Let’s start with a caveat: I love passion. I do. And I have a deep, strong instinct to stick up for people whom I think are ignored or mistreated. I’m a typical bleeding-heart liberal. You know me: coexistence bumper sticker and a cloth grocery sack. I feel your pain, I do.
So let me assure you, I love those incredibly self-assured, brash, righteous, young activists who are screaming for trans rights. I see you. I’ve been one of you, too, believe it or not. And occasionally, I still go out with my protest sign and my sensible sneakers to make some noise on behalf of those who are ignored or mistreated. That’s all okay – and it’s good, and it’s necessary.
But today, I’d like you all to just take a deep breath and center some voices that are being silenced and ignored: the moms of the world. Because we moms might have a few things we’ve learned along the way, and you might save yourself a hoarse voice and some embarrassment by just stopping for a minute and listening. You might just shift your idea of who needs our protection right now.
A few weeks ago, I published an open letter about my Weird Son and his sudden and very unlikely self-diagnoses of being transgender. To my surprise, it was blocked as “Hate Speech” by Medium. Apparently, acknowledging that someone is weird (by the way we all are) is just too too much for our society to hear. It was picked up by New Discourses (thanks James!) where it has had a good run.
Among the many comments was the theme: “Her son is probably trans and she just can’t tell. She’s just oblivious. She’s probably just been ignoring the signs. She should just believe him. She’s a bad mom.”
Beside the laughable idea that a stranger on the internet could adequately diagnose a teenager from afar by reading a description of him written by his mother, I was bothered by the dismissal of a mother’s observations and insights. As if what mothers observe, note, and infer is somehow not to be trusted or valued. There is a knee-jerk reaction out there against the moms of the world. Let’s just call this “misomatery,” a hatred of mothers. (My apologies to the Classics majors of the world.)
It is time to stop dismissing mothers. Because these women are the experts on their children.
And yes, no person can read the thoughts inside another person’s head, nor perfectly measure every emotion someone else feels, but moms are as close to that as it gets. The survival of our species has depended on moms being able to read their children accurately. Was that newborn’s cry hunger or a wet diaper? Is that strange cough and fever within the normal range, or should we blast off to the doctor? Are you really too sick to go to school? There is even a fancy term for this: “mother’s intuition.”
But amazingly, within the context of transgender politics and medicine, these insights are dismissed. The broader culture’s wide-spread misomateric attitude tells teens: if your parents question your self-diagnosed gender dysphoria and are skeptical about your trans identity, they are transphobic and you should ignore them. Trans activists reject parental surveys as being inaccurate or irrelevant (unlike, say, parent reports of a child having depression or tics). Schools begin to socially transition kids without parents’ approval because they think they know these kids better than the parents do.
And incredibly, within mothers, internalized misomatery begins to build. We start to doubt ourselves. Did we really miss evidence of our child’s true nature for years and years? Are we really those bad mothers who have been blind to years and years of our children’s deep distress? Let me tell you, that’s possible, but it’s just not probable. Too many of us are seeing the same thing.
Over the past few months, I’ve joined a community of parents working to help support our trans-identified sons. We’re up to around seventy now, and we’ve coordinated to uncover research studies, track down experts, build surveys and gather data, share ideas and insights, and grapple with the possible ramifications of different treatment options.
Here’s what we see: there is something else going on with this spike of transgender teen boys. These are kids who were “typical” boys in early childhood. They did not cross-dress, they did not demand nor even show much interest in the toys of the other sex. They were completely “normal” until their sudden announcement between ages 14-16.
Well – not completely normal. 100% of the boys in our group are socially awkward. 64% have anxiety, 52% have depression, 40% have ADHD, and around 50% have Autism or Autism-like behaviors (our survey total is 67). Amazingly, over 85% of these kids are gifted (IQ above 130). Sadly, 20% of them have recently experienced a significant trauma such as the death or chronic illness of a parent or sibling. But generally, these are nerdy, awkward boys on the edges of their social circles. Some of them have no friends at all. Despite their announcements, these boys still strongly lean towards the “masculine”: we’ve got lots of video gamers, chess players, computer programmers, D&D, debate club and math club kids. Some of these boys might be gay, and a few say they’re straight, but mostly they’re just sexually inexperienced and/or late-bloomers.
This is not your grandma’s transgenderism. This has nothing to do with Caitlyn Jenner. This is not Jazz Jennings. These are not boys with a strange sexual fetish. These are not porn addicts. These are boys who acknowledge they had never even questioned their gender until quite recently. Most of them have not changed their public behavior or requested female pronouns. These are lonely, isolated, and confused boys, trying to understand why they feel so different.
They need our help and our sympathy – but they don’t need your “affirmation.”
Because we should all agree that kids with mental health issues should have treatments that are safe and effective. And the “affirmation” model is a complete mess. There is no “brain scan” for being trans – there is no biological marker – this is just based on a “feeling.” Affirming doesn’t actually decrease suicide. Puberty-blocking hormones are being used off-label to treat gender-dysphoric children, and the latest study from Tavistock show they don’t actually improve mental health. Cross-sex hormones and surgeries permanently alter a child’s body, by stunting growth (always) and weakening bones (often), and by decreasing IQ (likely), increasing cardio risks (likely), and sterilizing and eliminating sexual function. And even then, they don’t always work. Just ask the over 17,000 desisters and detransitioners in their twenties on reddit!
The old model of watchful waiting seemed to work, though. We know that most (60-85%) young children with gender dysphoria who were left alone came to terms with their birth sex by the time they were 18. We know that psychotherapy has a long history of helping people deal with their mental distress.
And these kids are in distress. They’re lonely, they’re sad, and they are vulnerable. Most of them are struggling with underlying mental health issues. A fair number of them are “weird.” All of them are struggling with the growing pains of adolescence. Perhaps some of them will persist. But a fair chunk of them will not.
But we do know that kids and teens do not have the emotional or cognitive capacity to make these choices themselves. Our teen boys can’t even remember to put the ice cream away – let alone floss their teeth or wear coats on cold days. Their brains are literally not capable of accurately assessing risks or predicting consequences. That’s why they have mothers (and fathers)!
So here’s my idea: let’s start listening to mothers. Let’s center their voices. Let’s overthrow the misomateric idea that what mothers think and observe doesn’t matter. Let’s believe moms, and trust moms. So when a mom says “hey, my kid isn’t trans, he’s just weird, and he’s just fine” we say yes – we believe you. Because you are a mom.
Now put down your “trans women are women” posters. Stop shouting TERF at me. Stop it with the blind affirmation. And get your drugs and surgery and pathology and cult-like messaging away from my vulnerable kid. Stop, and really listen. There are some voices that need to be heard – and they aren’t yours.