Part Six: Trans Kids in the Crosshairs

Trans Kids in the Crosshairs

Part Six of Thirteen

My family’s journey, which led to me writing this book, began on Easter Sunday more than a decade ago. As I mentioned previously, we had decided to join the First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor shortly after our last two kids were born and our family was doing its usual fire drill in a desperate and mostly futile attempt to get there on time.

It was during this Easter fire drill to get the kids dressed and out the door that my young trans son gave me the chance to see the world through his eyes. Though assigned female at birth, my son was experiencing what we now know as gender dysphoria.

That moment was a foreshadowing of the consistent, insistent, and persistent distress over the mismatch between his body and his identity. A dysphoria that turned his world upside down over the next two years.

On that Sunday, however, all we knew was that our two-and-a-half-year-old was channeling Jackie Chan to avoid putting on that Easter dress, complete with squirrel-like hops and acrobatics, and kicks that often landed cleanly.

At that point my wife and I went to Plan B and dug up the only clothes our son had that were completely gender-neutral: sweatpants and a t-shirt. I can still remember walking down the center aisle in the middle of the service, our four-year-old daughter skipping her way toward the front, wearing the matching version of what is simply known in our house as, “The Dress.” And sauntering behind her, a toddler who may have just escaped from an orphanage, Oliver Twist, but with swagger.

I think of this story and smile whenever some anti-trans legislator or church leader passionately calls for trans-affirming parents to be prosecuted for felony child abuse. We are accused of turning our kids trans, because we apparently want a kid with a different gender so badly, we’re willing to force it on them.

I thought this amusing for two reasons.

First, I should probably make you aware that there is only about a year and a half age gap between our son and his next older sister. As a result, I think you can understand the feeling of awe and unbridled joy that I felt when the doctor exclaimed, “It’s a girl!” In that moment time stopped, and I knew that we would never, ever have to buy this kid new clothes and toys.

Hand-me-downs are pure gold. It’s like winning the lotto for parents.

My second reason is this. Do not underestimate the determination of a kid who is out to set the record straight on their gender, and I don’t care how old they are. That Jackie Chan reference was no joke. It was at once disconcerting and impressive.

The reality is that gender dysphoria is a desperate, despondent, and fierce rejection of gender. Clothes, hairstyle, and pronouns are just the outward manifestations of a much greater battle going on inside. One of the most brutal battles is the unbearable and unrelenting dissonance between their gender identity and how their body looks, especially with respect to their gender-related body parts.

For example, when my son was around three years old, he started asking me when he was going to get his peanut, which was his word for penis. We knew from his Day Care provider that our son would consistently stand up when the teachers called for boys to line up for the bathroom. He was already trying to make sense of why he didn’t have a peanut like the other boys.

I remember struggling to find the right words to clearly articulate the concept of identity and how it relates to his physical appearance and anatomy – essentially, why he didn’t have a peanut when he knew he was a boy. At one point I said, “Think of it this way, on the inside you’re a boy, but on the outside you’re a girl.”

That seemed to placate him for the moment, but in a few days, he again asked me why he doesn’t have a peanut. When I started reminding him of the explanation I had given last time, he interrupted me and said, “No, that’s not right. I’m a boy on the inside and outside.” I was clearly going to have to work harder. Because he was right.

He is a boy, inside and out. Just because he doesn’t have the parts that other boys typically have, it doesn’t mean he is not a boy through and through. True, he has a variation of a boy’s body which is not as common – that’s why it is described as dysphoria. My son’s body is a boy’s body, but with female genitalia instead of male.

In any event, I told my son that if he still wanted boy parts when he got older, we would make that happen. And we will.

Around the same time, his Day Care teacher noted our son’s extreme dislike of his hair length, which he often complained was too long, making him look like a girl. A quick aside. His Day Care teachers became some of his strongest advocates for that haircut, outside of his sister, and even arranged for one of their co-workers to cut his hair after we gave the green light.

