What I wish the Atlantic article hadn’t censored

by Jenny Cyphers

Jenny Cyphers is a homeschooling parent. She has been writing about that experience for many years, in various online forums. Jenny has been married for 24 yrs to the father of their two children, one adult and one teenager. They all live, work, and create, in Oregon. Jenny and her teen daughter were recently interviewed for an article about gender-dysphoric youth in The Atlantic.

4thWaveNow editorial note: We are grateful for Jesse Singal’s reporting on this complex issue and appreciate that he included the seldom-heard voices of teens who desisted from a trans identity, and their parents, in his article. We are aware that in some circles, the discussions we host on our site are considered transphobic and that we, a loosely-organized group of parents writing on this site, have been defamed as a “hate group” by those on the extreme end of the activist spectrum.

As always, we encourage those interested in the issue to read as widely as possible so they may come to their own conclusions. We contend that by leaving out all mention of 4thWaveNow, The Atlantic not only failed to offer parents the alternative opinions and resources we offer, but they also contributed to an environment that, due to censorship of critical voices, continues to propagate the distorted idea that cautiousness around medical interventions for minors is inherently harmful to trans-identified people in general.


I knew, when I agreed to be interviewed for The Atlantic article “When Children Say They’re Transgender,” that some of my words might be cut, or changed in ways I didn’t intend. But Jesse Singal is a good journalist. He’s personable and honest and willing to take on some really difficult subjects. He digs deep, records, researches, cites sources and ties things together in a nuanced way. Along with editors, he carefully adds and discards words, phrases, sources, quotes, and relevant ideas that lend themselves to the overall picture of what people will read and take away from what they’ve read. That’s what good journalism is.

There are a few things about our story and the way it was presented in The Atlantic that I’d like to clarify. First and foremost, the last-minute editorial decision to unlink the essay “A Careful Step into a Field of Landmines,” I’d written for 4thWaveNow, combined with removal of all mention of the site, needs to be highlighted because in doing so, The Atlantic failed to include important resources created to help parents support their gender dysphoric and nonconforming youth. The result is an article focused on the “situation” of “trans kids” that obscures parent-led examination and support for youth to explore identity without harmful medical interventions, the consequences of which can last a lifetime.

There are more choices for families than to either support their teens’ requests for pharmaceuticals and surgery on the one hand, and disowning or otherwise invalidating their interest in exploring their identity and nonconformity on the other. The Atlantic editors’ choice to remove 4thWaveNow from the discussion in effect denied parents access to important analysis that offers a balanced and middle ground.

Delta pic

The Atlantic photo editor had to dig deep in the several photos we provided to find the pensive one they chose for their article. Here’s one my daughter likes better; she suggested it be included with this post.

Part of my agreeing to contribute to this important debate is helping to create a platform. This website is such a platform. In talking with Jesse, I was upfront about my beliefs, which in part have been informed by 4thWaveNow and the great many array of voices shared here. It isn’t a monolith. Some of us are very liberal, left-leaning people in liberal left-leaning parts of the country, doing liberal left-leaning activities. Some of us are middle-of-the road, a minority of us are conservative, some of us are doctors, therapists, professors, and teachers. Some of us have allowed full social transition to give space to figure things out while still not agreeing to medical transitioning, and some have not. Excluding mention of 4thWaveNow, a site that gets 60K hits a month, fails to tell the whole story. Why do that? Why leave out one of my main sources of information and the ways that information helped me help my child?

Two of the most important aspects of my family’s experience that are not adequately addressed in the Atlantic article, are: 1) my daughter was given a clinical diagnosis of gender dysphoria, so she was just as “truly trans” as the next kid, and 2) it was my insistence that my child wait to medically transition, not her therapist’s. My teen’s therapist, Laura Edwards-Leeper, listened to me and agreed. We were lucky. While there are some cautious, thoughtful providers, the current situation in the US is that there is also no oversight. The most vocal professionals are firmly in the affirmation camp which believes, without any long-term data to validate, that withholding hormonal interventions is tantamount to abuse.

I didn’t know, going into Delta’s first appointment, what the outcome would be. That’s how difficult this is for parents; we have no idea what the outcome will be when we have very “insistent, consistent, and persistent” children requesting immediate medical interventions. It’s a matter of luck to find a therapist who respects parents’ knowledge of their children, who takes parental concerns and insights seriously, and who are not afraid to support slow, cautious progression.

While many transgender activists argue that they understand our children better than we do, there is no evidence to support their claim. Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria is seen primarily, although not exclusively, in natal females during puberty. It is important to understand that what separates my daughter and many of the kids of 4thWaveNow parents, is this: None of these kids experienced distress over their sexed bodies until they came into contact with the idea that there might be something wrong with them. In other words, the dysphoria is what was “rapid onset,” not necessarily their gender atypicality. These are not kids with “early-onset,” nor do they resemble later in life transitioning people who frequently claim to have always “felt like” a girl but were too afraid or oppressed by family dynamics to admit their feelings. Then, making wide sweeping projections of their own experiences, they mark our children as being in need of the help they believe they should have had. With our kids, as with the group of young people described in Lisa Littman’s survey where ROGD was first named, their dysphoria set in quickly during puberty, often after spending hours online watching/reading others discuss their distress.

Another outlandish claim (made repeatedly by some activists and “affirming” clinicians) is that we simply missed all the signs our children were suffering earlier. I can assure you that, as a homeschooling mom who spent all day every day with my daughter, she never thought she was or wanted to be a boy prior to encountering the idea from transgender kids in her social circle. In fact, between ages 9-11, she was often “misgendered” (referred to as “he” or “him”) and hated it. It saddens me that these activists experienced such awful childhoods. However, their childhoods seem to have been negatively influenced by the religious fundamentalism and/or abusiveness of their parents; their childhoods do not remotely resemble the experiences of my daughter or the many other young people experiencing ROGD whom I’ve met.

atlantic coverTeens and tweens with ROGD often meet all the clinical diagnostic criteria for transitioning. They are often “insistent, persistent, and consistent” for more than six months, or in our case, for two years. Teens with ROGD also typically meet the clinical threshold for gender dysphoria, as mine did. It’s in her medical file. That’s correct, my “never really trans kid” had a clinical diagnosis of gender dysphoria under the DSM-V. This is what we hope others understand: our kids are suffering, they hate their bodies, they want and need help. In many cases, our kids had trouble making friends, experienced some form of earlier trauma, and struggle in other important ways, completely unrelated to gender, that should not be overlooked or seen as secondary to their dysphoria.

