Like most good liberals, I was totally on board with transgender “liberation.” After all, it’s the next civil rights struggle, right? I’ve marched against war, racism, for health care, for women’s and gay and lesbian rights. In the 1980s, I surfed the Second Wave of feminism, loving who I chose, dressing as I chose, speaking my mind, and living the life of equality first wavers like Susan B. Anthony, Charlotte Gilman, and Emma Goldman fought so hard for. I was a two-time election worker on President Obama’s campaigns. In the past couple of years, I celebrated as homophobic laws toppled, state by state, and gay marriage morphed into mainstream reality. And until recently, I’ve had the unexamined, vague conviction that the “T” in LGBT was part of the same good trend: more inclusion for the marginalized.
But that has all changed. I’ve shifted from the cookie-cutter progressive vantage point I inhabited only a few months ago. It’s not a 180 turnaround. I believe in civil rights for all people, and I don’t think trans people should face job, housing, or other discrimination. But I no longer see transgenderism as a liberation movement. From where I now stand, I see it as a profound and fundamentally conservative undermining of the gains of the Second Wave of feminism. It’s the Third Wave, a tsunami of narcissism, of post-modernist relativism run amok…a hall of mirrors, wave upon wave of shiny, YouTube transition videos and Tumblr confessions… where subjective feelings and ideas always trump physical reality.
Something has gone wrong. Very wrong. I’ve been asleep for 20 years, but now I’m waking up…because my own teenage daughter is being churned and tossed in this very turbulent sea.
When my daughter announced to me that she is transgender a few months ago, my initial reaction was basically positive—even though she had never before expressed the tiniest inkling of any such identity. In fact, she had always talked about how glad she was to be a girl. I’d raised her to feel that, like me, she could dress, act, or be anything she wanted to be and until very recently, that’s exactly what she did.
The change was abrupt. She admitted to binge-watching triumphant and ecstatic FTM transition videos for days on end. She started using jargon like “genderqueer.” But despite this turnaround, despite misgivings, I made an appointment with a gender therapist, ruminating on what it would mean to welcome a son into the erstwhile form of a daughter.
A researcher and scientist by profession and by avocation, I dived deeply into the Internet and medical literature on FTMs. And the more I read, talked, and emailed (and I delved a lot), the weaker my kneejerk-liberal “trans ally” position became.
I learned that everything I had taken for granted about women’s liberation has changed. A dislike of pink and traditionally (think: 1950s norms) female activities and interests now means a girl, a teen, is “actually” a boy. Instead of acceptance if a girl wears denim and button-down shirts, that’s called by the archaic term “cross dressing” and the girl is pressured to “transition.” Gender role conformity is more rigid than ever, which is the great irony of transgenderism. Girls who used to find their home as “butch” lesbians don’t have anyone to identify with or look up to anymore. Women’s or lesbian bookstores, discussion groups, bars seem to have vanished from the face of the earth. Everything has been subsumed under the “queer” label. And while nearly all FTMs start out as lesbians, they disavow it after beginning “transition.” They were never really lesbians, after all. They are “really” just crossdressers who yearn to be male.
And when it comes to “transition,” the holy grail, the magic elixir, is testosterone. It would be one thing if “T” could be used experimentally, then abandoned, with only temporary and reversible changes to the mind and body. Then you could say: Why not? Give it a try. But even a few weeks on “T” usually results in forever-thickened vocal cords, forever-thickened body and facial hair, and—by some accounts I’ve read—even brain changes that are hard to undo. If a girl or woman transitions and changes her mind, she will forever live in a modified, altered body, whether she likes it later or not. Sterility is another risk. And many FTMs on long term hormone treatment are plagued by chronic infections, heart trouble, high blood pressure, premature aging.
That the frontal lobes of teenagers’ brains are not fully developed is now settled science, no more controversial than gravity or evolution. We now know that executive function—judgment, impulse control, planning, and self monitoring skills—don’t reach maturity in young people until at least the age of 25. Yet the medical and psychological professions are allowing—no, they are pushing—surgical and pharmaceutical transition as the “answer” for teens who are questioning
their identities. There’s a huge cognitive dissonance here: If adolescence is a time of limited executive function, how on earth can we be encouraging, let alone celebrating, such life-changing decisions being made by teen (and much younger) people?
How can it be that surgery and testosterone are now seen as the only viable solution to the feeling that a female doesn’t fit conventional gender stereotypes? What happened to: women can be anything they want to be? Shave your legs, don’t, cut your hair, don’t….love who you want, work on cars, have a child, don’t….that’s liberation as I’ve always understood it. But Second Wave feminism is considered stodgy and old fashioned now. Despite its fundamentally liberating message to women.