But our expertise is never acknowledged in these “debates.” There are few of us. There are even fewer middle-class trans people—relevant in a world where only middle-class people get to speak. There are fewer of us still who are parents. Not only our knowledge but our very existence is easy to ignore. Trans people are still one of the kinds of human about which everyone else can speak as if with authority, as if we’re not right here, also in the room.
The far right is succeeding in provoking “concern” among parents about trans kids in schools. These anxieties are then answered—whether for us or against us—by someone other than trans people. Not all trans people are in possession of trans wisdom, but I promise you that any random trans person off the street has more useful knowledge than the bloviators of The New York Times, The Atlantic, and New York magazine combined. We certainly know more than the far-right organizations that have actually crafted the talking points these “journalists” imagine they’ve come up with all by themselves.
For the pseudo-liberal media outlets propagating this stuff, trans “issues” are just a way to get clicks, and clicks are the way to get ad revenue. If I thought The New York Times was pursuing a consistent policy of aiding the far right in the campaign for our extermination, I might actually have more respect for it. But I suspect what is happening is that it’s profitable to exploit the anxieties of readers with disposable income, particularly parents, by adopting the transphobic framing in which we are always just a bad object, just trouble—not actual people with knowledge and experiences of the weirdness of human gender.
It’s knowledge many cis people would rather not seek out at all—until their child starts having trouble with the starter-gender they were randomly assigned. In my capacity as both a parent and an “out” transsexual, I’ve fielded many phone calls and coffee meetings with parents who don’t know what to do. I have had to help them process the difficult feelings that come with realizing that one’s child is turning out to be very different from what one imagined—and different in a way that threatens their success.
Even parents who might find the idea of a gender-reveal party to be gauche most likely had a notion of the gender of their offspring to come while in utero. A fantasy quickly forms for most parents around this apparent fact. Names selected. Futures imagined. Gender is such a powerful structure, partly conscious but largely unconscious, shaping who we think anyone is in the world. It’s always there in advance, before a child is even born.
For children, gender can be hard enough to figure out even if one colors within the lines of the gender assigned at birth. For trans kids, it’s a nightmare. For trans adults sometimes, too. As someone who spends a lot of her time in community with other trans people, let me tell you that one of the main things we are trying to do for each other is keep each other alive. Parents are not wrong to worry. Transphobia kills. Life is dangerous if you are trans, and those dangers don’t so much intersect as multiply when you factor in race and class. These additional dangers remain largely invisible in a “debate” that is only interested in perils of middle-class white kids turning out to be trans.
There is a larger picture here in which young people are struggling to make gender livable, and sometimes in different ways from their parents’ generation. The number of kids within that who are trans is likely very small. Kids who feel in their flesh that they are trans are very, very seldom wrong about that, and it doesn’t go away. It’s tempting for parents to see the suppression of a child’s trans-ness as a solution, but it is just going to make it all worse. The thing that seems hardest for many parents to imagine is that they themselves could be the thing that threatens their trans child’s safety. It’s a painful truth that all trans people know: Often what inflicted the most hurt is a trans person’s own family.
Like most trans people who are in community, I know some of those very rare people who have transitioned and then detransitioned. What the obsessive media stories about detransitioners can hardly bear to mention is that transphobia is usually the reason, and very often the transphobic hostility of family members. It breaks my heart to see young people who love their families more than gender try to repress themselves for family that loves gender more than their own kids.
It should not be such a controversial insight: The people who know how to live as trans are trans people. Disability activists popularized the important movement principle “nothing about us without us.” As with disability justice, so too with justice for trans people. Our knowledge and experience have to be at the center of working through the complexities of how to have trans people—children and adults—in the world as fully human, rights-bearing subjects.
My promise to cis people, including cis parents, is that we have a lot to contribute to thinking about gender, and to making lives possible in—and where necessary against—the social order that is gender. When I read the current crop of cis bloviators exploiting anxiety about us for clicks and coin, my first reaction is rage. The preening about “objectivity” aside, the transphobia at the heart of mainstream trans coverage is plain as day. My second reaction is laughter. Those fools and their editors have no idea what they don’t know.