I know, because I was in pro-transitioning parent support groups, that parents are going to “gender specialists” and demanding medical interventions for their children without thoroughly considering why their children feel the way they do. I know, because I’ve heard from parents, that some therapists will give the green light to medical pathways without addressing any mental health issues. Dr. Johanna Olson-Kennedy, who treats 900 youth at her LA clinic, is quoted in Singal’s article as saying that she “believes that therapy can be helpful for many TGNC young people, but she opposes mandating mental-health assessments for all kids seeking to transition.” As many 4thWaveNow parents and teens will tell you, this attitude denies young people the opportunity to deeply explore why they want to alter their bodies and shuts down learning about other non-medical means of managing their distress.

When I was approached to do an interview, I needed to carefully consider my motivation for doing so, and if I should agree to discuss my family’s situation at all. Ultimately, I agreed because people need to hear that there are other ways to support trans-identifying kids. Gender dysphoria is very real and it hurts. My child’s life wasn’t easy because of the intense pain of GD. I knew there had to be answers other than what I saw everywhere around me, that suggested agreeing to medical interventions was the loving and kind thing to do, and that these interventions were harmless and helpful. I agreed to be interviewed because I wanted to highlight for other parents that there are other choices: most notably, offering support (buying clothing, getting haircuts, using a new name, finding a decent therapist) while also saying “I don’t think there is anything incongruent about your body/feelings.” The Atlantic axed this part of our story, the part where parents can offer tremendous support for their children without ever setting foot in a gender clinic in search of medical interventions.

I used to be a lot more open to the idea of transitioning children, in part because I know and like many transgender people. It wasn’t until I found that in the US, girls as young as 13 are getting mastectomies, that I began to question gender affirming medicine. In the new genderist language it’s called “chest,” “top,” or “confirmation” surgery. It sounds so much nicer than a double mastectomy, almost positive and pleasant. Cutting healthy body parts off of children should not be a thing. Ever. That was the moment I decided I would never stop talking about this.

My part of the interview with Jesse Singal–although about my daughter–was really more about how to support, in general, a child going through this very difficult experience. It is challenging, if not impossible, to find places to discuss supporting teens as they explore their identity in non-medical ways. 4thWaveNow is the only US-based resource that allows this. We need to talk about how to support gender non-conforming kids; things like buying clothing from the boys’ department if you have a daughter, or buying girl clothing if you have a son. My part of the interview wasn’t aimed at kids, but at parents who really need more and better tools for helping their distressed children than the “transition or die” option. Without choices, how can people really make one? Pick one of the two? No thanks.

Someone asked me the other day why I care. Why can’t I just let people do what they want? The answer is really simple. As humans we are guided to protect our young. If our culture fails to do so, each of us have failed to protect our children. This is why there are laws against abusing children, laws preventing minors from smoking or drinking, laws to keep kids from driving, laws for educating children. We can argue against any one of those things, but the cultural “we” have agreed that this is for the good of protecting children from harm, and for promoting welfare. In the US, unlike in other countries, there are no laws or regulations about transitioning children. Until there are, this is up for debate and I’m weighing in.

The fact that so many parents are left with this narrative that there is only one right way to help a confused kid, is what drives a wedge between the parent and child, leaving children vulnerable to self-proclaimed internet “experts”, like Zinnia Jones, who are more than willing to validate their feelings, further dividing parent and child.

Look, I understand that there are some truly not-very-nice parents out there, but we should not be making policy around them. That’s the sort of thing that creates bad case law. Let’s assume that the vast majority of parents want what’s best for their children, even if they have no idea what that looks like.

I was even more puzzled about the Atlantic‘s last-minute editorial decisions when I saw thaZinnia Jones cheap puberty blockers onlinet, not only was any mention of 4thwavenow scrubbed in the final version of the article, but a statement by Jones and reference to Jones’ website were included. Jones has written multiple screeds denying the existence of the rapid-onset dysphoria in adolescent girls that more and more people (including clinicians) are noticing. Further,  Jones recommends (on Twitter) that young people secretly obtain puberty blockers online if their parents aren’t onboard.

Unfortunately, many therapists, and others invested in the transgender narrative, seem to be heavily influenced by activists like Zack Ford, an opinion writer for the website Think Progress who, in response to Singal’s article, enunciates the activist-notion that parental concern and insight is irrelevant to the discussion. He writes,

“Whether a parent doubts the legitimacy of a child’s transition has zero relevance to whether transitioning is best for their child. Humoring this doubt is exactly what makes the story so harmful.”

Read that quote again. Read it several times to see just how dismissive it is of parents, the very people transgender and gender non-conforming kids rely on for support. You know–the people who would be signing the informed consent paperwork at the doctor’s office, agreeing to allow doctors to prescribe permanent, sometimes sterilizing, experimental off-label use of medications, and body-altering irreversible surgeries.

The collective, cultural “we” cannot dismiss parents as trivial when we are discussing our children, whom we will protect with our lives. This protective mechanism is the prime role of parents and an important part of being human and all the moral and ethical things that come with it. This is not a divide between liberal and conservative. There are too many divisions in this world, and this country, as it is. This is about whether “we” have an ethical imperative to protect our children. Yes, we need to listen to kids. We also need to listen to parents who are not interested in stifling their children’s interests or gender presentation, but who also know their children better than any therapist ever will.

