When I got pregnant with my first child, it seemed like the moment the stick had turned pink, the first thing people asked was: “Are you hoping for a boy or a girl?” When I was far enough along to know what I was having, that question became: “Are you having a boy or a girl?”
I didn’t have an answer. I was adamant about not wanting to know before the baby was born. Other people were far more interested than I was in what parts my baby had. I remember a conversation while I was pregnant about not knowing what to teach a girl. And my answer was “the same things you would teach a boy. You just don’t teach her to pee standing up.”
I got so frustrated with people calling the 20-week anatomy scan “the gender scan.” It was about making sure all of the parts of the baby were developing as expected. Not about whether the baby appeared to have vulva or penis. Although the only thing this would tell us would be the assigned sex of the baby. Not the gender. As a matter of fact, after months and months of discussion on message boards, I became so completely fed up with the confusion over sex and gender that I created a macro that I could just paste on a thread whenever I needed to explain the difference.
Side Effects of Childbirth May Include Gender-Bullying
But eventually, I gave birth. The sex of the baby was announced. In an instant everything changed. Before the child was a day old, I could feel it. If I thought assumptions were made and expectations set before the baby was born, it became even more intense after. Gendered clothing, cards, toys and other gifts. All indicating expectations for the future of a child who can’t see more than a few inches past their face.
When my second child was born, before anyone could tell me about the sex of the baby, I firmly and loudly stopped them. ”I need to find out for myself,” I said. They placed a wrapped baby into my arms, and everyone around me tried very hard to avoid gendered pronouns. I wanted to spend some time connecting with the baby. Just me and this person who had been kicking me from inside and making me sore, sick, and tired for almost an entire year. But as I lay there, cradling a bundled up baby in my arms, I could feel the pressure around me. Pressure to discover the answer to this mystery that would determine so many factors in the future of this child.
Children need people who are going to look out for them. In the same way, parents generally want the best for their children. Sometimes figuring out what’s best, though, means making hard choices about things you’ve never experienced. Or making choices based on information that is new or rapidly changing. It might mean looking deeply at your own beliefs and realizing that what you thought was true or real might not be. It sometimes means acting on what you believe to be best for a child, even when you’re uncertain about the choices. And when that happens, most of the time we seek out advice and guidance from the people whose expertise is greater than ours.
This Just in: Children Ask Questions
So what happens when a child comes to you with questions about gender? You might be prepared to answer with facts. Talking in an age-appropriate way about biology and about gender as a social construct. Saying things to empower girls or to help boys fight toxic masculinity. We’re used to “girls can do anything,” and “it’s okay for boys to cry.” They’re the same lessons people tried to teach us as we grew up.
We never know when our kids might ask us something we’re totally unprepared for. It might be completely innocent. Like the day one of mine said to me, “Mama, if they hung the Japanese flag upside down no one could tell if they were saying S.O.S.” I was taken aback. The little sleuth was right. How do you signal maritime distress when your country’s flag has rotational symmetry? There are the conversations we may be expecting to have someday. Just not at that moment–things like where babies come from. Every once in a while though, they come out with questions we’re completely not expecting. And have no idea how to respond to.
Who are the real Experts on Gender?
We encourage our kids to ask questions. We try to teach them how to find answers and, in doing so, to heed the findings of the experts. And yet, time and again, the questions about queerness, questions about gender, seem to be met with the idea that the real experts don’t really know what they’re talking about. The people who have done countless hours of research. Who have collected data that has been reviewed and validated. And who others in related fields also hold up as experts just can’t be right. Their answers make us uncomfortable. Or conflict with other things we believe to be true. And so we dismiss or deny what they’re saying.
Banning Gender Care Protects ADULTS from Discomfort. Not Kids.
This discomfort feeds every bathroom ban and every bill that requires kids play sports on the team that matches their sex assigned at birth. Every “No Promo Homo” bill. And now, at a time when we’re learning more and more about sex and gender, Texas has tried to criminalize best practices in care for gender non-conforming kids, (transgender, non-binary, etc.) Essentially declaring that legislators know more about what’s best for those children than medical doctors, mental health professionals and the parents of individual children.
