Born in the right body: Introducing 4thWaveNow’s new spokesperson, mom of a teen desister

Brie Jontry is a part-time academic, and a politically liberal mom to an adventurous, wilderness-, insect-, and art-loving teen. She currently lives in the American southwest with her partner and daughter, a huge dog, three cats, and various insects who come and go.

Brie has been a member of the 4thWaveNow community for two years, since her daughter first temporarily identified as transgender. After exploring all kinds of ideas, thoughts, and feelings related to gender identity with her daughter, Brie has decided to speak publicly about her family’s experience.  In particular, Brie agreed to be our public spokesperson to counter the untruth that only religious, anti-LGB conservatives are skeptical about medical transition of gender-atypical young people.

Note: Anyone who has spent time on our site knows we are not a monolith, but a diverse group of parents with varying (though generally congruent) views.  Brie’s experiences and analysis are her own, but are on the whole in line with those of the other gender-skeptical parents in our community.

In a future article, Brie’s daughter, along with a few other teen desisters will discuss their own thoughts about identity, gender nonconformity, desistance, and more. Stay tuned.

As her time permits, Brie is available to interact in the comments section of this interview.


You are the parent of a teenage girl who temporarily believed she was trans, but changed her mind. Can you tell us something about her journey—and yours?

brie resized

Brie Jontry

A few months before my then 11-year-old said she might be transgender, she told me she didn’t want to grow up. She had just met her new pediatric endocrinologist (she has type 1 diabetes) and he told us she was in the early stages of puberty. In the car on the way home from the appointment, crying, my daughter asked me how much longer until she’d start bleeding, until her breasts would grow.

A few weeks after that appointment, Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teen in Ohio, committed suicide by walking onto a highway into the path of a tractor trailer. My daughter was gripped by Leelah’s story, by the horrific choice of death over a seemingly endless painful existence, and she agonized (for weeks) over the details in Leelah’s suicide letter. “What is transgender? Was Leelah a girl trapped in a boy’s body?” “How could her parents not see they were killing her?”

A few months later, my daughter told me she thought she might not be a girl. I asked if that meant she was really a boy and she said she thought so. I said something like, “this is a lot to think about” and asked her permission to speak to her grandfather, a psychologist, and another friend, a genetic biologist and a lesbian. She agreed and sheepishly let me know she’d already told her poppa.

I called my dad that night after she’d gone to bed. He reminded me that she’d always “been her own person” and that imagination and sensitivity could have been heightened by almost obsessively reading/thinking about Leelah Alcorn. He explained body and gender dysphoria, and drew a connection to eating disorders. “You wouldn’t help her starve herself if she thought she was too fat,” he said. “Help her just be her, in her own body, whatever that means.”

Next, I spoke to Audrey, our gay geneticist friend who reminded me of her own teen years and cautioned that she certainly would have considered transition had it been readily available. Together, we looked at the few studies we could find about hormonal suppression in adolescents and testosterone use in healthy female bodies. My friend was horrified by the lack of long-term data available for medical interventions being performed on healthy adolescent bodies. Audrey spoke to my daughter about the hormonal responses which occur in puberty, how besides development of secondary sex characteristics, pubertal hormones are needed for brain development, neural pathways, grey matter. If you “pause” that process, she told us, you’ll be stunting the very growth that will make you into the adult you. “You don’t know who you are yet,” Audrey said, “how can you know that’s not who you want to be?”

My daughter agreed to put medical transition, a process she’d been watching with envy in numerous transmasculine teen videos, on hold while we explored these ideas together.

What followed were two years of emotional upheaval and deep exploration. Family and friends agreed to stop using “girl” and worked hard to remember her requested “kid” in its place.

salt-in-the-soup.pngI pestered anyone who was willing, to talk to me about gender, adolescent development, and hormonal modulation. I talked to someone I knew in the midst of her own gender transition and to her partner. I talked to trans people, gay people, other parents of trans and GNC kids, endocrinologists, a Zohar scholar, educators, radical feminists, postmodern theorists, and child and teen psychologists, including those who designated themselves “gender specialists.” I joined large Facebook groups for parents of trans and gender non-conforming kids (and was subsequently thrown out for posting data about Lupron).

I asked my daughter to show me some of the things she was reading and watching online which led to her realization. Together, we explored all kinds of “you might be trans if…” quizzes and “Am I trans?” posts on Reddit’s “Ask a Transgender” subreddit, various Tumblr blogs, and elsewhere. We talked a lot about stereotypes and gender roles.

At my daughter’s request, we went to the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference, where we met Jazz Jennings and ate pizza with hundreds of transgender kids and their parents. Dinner conversations between parents were clearly divided between stories of natal boys who’d “always been this way,” who “always liked pink” or sparkly princess dresses; who liked to play with dolls and wanted to wear nail polish, and born-girls who, on the cusp of puberty, often friendless, suddenly came out as “trans.” My daughter made a lot of new friends that night, some of whom now, two years later, have been on testosterone for a number of years; some have had mastectomies. Of the teens she met that evening, I’m aware of one other who has also desisted.brie pull 2Ultimately, what brought her to the realization that she is not “in the wrong body” (about two years later), were endless, ongoing conversations about sex-based norms, gender roles and expectations, misogyny, and homophobia, between her and lots of other people, mostly women. NO ONE fits neatly into any stereotype associated with their “identity.” She came to understand that her suffering wasn’t because her body was wrong; she was suffering because growing up is hard! To her, “being trans” explained a lot of her discomfort and anxiety, but she came to realize that it wasn’t actually “being trans” that caused any of it.