 

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Baptised in Fire: A relieved desister’s story

by Sam

Sam (not her real name), 22, identified as trans between the ages of 16-19. A relieved desister, she enjoys tidying, writing, and watching the weather. She lives in the United Kingdom. Sam is available to interact in the comments section of her article.

Sam joins several other desisters on 4thWaveNow who, along with their parents, have shared their experiences of rapid onset of gender dysphoria (ROGD) in adolescence.


I was not a trans child. I was a gender-conforming little girl, as far as children are ever completely gender-conforming.  I liked pretty clothes but I also jumped in the occasional mud-pit. I didn’t play with Lego very much, because I wasn’t particularly good at it, but who cares? Not I. I felt no discomfort with being a girl. I felt little discomfort with anything, really; I was a bossy, blunt, stubborn little girl with very important opinions about everything.

I was not overjoyed about puberty. I don’t think I’m alone in that! Bras–miserably restrictive. Periods–horrible. Men followed me home from school even when I was twelve and thirteen; I in my uniform was not a very pretty child, but that didn’t seem to be the point. I didn’t like high school because I didn’t understand how I was supposed to act. Being overtly smart, because I was, made people dislike me, so I tried being stupider, but even then, I was still doing it all wrong. I thought I wasn’t on the same wavelength as everyone else, which, of course, is what loads of people feel like. But I didn’t know that. My relationship with my parents wasn’t perfect, but it was good, and we all got on.

When I was in my teens, I got into a disaster of a relationship with a girl. I was no longer in control of myself, of my body, of when I slept and when I ate and where I could be when. Things got very difficult. As the situation became increasingly unhealthy, over a very short space of time I became deeply dysphoric. Suddenly I loathed my female body and its nauseating shapes and its catastrophic frailties with a vehemence I had never known before. I stood in the bathroom and knew I needed to wash but I couldn’t take off my shirt, I couldn’t, because of what was underneath it, so I went out foul. I lost a lot of weight–partly from stress and partly to prove I could still control one aspect of my body. The new flatness of my chest only relieved me, it felt good like nothing else in my life felt good. As my legs got scrawny and the line of my figure straighter I felt only relief. I dressed only in masculine clothing, chopped my hair very short, felt like it made me tough, mean, safe. I still remember the exact moment a man said, “Excuse me, mate” to me as he passed me. It felt so much better than being hit on, even if nothing felt very good anymore.

God, everything hurt. I was desperate, unspeakably desperate to be in control of my own body, in the middle of a situation in which I wasn’t. I wanted to be strong, but I wanted even more to disappear. I wanted everyone in the world to go away. If my body was different, I knew I would have power, to walk away, to STOP IT.

I knew a little about what this was that I was feeling, I’d looked it up online –oh, I’m trans.  I tried to tell my girlfriend that I was trans, that I wasn’t a girl. She carried on as if I had said nothing, wouldn’t humour me by using my new name. I was stung, confused. A friend gave me a binder. I got thinner. I was “he”, or maybe “they”, yes, that was nice, like a cool drink of water; just anyone not called “she”. The “she” I was walking around in felt disgusting to me. “She” was all wrong. Skinny male me, pleasantly mistaken for a boy, felt like a port in the storm, if still not enough. I wanted control, control, of my body, of my life, but not to be me as I had been, because whoever that was far away, getting further away all the time, waiting for all of this to be over. I wanted like hell to be everything I wasn’t, and I didn’t know that other people felt that way too, not just transgender, but apocalyptic, so I was all alone.

The relationship ended. I was in a bad way. I’d made a Tumblr blog, looking, really, for a space that I could have to myself to vent, and I found myself on it a lot more. There is good stuff on that website. But the nasty stuff is so easy to find and so hard to wriggle free of if you’re like I was: lonely, miserable, hollow, and utterly lost, uneasy about everything, because now that she was gone I wasn’t quite so sure about being a boy, but I knew very definitely I couldn’t be a girl. Everything was still all wrong.

It’s difficult to explain what the “nasty stuff” is if you haven’t spent time on there yourself, exactly how pervasive and focused the brainwashing is, how perverse and suffocating and addictive it can be. The convoluted and illogical discourse, the constant shifting of goalposts so you are always on your toes to know what can I say? What am I allowed to think? What does this word mean today? So many lies were told to me about gender, sex, oppression, people, love, health, and happiness. I didn’t get better, and neither did anyone else I spoke to, but we were assured that this way–with our made-up pronouns and our made-up genders and our self-diagnosed illnesses–was the right way. It was a real crabs-in-a-bucket mentality, where any criticism, even of downright abusive behaviour, was transphobic and/or ableist and/or racist. To suggest improving oneself, sorting out your life, was cruelty of the highest order; we were perfect as we were, they  cooed, and anyone saying otherwise hated us and everyone like us. Narcissism ruled supreme.

We copied the writing style everyone else used, and we copied what they said too. They said and then we said we were beautiful. They and then we said we were against the world, the cis world, the hateful world, the world that wasn’t ideologically pure like we were ideologically pure. Nobody suffered like us. We were martyrs, floating high above reproach and deserving, more than anyone, of every good thing in the world: comfort, other people’s money. We deserved to have every rule bent for us, because we were right and they were wrong.

I could go on, describing every argument they used to justify this attitude, but I doubt they’d work on you. A lot of us were young teens, vulnerable in some way, whether abused or ostracised from society or just weak-willed. They gave us a new self, and all the power in the world. We thought so ruthlessly, that people against us didn’t deserve to live, reasoned it out in our mad non-reason –horrible, horrible, icy, inhumanly mechanical thinking that I have never encountered anywhere else since. We didn’t think about what we said, we just repeated what we knew we were supposed to say, and really, truly thought we were expressing our own thoughts.