Immediately after getting his haircut, they noticed our son didn’t seem as happy as they anticipated, and asked if he liked it. He shook his head no, and said it was still too long. So back they went. That buzzcut seemed to do the trick, with his teacher saying, and I quote, “It was the happiest I had ever seen him.”

Gender dysphoria involves a comprehensive diagnosis. Our family was fortunate to finally find medical and mental health experts who could help. Gender dysphoria is an intense and typically consistent, insistent, and persistent discord between a child’s assigned gender and their internal identity.

This is probably where I should emphasize that gender dysphoria is not the same as your child wanting to be a dog, lion, or pirate. We hear that a lot from kind, concerned anti-trans strangers. In fact, based on my experiences, trans kids seem to have a better handle on their identities than, say, your average adult male football fan. Don’t believe me? Just watch how heavily invested the fans are in their college and pro teams. Or if you have the stomach for it, watch any English Premier League match.

I doubt I’ll ever be able to put into words how despondent our son was from the dysphoria. All I can tell you it was a matter of life and death. Maybe not right then, maybe not in a year, but at some point in his young life.

Suffice to say, after The Dress incident we went on Google and researched the heck out of the symptoms we had witnessed. We had to look outside the state to find the relatively few families who were going public at that time. And it was challenging to find local doctors and therapists who had experience with gender dysphoria in such a young kid.

We learned that gender, like many other things in life, is on a spectrum. We learned that gender dysphoria often reveals itself at the age when all children first begin associating with a gender, typically at two to three years old. These things are almost obvious, in hindsight.

We were very fortunate to have the wherewithal to attend conferences and seek out the help we needed. Ultimately, we found medical professionals who were able to diagnose our son’s gender dysphoria and provide gender-affirming care.

Gender dysphoria is real and much more common than people think. And it is entirely manageable.

Our decision to affirm our son’s identity was made to keep him alive. We’d rather have a child who is alive and happy, than a child who takes their own life because we refused to learn and grow ourselves.

After we affirmed his identity, it was like a light switch. He went from despair to a happy kid who couldn’t wait to go to school.

We enrolled our son in kindergarten as a boy, but before school started, I spoke with his principal. I explained what we learned about gender identity and what our family experienced over the last two years.

We were also fortunate because although our son’s principal didn’t have any prior experience with trans kids, he was eager to learn. He assured us not to worry, that his job was to provide a safe and supportive environment for every one of his students. Because “all means all.” It didn’t make a bit of difference whether we were talking about learning challenges, physical disabilities, mental health challenges, or gender dysphoria.

As our son thrived in his elementary school years following the decision to affirm his identity, I began to wonder if the key to changing hearts and minds would be as simple as people getting to know him. I decided to ask him if he would be ok with me loaning him out to families around the globe, say for a week at a time, just so they could see how cool he is. Kind of like a time-share sort of thing.

Unfortunately, by the time I finished explaining time-shares and how lucrative they could be for the sellers, my son was tired and cranky. I began realizing his behavior at times might test our return policies, and decided instead to wait a few more years. Another good idea before its time.

In any event, from second through sixth grade, our educators led discussions in my son’s classes explaining what it means to be transgender, allowing him to share his personal experiences. These discussions were always done in the context of gender identity being just one of countless differences. He wanted his classmates to understand what it means to be transgender and that he is telling the truth.

My son’s classmates seemed genuinely curious, and the discussions would inevitably lead to other students sharing their differences and how they would like to be treated. Kids get it. From our experiences and those of educators around the country kids can certainly be taught about gender identity in an age-appropriate way, even in elementary school.

Young people with gender dysphoria suffer extremely high rates of depression and anxiety, with an attempted suicide rate approaching 50%. In contrast, youth who are affirmed in their gender identity experience mental health similar to the rest of the population.

The evidence we have today confirms that gender-affirming care yields the best possible outcomes compared to wait-and-see approaches and the Christian-backed conversion therapies that have been debunked time and again. There is always more to discover, of course. Yet ironically, it is conservatives who are banning and even criminalizing efforts by universities to perform research on gender identity.

