Sail right through. Sure.
The hormone treatment seems to be successful. “According to Dr. Peggy Cohen-Kettenis, the psychologist who heads the Dutch clinic, no case of a child stopping the blockers and changing course has yet been reported.” At a transgender convention, the older transgendered wish they’d had the chance, and the younger ones (the 10 year olds) look forward to it.
The problem, of course, is that even when life is horribly, wretchedly complicated, sometimes it’s even more mystifying than we thought.
Chris’s parents didn’t purse hormone treatment. They went to an opponent of early hormone treatment, Dr. Zucker. Now chris seems happy and adjusted. Her childhood was difficult, but she’s grown and is making her own choices. Dr. Zucker,
explains gender dysphoria in terms of what he calls “family noise”: neglectful parents who caused a boy to overidentify with his domineering older sisters; a mother who expected a daughter and delayed naming her newborn son for eight weeks. Zucker’s belief is that with enough therapy, such children can be made to feel comfortable in their birth sex. Zucker has compared young children who believe they are meant to live as the other sex to people who want to amputate healthy limbs, or who believe they are cats…
Dr. Zucker treats children with a kind of hyper-Freudian therapy:
They turned their house into a 1950s kitchen-sink drama, intended to inculcate respect for patriarchy, in the crudest and simplest terms: “Boys don’t wear pink, they wear blue,” they would tell him, or “Daddy is smarter than Mommy—ask him.” If John called for Mommy in the middle of the night, Daddy went, every time.
Such rigid gender roles seem archaic and absurd to a modern liberal ear, but Zucker’s therapy reports results. The participants in this therapy don’t actually believe what they’re saying to their kids, they’re just trying to mold them. Which, really, is exactly what the parents who begin hormone treatment are trying to do. In both cases, the parents are trying to impose an identity on the child, either in an effort to make the gender match the sex or vice-versa.
Which brings us to the case of David Reimer. David was born a boy, but a botched circumcision destroyed his penis. His parents saw a profile of John Money, a psychologist who argued that gender identity was a purely social construct. Under Money’s guidance, David was fully castrated and his parents raised him as a girl. Money reported the case as successful and published his results to much acclaim, but that was a lie. As Rosin notes,
Reimer had never adjusted to being a girl at all. He wanted only to build forts and play with his brother’s dump trucks, and insisted that he should pee standing up. He was a social disaster at school, beating up other kids and misbehaving in class. At 14, Reimer became so alienated and depressed that his parents finally told him the truth about his birth, at which point he felt mostly relief, he reported. He eventually underwent phalloplasty, and he married a woman. Then four years ago, at age 38, Reimer shot himself dead in a grocery-store parking lot.
For more on David Reimer, There’s John Colapinto’s 1997 story in Rolling Stone. Wikipedia here. Book here. More here.)
It took 25 years for the failed experiment that ultimately cost David Reimer his life to be fully discredited. Hormone blocking has been performed on pre-teen adolescents for less than 10 years. The simple truth is that we don’t know what adulthood will bring for these children.
In all this discussion of transgendered children, queers, and he-shes, there’s only one thing that’s really taboo: individual agency.
The debate is torn between two positions. Gender is either a social construct or it’s biologically hardwired into the brain. The possibility that it could be both, or some different combination of the two for any given person is unthinkable. I suspect that introducing individual agency into the debate would shake too many shibboleths. The above quote above, comparing the transgendered child “to people who want to amputate healthy limbs, or who believe they are cats…” is only a partial quote. It continues,
, or those with something called ethnic-identity disorder. ‘If a 5-year-old black kid came into the clinic and said he wanted to be white, would we endorse that?” he told me. “I don’t think so. What we would want to do is say, ‘What’s going on with this kid that’s making him feel that it would be better to be white?'”
The idea of a doctor giving a 10 year old child drugs to lighten the color of his skin and alter his facial features so that he could pass as white is almost impossible to imagine. It is simply understood that racial heritage is always and everywhere a significant and necessary component of identity. It is also understood that racial identification is absolutely non-optional.
We have completely accepted the idea that individuals are no more than the sum of collective interests. We are no longer individuals, we are black-lesbian-atheist-democrats, white-transgendered-wiccan-environmentalists, and Asian-male-catholic-republicans. Our identity is now defined by a trailing list of categories to which we have been assigned. Whether that assignment is made by society or determined in utero by a combination of hormones, we are sure that whatever the mechanism, we should submit to the identity to which we have been assigned.
So the question is now, “What should Brandon be?” Rather than, “What does Brandon want to do?” Rather than treat Brandon’s gender as a part of an emerging identity that he can shape and create as he grows, his gender is treated as a fixed and determinate given. It is not something that he designs, but rather something that his parents, doctors, and psychologists must divine. If he’s a “boy” then he should play with trucks and guns and have a penis. If he’s really a “girl” then he should wear dresses and play with dolls, suffer hormone treatments, and off goes his willy. But why can’t he be herself, whatever that is?
It is too easy to believe that David Reimer’s story is a caution about the dangers of social conditioning, and that therefore, the biological determinists are making sound choices for their children. But the real lesson in David Reimer’s story is that these decisions are far too intimate, far too personal for anyone other than the affected individual to make. David Reimer’s story is a caution against authoritarianism. The tragedy of David Reimer’s life is that the opportunity to shape his identity was stolen from him.
These children are in pain. They are undoubtedly troubled. But they don’t all suffer from the same condition. For some the problem is social identity, as one parent said, “We call it the disorder we cured with a skirt.” For others it might lie deeper; a fundamental issue with self-identification. For some it will be a temporary phase while others will battle with questions of gender and sexuality for the rest of their lives.
Childhood is difficult. Growing up is hard work, and it’s largely work that the child needs to do on his own. If Brandon wants to be called Bridget, then call him Bridget. Buy him dresses, use the feminine pronoun, but don’t foreclose on the idea that she might decide, on her own, to go back to he.
The Intersex Society of North America says it succintly,
In cases of intersex, doctors and parents need to recognize, however, that gender assignment of infants with intersex conditions as boy or girl, as with assignment of any infant, is preliminary. Any child—intersex or not—may decide later in life that she or he was given the wrong gender assignment; but children with certain intersex conditions have significantly higher rates of gender transition than the general population, with or without treatment. (ISNA)
We don’t think we can ever predict, with absolute certainty, what gender identity a person will grow up to have. What we can predict with a good degree of certainty is that children who are treated with shame, secrecy, and lies will suffer at the hands of medical providers who may think they have the best of intentions and the best of theories. (ISNA)
For most of us, our gender, sex, and sexuality are defining parts of our identity. For some of us, however, one or some or all of those aspects of life matter less, or are more a source of confusion and turmoil than markers for a stable identity. If confusion does reign, then trying to force a decision is bound to be disastrous. There’s no reason to assume that for all people and all children that a person’s gender must match their sex, or that their sexuality should be determined by either.
One of the parents in Rosin’s article says, “the biggest sex organ is not between the legs but between the ears.” That gets it exactly wrong. The sex organs are what they are. The brain is an organ of choice, volition, ideas, and identity. Nurture those characteristics and let adults decide how their sex organs should look.