They told us that we could choose a gender, any gender, out of countless, that we could make up our own and they would be taken seriously; they were, but only ever by others on there. Words on Tumblr ceased to mean the same as in the real world. Words were made up. They said if we wanted to wear make-up, or pink, or feminine clothes, we had to have a label for that, and if we wanted to have short hair, and wear masculine clothes, we had to have a label for that too.

I am not even touching the language around sexual orientation, because that is a whole other article. If we liked to switch how we “presented”, we would have a label to describe that we switched, and we could also change our labels and our pronouns day-to-day to describe how we felt (FELT! That is the crux of all of this nonsense) each day. It is so, so exhausting to be constantly examining every desire, thought, inclination of your shifting, constantly changing adolescent self, trying to find a word to fit, only to question yourself again the next week, or day, or hour. We adjusted our entire sense of self once, again, again, again. Every time, distancing ourselves a bit more from the person we used to be, that we couldn’t bear to be anymore. (I think we knew the old us would be ashamed, so we hid our faces from them.)

The time I wasted! Years on this! The energy! They say “agender” means I don’t have a gender. Do I feel like that? How do I know? How can you “feel” that? They said this was freeing for us, to finally know what to call ourselves, but the boxes they said we had to choose from were so tiny we couldn’t fit, unless we had a hundred, and even then we didn’t feel satisfied. We were forcing ourselves apart into splinters until we weren’t people any more, just words, and words that didn’t mean anything.

Why on earth weren’t we happy? We were children who knew so little about the world, and we believed everything everyone on Tumblr said. They–and then we–all spoke with such perfect arrogance, like we knew everything. We knew we did. There was also an awareness we had–although never, ever voiced, even to ourselves –that if we were just a white, normal, “cis” kid, we couldn’t be part of this club. We were part of it because we were special, and we were special because we were part of the club.

I questioned nothing. I didn’t have one original thought. And I didn’t really feel a thing.

I never looked at myself and thought: girl. That wasn’t right, and what’s more, it was vile. I was something else. I knew it.

Well: my parents knew I was sad. All that I told you about above didn’t fulfil me, although I knew it had to, because I had nothing else. My misery was obvious. One day, I stopped being able to smile. I was so emotionally numb, and that frightened me. I just couldn’t make my face smile. As I spiralled deeper into the trans-cult, my parents & I had arguments over everything. I was snappy, I was mean, I was acting recklessly, I was telling them off for using language that the trans-cult said was bad, I was ignoring all of their eminently sensible and kind advice. I tried to tell them I wasn’t a girl, to use different pronouns when they referred to me.

baptised in fireWhile they weren’t angry, just bemused, and while they really did try, I never felt my parents’ efforts were good enough. It was horribly unfair of me to treat them this way when I myself was always unsure. Even when someone in the real world “validated” me, it didn’t feel as nice as it was supposed to. Why not? I didn’t know. Were they lying? Did they really get it? Why didn’t I feel happy for more than a few minutes, did it mean I was using the wrong words? I crawled back onto my online spaces for further fruitless introspection. Over time, I lost contact with virtually all my old real-life friends – I was no longer invited to anything. I must have been annoying as all hell.

One tiny event in particular– my poor parents, poor me, poor all of us– sticks in my head and makes me feel sick whenever I think of it:

I was in the car. They were driving me to a college lesson because I hadn’t got up in time, because I wasn’t sleeping. I hadn’t washed. Before I got out of the car, my mother gave me a five-pound note.

“It’s the “cheering-up Sam” fund,” she said.

I suppose it sounds silly. But it burns. I’m looking down at that five-pound-note in my hand, and it’s breaking my heart. They knew I was so sad, but what could they do? They loved me so much, but what could they do? What were they supposed to do? How could they possibly help me? I couldn’t hold a civil conversation with them. I was mad, wildly irrational. I knew I was in the wrong but my pride was searing me full of holes. I lost my temper when the conversation became stressful, I walked out of the house and wandered around, alone, sick to my stomach with anger.

I became convinced that T was what I needed. I felt sick at the thought sometimes, but other times I would feel giddily sure, so eventually I summoned up the courage and called a clinic to make an appointment to start testosterone. But before the clinic called me back, something strange happened.

My dysphoria went away. It just went! Why or where it went I can’t say. I was 19 by this time, still clinging to my “trans identity”, insistent I wasn’t “cis”, but the feeling of wrongness about the sex of my body was gone and has stayed gone since. I didn’t love my body in the slightest, but I no longer hated it and think it completely, fundamentally wrong like I had before. I struggled with my weight for a long time then and after, but I began to realise I was female.

My close brush with acquiring testosterone shook me back into my senses somewhat. I was conscious as I came back into my body that I had almost made a huge mistake. The fear of what could have been stayed with me, that as my dysphoria passed I might have been trapped in a body more foreign to me than the original, a body like a boy that my brain no longer actually needed. The irreversible changes that would have occurred weighed on my mind:  the voice no longer mine, the man-face, the dark, thick hair. So anxiously, I thought – that’s not me…

I very slowly, not quite realising it, was distancing myself from the trans-cult and its thinking.

Well, this and that happened, I struggled on, I had a few setbacks, I struggled on a bit more. I got a proper job. This was the kick in the backside, the firework up the arse that I had needed. I was busy. I was tired. I was called “she” – I was too embarrassed to ask for special pronouns. I had to wear work clothes like everyone else. I took my work seriously, but I had to listen to people chatting in such a heretical way! Saying things that I hadn’t dared to even think, for so long! Talking about men being men, and women being women, so casually using language I had forgotten I could use. At some point, I started to agree with them. The hours I worked kept me off Tumblr and Twitter. The real world beamed blinding, hot sunlight into the dark and cold and dusty parts of my world. And one day, I simply deleted all of my social media. I can’t remember why – I just knew I had to. I didn’t stay to say goodbye to anybody I knew, I just wiped it all. I have never missed it since.

