Before I get too far into my analysis of these stories, I want to put out a disclaimer. I want to invite discussion in the comments section. But the intention of this post is not to debate the difference between the terms transgender, Harry Benjamin Syndrome, transsexual, etc. You can do that over on Mercedes' post about the 3 models of transsexuality. Please use the comments section to discuss the topic at hand - whether hormone suppression therapy is in the best interest of transgender youth.
I also want to make a note about pronoun usage. NPR consistently used male pronouns to refer to the children in these stories, even when the families used female pronouns for their children. When the family uses the pronouns that the child has chosen for themselves, I will do the same. Fuck NPR.
The first family interviewed by NPR has a child named Bradley.
It wasn't until Halloween when her 2 1/2-year-old son decided to dress as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz that Carol began to worry.
Bradley had always had a preference for girls' things. From his earliest days he had chosen girls' dolls, identified with female characters and gravitated toward female children. But Carol had never thought to care. As far as she was concerned, it wasn't a loaded gun; it wasn't a lit cigarette. She says it had really never crossed her mind to say, "I'd really rather you played with a truck."
Then, on Halloween, the calculus began to tip.
To simulate Dorothy's hair, Carol covered Bradley's blond crew cut with a brown tea towel. Bradley loved it. In fact, he became obsessed with his tea-towel hair. For months afterward he would wake up every morning and put the towel on his head. When Carol tried to remove it, he would protest.
"It was really obsessive," Carol says. "We really had to negotiate times when he just couldn't wear it anymore. ... He seemed to feel uncomfortable and nervous sometimes when he didn't have this hair, this tea-towel hair."
And as Bradley grew older, his discomfort with things male also grew. He would shun other boys -- he played exclusively with girls. Again, this concerned Carol, but she wasn't frantic about it.
It was a single event that transformed her vague sense of worry into something more serious. One day, Bradley came home from an outing at the local playground with his baby sitter. He was covered in blood. A gash on his forehead ran deep into his hairline.
"What had happened was that two 10-year-old boys had thrown him off some playground equipment across the pavement because he'd been playing with a Barbie doll -- and they called him a girl," Carol says. "So that sort of struck me, that, you know, if he doesn't learn to socialize with both males and females ... he was going to get hurt."
Bradley's parents decided to take him to see Dr. Kenneth Zucker, a gender specialist who believes that parents should attempt to make children accept their birth sex.
So, to treat Bradley, Zucker explained to Carol that she and her husband would have to radically change their parenting. Bradley would no longer be allowed to spend time with girls. He would no longer be allowed to play with girlish toys or pretend that he was a female character. Zucker said that all of these activities were dangerous to a kid with gender identity disorder. He explained that unless Carol and her husband helped the child to change his behavior, as Bradley grew older, he likely would be rejected by both peer groups. Boys would find his feminine interests unappealing. Girls would want more boyish boys. Bradley would be an outcast.
Carol resolved to do her best. Still, these were huge changes. By the time Bradley started therapy he was almost 6 years old, and Carol had a house full of Barbie dolls and Polly Pockets. She now had to remove them. To cushion the blow, she didn't take the toys away all at once; she told Bradley that he could choose one or two toys a day.
"In the beginning, he didn't really care, because he'd picked stuff he didn't play with," Carol says. "But then it really got down to the last few."
As his pile of toys dwindled, Carol realized Bradley was hoarding. She would find female action figures stashed between couch pillows. Rainbow unicorns were hidden in the back of Bradley's closet. Bradley seemed at a loss, she said. They gave him male toys, but he chose not to play at all.
"He turned to coloring and drawing, and he just simply wouldn't play with anything. And he would color and draw for hours and hours and hours. And that would be all he did in a day," Carol says. "I think he was really lost. ... The whole way that he knew and understood how to play was just sort of, you know, removed from his house."
I understand that Carol and her husband think that they are doing what is best for their child. And I'm not trying to judge. I really want to have compassion for them. They're getting their advice from a so-called "expert." But if Bradley is clearly upset about losing his toys, and correspondingly his sense of identity, then I don't see how this "treatment" is helping. I also don't see how referring to Bradley as "he" helps either, especially if Bradley identifies as a girl. More on this later, however.
The second family lives in California.
[Jona] was 2 when [her] father, Joel, first realized that no amount of enthusiasm could persuade his child to play with balls. Trucks languished untouched. Fire engines gathered dust. Joel says [Jona] much preferred girl toys, even [her] stuffed animals were female.
