Subscribe to Bitch—an award-winning, 80 page feminist magazine. Image Map

School's Out: Gender Bending and Gender Blending

I've been thinking of writing about trans youth and education in part because of some legislation that could affect trans people's access to bathrooms (more on that in another post) and some other legislation that proposes to allow gender changes on Canadian passports as long as the holder "looks like" the gender marked down. (Wow, where do I begin... Will we see beard length quotas? floral pattern dress requirements?)

We're elaborately taught how to relate to ourselves as gendered beings. It's been a long time that people have been building on the critical observation that there's no natural connection between pink/girl or boy/blue, yet kids continue to be the targets of aggressive marketing that creates profitable niche interests—a collection of stereotypes from which gender binarized consumers are "free" to choose—and of subtler gender conditioning (as my friend Ember is finding out, swaddled babies, though indistinguishable, are praised as pretty or strong depending on how parents advertise their sex). I've mentioned how a lot of kids are skipping the closet and, consequently, finding themselves at the forefront of advocating respect toward sexual difference. What about trans youth? There's been increasing attention to "gender creative" or "gender independent" kids as social space opens up in which to discuss, rather than repress, their behavior. Could these terms reflect a reluctance to apply the concept of transgender to youth of a certain age because of its association with sexual identity (I am thinking specifically here of the historical, medical roots of trans-related descriptors in the West that have stemmed from the word "transsexualism" coined as "transsexualismus" in the early 1900s by Magnus Hirschfeld and later "trans-sexual" by Harry Benjamin in the 1960s)? Conversely, does the usage of the trans label problematically continue to lump the T in with the LGB? (Not that the B gets much visibility, either).

Documentaries like My Secret Self and books like Gender Born, Gender Made have pointed out that kids in some families are open at home about their gender expression but closeted at school. How can teachers convey the appropriate sexual health and other information to kids when this is the case? Unfortunately, if educators think they "know their audience" (i.e., "no one in this class is gay," "no one in this class is trans") they may not address certain issues—issues which are important for everyone to be aware of. A commenter on a previous blog entry expressed concern about the assumption that gay and lesbian sexuality is non-reproductive. It's crucial to check these assumptions and consider what it means to explain same-sex sexual health in a reproductively mixed sex interaction, for example, sex between, say, a cisgendered bio-woman and a trans-woman who hasn't had bottom surgery. (I recognize that some of this language I'm using is long-winded while at the same time it fails to capture the complexities and possibilities of a person's identity and physicality). Or how do you teach something like genital hygiene when the genitals are potentially a site of mind-body disconnect (or what the medical system labels "dysphoria")?

The so-called "genderless baby" named Storm, being held by a parent. The baby wears a hat and a red hoodie and makes a funny expression with furrowed brows.As we saw with the genderless kid Storm, people freak out about young people's gender identities for all kinds of reasons, at least one of which in Storm's case was the objection that the parents would confuse the child, and that a kid was unable to consent to such an "experiment." This objection seems bizarre to me because a) it reveals a mindset that there are not only just boys OR girls but that there is a proper way to be one or the other and b) it betrays a fear that maybe it's not so clear after all because the child is liable to respond to a different teaching which c) only illuminates how there is nothing at all given about the way a person will relate to themselves gender-wise, even sometimes in spite of all the received dogma.

This obsession with the vulnerability of children also plays out in the medical establishment. At Toronto's Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), "gender dysphoric" kids are forced play in "proper" gender roles as a form of "treatment" that will realign their cis gender identity. Ironically, this treatment is based on the theory that these youths' apparent trans identity is really only repressed homosexuality (which is no longer in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual [DSM] and is, therefore, apparently fine). The bottom seems to fall even farther out of this argument when you consider that you can of course be trans and gay.

But the consent issues don't just stop with kids. In Canada, at least, we don't even accept informed consent for trans adults. After a DSM diagnosis of gender identity disorder (GID)—which ensures some public funding for related health expenses—they have to pass a year long dress up test , living as a member of the "other" gender before qualifying for hormonal and surgical interventions. Funny when you consider that anyone else can surgically alter their gendered appearance as long as they sign their consent form and pay enough money. New tits, for example, are apparently fine as long as they confirm your existing, government-sanctioned gender identity.