My relationship with my parents recovered. It’s a lot better now than it was before, somehow. They know I’m myself– a real, human woman who knows it– again. I started tentatively using the words daughter, woman, girl, sister to describe myself in conversation. Even now when I say those words I feel them in my mouth. I worked, shopped, ate, and I was doing weird things I did before; laughing like a horse, telling off-colour jokes to make my parents snort.

I had spent a lot of time at home, and perhaps the loveliest thing is that I ended up spending much time with my mother, while I was unemployed and recovering. We talked and we argued. But we talked far more than we argued. Sometimes I fell asleep while she was talking; she has a very soothing voice. Sometimes she fell asleep while I was talking – maybe my voice is soothing too. I loved my mother before, but I didn’t know how much I could love her, because I had never tried to understand her. I wonder, if I had breezed through my teens and headed out, unhesitating, into the great beyond, would I talk to her so fondly and treat her so kindly as I do now? Every cloud.

For a long time, I was a shell of myself. But the bossy, blunt, stubborn girl wasn’t all gone. The trauma I went through took time to fade to something I could manage, but I forgave her and I forgave myself. If I met her in the street I really think I could chat with her. I go stretches of days without thinking about it for more than a few seconds. At first my views on, well, everything, flip-flopped wildly. I went to a much wider variety of websites, I read books, I learned about things happening that I had missed, or worse, things where I had believed completely untrue versions of events.

The world had been such a hostile place when everyone was supposedly out to get me, and the only safe space was my Tumblr, where people only ever told me I was right. I learned that people thought a lot of things, had a lot of opinions, and get this: that some people could think one thing I agreed with, as well as another thing I disagreed with. I had been divorced from humanity in the trans-cult, and I was shocked at the empathy I found in myself for people, shocked at all these people, walking around, all with their lives and their feelings and their hearts. The “privileged” people actually suffered; I had believed they couldn’t. There was so much more suffering than I’d known there to be, but there was also so much more goodness. Every morning I realised my horizons were broader than the morning before, only to discover by the evening there was still so much more I hadn’t the faintest clue about.

Turns out, being a woman? You can wear anything you want, and you’re still a woman. You can do what you want, and you’re still a woman. Reality never needs to be validated.

My ability to think critically returned bit by tiny bit. It took time for me to get used to asking questions, checking sources, not believing every little thing I saw or read. I had been taught to believe unquestioningly and I had to wrestle myself out of the habit. Even now, I remind myself I can have opinions and I can disagree with someone, and they can disagree with me, and it doesn’t mean I’m a bad person; it just means that people are people, and I’m a person, and I have to deal with them being people just as they deal with me, because we have a great deal more in common than not. Through it all I have had the support of my parents – we can talk now.

I’m here now. I’ve slowly, quietly rejoined the human race as a woman, knowing it a miracle, holding both the stubborn determination of my childhood and the grateful joy of my young adulthood. The old me I was once so ashamed to face is here, and we are one again, baptised in fire and back fighting.

 

It’s not conversion therapy to learn to love your body: A teen desister tells her story

Maxine [a pseudonym] is the 14-year-old daughter of Brie Jontry, spokesperson for 4thwavenow (see here for more from Brie).

Maxine believed she was male for 2.5 years, from age 11-13, but has changed her mind. In a Skype interview (transcribed below), we asked Maxine to tell us about her journey towards a trans identity, and how she came back home to herself as female.

Maxine, along with her mom Brie, are available to interact in the comments section of this post, as their time allows.

All artwork in this post is by Maxine.


For a couple of years, you thought you were transgender. How did it start? Why did you think that?

It started when I was 11. I thought I might be trans after spending time online where I saw people saying that if you feel dysphoric, you must be a different gender. So many people were saying it, that I came to believe it. At first, I identified as agender and then after thinking about it more, I realized I was a boy because I wanted to be “masculine.”

What did that mean, be “masculine?”

 For me, it meant wanting the physical characteristics of adult males: a beard, being taller and strong. And being masculine was about feeling safe.

Were you dysphoric?

I felt like I didn’t want to be in my body. I didn’t like it. It kinda felt like my body wasn’t mine and I wanted a different one.

What was going on that made you feel like that? What was it about your body that “wasn’t yours?”

A few different things. Mostly, it was previous trauma and being in the early stages of puberty. I don’t know anyone who isn’t uncomfortable during puberty, but at the time, I thought the way I was feeling was something extreme and different.

I used being trans to try and escape being scared about being small and weak. I thought that if I presented myself as a man I’d be safer.

What first got you thinking about being trans?

Things online. First, it was on DeviantArt. It’s an art-sharing website, but the DA communities I was in, which were made up of kids drawing animals and other original characters, went from sharing and commenting on each other’s art to being super dramatic and depressed. It also turned into a disrespectful “call-out” culture.

noor color cat

Some of the people I was watching, whose art I admired, came out as trans. Some people posted about how much they hated themselves and how badly they wanted to transition. Some started to transition and talked about how amazing they felt. Suddenly, a lot of the people I knew on DA were making transgender artwork.

Why do they call it “DeviantArt”?

There are some “deviant” areas of DA but the places I spent time in were for kids sharing art but I don’t think it is the main focus anymore. It was originally a great art site and I made a lot of friends there and everyone was very nice to me. I liked it. It was a friendly art community.

But now it’s mean. And it’s also a place for kids to post about all their self-diagnoses and identity issues. I know lots of kids who post about their self-diagnosed schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.

All these self-definitions, are they real?

I think the kids believe they’re real. But I don’t. If someone calls themselves “schizophrenic,” I believe they believe they have it! But it isn’t a disorder a teen can self-diagnose.

Were there other online places besides DeviantArt that influenced you?