She came to see medical transition as physician-assisted self-harm. In a twisted way, it helped that she is already dependent on synthetic hormones for her life. She has zero choice about injecting insulin every time she eats, or when her blood glucose is too high, up to ten times a day, for the rest of her life. When her friends who’d started HRT complained about needing injections, something snapped in her. She saw the stark difference between needing pharmaceutical treatment to live (no choice) and desiring it as treatment for a feeling. Her body IS, actually, wrong. It’s verifiably broken and without synthetic hormonal supplementation numerous times a day, every day, she will die. Quickly and painfully.

She realized that her friends had healthy bodies but that their therapists, their friends online and in real life, and sometimes even their parents, were supporting them in the belief it was their bodies that were wrong because they didn’t match their personalities, their preferences, who they were supposed to love. When she realized this, she got angry. She felt tricked into believing there was something wrong with her because she didn’t want to be ogled by teen boys, or wear dresses, or because one of her favorite things was to talk about the difference between aquatic and terrestrial isopods.

So it sounds like she experienced a “rapid onset” gender dysphoria in adolescence, a phenomenon which is now only starting to be recognized.

Yes. And…no. She told me that prior to Alcorn’s suicide, that she wasn’t aware that being transgender was possible, that it even existed. Once she came into contact with the idea, it captivated her and she quickly identified her “transness” as the reason she didn’t want to go through female puberty. She wasn’t alone. Numerous girls in her various peer groups would come out as trans in the coming year.

I think it is critical to this discussion, though, to talk about all the ways she’d been “gender non-conforming” up to identifying as trans.

As liberal, progressive, feminist parents, we never put energy into making sure our daughter adhered to gender norms. As a baby, she wore all the colors and never had a head-squeezing headband to denote “girl.” I never bothered correcting strangers who thought she was a boy. I insisted she wear a dress once, to a wedding, when she was eight. She cried.

When people asked her if she was a boy or a girl, she’d bark, or meow, or roar.

brie pull 4When she was younger, her favorite toys were stuffed animals, scraps of fabric, cardboard boxes, and small plastic insect, dinosaur, and dragon figures. Then, as she got older LEGO, but never the pink sets. She played lots of imaginative games with her stuffed animals and little figurines and dump trucks; she never wanted a doll and cried once when she was four and someone gifted her one. She couldn’t understand how someone who knew her might think a Mermaid Barbie would be a welcomed present.

Her favorite stuffed animal was a crab named “Crabby” who went almost everywhere with her. When people asked if Crabby was a boy or a girl, she’d answer: “she’s a boy” or “he’s a girl” and laugh. Outside, she liked to pee standing up, like her dad, and somehow figured out how to pee farther than her best friend, a boy.

She mostly preferred “boy’s” clothing: sweatpants and shirts with insects, dragons, monsters, and dinosaurs. We let her choose her own clothing as soon as she wanted to and had no problem with her heading over to the boy’s section of stores.

These are important details because once I turned to trans-affirming websites and books (which were all I could find until I learned the phrase “gender critical”), the gender nonconforming choices she made, her preferences, some of her behaviors, could easily be read as proof that she really was a boy, that she had a “boy brain,” and perhaps, that she was exposed to too much testosterone in utero as evidenced by her relative finger length.

The acute stress she felt over her body (dysphoria) was indeed rapid-onset. However, looking back, there were many incidents which could have been interpreted as signs of an “innate gender identity” that didn’t match her sex.

Trans activists have tried to convince the public that “desistance is a myth”. Yet your daughter did indeed desist. Why do you think activists want to deny the experiences of young people like your daughter?

Because desistance justifies cautious, rational, skepticism. Desistance proves that some people think of themselves as transgender and then come to think of themselves as not trans. Desistance creates doubt.

When I say “desisters,” I’m talking about those who once thought of themselves as trans but do not currently see themselves that way. Desisters like my daughter and the other young people we know, never took steps to medically transition although they considered themselves transgender and in most cases, looked forward to medical intervention of some kind.

Desistance stories are often criticized as being about kids who were never “really trans” to begin with. Brynn Tannehill, a board member of the Trans United Fund, argues that the 84% desistance rate is inflated because it caught up a lot of gender nonconforming kids in place of “true trans” kids–so of course they desisted; they were never trans!

Here’s the thing, neither was my kid. Chances are, most of the kids of parents reading here aren’t trans.

Let’s assume for the moment that there is such a thing as “true trans.” What does that mean? Let’s say there is at least minimal proof that gender identity is innate and biological (there isn’t). Let’s pretend that we have long-term data showing that medical intervention in adolescent development is beneficial to those who don’t fit easily into gendered expectations and norms and to those who suffer from dysphoria.

Now, let’s say that all the previous gender-atypical behavior my daughter exhibited growing up was resultant from a biological abnormality.

So what?

So what if she sits on the far end of the bell-curve’s tail of female behaviors and preferences? How does that make her “other?” Why does that mean she’s in need of medical intervention to “correct” something deeply amiss?

Why can’t she and all other outliers be supported as they are without needing to be fixed? Have we learned nothing from the historical horror show of medical interventions enacted on children with differences in sexual development (“intersex”)? Why does being an outlier mean that she’s “really a boy?” instead of simply, that she’s different than the female norm?

Desistance as a likely possibility gives rise to the “wait-and-see” approach, which according to some “affirmative” gender professionals, is just as dangerous to kids as insisting they’re not trans. This horrifies me, that cautious “wait and see” approaches are discouraged when there is zero evidence that socially and medically transitioning children and teens is beneficial, apart from (parent reported) immediate gratification and short-term validation.