Anyway, I think the idea of asking how kids can know that they want to be a "different" gender or sex gains a little bit of perspective if you follow the question by asking how anyone can know that they do want to be whatever gender or sex they "are." I want to suggest that it's not the most helpful question to be asking, in the first place. I'm not advocating that any kid who displays "gender creativity" should be labeled trans, because who knows? That kid might end up identifying as cis, or as trans (feeling like there is a clear reality to male/female physical sex and they were born in the wrong body), or they might come to identify with being genderfluid or genderqueer, and rejecting the idea of having to transition.

If many people already so strongly expect that children have a gender identity (sense of gender?) then why such reluctance to accept one they define for themselves? And if there has been so much thought about the decoupling of gender, sex, and sexuality, then why is it so hard to accept kids who want to recouple them in specific ways? Moreover, even though queer sexuality implicates a non-normative gender performance, why does the T only seem to be taught if it's bundled along with the "LGB"?

Previously: Asexy Teens, The (Queer) Sleepover Dilemma

Enjoy reading this article? Good news! Our quarterly magazine, Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, is packed with 80+ pages of feminist analysis, reviews, illustrations, and more. Subscribe today!

Subscribe to Bitch


9 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Just wanted to point out

that there's a bit of an unfortunate implication in the statement "or they might come to identify with being genderfluid or genderqueer, and rejecting the idea of having to transition." Some nonbinary people need to transition because it's the only way they can feel whole. I'm FTA (female to androgyne) and I feel as if I will never truly feel like myself unless I have a body that is roughly halfway between the typical male and female phenotypes.

Also, WTF Canada?! The new WPATH standards that largely eliminated the real-life test came out last fall! Why on earth aren't they complying when other countries (including here in the States) are starting to do so?

Thanks for sharing this

Thanks for sharing this perspective, Cat Anomaly. I regret any negative implication in my word choice. In that passage I was hoping to offer just a few examples of many possibilities, and you're right to point out that it would have been clearer if my wording had marked that in some way. I'm sure you appreciate the impossibility (and undesirability!) of enumerating every possible path of gender and/or sex identification or transition or performance, etc. It's great to hear parts of people's stories through these comments, because the acronym FTA might be something some readers hadn't heard or considered before in thinking about trans issues.

Could you link me to the new WPATH standards? I'm not sure if it's that Canada (or each of its different provinces) isn't complying or that CAMH is slow getting their literature out, or what the case may be.

Sorry for not getting back to

Sorry for not getting back to you immediately! The new, complete standards are here.

Thanks for this! My partner's

Thanks for this! My partner's doctoral research has to do with trans access to health care so this is great for her, too.

just in case

I just noticed that the term used to describe a disconnect between mind/self and body was "dysphoria". However, I think dysphoria is primarily a term used to describe negative moods/feeling bordering on depression. Dissociation may be a more fitting term.

Hi Anonymous. The nuances in

Hi Anonymous. The nuances in these wordings that you point out are interesting to think about and can sometimes powerfully shape the way we think about the concepts they're used to describe. In this case I meant to just note that dysphoria is a word that the medical establishment has used in these contexts, though not necessarily one that I would choose.

I am pretty sure that the

I am pretty sure that the info about Canada is wrong. I have a friend who is transitioning in Toronto and s/he is on hormones at the moment but hasnt yet told hir wife, so no year long test.

Canadian rules

The Canadian rule she refers to states that you must "look like" the gender indicated on your passport and since you can't get your passport changed unless you've had the surgery this effectively means that non-op and pre-op trans folk can be stopped at the border. Not to mention, of course, the problem with leaving it up to airport security to determine if you "look like a woman/man". Strictly speaking this could mean that even being a butch cis-woman could put you at risk of being prevented from crossing the boarder.

Thanks for raising this

Thanks for raising this question, Anonymous. As far as I've read in the literature I've been able to find, the "real life test" has been standard care in Canada for surgical intervention, which the medical establishment has distinguished from hormone therapies. It's absolutely true though that the procedures and information are constantly changing, though, so I'd love to learn further about what the newest standards of care are if you could link me to that info!