AND FURTHERMORE: New York mag’s Jesse Green on limited liberals, gay prejudice and the trans kids who changed him
In May, New York magazine published a thought-provoking and enlightening piece by writer Jesse Green about transgender kids and their families. Green’s sensitive and nuanced reporting portrayed parents’ struggle to accept and help their children with gender dysmorphia, a condition in which one’s “biological gender” does not match one’s self perception or “brain gender.”
The award-winning journalist asked brave questions about the advantages and consequences of taking “puberty blockers,” medication that stalls the onset of puberty and buys more time for gender-questioning youths to decide whether or not they want to “transition.”
His piece also clarified the differences between a gender dysmorphic child and, say, a militant tomboy. Most surprisingly, his story revealed how the idea of transgenderism challenges even the most liberal and progressive among us. Green, a contributing writer at New York magazine and former contributor to The New York Times, spoke with The Slant about the inspiring lessons he drew from his young subjects, his own misperceptions about transgenderism, and why the experience of growing up gay may, ironically, limit one’s ability to understand and sympathize with trans people.
We were floored to read about kids as young as three who were questioning their gender. How did you go about finding them?
I began with experts–psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers in New York–who deal with kids and gender. The advantage to that was they were able to give me tips on how I might find the families. One of them was willing to discuss with his clients that I was looking for subjects. I had to kind of audition for him and for them, meaning I had long talks to explain where I was coming from and that I didn’t have any particular agenda. I also had to send them copies of previous stories I’d written, just as one does when trying to get a celebrity interview. In some ways, these families, with more justification, were pickier than top press agents for Hollywood stars. I ended up getting most of the people I dealt with through the practitioners I spoke to.
Were you well versed in transgender issues and politics before pursuing this story?
I knew what any gay person kind of knows. I came to realize that what any gay person kind of knows is probably less helpful to understanding the situation than what someone who is totally unfamiliar with any gender issues might know. There are a lot of prejudices that get in your way because you’ve been through your own gender situation of one sort or another. I had to be talked out of certain prejudices by some of the practitioners I spoke with.
If your kid was struggling with gender dysmorphia and wanted–needed–puberty blockers, what would you have done?
I have two sons–18 and 16–and I imagined if one of them came to me with this situation. My response would have been just as bad as old movies about how people responded to gay kids. “Not in my house missy….or mister!” I’ll admit to you that when I began [this journey] I had a very strong reaction against puberty blockers. That is where I started: I’m not putting hormones, drugs into a nine-year old’s body who doesn’t need them. But then, of course, what does “need” mean? In the end, I did change my mind. That is not something that’s typical in a story like this, but when it does happen, that’s when I know I have a story that might change people.
So now you support the use of puberty blockers?
I can’t judge every single kid I saw, but there were some I focused on in the piece and others I didn’t. I wasn’t privy to all of the psychiatric work-ups, but as a concept I feel comfortable saying that for some kids, yes, I do.
What changed you?
Originally, I was coming at this from a stereotyped and generic point of view, where you’re not thinking of individuals but of social groups and thinking about things that you personally find fetishistic or annoying, like somebody saying, “OK, my name today is this, or my pronoun today is that.” I don’t deny anyone the right to call themselves whatever they want, but I came at this with a little bit of “Oh reaaalllly?” And that’s a prejudice.
One of the practitioners told me that I was really thinking about stereotypes derived a lot from the portrait of transgendered people in the media and that he predicted that when I met these kids I would feel very differently and I did. What I realized is that this wasn’t a kind of game that the kids were playing. It wasn’t a way of trying to annoy or trick their parents. They weren’t having teen rebellions. They were too young for that. They were on their changing tables in some cases. It was clearly not the same as a kid who likes to play with different ways of expressing gender in terms of hairstyle or clothing or sports.
But how does one differentiate between a gender dysmorphic child and a run of the mill tomboy?
Well, I would not trust myself to make those decisions, but I can tell you what the professionals look for: an early onset identification with the opposite sex, unwavering persistence and torment at the approach of adolescence–not just generic adolescent issues, but to the development of secondary sex characteristics of the biological gender. When you have those three things, the evidence seems to show that you almost certainly have a transgender child. In the cases where these kids went on to take puberty blockers, their gender dysmorphic feelings had been unchanging since earliest youth. And there’s the question of torment–and that’s what really did it for me.
The father of one of the kids, a biological boy who had transitioned at age seven in terms of gender presentation to the world (not medically), told me that people said it was abusive when he and his wife allowed their son to present as a girl. And he said, “You know what’s abuse? Suicide” When I began to look at the seriousness, not the supposed flippancy of what these kids were feeling, I thought: if my kid was in torment and was looking to me to save his life in some way, would I refuse to deal with it because of a generic supposition about a class of people? Or would I–even with grave doubts and even worried that I might be doing a very wrong thing– try to help him? And I knew what the answer was. That was my journey.