Texas has declared that affirming care for gender non-conforming (transgender) kids is child abuse.
You read that right. Following professional advice to make decisions for your own child is now child abuse. And they are encouraging regular people to report this “abuse” to authorities, too.
Gender is Complicated
Gender is complicated. We can’t see all of the things that make it up. We can’t touch them. And our understanding of gender, of the factors that make it up, has changed rapidly in the last few decades. It’s no surprise that so many people who aren’t scholars are still trying to come to an understanding of it. What doesn’t make sense though, is to reject all of what we know right now. To turn loving and caring adults into criminals for taking care of their children in the best way they know how.
Misconceptions about Gender-Affirming Care
There seem to be many misconceptions about the ways that the healthcare system helps gender non-conforming kids. So many angry posts about irreversible surgeries and about pressuring kids to make decisions and things like that. Most of the treatment for gender non-conforming kids is social. Name changes, clothing or haircuts that match their gender identity rather than assigned sex. And one that we probably hear about more than anything–pronouns. Using pronouns that affirm gender identity, and not deadnaming a child, is so important. I’ve seen memes that talk about this as suicide prevention, and they’re spot-on in doing so. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg has written about how deadnaming someone is actually prohibited in the Bible.
What about Surgery?
What about surgery? And what about medication? These are the things that jump to the forefront of many people’s minds when they hear about a person transitioning. Doctors are not performing surgery on children. Bodies must reach certain physical milestones before surgeries can be performed. And furthermore, children must be mentally and emotionally mature enough to understand what these surgeries mean. What is involved in the surgery. And what’s involved in the aftercare as well. As far as medication goes? Sometimes puberty blockers may be offered to younger children as part of a care plan. The effects of these medications are reversible–if someone stops taking them, puberty would resume as expected. How do we know they’re safe? They’ve been used to treat precocious puberty for quite a while. Once again, other medications need to wait until bodies and minds reach appropriate levels of maturity.
The Situation in Texas
So what is Texas actually doing? The governor of Texas has called on both licensed professionals and members of the public to report to the authorities when minors are receiving gender affirming care. This includes puberty blockers, hormone therapy or surgery. The Texas attorney general has called on the Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate any reported instances of minors receiving elective procedures for gender transitioning. This comes with a threat of the imposition of criminal penalties for failure to report, using the same statutes and penalties as those in place for child abuse.
Overburdening an Overburdened System
Is the governor of Texas really doing this to protect children? Would anyone really look at the mountains of evidence about how this benefits kids and still do it? Would anyone who is even minutely aware of how overloaded the child welfare system is – overworked social workers, a lack of spaces in safe foster care placements, and family support resources stretched incredibly thin – propose something like this? In one of the leading states for the number of uninsured children? No. And really, it’s not about protecting the rights of kids or of parents. It’s about politics. Texas has an attorney general who is facing a tough challenge in a primary election runoff against George P. Bush (son of Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, and member of the well known Bush political dynasty.)
Corruption, not Caring
The attorney general is also currently under indictment for securities fraud violations. And the FBI is investigating him for illegally using his office to help political donors. The Texas governor appears to be using gender affirming care and transgender children, something which makes many people uncomfortable, something which many people are confused about as pawns to protect someone’s political future… And that’s terrifying. If this really were about protecting kids, wouldn’t you want to make sure that suicide prevention resources were available to LGBTQ kids and not continue to remove them from websites?
Medical Opinion Favors Gender-Affirming Care
The American Academy of Pediatrics has opposed Texas’s attempts to interfere in kids’ development. The Endocrine Society, an international group which sets clinical standards of practice in endocrinology has commented that this edict rejects evidence based care. Their clinical practice guidelines are very clear in recommending only reversible treatments for most children until late adolescence. The American Psychological Association, The National Association of Social Workers and other groups have all rejected this idea of criminalizing gender affirming care. It seems that none of the experts we rely on for guidance about caring for our children are in favor of this.