With respect to education, we have evidence and experience from welcoming schools around the country demonstrating that affirming trans identities in no way diminishes the school experiences of other students. In fact, when schools provide safer, more inclusive environments for L.G.B.T.Q. students, the safety and academic achievements of all students improves.

My son has been interviewed by several media outlets over the years, most recently by the Detroit News. He had an opportunity to share his story as the first openly trans student in the Dexter school district. Asked to sum up his early elementary school experiences, he said, “It was pretty normal. I was treated like every other kid. My parents talked to the principal, and he talked to my teacher. There were no problems. Curious kids, they asked questions.”

The normalcy of my son’s school experience and our cautious optimism would end as he started high school. In Michigan, copycat legislation similar to that passed in Texas and Alabama was introduced. The proposed legislation would prevent gender-affirming health care for trans and gender-diverse youth. It would also criminalize affirming parents and healthcare professionals as child abusers. A federal offense with a potential sentence of life in prison.

Just so we’re completely clear on this, what exactly is my crime? Well, I’m the dad of a 15-year-old trans son, and I make it possible for him to follow the medical recommendations of pediatric endocrinologists at the University of Michigan Health System, one of the top-ranked medical institutions in the world.

The University of Michigan Health System provides gender dysphoria diagnoses and gender-affirming care that aligns with the evidence-based practices called for by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychology Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Pediatric Endocrine Society, among others.

A 2022 article in Scientific American reported that, “All of those medical societies find such care to be evidence-based and medically necessary.” It went on to say, “data from more than a dozen studies of more than 30,000 transgender and gender-diverse young people consistently show that access to gender-affirming care is associated with better mental health outcomes. And that lack of access to such care is associated with higher rates of suicidality, depression, and self-harming behavior.”

“Data suggests that the effects of denying that care are worse than whatever side effects result from delaying puberty. And medical society guidelines conclude that the benefits of gender-affirming care outweigh the risks.”

Our family has taken part in one of the longest-running longitudinal studies that tracks the efficacy of gender-affirming care. It is one of many studies corroborating that gender-affirming health care improves mental health outcomes for trans patients.

Unlike the anti-trans critiques, this and similar research results are published in peer-reviewed journals by leading researchers in the field. There is always more to learn, just like with any medical treatment, but there is no doubt that today’s gender-affirming care is the best evidence-based option available.

The prospect of going to prison isn’t something I’ve had to consider before. And life imprisonment for following recommended healthcare practices seems a bit harsh, in light of the sentences given to the people who stormed the Capitol. Not to mention the potential life-time immunity being considered for its ringleader.

Be that as it may, it is still nothing compared to what will happen to trans kids under this law. My son and others like him will be denied gender-affirming health care and taken away from their families.

For a population that already has to overcome lies that accuse them of being sexual deviants, denying this care will have deadly consequences. Our kids see no future for themselves in a world dominated by conservative ideology and supernatural doctrine that denies their right to exist.

Why are trans kids suddenly the highest priority of conservative state legislators and wealthy donors? Are conservatives genuinely trying to protect trans kids?

Do these legislators have evidence that every major medical and mental health organization in the U.S., including our pediatric endocrinologists at the University of Michigan, have somehow neglected to consider? Were the countless testimonies of parents and trans kids themselves even considered?

Nah. The anti-trans movement is not motivated out of care for trans kids. No more than segregation was motivated out of care for Black Americans and the kidnapping and indoctrination of Native American children was motivated out of care for indigenous families.

As with most efforts to eliminate diverse populations, it begins with talk of cleansing blood lines, maintaining cultural purity, and the need for people to assimilate and convert or face punishment. It cloaks itself in false piety and disingenuous concern for others, while simultaneously fanning the flames of racism and bigotry and normalizing violence against all who fall outside a narrow, white Christian nationalist ideal.