The affirmation model used widely in the US is actually highly controversial. In the UK, a doctor is under investigation for providing cross-sex hormones to children as young as 12—a situation being normalized at pediatric gender clinics in the US.  Under-18 surgeries take place in the US, while they are prohibited in the UK—and even Thailand, once known as a go-to place for underage procedures.  US “affirmative” clinicians behave as if the debate on child transition is over, even though leading researchers at 17 worldwide locations cautioned in a 2015 journal article that “in actual practice, no consensus exists whether to use these early medical interventions.”

brie pull 3And still, WPATH argues in favor of lowering age limits for medical and hormonal treatment and easing access to transgender medicine. In the US, some pediatric gender practitioners and their advocates act as if this course of treatment is settled science. It isn’t. Even the gender specialists in the Netherlands who pioneered the use of puberty blockers in “trans kids”  caution against socially transitioning younger children, because kids who don’t socially transition seem to mostly work it all out by themselves, and some socially transitioned youth who changed their minds found it very difficult to desist later.

Desistance stories also add weight to recommendations for cautious approaches that focus on first treating underlying mental health issues. That’s problematic in a climate where trans activists want to completely depathologize transgenderism. I know a lot of families whose children currently think they’re trans. In almost every instance, there are prior mental health diagnoses or family experiences of trauma.

Parents like you—many of whom are contributors on 4thWaveNow—are castigated as “transphobes” or (at best) “unsupportive.” What do you say to these charges?

Supporting children in desiring and procuring plastic surgery, synthetic hormonal suppression and supplementation is not healthy, supportive, enlightened, or progressive.

Authentic selves do not require surgical and hormonal treatment unless there is underlying pathology, like for my daughter’s autoimmune condition which requires daily hormonal supplementation.  Medical transition should be a last resort for those whose suffering cannot be ameliorated otherwise.

Becoming a life-long medical patient is not liberating; it is enslaving. Being critical and cautious is not hatred, it’s being a good parent.

Gender dysphoria is real and it causes real suffering. My daughter was in deep, profound, pain.

After initial hesitation, I knew my child was not “born into the wrong body” and that as her parent, I would be doing more long-term good (and also less long-term harm) by offering her the time and tools she needed to see herself as whole, capable, and “authentic” as she was instead of affirming that there was something wrong with her.

I think that the most supportive thing we can offer our children is to take apart all our preconceived ideas about gender and identity alongside them. I was told by parents of trans kids and gender therapists that the only expert on my child’s gender identity was my child and that asking “why?” “what does that mean?” “How did you arrive at that conclusion?” “Who are your sources?” and a thousand other questions which would lead down a thousand other rabbit holes, was transphobic, unsupportive, and harmful to her well being.

They weren’t. Those are exactly the questions that helped her make sense of herself, helped her feel whole instead of in need of corrective treatment, helped her be resilient in the face of disappointment and learn to manage both real and perceived limitations.

The stories we’ve been telling aren’t enough. They don’t go far enough. Deep enough. They’re too easy. The answer isn’t a pill or plastic surgery. How many children were prescribed Ritalin simply because their bodies couldn’t stay still? I mean, come on. An entire industry has risen up around trans kids. Careers are being made, not just in the medical field but in education, policy, fashion, the media, all because normal, developmentally appropriate childhood behaviors have been repackaged as (often homophobic) pathologies. We’ve seen this before.

Being “trans” is too easy. It’s an identity picked off a shelf and inside the packaging, there’s a list of other necessary components one must procure before reaching authentic selfhood. “Being trans” to girls like my daughter is like a quest in a video game with each “affirming’ “medical procedure acquired is an “epic win” bringing you one step closer to having all your problems solved. Except no video game exists that suppresses development or leads to the removal of healthy body parts. Being trans isn’t a video game, it’s real life. Real, painful, confusing, life and being trans was the defining aspect not only of identity but also the root of all her suffering.

I supported my child in her journey. What I didn’t do was accept the first and easiest answer. I helped my daughter know that disagreement or unacceptance of any gendered norm was more than okay. I fully supported what my generation quaintly called ‘gender bending” in all ways, but I didn’t agree to let her subject herself to significant bodily harm in an attempt to treat her dysphoria. From the very first announcement, I let her know that she could cut her hair however she wanted, wear whatever clothing she wanted, and use whatever name she chose.

I supported her in her discomfort, to the best of my ability, and I also let her know that discomfort and confusion are legitimate aspects of a meaningful, deeply explored life.

 There are two rationales given for the urgent need to medically transition young people: the risk of suicide, and “passing” better as the opposite sex if puberty is blocked. Do you think these reasons are valid, and if not, why?

Major life moves made from a place of fear and lack of choice are rarely successful. Kids don’t kill themselves because they’re trans. Suicidality needs to be treated as a dysfunctional response to unhappiness, not as a symptom of being trans. Anxiety needs to be treated as anxiety and not as a symptom of being trans. Depression needs to be treated as depression and not as a symptom of being trans. And suicide should not be used as a strategy to manipulate vulnerable parents desperate for “expert” advice or to prime kids to take their own lives. Stop already. That stuff’s contagious.

Most of the parents who’ve agreed to support medical transition for their children and the various gender “experts” I’ve talked to over the past few years argue that children who transition young will pass easier. That’s a problem, because prioritizing “passing,” like much of the surrounding ideology, actually reinforces binary perceptions of gender by suggesting there is only one way to be/to look like a man or a woman. I know gorgeous women with broad shoulders. I know handsome men who can’t grow a beard. So what? The effects of testosterone on a natal female are rapid, and some, like the growth of facial hair, male pattern balding, and changes to one’s voice are irreversible. Besides, it’s recommended that natal females taking testosterone for more than a few years have a full hysterectomy to minimize increased risks of some cancers. Therefore, early transition does not limit later medicalization. Sometimes, it even increases the need for more intensive and painful procedures later.  I think it would be far healthier for those who are gender-atypical and for society to get rid of the idea of “passing” completely.