Did you interview any trans people who regretted transitioning?
Yes, I interviewed some people who’d transitioned and then either were not sure they were content or were sort of moving back toward their original gender or were trying to find some new middle ground that felt good to them.
Why didn’t you include them in your story?
For two reasons. One, it wasn’t really a very common situation as far as I was able to tell. I locate what is the consensus and try to point out the outliers, but I’m not going to go to the ends of the earth to present a point of view that is not shared. Secondly, they were people whose initial transition had happened as adults, so it felt like it was a false comparison. If I had all the room in the world I would have put something in about it just to gin up the tension of the piece. I don’t mean in an artificial news way but because there is another side to this.
This would support the fear that this is a passing phase. And even if it’s a fear that can be addressed, it is out there and it’s something that does inform how people feel about it. I would have liked to have learned enough to have represented that side. But you have to make tough choices.
If gender roles were more fluid and not so inextricably fixed to one’s sex, do you think these kids would feel compelled to change their bodies?
I think some of them might not. But I think the kids who would fall into that category would probably not advance, in any case, to the point of actually having permanent intervention. The puberty blockers might be good for them anyway because it would give them another six years in which to sort out where they stand on those issues. But for the most part, the kids I was dealing with were in families where there was no problem with any form of gender expression. If boys wanted to wear dresses or girls wanted to cut their hair short, the parents, generally, had no issue with that whatsoever. So then it becomes a question of how deeply does society get into these kids’ heads despite their parents? And I really can’t answer that. But my perception was that you could make gender roles so fluid that they don’t even exist and some kids would still feel innately, as I felt myself to be gay, mysteriously, that they were the opposite sex.
Sounds like you were dealing with some pretty progressive parents.
Yes, I specifically sought kids who are in the most supportive liberal metropolitan sophisticated situations–parents who explicitly said to me: “If my daughter were a lesbian, I would love it! In fact, I’d prefer it!”–because I wanted to see how this issue pushes the buttons of people who feel they’ve evolved as far as people can evolve and to find that they had to evolve even further.
For the Female-to-Male transgendered youths, is it possible that their desire to alter their bodies is motivated by internalized sexism and homophobia?
I most regret not being able to address at greater length this question you raise. Isaac, the 17 year-old who had the most enlightened liberal downtown artsy parents, spoke very eloquently about the feminist question, but there was no room for those quotes.
Will share one of Isaac’s quotes with us?
Sure. Responding to a feminist critique of FTM transgenderism, he said: “”I have this one friend who asked why can’t I just express my masculinity in a female body. I said that’s what I am doing. She’s a really intense feminist. There’s a weird contradiction because with a lot of feminists it seems like transmen are anti-woman because they chose not to embrace a female identity. But with transwomen one of the reasons it’s so difficult is because you’re denying yourself the privilege of being male. Stepping down privilege-wise. For transmen it would seem easier. But for some feminists that seems kind of gross, that you would want to step up for privilege. As if it were disloyal. I’m not choosing this because of any social agenda – and by the way you don’t gain power. In terms of lack of privilege, black beats trans, trans beats woman.” That last sentence is a bit twisty, but he’s saying that trans people (of any stripe) fall below women on the power scale (and black people below trans). That reminds me of something else I left out.
I don’t know enough to say it’s a trend, but I’ve known about a kind of transgender contagion among 20-something lesbians, who’ve been through Gender Studies programs. My lesbian friends who are closer to the situation say that they worry that it’s become a trendy thing to do, and that it brings in the whole question of whether it’s prompted internally by genuine gender dysmorphia. Or is it something about some kind of power you perceive you might gain in the process? For reasons you can imagine, it was just way too much for me to get into. But I am extremely curious about it and would love for someone, preferably a woman living right in the middle of things in San Francisco or Portland, to write about it. It would be a hornet’s nest, but I’d love to hear more about it than what I’ve gathered from a group of friends. And again the kids that I was dealing with for my story have not even had geometry, let alone Gender Studies, and I just couldn’t even imagine a way in which any of what they are going through had to do with attaining privilege.
If a publisher offered you the opportunity to expand your article into a full-length book, would you do it?
I’ve done a 100 stories I could spend my life on. People are just so interesting. But when you do the kinds of pieces I do, which tend to be very long and on issues that are big and complicated, you could spend 11 months on a piece as I did with this one. So I’ve already spent a perceptible fraction of my life–presumably more than 1 percent–on this. I’d like someone else to take it from here.
How many words was it?
Wow, how many people did you interview?
What do you hope a reader will take away from reading your article?
I’d like to encourage anyone thinking about these issues to think about individuals and not in groups. That is my main point. My partner’s mother used to say: “Trust people above groups,” and that comes from a union family! So that really says something.
Green, who grapples with issues of identity and sexuality in his critically acclaimed memoir, The Velveteen Father: An Unexpected Journey to Parenthood, lives in Brooklyn Heights with his partner and two sons.