I started to use Tumblr, also because of the art. Reading people’s bios, I learned more about being trans and that what I was feeling is called “dysphoria.” There are a lot of artists there expressing their dysphoria in comics and I identified with some of the things they were saying

From Tumblr, I found YouTube transition videos. When my dysphoria got worse, I started watching a bunch of FTM videos. All of the ones I watched were like, “I feel amazing!” and “I am finally my true self!” I thought it was weird that no one regretted anything but I wanted to believe medical transition would help me too. I started wanting hormones and maybe even surgery later.

I also talked to some of my friends. I was in a homeschool group and lots of the kids there were also trans.

“Lots” of the kids were trans? How can that be, when trans make up a miniscule proportion of the population?

 I wonder how accurate the data is that tells us only a “miniscule proportion of the population” is trans, because most teens I know identify as anything other than “cis.”

Hollow wolfIn my homeschool group, there were only two girls who didn’t have trans identities. Talking about gender identity and sexuality was very popular with my friends and also some of the parents. There was a parent who identified as pansexual and “demi gender” or something like that. She came and talked to all of us about using preferred pronouns and sexuality stuff. She was a facilitator there but not for my group. It was just a bad time even though I had a few really good friends there. There were some kids who were always talking about how oppressed they were and they weren’t. At all. They thought disability and mental illness were cool. They’re not. It was hard for me to hear them talk about all their self-diagnosed issues when I had to give myself insulin every day (I’m diabetic) and I hated my body. Also, my grandfather had just died. My mom started not wanting me to go there because I would get really anxious and have panic attacks and she would come pick me up early.

 Trans activists and some gender therapists insist that some people are “born in the wrong body” and that causes terrible dysphoria. They claim this is very different from not just conforming to gender stereotypes (even though many published accounts of dysphoric people also include stereotypes). Is dysphoria real?

It is definitely a real feeling! But being uncomfortable is part of being human. If you can’t cope with those feelings, then you need help learning better ways to cope. My psychologist understood I had dysphoria and we worked through the trauma that caused it.

Feelings are feelings. Feeling something doesn’t mean it is true or real. I didn’t understand that at first.

noor catAnd I thought that I would feel better as a boy. I wanted to stop my natal puberty because I didn’t want to be female. I thought taking testosterone would make me male. But now, I don’t think it’s healthy to be hurting yourself with hormones. Taking T is a very harmful thing to do to your body. There are YouTube channels where they’re talking about how great T is. But I wonder what they’re going to say in a few years? I wonder what’s going to happen to their bodies? If they say it’s totally safe, they’re wrong. I wanted to medically transition, so I looked up a lot about it. All I found was, “oh this is safe for you, you’re gonna feel better.” But then I found some other articles, that talked about heart disease; things like needing a complete hysterectomy in 5 years if you’re on testosterone because of what it does to your uterus and ovaries. My mom found other things for me to read. But you know what? At first, I didn’t want to believe that it was dangerous. I even thought I could block puberty forever and when my mom said that wasn’t true, I argued with her.

I talked to our friend who is a scientist and she told me more things about blockers and my brain development. I trusted her and I trusted my mom so I knew they were telling the truth but I didn’t want to believe them.

In my homeschool program, I tried to talk to my friends about this stuff but they said it was transphobic and I was wrong.

Do you think there are some young people for whom transition is a good choice ?

I know one person who’s on testosterone, and I believe transition is the only way for him to be happy. At the same time he’s very aware of how it’s going to hurt him.  I think he’s very young to transition, even though he’s 19, it’s very young. But he believes something bad will happen to him without testosterone.

Some people may need to transition but it should always be a last resort.

How is your dysphoria different? Why is medical transition not appropriate for you?

Extreme dysphoria might mean you can’t get out of bed in the morning or function at all.  But thinking about it in a more critical way, what teen doesn’t experience being uncomfortable about their bodies? Dysphoria is just an extreme version of that discomfort.

It was that bad for me for a while, and sometimes it can still be bad, but I’ve learned to move my body when I feel that way and do other things that don’t feed the feeling.

What kind of things do you do to work with your dysphoria?

I draw. I pet my animals and play with my Madagascar hissing cockroaches. I don’t lay in bed doing things that make me feel worse.

I used to watch FTM transition videos when I felt dysphoric. They made me feel even worse and also jealous and anxious that I might not transition soon enough and that I would never be masculine enough.

I know this sounds cliché but you have to find something to love about yourself instead. For someone like me, who thought I was FTM, think about the ways you’re already “masculine.”

Discomfort about your body and sometimes dysphoria are a normal part of being a teenager and having your body change.

I know some people who feel so wrong that they want to mutilate their bodies. That was me for a little while but it isn’t me now. Even when I was wearing a binder, I thought I looked physically better but I still hated my body.

So the image you presented to the world was “better” but it didn’t make you feel any better?

I remember being 11 and it was the beginning of summer. I was downtown with friends and their parents and one of the men made a joke about the way another little girl was dressed in short-shorts and a tank top. He said something like “I’ll never let you dress that way” to his daughter even though her brother was already dressed just like that! Then, a little bit later in the day, when a woman walked by he said “I love booby season.” That’s the kind of thing that made my dysphoria worse and made me sure that I would be happier as a boy.

noor muralIt made me think of myself a little better when I was wearing a binder but it wasn’t a good solution because it was physically hurting me. They’re not comfortable. I didn’t care then that it hurt to wear it and it didn’t really help wearing it, because I knew I still had boobs. My ribs still hurt and sometimes it is still hard to breathe even though I haven’t worn a binder in over a year.

The kids I know who are trans brag when they’re having a hard time breathing. They act like it is a cute little “trans-relatable” experience when they feel like passing out from wearing their binders for too long.

What made you change your mind?

 I realized that the only reason I was trans was because I wanted to feel big and safe and also, I didn’t conform to what I thought being female looked and felt like. But then I learned that being female isn’t a feeling. It’s a biological reality and I could feel however I feel without it meaning I was male.