Until recently, the only critics of pediatric transition seemed to be people primarily from the conservative right.  They tend to conflate transgenderism with gay rights, and are opposed to both. What is your own political affiliation and viewpoint?

Oh, I’m left-of-left. Another reason I want to speak out is because most opposition to trans advocacy comes from the conservative right and IS deeply entrenched in sexist and homophobic beliefs.

Most on the left are too afraid to speak out for fear they’ll be labeled as transphobes, bigots, TERFs, bio essentialists, and just plain old shitty, hateful, shallow-minded people.

Sigh.

Look, if an adult decides after careful and hopefully well researched, in-depth exploration into why they want to undertake surgery and/or HRT, and they fully understand–to the extent it is possible to understand given the lack of long-term data—what their medical choices could mean 5, 10, 40 years down the line, I believe they should be free to make whatever medical choices they and their support team believe to be best. I think insurance policies or better yet, a national health insurance policy (I can dream), should pay for all services related to transgender care.

I believe trans people should be protected against discrimination in education, healthcare, employment, and housing. I want trans people to feel safe walking down the street. I want them to be safe walking down the street.

What do you hope to achieve as public spokesperson for parents of trans-identified young people?

I want to make the conversation larger; I want it to go deeper; I want the medical community to keep their ‘corrective treatments’ away from our children’s bodies. It’s not okay to offer them life-long patienthood without first giving them tools and support to explore the “why?” the “what next?” and a myriad of other possibilities and conclusions.

Currently, the only voices in the discussion are those involved with the industry that’s risen up surrounding transgender medicine. I want to take the discussion beyond the self-declared “experts” who are making entire careers off of the notion that it’s possible to be born into the wrong body.

Many advocates of medical transition for youth claim that there are “true trans” kids who are very different from merely “gender nonconforming” youth. Do you agree?

No. I think almost every human on earth is gender non-conforming in some ways. I was listening to Georgia Warnke recently. She’s largely responsible for getting the medical community to stop performing surgeries on young intersex children, and she helped people learn to be more comfortable with ambiguity in sex and gender presentation. She cautions that we don’t want identities to “go imperial,” a phrase she borrows from Kwame Anthony Appiah who writes that some identities “risk becoming the obsessive focus, the be-all and end-all, of the lives of those who identify with them,” and they “lead people to forget that their individual identities are complex and multifarious.” I’m concerned that’s what’s happening with many of our youth.

Their lives are boring, they’re isolated, the earth is dying, the economy is dying, their families are disintegrating, they’re carrying so much. I can’t imagine a more difficult age to come into ‘ideological’ adulthood than this one. I think a great many young people identifying as trans are doing so because it’s the only life-shaking, meaning-bringing area of their lives they have any control over. Being trans is an answer, a solution, and a meaningful marginal identity during a time in history when being a member of an “oppressed class” also begets greater social currency in some circles.

We’ve given them surfaces. Reflections of reflections of copies. The Mirror Stage mirrored and misidentified. A rose wet with Photoshop dew on a handheld screen that’s the first thing they touch when they wake up and the last thing they touch before they go to sleep. We parents didn’t realize what was happening. We couldn’t predict how digital lives would bleed into reality, that we’d need to clarify what we mean when we say the word “cloud.” Another mom going through this says, “online worlds seep into life like too much salt in a soup.” Curated personas, best friends you’ve never smelled or touched, avatars brought to life.  The Junior Oxford Dictionary removed the words “acorn, ash, buttercup, dandelion, fern, ivy, nectar, pasture and willow” to make room for: “blog, broadband, celebrity, chat-room, mp3 player and voicemail.”

Huge, meaningful and exciting swaths of our kids’ lives have played out in digital worlds while their material worlds have become smaller, more isolated, and disconnected. In many cases, our kids were already disassociated from their bodies, even before they became aware of trans identities. Running, jumping, dancing, wrestling, all these things happen primarily in controlled spaces now. The only remaining place for many young people to gather away from adult-controlled, contrived, and protected spaces, are digital worlds. It follows, in this climate, that “authentic selves” might also be technologically-mediated products to consume. My god, talk about planned obsolescence. This is planned obsolescence of the body from the moment of its birth and our kids are early test subjects in transhumanism. For real. No tinfoil hat needed. Google “postgender.”

No. I don’t believe that there’s such a thing as “true trans.” I believe we’re all mosaics of hormonal, skeletal, emotional, personal, etc. traits and that identity is being commodified in dangerous ways.

Your daughter is only 14. The “affirmative” clinicians will say, see? She just wasn’t really trans. No one can be “made” to be trans, so your daughter just figured out she wasn’t. No harm done.

The only reason my daughter figured out she isn’t trans is because I gave her space, time, and access to diverse people to talk to. I did not, as was advised, immediately affirm her new trans identity. Had I done so, had I said, “oh, yeah, that makes sense” she would most likely, she says, be taking testosterone now. She thanks me regularly for not believing she was a boy trapped in a girl’s body.

Related to the previous question, how do you know your daughter won’t change her mind again and realize she actually is trans? Again, the activists/affirmative clinicians will say maybe she’s just staying “in the closet” about being trans to please you.