The district attorneys in several counties have said they will not investigate or prosecute affirming care for children. The White House has called on Texas not to do this. Politicians don’t want this to happen either. Even the Department of Health and Human Services has spoken up. They’ve released a number of directives, invoking rules about patient privacy and about civil rights and denial of care based on gender identity. People are quite aware that the harm comes from not providing supportive, affirming care, mentally and physically to children.
A Bad Trend
I suppose the fact that this is just a directive from the governor and not a law (yet) should be a comfort… But it isn’t. Not after 2021 was the worst year yet for state legislative attacks on the LGBTQ community. And 2022 isn’t shaping up to be much better. In the first week of 2022, seven different states proposed anti-trans legislation. And legislative attacks on the queer community have continued since then. New bathroom bills, anti-trans sports bills and laws like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” statute still continue to make their way through legislatures and onto the desks of governors who are willing to enshrine this kind of bigotry into law.
It’s outrageous to call gender affirming care abusive. In fact, the opposite is true. We know how far affirming care goes in lowering rates of anxiety and depression in gender non-conforming kids. We know that this kind of care reduces suicidality by almost 75%. When we’re talking about a community of people where about half the population seriously contemplates suicide, we’ve got to do everything we can to reach out and support them and reduce that kind of trauma. We want our kids to survive, to thrive and to be here in the world. Letting people create laws that harm our kids is trauma. And the impact of trauma is permanent.
Bury Your Gays
When you think about it, the removal of LGBTQ+ resources from state sponsored mental health sites (including suicide prevention resources) isn’t an accident. Nor an oversight. It’s a deliberate yet socially acceptable act of hate. Of course “they” came after our mental health resources. A queer person who commits suicide is a tragedy; a cautionary tale. A target for useless thoughts and prayers. A confirmation of the disproven idea that queerness is a mental illness. We become a lesson in morality. And it narrows our stories only to our queerness or transness, denying us fully formed identities. Furthermore it takes the spotlight away from queer people and their lives and points it at the way that straight and cisgender people have to deal with us. When we’re no longer around, they are the ones who tell our stories. It’s the “bury your gays” trope played out in real time.
The opposite of that – a living, breathing queer person who overcomes the bigotry or better yet never has to go through it in the first place – that person is dangerous to them. That person proves that our system works and theirs does not.
Not Perfect Anymore
One day when my youngest child was probably three or four, they fell down while playing outside and scraped a knee. It was a minor scrape, nothing that a little soap and water wouldn’t take care of. Through tears though, came the words, “I broke my skin. Now I not perfect anymore.” It broke my heart to hear that. My child was still as perfect as before the fall. And to hear that child say they were “broken” crushed me. Over a scraped knee. Certainly something that never would have been an issue. No parent wants to see their child struggle or suffer. We want to do all we can to make things better for our kids, and sometimes we have to restrain ourselves from doing the things that might make it easier but also might prevent our children from growing and learning the lessons they need to.
Love, Not Politics; Or, A Politics of Love
We talk about wanting to uplift our kids, about wanting to empower them to live in a better world or to grow into the best that they can be. Even as people simultaneously deny their right to be who they truly are. The world our children are growing up in is not the world we grew up in, and it’s been that way for generation after generation. Sometimes the changes are small and subtle, and sometimes they’re tremendous. There’s a generation of parents who have had to navigate things like teaching children about the internet or cell phones when they themselves didn’t grow up in a world with such possibilities or worries. Guidance on how to navigate those challenges came from the likely sources. Psychologists, educators, other parents.
When we face situations like this, we have to rely on the people who have taken the time to become experts in the field to provide advice and guidance that help us to make choices and decisions that are best for our kids. Gender affirming care, while much more complicated than cell phones, is still one of those things. And above all, we have to act with love.
And when we act with love, that means finding our voices to make sure that legislators cannot use our bodies as political plaything. When we see state-imposed homophobia or any state imposed hate we must take a sharply critical look at the leaders we are putting into power and asking ourselves whose best interests they are acting in. Ours or theirs? And if the answer is “theirs,” the next thing to ask is, “is this a person I want making decisions that shape my child’s mind and body?” The loving answer is, “No.”