Also, I have type 1 diabetes. On my five-year anniversary of going into the hospital to be diagnosed, a friend who was on testosterone injections texted me to complain about her monthly shot (she has detransitioned and uses female pronouns now). When I read her text, I felt anger, but I knew she wasn’t trying to hurt me or be mean. But I was so jealous. She didn’t have to get shots. Why would anyone want to be dependent on medication if not absolutely necessary for a serious medical condition? I saw everything clearly. I changed my mind at that moment. I would never transition medically.

At first, even though I knew there could be side effects with blockers and testosterone, I was okay with going ahead with that. Because if I hurt my body, I was in control of that. When I identified as trans, there was always a way I was hurting myself: wearing a binder, pinching myself, picking at my skin, cutting.

But why should I hurt my body to feel control over things around me that are messed up?

I remember driving to one of my homeschool programs and I was telling my mom that I wanted to transition because I would feel safer. And my mom said something about me turning my back on other women. I also realized that I was wrong thinking transitioning would make me safer. It wouldn’t. And I’d also always be afraid of not passing.

Your mom told us she took you to the Philly Trans Health Conference so you could learn more about trans issues—you even had a pizza party with Jazz Jennings. It sure sounds like your mom was open-minded about all of this.

My mom was always very open minded. She never pushed anything on me or tried to push any ideas away from me, unless it was something dangerous, like crossing the street without looking.

One of our friends posted my mom’s interview on Facebook and one of the comments was “this mom is pushing things on her kid.”  It was never like that at all. My mom wanted me to explore the thoughts I was having. She just didn’t want me to medically transition but even then she was being supportive. She never flat out said “no,” she just said that I needed to think about it and research it.

Do you think if she had been more resistant, if she’d said, “no way we’re going to that conference” or “no way you’re a boy” do you think that may have made you want to do it more?

I definitely think that. You know, as a “stubborn teenager” I would have wanted it more.

What was it like going to that trans conference? Did you feel connected to the other kids there?

All the kids were really friendly. But I did feel some pressure after talking to kids there to “look more masculine.” It was interesting. It wasn’t a bad experience.  But most of them were like Tumblr-SJW trans; I definitely got that vibe from them. When I was identifying as trans, I was what they call “truscum” or “trans-medicalist:” you have to have chronic dysphoria to be trans, and you definitely want to get some kind of help for that problem—not necessarily hormones, but maybe talk therapy if you just want to learn to cope with your dysphoria.

Philly trans health banner 2015

None of those kids were trans-medicalists like I was. I hate saying the word “snowflakes” because it seems rude, but…There was stuff like, “you can’t be a trans boy unless you get your head shaved and dyed.”  It’s like the trans-boy starter pack. They all had the same haircut. I don’t remember if anyone said exactly “you need to cut your hair and take hormones” but I felt that vibe from the other kids who were all talking about their anxiety over passing and being more “masculine.” I wasn’t wearing a binder yet but I was sure I was trans. I had long hair and I loved my hair so I didn’t cut it. Even then, I thought it was silly that all the transboys I knew had the same haircut, shaved on the side and dyed blue or green or some blue streaks, and that they thought boys had to have short hair.

That sort of made me question. I mean, all these kids were following the same exact trend. I never wanted to brag about being trans. Stuff like pronouns was the least of my concerns; I just wanted to deal with my dysphoria.  Because that’s a mental feeling, something people can legitimately feel.

In the banquet hall where they had a pizza party for trans kids and their parents, a few of the moms had their kids pull up their shirts to show off how great their binders worked to flatten their breasts. My mom remembers that a few transboys also showed off their bare chests and people talked about what a good job their surgeons had done. Some of them were like 14 or 15.

So did that event push you more or less in the direction of thinking you were trans?

It pushed me toward wanting to medically transition, but I saw what those kids were doing as trendy. Like, there was a whole line of penis packers there, in different colors and sizes. There was a neon pink one hanging up on the wall. It was horrifying. There were some for 6 year olds. Six year olds shouldn’t be worrying about what’s in their pants unless there’s a problem going on. I think it would make little kids sad to think about having to fake it.

Did you want one?

God, no. During that time I did want a penis, but not a fake one.

So you eventually wanted surgery?

No, I didn’t want bottom surgery. I just wanted to be a biological male.

So the gender therapists and activists might be saying right about now, ok. This kid figured out she wasn’t really trans. No harm done. Mom and dad, chill. Use their pronouns. Take them to a trans conference or a gender therapist. No harm done.

I think if I had gone to a gender therapist, I would still think I was trans now. If my mom had thought that hormones and blockers were the best solution for my anxiety and dysphoria, I would be taking T right now.

I’m glad she didn’t believe I was a boy trapped in a girl’s body. I’m glad she found a psychologist who saw how scared and angry and hurt I was and who wanted to help me with those things first instead of also helping me transition to be a boy.

But parents should be supportive and respectful of their kids. They should take them seriously and learn about side effects of transition and alternative opinions about gender together. Let them break stereotypes and talk about those stereotypes and where they come from and how they hurt people, not just girls, boys too. And kids need good therapists who will ask them questions they never thought of.

Until quite recently, believing oneself to be the opposite sex was considered a mental disorder and treated as such.

It is a mental disorder sometimes. People who feel mild dysphoria are like “I hate this thing about my body” which is different than “I hate this thing about myself and I am willing to hurt myself to relieve the feeling.” The second is a mental disorder. Somebody wanting to hurt themselves is a mental disorder. Dysphoria always has a deeper root.

“Trans” isn’t the right word. We’ve learned to know it as trans but really what I think some people feel is extreme, chronic dissociation, possibly from trauma and PTSD.

And for adults, it is different. Adults can do whatever they want, even if they don’t have dysphoria or other mental health issues. But kids need their parents and sometimes a psychologist to help them think about why they feel the way they do.