I don’t know that my daughter won’t change her mind. How could I? What I know is that she spent the past two years interrogating her dysphoria: where it came from, what purpose it served/didn’t serve in her life; what triggered/increased/decreased its intensity. For the most part, she faced her dysphoria, anxiety, and past trauma head-on and learned ways to live in her body more comfortably.

Is she just waiting until she leaves home to come out again? Best to ask her [Note to readers: We will!] but I don’t think so. She’s angry that she wasted two years of her childhood worrying about her gender identity. She sees her non-conformity with gender roles and her non-compliance with “femininity” as aspects of her individual personality, not as pathology in need of corrective medical care. To her, and she can explain this better than I can, being “trans” means accepting that males/females can only be one way, that some aspects of identity/personality/self-essence beyond biological functions belong to only males or females. She doesn’t believe that’s true.

Do you oppose medical transition for all youth? Why or why not?

No. I believe that for some youth, pharmaceutical treatment might bring the most relief. I do not believe that surgery to remove healthy body parts should ever happen on children or adolescents.

Physically altering (and sterilizing) bodies as a “corrective measure” is nothing new. The history of medicine overflows with horrors enacted on dark skinned and disabled bodies, the bodies of women, and of homosexuals. Doctors in the Netherlands, where homosexual males used to be surgically castrated, were the first to suppress natal puberty in trans identifying children. I think that history, of medically-supported and induced harm on noncompliant bodies, is important to keep in mind when thinking about transgender medical treatment. I mentioned Ritalin earlier. But let’s remember lobotomies, cures for hysterical women, female genital mutilation. Let’s remember that puberty suppressants followed by cross-sex hormones will sterilize a body for life. Gender specialists are sterilizing and greatly increasing the risks of cancer and other debilitating medical conditions in children, many of whom would simply have grown up to be gay in earlier times.

Caution. We have to be more cautious, not open the gates wider. Puberty suppressants, cross-sex hormones, and surgery, all have life-long consequences. Shouldn’t the focus be on helping people learn to accept themselves, in all their messy, unmatched, contradicting, and possibly limiting, glory? We contain multitudes, right? Let’s contain them in the healthiest of possible bodies, with the least amount of dependency on chemical and specialized medicine.

We all want to thank you for stepping forward as public spokesperson for 4thWaveNow. As you are well aware, many parents feel they cannot go public because of the current political climate.

I want those of us who live with and care for young people investigating their gender identities to think more critically and carefully about the idea that humans can be born into “wrong bodies,” and that “authentic selves” are dependent on medical consumption. I want to push the conversation beyond “because I am trans” answers. That’s not good enough. There’s more here and we owe it to our kids and future societies to ask harder questions and to wait, patiently, for more meaningful answers.

I want to speak out because I know others can’t. The risk to one’s livelihood and to the peace of their families and communities is immense. Nothing I am saying is hateful or bigoted but questioning the dominant narratives of innate gender identity and affirmative models of treatment are dangerous moves when even philosophical questions are considered “epistemic violence” against trans people.

This is unacceptable. We cannot think rationally or make well-informed choices if half the conversation is muted. The voices of desisters are important contributions to any discussion focused on dysmorphic adolescents and kids who don’t easily conform to gender norms. I want parents to know that it’s okay to say, “hang on, lets think all this through together.”

You know, if “being trans” simply meant I am who I am who I am and it didn’t often come with a side of medical necessity, I wouldn’t be here insisting we need to talk about this stuff more thoughtfully, more thoroughly.

If sex is socially constructed, like trans advocates argue, why does anyone need to alter their sexed bodies to match their gender identities? It doesn’t make sense. Transgender medicine is being marketed to our young people under the guise that their gender-atypical behavior and/or their developmentally normal bodily discomfort is a sign of incongruity, of imbalance. Normal, healthy teen angst, the challenges of independent identity formation in adolescence, these processes have been pathologized. Instead of helping kids be resilient, many aspects that fall under “gender identity exploration” enable self-perceived and socially-inflicted oppression, hardship, isolation, and malaise.

But, too, in many ways, what’s happening with awareness about gender identities is meaningful and I’m thankful to young people for pushing the rest of us to think about what being “masculine” and “feminine” means in this day and age. Thanks to young people, many are noticing how toys are more gendered now than they were thirty years ago and lots of parents are questioning why boys can’t wear sparkles and why we tell girls to smile. This is all good stuff! But all the good stuff is coming at the cost of our children’s long-term physical and emotional health.

I’m adding our story to the mix because it offers an alternative trajectory to the one that currently dominates the press. In addition to the “courageous trans kid” who lets everyone know that she is a he, I want to highlight young people who’ve come to terms with their sexed bodies and courageously move forward in life without feeling there is something wrong with them, that they’re disabled in some way, that their bodies or other’s perceptions of them are in need of correction.

Both my daughter and I want other parents and young people to know it is possible to work through some/most/all aspects of dysphoria without removing healthy body parts or injecting off-label cancer drugs and cross-sex hormones.

I want parents to know it’s okay to ask questions, to dig deep, to be skeptical. To push your children and those who oversee their care to go beyond “just because” answers like “because that’s how I feel” or, “that’s who I am,” to deeper levels. Push through to “why?” and “what does that mean?” to “where does that feeling come from?” and bravely explore what’s uncovered. What does it mean to “feel” like a woman or a man? Why do those feelings mean healthy bodies are in need of medical intervention? I mean, really, how can it be that so many have suddenly been born “wrong?”