This type of insidious genetic cleansing is not easily overcome once it takes root, as we’ve seen in the rise of countless fascist regimes in the past century. We are at a tipping point, and the actions or inactions of companies and educational institutions that value diversity will determine the outcome.

Any company that relies on innovation understands the value of diversity. Diversity powers invention, enlightenment, and groundbreaking discoveries. Diversity in race, nationality, culture, and different lived experiences. It is those very differences that inspire transformative thinking.

And when we consider the goals of our educational system to prepare kids for life and for meaningful, productive careers, think about this: the majority of companies in our country also recognize the rights of transgender people to use the bathrooms and facilities that match their identity. Many of those companies also signed on to a Friend of the Court brief in support of transgender student Gavin Grimm to use the bathroom of his identity, in G.G. versus the Gloucester County School Board.

Trans kids are joining a long list of groups that have faced persecution, enslavement, segregation, even genocide, throughout America’s history. It’s impossible to compare the freedom struggles that different groups of people go through because their experiences are unique; their sacrifices, pain, and suffering are singular.

We do have an obligation, however, to understand the common threads between these struggles. For example, the malice I saw on the faces of anti-trans protestors immediately brought to mind that iconic photo of Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine, walking bravely through a crowd of raging white protesters.

The 15-year-old Ms Eckford was one of nine black students who eventually ushered in the era of desegregation in Arkansas, finally holding the state accountable for defying the 1954 Brown versus Board of Education Supreme Court ruling. But on that day, she was chased from the school with taunts and threats against her life.

In that single photo, the unfiltered truth of where Arkansas and much of our society stood on racial equality was exposed for all to see. Black communities were not just segregated; they were dehumanized.

Through Jim Crow laws, lynching, and violent suppression of the black vote, southern states still governed as if the confederacy won the Civil War. For the Little Rock Nine, the victory was short-lived. The following school year, Governor Faubus closed all the high schools in Little Rock rather than continue with integration.

The ideology that produced hundreds of years of slavery is tightly woven into the fabric of Southern life. It took a civil war to prevent the South from seceding and establishing a nation that would enshrine slavery and racism as a cornerstone of its Confederate Constitution.

The white Christian churches of the South assured their congregations that God made white men superior to the not-quite-human black and indigenous peoples. Those fire-and-brimstone churches preached that Southerners had a God-mandated obligation to preserve slavery and the Southern way of life, at any cost.

That cost was bloodshed on a scale this continent had not seen since the genocide of indigenous peoples. Even after emancipation, the zeal to preserve slavery and the Southern way of life was never defeated in the soul of the South. It merely evolves to survive.

The Confederate ideology lived on through Jim Crow laws and was empowered by white Christian churches. With that backing, southerners produced another hundred years of segregated, institutionalized racism and dehumanization of black America.

Nearly 70 years after the Elizabeth Eckford photo was taken, that moment is recreated whenever systemic racism is challenged, whenever trans-affirming measures are taken, and whenever women seek autonomy over their bodies. That moment is recreated in the enraged faces of the Christian protestors at school board meetings, outside reproductive health clinics, and public libraries. It is clear why we are still fighting battles against systemic racism, some 160 years after emancipation.

Cloaked in themes of family and the welfare of children, the powerful combination of religion, nationalism, and fear has been exploited by conservatives to perfection. “In Florida,” as Charles Blow writes, “the point isn’t the protection of children but the deceiving of them. It’s to fight so-called woke indoctrination with a historical whitewash.”

Such is the power that Governor DeSantis has bestowed on Florida conservative parents. He’s not alone of course, as Katelyn Burns reports, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has essentially deputized conservative citizens in Texas in his war against L.G.B.T.Q. identities and their allies.

What many of us failed to recognize is that Christianity, as with all religions, is just as easily exploited today as it has in centuries past. Christian nationalists and the conservatives who prey on peoples’ fears are fully complicit. But as Dr King admonished, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal. Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

That time is now.

Peter Tchoryk

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