I don’t know any trans kids who have gender-critical therapists. And by the way, being gender critical wasn’t pushed on me either, but my mom and my therapist and other friends would gently suggest that I think about things beyond just “being trans.” They’d say I should think about why I felt that way, the reasons for feeling that way, and any other perspectives or reasons someone might feel that way. And that I should also think about my history and my experiences and relationships and why I might feel uncomfortable or not want to be a girl.

Parents who put their kids on hormones are trying to take care of their kids. I know they want to do the best thing. But what if they haven’t heard other ideas and they don’t understand about being gender critical, or about how to see their kids’ identity or presentation without stereotypes?

Most parents just want their kids to be happy, and their kids say “I need hormones to be happy.” Some kids even threaten to kill themselves if they don’t get the treatments they want. I’ve also seen kids say that after they started cutting, their parents took them seriously, and let them take hormones. There are places online that tell you, “This is how you come out to your parents to get hormone therapy.” I always hated those, because it was always … just threaten something to get what you want. That’s just putting so much pressure on your parent to make an impulsive decision and it’s such a terrible thing to say. I know people who’ve killed themselves and also people who have tried to kill themselves. People who are suicidal need help and love but using suicide as a threat is manipulative and cruel.

 Did you see a lot of that online?

 Oh, everywhere. Everywhere. Most ways to come out were like, “say this, you’ll be sure to get them to take you seriously.”

We see this in every news article—“Would you rather have a live daughter or a dead son?” It’s why most parents decide to agree to medical transition. It’s the worst thing that could happen to a parent. It sounds like people are being coached to say they’re suicidal, when they aren’t?

 I think being truly suicidal is rare. Like the true trans thing.  Some trans identified people I’ve known will threaten to cut or hurt or even kill themselves when they would never do any of those things. For the few that are serious, it ties into mental illness: If you are going to kill yourself because of gender roles, or stereotypes, or even dysphoria, that’s a mental illness. And it can’t just be fixed with a bunch of medication. Some of the accounts of boys trying to cut their penises off in the bathtub—that’s clearly a sign of mental illness.

You’re 14. Pretty young still. How do you know you’re not going to change your mind again or want to go on testosterone?

I’ve read a few comments on Facebook about my mom’s interview. One was really insulting because it said that I’m too young to know what I want and that my mom is manipulating me.

But if I had said I am trans, I’m sure that person would believe me and not worry that my mom influenced me. So, can’t I also know that I’m not trans?

How can any thirteen-year-old or their mom know that they’re “really trans” either? That’s why you shouldn’t make any permanent changes to your body at such a young age. I don’t know anyone my age who hasn’t felt uncomfortable about their bodies at some point. Everyone I know wishes there was something different about their bodies.

If it is on your mind 24/7 and you feed that idea, you give that idea power – and you start to feel like you need to do something to your body to feel better.

The idea of gender is harmful. It encourages dysphoria. It locks people into stereotypes.

Some people say that you shouldn’t help kids feel comfortable about their bodies or even feel okay with being a little uncomfortable. They say that’s “conversion therapy” to talk someone out of wanting to hurt themselves. It isn’t conversion therapy to learn to love yourself or at least, feel like you can live in your own body without hurting it on purpose.

That was Dr. Ken Zucker’s goal: to help younger children, especially prepubescent children, come to feel peace about themselves and in their own bodies. He says that in childhood, gender identity is subject to change, and if you can help a child not become a permanent medical patient, that’s a good thing.  It was controversial, but in at least some cases, he discouraged “gender nonconforming” behavior in young kids—things like toys, haircuts, and clothes more typical of the opposite sex. What’s your opinion on that?

 Toys and clothes don’t have genders. Kids should get to play with whatever they want and wear whatever they want. Kids should be allowed to explore the things that they find interesting. When I was little, I didn’t see clothing or toys as gendered. Parents need to keep gender ideas like that away from their kids. “Female” isn’t a way of dressing.

I was shopping with my mom when I was little, before I thought I was trans, and we were in the “boys” part of the store because I liked those clothes better. They’re more comfortable and have better pockets. And a salesperson came up to us and asked my mom, “What is your son looking for?”

I wasn’t offended. But it’s silly that she thought because we were looking at comfortable clothing we were shopping for a boy.

And agreeing with a girl that she is really a boy because she doesn’t like to wear dresses might lead to going to a trans support group or seeing a gender therapist and other things that result in a kid thinking they need hormone therapy. If medical transition wasn’t available,  I don’t think it would matter if a girl thinks she’s a boy for a while, because she wouldn’t be encouraged to do things that are harmful.

Parents should give their kids more choices about more things in life but not about things that will harm them.

What would you say to other girls who think they are boys? Any advice for them?

 There’s nothing wrong with your body. To be straightforward, you will never be male. You will never have a Y chromosome. You will never have a real penis. Stop hurting yourself. Not wanting to be female doesn’t mean you’re really male. Not wanting to be female makes sense when girls are sexualized before we’re ready to even feel sexual, and when people think we’re weak both intellectually and physically, when people don’t take us seriously, when people tell us to smile and be nice.

You weren’t born in the wrong body because that’s not possible.

You were born into a society where looks mean everything. But really our bodies are just what keep us alive. Why don’t we fight back against the idea that any person looks wrong as they are? Your “outside” doesn’t need to “match your inside.” The outside isn’t important enough to hurt yourself over.

Get angry at gender stereotypes. You can dress however you want but that’s called “fashion” or presentation. Your identity should be who you are and the things you do, not what you look like. I have resting grouch face. I don’t need to train my face to look kind or have surgery to make my face look kind, I just have to be a kind person.

You think, how can I act male? There’s no such thing as acting male. Male is a biological sex and you will never be that. Just act like you.

Go outside. Move your body. Make art, do something. Don’t spend time with other people’s stories about self-loathing and self-diagnosis. Stop feeling oppressed when you’re probably not oppressed. I know transitioning can make you feel like you get a lot of control but medically transitioning doesn’t give you power. It just makes someone else money.

Find people to talk to and ask for help if you need it. And find people who will ask you hard questions.