Spoil the child

The idea that parental love is unconditional is just that: an idea. The reality is often much more harsh, especially for LGBT+ kids: although by most estimates only around one in 10 people are LGBT+, nearly one-fifth of all young homeless people are LGBT+. 69% of those kids have experienced violence, abuse or rejection from the family home.

Multiple studies report that attitudes to LGBT+ people are improving in the general population, but that’s not much consolation if your mum, dad, stepdad or stepmum is one of the dwindling number of homophobic parents. And it’s even less consolation if you’re trans or non-binary, because understanding and acceptance of trans and non-binary people still has much further to go. Rates of domestic abuse and violence from family members are significantly higher for trans and non-binary people.

As trans researcher and author Julia Serano puts it:

Almost without exception, parents never expect that their children are transgender. And that disbelief may persist for a very long time.

I think that’s common. In a workshop with parents carried out by Healthtalk.org, parents described their feelings when their trans or non-binary kids came out to them; many parents say they were surprised and shocked, fearful for their kids’ futures; some didn’t believe it was even possible for a young person to be trans.

There’s a whole bunch of stuff going on here. Fear’s the biggie, because to be trans, even now (and especially now in some parts of the US and UK) is to go through life on hard mode. There’s fear that they’re making a huge mistake, that they may be discriminated against or face violence, that they may undergo treatment they might later regret… all the obvious stuff. And for many parents this is both frightening and new, because the information most people have about trans people is sketchy at best and a pack of lies at worst.

So there’s fear. But there’s also guilt; one of the big questions my mum asked when she’d got used to me being trans was whether she’d been the cause of it. I was able to reassure her that being trans doesn’t work like that, but I recognise the feeling: whenever my kids are unwell, I agonise over what I might have done to cause it or what I should have done to prevent it. And that’s just when they have a tummy bug, not gender incongruence.

And there’s another horrible emotion: shame. Here’s Jonathan L. Tobkes, M.D, writing in Psychology Today.

I remember that when I discovered that my son was gay, I felt shame. I was not ashamed of him, but I thought his orientation might cause outsiders or friends to criticize our family. I did not want our family to be seen as “different.” If we were regarded as having a child, who is a member of a minority group now, I thought that this new definition could be a source of shame.

While the stigma around having a gay kid is lessening, once again understanding and acceptance of trans kids is far behind.

So let’s imagine you’re a parent of a young boy or girl. One day, out of the blue, they tell you that they’re non-binary, or maybe trans. What do you do?

Let’s assume that you’re not the kind of parent who’ll respond with violence, with abuse, or by throwing your kid out on the street. I think for a lot of parents, your initial reaction is going to be disbelief. This is a bombshell; there were no signs. And maybe all you know about trans kids is the shite that’s in your newspaper: trans people were invented on social media in 2017. It’s a phase, a fad, attention-seeking.

So you go online, and you look for people to confirm what you believe: that your child is not non-binary; that your child is not trans; that no child of yours could be anything other than cisgender and heterosexual. And if you go online, you’ll find it.

Welcome to the anti-trans parent movement.

A huge amount of anti-trans stories are based on the testimony of or activism by parents who frequent a handful of websites, and who are absolutely convinced that their children are not non-binary or trans. Many of those parents swap tips on how to completely isolate your child from their friends and how to bully them into recanting. A handful will tell you it’s a conspiracy by paedophiles, Big Pharma and the Jews. Some, whose children are now adults, talk about how their child, and sometimes their friends and family too, no longer talks to them.

The Julia Serano quote towards the top of this article is from her piece about those websites, and it’s typically well researched, interesting and frightening.

Some parents come into these groups with strong pre-existing views on trans people (e.g., social conservative or GC/TERF), while many others are initially trans-unaware and simply seeking answers in the wake of their children coming out to them. Either way, because these online communities tell parents exactly what they want to hear (“your child isn’t really trans, they’ve just been influenced by an insidious outside force and we can help you dispel it”), many find these spaces and the misinformation they propagate to be quite compelling.

The (made-up) theory of Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria was invented on one of those sites, and the paper that attempted to legitimise it drew solely from users of the same website. The websites, as Serano puts it, are “steeped in science denialism and distrusting the medical establishment.” The most infamous were created as a backlash to older websites that helped parents learn how to understand and support their children; the anti-trans ones were created for the much smaller number of parents who don’t want to understand and don’t want to offer support.

The menu available to you, a concerned parent, starts with misinformation and disinformation and ultimately leads to torture: some of the better known sites guide parents to practitioners of dangerous and discredited conversion therapies (described as “torture” by the UN) or offer advice on how to bully your kids without outside help.

Serano’s article is an excellent guide to how the sites operate, how they recruit and radicalise parents and how those parents then spread their message through mainstream media. And I think a lot of what Julia writes about is pretty universal.

I have never met a trans person whose parents weren’t surprised when they first came out. Trans people who were overtly gender nonconforming as children are told “we just thought you were gay.” I know trans people who insisted that they were really a boy or really a girl from a young age (only to be disaffirmed by their parents at the time) and who, upon coming out as trans as adults, their parents still acted shocked. I know trans parents who were surprised when their own children came out to them as trans.

Given that surprise and disbelief, it’s not a shock that many parents are easy marks for the anti-trans obsessives and their associated crowdfunding grifts.

Despite what you read online, most people who come out as trans or non-binary do so because they’re trans or non-binary. Kids who are experimenting with their gender expression are not necessarily trans (and are unlikely to do more than dress differently, change their haircut and try on a different name, all of which are of course easily undone), but kids who are insistent, consistent and persistent about being trans very rarely backtrack. Adults who undergo gender reassignment surgery – surgery that in the UK, only adults can access and which typically requires years spent languishing on ever-growing waiting lists – have a regret rate that’s incredibly low. The number of trans people who regret surgery/transition is vanishingly small – less than 2% – and of that number, most of the people who go back to their gender assigned at birth do so not because they aren’t trans or non-binary but because their world is incredibly shitty to trans and non-binary people. Most detransitioners will ultimately retransition and stay transitioned.

That’s not to say that some kids don’t get it wrong. Of course some do. But very, very, very few. And if you start paying attention to media reports about detransitioners, you’ll soon notice that despite claims that there is an epidemic of detransition, that thousands upon thousands of people regret transition and have retraced their steps and will be suing their healthcare providers in huge numbers any day soon just you wait, you only ever hear about the same two or three people – people who, like the ex-gays of previous decades, just so happen to have strong links to social and religious conservative groups; Potemkin villages of gender.

But the truth is not something that crusading journalists “just asking questions” about trans people want you to read. Serano:

But when journalists only tell the parent’s side of the story, or when they pit a parent’s trans-skeptical account against that of their trans child — implying that the former likely “knows better” than the latter — that should be a giant red flag for audiences.

And when articles and news stories mention trans-skeptical parents “seeking support” and finding “like-minded voices” online, that’s almost always a sign that said parents are involved in or interacting with the anti-trans parent movement.



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