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Nevertheless, she persisted… as a role model for girls in STEM

Yesterday, the Washington Post published the account of a girl who heretofore—since the age of 8–had been a role model for other girls interested in science and math. She was a popular YouTube star, garnering up to a million views for her robotics videos. She was even invited to the White House in 2013.

But at 16, Super Awesome Sylvia, after (by her own report) spending some time on the Internet considering trans stuff, announced she’s now a boy.

wapo sylviaAs is typical for journalists covering trans-kids at the once-venerable Post, not even the mildest skeptical question was asked about why a strong, somewhat gender-atypical girl would morph from a positive example for other girls, into a “trans boy.”

And not only are there no questions: The author of the puff-piece even used male pronouns to refer to the little girl before she “identified” as a boy, thereby neatly erasing her past as a spunky 8-year-old girl with a penchant for invention.

We used this story as a springboard to create an alternate story: about a different girl named Spectacular Sarah who resists the gender-saturated, society-wide encouragement to proclaim she’s a boy because she likes short hair and geeky pursuits (in Sarah’s case, renewable energy).

For full effect, we recommend you read the entire Washington Post story prior to ours.

Note: This piece is a work of fiction and a fair-use parody. Characters and details in this story should not be construed to represent any actual person or situation.


Anywhere, USA. — This is the story of Spectacular Sarah, an ingenious little girl who made portable backyard windmills.

At age 8, Sarah Smith put on a lab coat and started a web show. A gap-toothed little kid with a pony tail and soldering iron, a rare sight in the boy’s club of amateur inventors.

Before long, Sarah had tens of thousands of viewers. And tons of windmills, of course.

The most famous was the windmill that powered her family’s kitchen appliances. On days it turned, it generated enough power to keep a small fridge running and to cook three meals a day on the electric range.

But that windmill did other things, too.

It got Sarah invited to her state’s Science Fair in 2015, when the governor tried it out to run the microwave in the governor’s mansion. He told its shaky-legged, 10-year-old inventor that it was great to see girls in tech who could serve as inspiration to other girls.

By middle school, Sarah was giving speeches all over the world, from the United Nations to elite girls’ schools in South America. This was a big deal for a kid from a small, windy town in Anywhere, USA, whose parents often worried about paying the next bill.

That’s how — year after year, show after show, speech after speech — Spectacular Sarah’s windmills turned a little kid into a role model for girls everywhere.

And that’s how “they”—some adult activists and confused kids on Tumblr– tried to trap her.

Because these days, when a girl breaks the stereotypical mold, people start asking if she’s “really” a boy. Especially people who’ve spent a lot of time on the Internet, or reporters who didn’t take the time to get the backstory. Sarah didn’t feel like a genius, or a celebrity—but she knew darn well she was a girl—though she had her doubts for a while.Wapo SarahThis is the story of Sarah Smith, a 16-year-old girl who actually prefers art to science, and knows a lot more about herself than her Tumblr pals and clueless reporters seem to think.  Now when people ask about her pronouns and assume she is a boy, she tells them, “Just because I’m a girl who got famous for doing geeky stuff, that doesn’t mean I’m going to take the easy way out and tell everyone I’m going to ‘transition.’”

Instead, Sarah broke free.

  1. My name is Sarah

In the beginning there was simply Sarah. No one asking if she was a boy (this was before that sort of nonsense got started), no spectacular anything. Just Sarah and her mom and dad (and later a sister and two brothers) growing up in windy Anywhere, USA. A regular little girl, by all appearances.

“When I was a kid, I was just a kid,” Sarah said. “Making cool stuff.”

Sarah had always wanted to know how things worked.

She liked to pull apart old TV sets and put together miniature solar panel kits with her dad, Bill, an industrial engineer.

One day in 2011, Sarah decided to make a Vimeo show about making things. Her mom, Jane, sewed a lab coat fit for a 7-year-old. Dad helped write the scripts and held the camera. (Mom and Dad were pretty “gender conforming”). Then Sarah just did her thing—and her thing was renewable energy projects on a kid-sized scale.

“Hi! My name is Sarah and this is our spectacular science show!” Sarah said in the first episode, pumping her arms in the air. “Let’s get out there and show the world we can do better than fossil fuels!”

Spectacular Sarah showed kids how to make a miniature solar panel that could power a table lamp, a small radio fueled by the energy from a super-hot compost pile, and a boom box wired to the mini windmill that would serve as prototype for the bigger windmills she engineered later on.

And kids watched. And Sarah watched, amazed, as hundreds of viewers became thousands. “Renewable Energy for All” magazine started hosting the show on its Vimeo channel, and altogether more than a million people clicked on Sarah’s videos.

Sarah got into the character. She wore the lab coat to alternative energy fairs, selling Sarah bling at her booths, or posing with cardboard-cutout idols like “Hermione Granger” from Harry Potter.

In time, Sarah would get emails from parents who told her she was an idol herself especially to their daughters, but also their sons.

One day last summer, when it was all over and Spectacular Sarah was just Sarah, dad Bill sat on a patio eating chips and salsa, watching his daughter splash in a pool, wondering if the fun had been worth all the trouble it caused.

“Before any of this happened I used to tell Sarah, ‘Fame happens to the unlucky; it’s not a healthy thing.”’ Bill said. “As a kid, it’s a trap.”

Bill was thinking about something else, too: He’d seen “I am Jazz,” and he knew that a new fad was starting to take hold: A fascination with kids who were “gender nonconforming” who are now being promoted as “born in the wrong body.” He knew Sarah had already been asked more than once about her “preferred pronouns”–including by some adults who ought to know better.

