“I was your typical, gender atypical little girl. My friends were all boys. My favorite pastimes included rough-and-tumble play and running around the house while waving my he-man sword high in the air. I insisted on using the toilet while standing up. I hated dolls and the color pink. I dreaded puberty, and when that inevitable time came, I was relieved to find that my body didn’t undergo too many physical changes aside from a self-induced shaved head.” –Deborah Soh, M.A., York University
Deborah Soh, whose Twitter profile describes her as a “sex researcher, neuroscientist, freelance writer” at York University, just published a powerful piece in Pacific Standard magazine entitled “Why Transgender Kids Should Wait to Transition.” Not only is Soh a researcher; she is also a woman who experienced “gender dysphoria” as a girl, yet grew up to be happy in her female body. (Hey, she even stood up to pee, which today would be seen as a telltale sign that she was actually a “trans boy.”)
I stumbled on this highly unusual article (vs. the typical “look I’m transgender!!” media treatment) because it was tweeted as “highly recommended” by Alice Dreger, PhD., the outspoken former bioethics professor at Northwestern University and author of the excellent Galileo’s Middle Finger. Galileo is Dreger’s account of the battle between activists and scientists that resulted in not only the chilling of academic freedom of speech, but also the hounding of prominent sexology researchers, including Michael Bailey and Ray Blanchard. Galileo is required reading for anyone who wants to understand a crucial piece of the history behind transgender activism (seen through the prism of Dreger’s experiences as an advocate for the intersex community). Dreger, who tends to speak (and write) her mind, recently resigned from Northwestern, having had quite enough of censorship from her medical school’s dean.
Thank whatever deity you revere that researchers like Soh are speaking their minds. She’s a double gift: She works in the field and she knows what it’s like to be a girl who just didn’t want to conform to the stereotypes.
Update: Three hours after Alice Dreger tweeted the article, trans activists and their allies on Twitter have descended on an MD who retweeted it, accusing her, predictably, of “transphobia” and hurting trans kids and everything else you might expect. The doctor held her own for awhile, but eventually caved under pressure from the onslaught, backing down from supporting the author to thanking the activists for educating her. Such are the times we live in. Professionals like Debra Soh need support, and social media platforms are the battleground in 2015.
Soh starts her article with a statement that will be music to the ears of regular readers of this blog:
My point of view is controversial, but it is one that concerned parents need to hear.
I–and many of the parents who contribute to this online community–have been accused of being “unsupportive” of our teen daughters. But what gets lost in the rhetoric of trans activists is this key point: I support gender nonconformity. I don’t reject my child. On the contrary, I celebrate her (and other women and girls) who expand the definition of what it means to be female. Apparently, Soh had such parents herself:
I was lucky in that my parents were never troubled by my gender non-conformity. They allowed me to dress how I pleased and to pursue the interests I enjoyed. The only thing they remained firm about was my sitting down to use the toilet, but that was more about the mess I would otherwise make than any socially reinforced gender norms.
Soh is not anti-trans. She even refers to herself as “cisgender,” a term of deference to the trans community which concocted it. She only wants to provide an alternative to the pro-transition narrative we hear about nearly every day.
Now, as a cisgender woman in my thirties and a sex researcher, I follow the current discourse on transgender children’s issues. The predominant narrative is imbalanced and this must be addressed—for the sake of trans children, their families, and medical decision-making.
Popular opinion suggests that early intervention is the necessary approach in order to remedy a child’s gender dysphoria. This consists of early social transitioning followed by hormone blockers to prevent the otherwise irreversible changes of puberty, contra-sex hormones, and, if desired, eventual sex re-assignment surgery. Denying a child these interventions is viewed as antiquated and cruel.
But research has shown that most gender dysphoric children outgrow their dysphoria, and do so by adolescence: Most will grow up to be happy, gay adults, and some, like myself, to be happy, straight adults. There is a small proportion of trans kids whose dysphoria will persist and who would benefit from medical intervention, but the tricky part remains predicting whom these ideal candidates will be.
I have written about this “tricky part” several times, most recently when I questioned how gender specialists would winnow out the “false positives”–assuming, for the moment, as Soh does, that there are some children who would truly benefit from extreme medical intervention (including, by definition, lifelong sterility).
For a young child whose gender dysphoria would have desisted without intervention, these procedures amount to a needlessly challenging process to undergo—and that’s without considering the implications of choosing to transition back. Even a social transition back to one’s original gender role can be an emotionally difficult experience for children.
This is a point that pediatric transition proponents never address. They like to tout their supposedly iron-clad anecdotal evidence that 100% of kids who are put on puberty blockers don’t change their minds. But the difficulty of changing back–especially when the child feels the parent might be disappointed if they do–is never written or talked about by any gender specialist or trans activist I’ve run across.
Waiting until a child has reached cognitive maturity before making these sorts of decisions would make the most sense. But this is an unpopular stance, and scientists and clinicians who support it are vilified, not because science—which should be our guiding beacon—disproves it, but because it has been deemed insensitive and at odds with the current ideology.
Bingo. Here it is, a fact I’ve hammered so many times, and which should be completely uncontroversial: It has been settled science for at least a decade that cognitive maturity is not reached until at least the age of 25. Yet we are allowing young people with poor judgment, impulsivity, lack of insight, and a deficit in other aspects of executive function to make permanent medical decisions. All because we don’t want to be “insensitive and at odds with the current ideology.”
The elephant in the room has been spotted by Debra Soh.
I often wonder, as I review the myriad of editorials and magazine articles published every day on transgender kids, if I had been born 20 years later, would adults in my life be suggesting transitioning as a solution for me?
Indeed. It is the adults in the child’s life who are ultimately driving this. When left alone to shave their heads, play with swords, and eschew girly things, as Soh’s parents wisely did, girls of yesteryear were not carted off to the doctor or psychiatrist to figure out what was wrong with them. They were allowed to simply grow up. Lest the trans activists say, oh no, it’s not just about clothes and behaviors and toys, why is it that every story about a “trans kid” always mentions these things as proof that a child was “born in the wrong body?”
Even more alarmingly, with all of the information floating around the Internet and on mainstream TV, would I myself believe that I had an issue that would not eventually subside on its own?
Another elephant outed (though this one was hiding in even plainer sight). Young people are influenced by what they imbibe on social media and television. There was no “I am Cait” or “I am Jazz” 20 or even 10 years ago.
Outgrowing my discomfort resulted from the realization that gender does not need to be binary. To this day, I still feel that I am more masculine than most natal females, but also much more feminine than most natal males. We can have the best of both worlds.
I am so glad that Debra Soh is speaking out, and giving us a public example of a female who is living the best of both worlds. This neuroscientist, outspoken woman, writer, and adult female product of a “gender nonconforming” girlhood shows us–and our daughters–just how big our tent of womanhood really is.