"Like, I would always say, 'What's that guy's name?' and the response would always be, 'Oh, she's bunny, she's, you know, this or that,'" Joel says.
Like Bradley, as [Jona] grew older, these preferences became more pronounced. [Jona] is physically beautiful. [She] has dark hair and eyes, a face with China-doll symmetry, and a small and graceful frame. Occasionally, while running errands, casual acquaintances, fellow shoppers, passers-by, would mistake [Jona] for a girl. This appeared to thrill [her]. And, Joel says, [Jona] would complain bitterly if [her] father tried to correct them.
"What began to happen was [Jona] started to get upset about that," Joel says. "Like, 'Why do you have to say anything!' ... I remember one distinct time when we were walking the dogs and this person came up and said ... 'Oh, is this your daughter?' and I said, 'Oh, no, this is [Jona].'... And [Jona] just came running up and said, 'Why do you have to tell! Why do you have to say anything!'"
Joel and his wife took [Jona] to see Dr. Diane Ehrensaft, who doesn't believe that parents should try to modify their children's behavior.
"She made it really clear that, you know, if Jonah's not depressed, or anxious, or having anything go on that she would need to really be in therapy for, then don't put a kid in therapy until they need it," Pam says.
Ehrensaft did eventually encourage Joel and Pam to allow [Jona] to live as a little girl. By the time [she] was 5, Jonah had made it very clear to [her] parents that [she] wanted to wear girl clothes full time -- that [she] wanted to be known as a girl. [She] wanted them to call [her] their daughter. And though Ehrensaft does not always encourage children who express gender flexibility to "transition" to living as a member of the opposite sex, in the case of [Jona], she thought it was appropriate.
Last year, when [she] started kindergarten, [Jona] went as a girl. [She] wore dresses, was addressed as "she" by [her] classmates and teacher. [She] even changed [her] name, from Jonah to Jona, without the "h." It was a complete transformation.
Joel and Pam were initially anxious, but Joel says their worry soon faded.
"They have these little conferences, and, you know, we were asking, like, 'How's Jona doing? Does she have problems with other kids?' and the teacher was like, 'God, I gotta tell you, you know, Jona is one of the most popular kids. Kids love her, they want to play with her, she's fun, and it's because she's so comfortable with herself that she makes other people comfortable," Joel recalls.
I don't think it's a shocker that a child who is allowed to be themselves will be happy and well-adjusted. Jona obviously has an innate sense of who she is, no matter how young she is. And other kids are going to be drawn to her because of that.
The third family has a pre-teen daughter named Violet. She was born Armand and they realized that she identified as a girl when she discovered the joys of her sister's hand-me-down Minnie Mouse dress.
Any effort to remove the dress would provoke an outburst. In fact, the more Robert and Danielle tried to limit [Violet's] behavior, the more explosive their [daughter] became. And it only got worse as [Violet] got older.
"The terrible twos became terrible threes and fours and horrible fives and intolerable sixes," Robert says. [Violet] "seemed on edge all of the time."
There were two-hour tantrums. Tornadoes of tears and screaming that left the family exhausted. Any comment could set [Violet] off, and, once triggered, there was no controlling [her].
"One night I remember it got so bad, where she was so out of control ... I literally walked her out the front door and said, 'You need to stay,' " Robert says. "And it was probably at eleven o'clock at night. And I walked her out the front door, closed the door, because I didn't know what to do."
Robert remembers standing with Danielle beside the door, listening to his 6-year-old [daughter] scream.
"She was pounding on the door -- and my wife and I looked at each other and said, 'What is happening? Why is this child so unhappy? What have we done?' " Robert says.
This is the point where I had to turn off the radio because I was so pissed off at NPR. The fact that they can't get the pronouns right when this child is so clearly upset about people not embracing her gender just floors me. Is pronoun usage really that hard?
Thankfully, though, Robert and Danielle get it. Their doctor suggested hormone suppression to buy Violet some time before making the decision about long-term hormone therapy and/or sex reassignment surgery.
"We knew that puberty was around the corner and we needed to start looking into ... what do we do," Robert says. "How do we help this child, you know, develop in a way that is consistent with who she is."
Robert and Danielle soon came to find out about a new, highly controversial, treatment for preteen kids with gender identity issues. The treatment allows kids to postpone puberty and avoid developing the physical attributes of the sex they were born with.