 2.  Sarah meets the governor

When she was 10, with a few years of making miniature renewable energy devices behind her, Sarah decided to enter the international “Alternatives to Fossil Fuel” games. The competition was fierce: teams from around the world competed to see whose toy-sized windmills and solar panels could keep a test radio running the longest.

wapo windmill 2Sarah dreamed up something more in her artistic style:  windmill arms that painted abstract designs as they rotated around. Her windmill had a paintbrush on two of the spinning arms, with a bright wood frame and five little trays of paint. As the arms spun, paint spewed onto a canvas. A local tech company partnered with the Smiths to build it, Sarah’s fans helped crowdfund it, and Sarah’s dad made a computer app to send windmill artwork through a Galaxy Note.

It won the gold medal in the Most Creative Renewable category — and caught the eye of people in the Anywhere State legislature and the governor’s mansion.

“They were just freaking out that there’s a girl making stuff,” Sarah said.

Right then and there, Sarah knew she wanted to be a role model for other girls. She was starting to learn, even at 10, that some of the other techy girls in her school—some of whom liked short hair and rough play—were wondering if all that meant they weren’t “really” girls.

Sarah remembers shaking nervously as she walked through the governor’s mansion that spring. The other kids’ projects all seemed so elaborate. A huge solar panel; an artificial waterfall to demonstrate the power of rushing water; even a ski parka heated by a small solar panel on the back, invented by three 9-year-old boys.

“Why am I here?” Sarah thought. “I have this weird windmill that I made.”

“It’s really neat!” Spectacular Sarah told a solar engineer who’d come to see the show.

And she smiled in her lab-coat with the governor, and held up a model of a windmill that might someday power the state legislature building.

She came back to Anywhere, USA with photos that still get passed around her family — the highlight of her career as a girl genius.

At the end of that school year she got an F in math.

The truth was, Sarah says, she’s never been a natural at science. She liked the fairs, and she liked messing around with her family on the show, and she knew how to say the right things.

The last big trip was to South America, where Sarah would make speeches at elite private girls’ schools — and finally begin to confront those who claimed a girl like her just had to be a boy.

3.  Just the beginning for Spectacular Sarah

Even before South America, there had been signs that all was not as it seemed with the person called Sarah Smith.  Sarah remembers asking a friend in seventh grade, “Is it weird that people keep wondering if I’m a boy? It’s starting to make me wonder, too!?” In her private sketchbook, she started to draw herself with shorter hair and hairy legs. Her friend, who’d just gotten a Tumblr account said, “Yeah, I’ve noticed lots of girls who hate long hair and never want to shave their legs ‘coming out’ as boys. What do you think?”

Sarah spent a lot of time thinking about this stuff. But they were still passing thoughts. In South America, in 2014, girls in uniform skirts crowded around the windmill and listened to Spectacular Sarah’s tips on invention.

The tour went so well that after Sarah returned home, the Smiths said, she got an offer to come back and study free at one of the schools — “a place where girls make their visions come true.”

“It’s an amazing school,” Sarah said. “An entire wing is dedicated to women inventors.”

But as she waited for the start of the South American school year, those questions she’d discussed with her friend began to pass through her mind more and more often.

The character Spectacular Sarah began to fade from her life—and for a brief time, so did the person called Sarah.

Sarah became reluctant to make new Vimeo shows, and eventually stopped altogether. Her parents weren’t sure why at first. They didn’t know that Sarah could no longer stand to look at her long curls, or listen to “how squeaky my voice was.”

And the thought of that school in South America, with its laboratories and uniforms, loomed in Sarah’s mind like a deadline.

Finally, she decided, “I can’t live with myself wearing a skirt every day.”

She wrote a letter to the school, asking why a girl couldn’t wear pants instead of a skirt to school. To her surprise, the school principal wrote back right away. She said, “You know, you’re right. We support girls being and becoming who they are, no matter what they wear, how they cut their hair, or what they like to do. If you want to wear pants, you’re still very welcome. In fact, you can be the first to challenge our outdated dress code. Hope to see you soon!”

4.  Shape-shifting goddess of the sea and prophecy

Sarah was spending more and more time alone in her pink-painted bedroom, not making things anymore, not talking much, sometimes crying for unexplained reasons. The Vimeo show was all but abandoned.

Sarah’s mom, Jane, went into the room one day to talk it out, mother and daughter.

“Mom,” said Sarah. “Why is everything pink in this room? You know, I’ve never liked that color. And you know what else? I hate dresses, and I want to cut my hair—I hate the curls and they just get in my way!”

Jane looked surprised for a moment, then answered,” Of course, we can change that. It’s just a color, after all. And you can do what you like with your hair. I’ll make an appointment for the haircut this afternoon.”

Sarah hesitated. “Mom? You don’t think I’m really a boy because I want to have short hair and I hate pink—do you?”

“Of course not!” Jane answered. “I know there’s a lot of those kind of messages on TV and the Internet now. It’s pretty much everywhere, wherever you look. But you just be the best person you can be.”

In secret, Sarah was already working on that. She was drawing herself in her sketchbook all the time, prototyping new haircuts. She was looking up words on the Internet: Lesbian; gay; gender fluid; pansexual; asexual; bisexual; tri-gender; demi-girl.

“So many labels,” Sarah thought. None seemed to fit.

She sat down at the dinner table one evening, and told her parents and siblings: “I have something to say. Everyone on social media, and even some of my friends keep saying a girl like me must be transgender. But the more I think about it, the more I realize I’m fine the way I am. But sometimes I do get confused by the stuff I see online, and what my friends are saying.”

Luckily, Sarah’s parents weren’t born yesterday. They said, “You know, Sarah, trends come and go. We know it’s tempting to believe you might be “born in the wrong body” because you’ve done stuff more typical of boys your age. But you shouldn’t feel any pressure at all to agree with what other teenagers are saying or doing.  No matter what, just think for yourself!”

It took some time for Sarah to get used to the idea that the older teens on Instagram and Tumblr might be wrong.  She started reading and watching worrisome accounts and videos by young people who’d been injecting themselves with testosterone and having their breasts removed. A lot of them seemed happy for awhile, but the obsession with “passing,” and the side effects from the drugs and surgeries, weighed on her.  With her parents’ support, she came to realize she’d been swayed, as teenagers always have been, by the opinions of her peers. She’d always been a tough, independent thinker, and it didn’t take long for her to realize she was fine just as she was—especially since her parents fully supported her getting a super-short haircut and taking all her “girl clothes” to the thrift store, swapping them for the more comfortable pants and T-shirts in the boys’ section.

As fall turned to winter, Sarah fell silent less often, and her confidence grew. She painted her room blue over the pink, covering one wall with a “women in tech” mural, and another with Post-it notes to herself. “Wow, that was a close call. Girl, you are loved.”

The family came to realize that Sarah Smith’s greatest project had been to figure out that she had always been Sarah Smith, after all.

But she still wanted a change, something to honor the journey she’d been on—from wondering if she was a boy to returning home to herself again. So, the family sat down and brainstormed a new name. They settled on Thetis, a Greek goddess known for shape-shifting and prophecy. Sarah liked that Thetis was a sea goddess, given her own strong interest in protecting the planet by working with renewable energy.

Sarah’s journey home to herself may seem pretty simple, in hindsight. It was anything but at the time.

“About the best thing we can do when we’re young is give ourselves time to grow and mature into the unique adults we all become someday,” her mom told Sarah one day.

“There’s no need for a strong girl to say she’s trans, just because she’s different,” her dad remarked. “Strong, independent girl” probably covers 90 percent of what you are. The rest is something else that’s uniquely you.”

5. Spectacular STEM girls

“Do you want to just shut it down?” her dad asked Sarah one day, when she was still in the throes of trying to figure out if she was “really” a boy or not. He meant the show, and Spectacular Sarah. To erase and move past that whole chunk of a life.

But Sarah didn’t want that.

“I’ve thought about it, and I’m still that girl role model I’ve always been,” she said. “I don’t want it to end. Yeah, I’m not crazy about my squeaky voice, but I’ve noticed most women’s voices change and get a richer tone as they get older. Besides, I also did research on the testosterone that some girls are taking to lower their voices. That’s a permanent change. What if I regret it later? I can’t go back—my Adam’s apple will stay the same. And that’s not even considering the hair I’d grow on my face and chest, and maybe later going bald!”

So, she decided to keep Spectacular Sarah on Vimeo–but also added a drawing of the Greek goddess Thetis whose name she’d chosen: a powerful woman who could shape-shift when she wanted to. Thetis/Sarah could wear what she wanted, cut her hair or grow it long, choose a career as a social worker some day or as an industrial engineer. That brainy girl character was here to stay.

Sarah drew a comic strip, explaining how shape-shifter Thetis represented the wide-open choices every girl had, if she had supportive parents and teachers who believed in her potential.  And because Thetis was also a goddess of prophecy, Sarah added a caption predicting that one day soon, girls who didn’t fit the typical “feminine” mold would  no longer be asked “preferred pronouns.” They’d just be left alone to become  shining examples of the many unique ways girls can live their lives.

6. Mini windmills

Life now . . . well, it’s never perfect. Sarah met another girl who had also considered whether she was trans for a while last year. They bonded over a shared hatred of gym and started dating. Sarah is coming to terms with the idea that she might be a lesbian, and feeling glad that she didn’t start down the road to hormones and surgery like some of the girls she’s seen on Tumblr. She’s learning to do sculpture and working on her drawings of Thetis.

She gets a few glares in the hallways of high school, people insisting on misgendering her as male, others asking her if she’s sure she doesn’t want to be referred to as he/him. But all in all, she’s glad not to be worried about which locker room to use; glad to be done with the chest binder a friend let her borrow to try out a couple of times. That binder hurt, and made it nearly impossible to run faster than a walk,  without having to take a time out to catch her breath. And while wearing it, she sometimes thought that the only way to get away from that constricting device would be to get rid of her breasts entirely. What was the point of all this, really? Who wanted a life spent in doctors’ offices and hospitals?

A few months ago, Sarah went with her family on her first science trip since fully resolving her feelings about being a girl—and a lesbian.

Sarah and her girlfriend and Sarah’s dad sat at the next table, trying to sell mini windmill models to pass the time.

To advertise, they put up the same photo of Spectacular Sarah and the governor, which had always drawn customers. That day, it drew a huge crowd.

“Oh, who’s this person?” someone would ask, looking at the ponytailed kid in the photo.

“Well . . . it’s this person, right here,” Bill would say, and point to his daughter.

“But that’s a guy.”

Bill tried the direct explanation: “That’s no boy—it’s my daughter. She just likes her hair short now and wears more comfortable clothes.”

To Sarah’s surprise that day, a lot of girls her age walked up to talk to her. So many had the same story: They preferred the hobbies, clothes, and hairstyles more typical of boys, had briefly considered they might be trans—then realized they could do everything they wanted as the awesome, strong girls they’d always been

The next time someone looked at the photo and asked for the girl — “Oh, is she here today?” Sarah was the one who answered. Pointing to herself, she said:

“She hasn’t gone anywhere. She’s right here.”

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