The treatment has been offered in the United States only for around four years. Essentially, kids who meet the criteria for gender identity disorder are given monthly injections of a medication that blocks their bodies from releasing sex hormones. This means that while the children continue to grow taller, for the three or four years they are on the medication, they are kept from maturing sexually.
The hormone blockers have clearly made a positive difference in Violet's life.
Robert says her emotional transformation that day was nothing short of astonishing.
"It was the happiest kid I'd ever seen. Just lit up. Just ... brilliant and funny and these things that we caught glimpses of that weren't always there," he says.
Since the transition there has not been any real outburst. Still, there have been challenges. Last September, Violet returned to school, this time as a girl. Though the school was supportive, Robert says he and Danielle were terrified.
"You know just that walk from the car to the front doors of the school was the longest walk of our lives," he says. "Violet broke my heart and I was proud of her all at the same time," Robert says.
He says when Violet got out of the car she immediately put a on long coat and put her hood up. She started walking behind her father and mother. "We said, 'No!' You are not going to do this. You're not going to walk behind anybody. We're going to walk together. And we held hands and we marched right up the sidewalk into those doors. Into an extreme unknown," he says.
I think Robert and Danielle sum up the entire debate around gender identity beautifully when Robert says:
"It puzzles me because we even have well-intentioned parents who we care about and who know us ... say, 'Well she's too young to know!' Well, when did you know you were a girl? When did I know I was a boy? I knew my whole life, I can't tell you exactly when, but it wasn't like I was 10 and realized, 'Oh gee, I must be a boy!' " Robert says. "What people fail to realize is they made that decision way earlier than that. It just happened that their gender identity and their anatomy matched."
I've been thinking a bunch about the kids in each of these families. I think kids just need to be loved, no matter what their issues are. All three sets of parents are obviously trying their best. I just hope that Bradley's parents eventually come around and see Zucker's advice as ten pounds of monkey crap in a five pound bag.
As for the advantages and disadvantages of hormone blockers, the only downside NPR could point to was the fact that blocking hormones can make children sterile once they enter adulthood. And??? I don't really see an impact to this. As I said before, kids need love. There are plenty of kids in this world who need to be adopted. So if a trans kid grows up and decides that they want to be a parent, there's nothing stopping them from fulfilling that dream. Additionally, there are already too many humans on the fucking planet anyway, so I'm still not seeing the negative impact to being sterile. But I'm probably biased. I don't intend to ever give birth, so I'm not really sure why this is a downside.
NPR did follow up interviews with both Dr. Zucker and Dr. Ehrensaft. Zucker claims that the downside to allowing children to express the gender of their choice is that they will grow up to be transgender adults. Again, where's the impact? Unless you believe that being transgender is inherently bad (which Zucker clearly does), then this isn't an argument against treating youth with hormone blockers.
Ehrensaft, on the other hand, believes that children should be able to decide for themselves.
I would want us, particularly at this moment in history, to be very humble about our confidence on that question. I think it's a really complicated unfolding phenomenon. I would say I never feel totally confident. But I think that if we really listen to the children, for some children you can know as early as pre-school.
I guess these stories hit me so hard because on some level, I can identify with these kids. I was a tomboy growing up. I liked playing football and working on cars with my stepdad. I was also chubby. My stepdad used to tell me that if I got fat, no one would love me. As I entered puberty, I started to hate my body and developed an eating disorder because of it. On top of all that, I tried to fit into the mold of what a perfect Mormon girl should be like to please my family. I had really long hair all through high school. And when I finally came out as a lesbian, that hair was the first thing to go. I shaved it right down to the bare skin.
I have been out for almost a decade now, but I am still trying to make peace with my body. My heart goes out to the kids in this story, and to any child for that matter, who feels like they have to change or hide who they are in order to be worthy of their parents' love. Kids need love, period. And it makes me so angry that people like Dr. Zucker think that forcing a kid to change who they innately are is an appropriate way to treat someone who is clearly suffering.
If you want to read more about hormone blockers, check out the final story in the NPR series. Also, be sure to check out the resources over at Trans Youth Family Allies.
In the end, I don't see the difference between giving a kid Ritalin or some other drug for their mental health and giving them hormone blockers. If it helps the kid feel more at ease in their own skin, then I don't see a problem with it. It's obviously made a difference for Violet. And Jona is clearly more happy living as her authentic self. Here's hoping that Bradley eventually comes to the same point.