Living in the real world

I had to smile, recently. A good friend, who once significantly outflanked me when it came to feminist issues, was reflecting ruefully on her life. Now 40-something, she expressed a degree of regret and – yes – mild anger at the way she had limited her life in previous decades in a vain effort to conform to what she felt was demanded of her by feminist orthodoxy.

“I wasted years”, was her slightly biter summary.

Fast forward to a debate going on right now on blogs and forums dedicated to some more rarefied theorising about the nature of gender and the rights and wrongs of transition. Specifically, thousands of words dedicated to whether it is “right” to use puberty-blockers to delay puberty for children that claim, early on, that they are trans.

Sub-text: maybe there i no such thing as “trans” after all.

A hard decision

It seems to me, pretty obviously, to be a fraught and difficult issue. But it also seems tht those opposed to this practice are somewhat over-egging their argument.

If we were proposing surgical intervention at 5, i’d be with them.

But no-one is. What is being proposed is an option that allows a child at 11 or 12 to put an outcome (puberty) on hold. Yes, but…yes, but…what if they’re not trans? What if they’re being pushed down this route by pushy parents and meddling therapists? Yep. I get that, too: and if there is any evidence that this is happening, I want it stopped. Now.

But still. This is not surgery. Nor is it even an inevitable preparation for surgery. Its dealing with reality. Because at the end of the day, either the child is going to become an adult that wants to transition or they aren’t. End of. And I defy ANYONE to tell me that they can listen to a child at 12 and tell me what the same person will want six years later.

At the same time, I know, how I know, the one thing that still, sometimes, keeps me awake (and in tears) at night: it is the grief, the awful crushing grief of knowing that because I grew up in a world in which trans was the “freak option”, I came to this late. Nothing can ever give me back the middle years, the teen years, the childhood when I should have been living as a woman.

But I know now, as sure as anything, that if I had been aware back then, and some meddling therapist had forced me thru puberty when I didn’t need to, I would be inclined to go back later and inflict serious and possibly terminal violence on that therapist.

The danger of absolute truths

Nah. The real issue here is not whether it is right or wrong to stop puberty for a particular child. It is a difference – which is not a symmetric difference – between those who argue that there is one truth, and those who argue that until we reach that point, we should allow for there to be many.

The rarefied argument going on right now is between those who argue for a purist genderqueer point of view and those who argue for diversity. The former argue, with some force, that the world should be constructed in such a way that gender is absolutely immaterial. That one can be a “boi” in the morning and “grrl” in the evening and no-one should bat an eyelid.

Added corollary is that in such a world, transition would just be unnecessary. Really?

I think it MIGHT be unnecessary. But I did that thought experiment a while back. What if gender really, REALLY didn’t matter? Would I still want to transition (physically)? Well, how the hell would I know?

We’re not there. Maybe my desire for a more female standard body is just me succumbing to social pressure. And sure: I thought, initially, that my trans-ness was more to do with identity than physiology. But then I was utterly taken aback by how right it felt to make the physical change.

So maybe, in the end, in a totally genderqueer world, whether one opted for surgical intervention for a more masculine or feminine form would be no greater a deal than whether one had a boob job. Which in the end is how I saw it. My grs was not a big thing.

But we’re not there. And that’s the prob. To debate some such possible future is interesting, but so what? It isn’t now. It’s a bit like pure Marxism, which actually proposes the communist model, but only after a great deal (centuries, maybe?) of consciousness raising – which is why Marxist thorists are not at all surprised by the failure of attempts to instal communism in a non-consciousness-raised society like Tsarist Russia.

On the other hand, to argue back from that vision to any view of how things “should be” now is quite malign. It’s a form of absolutism: an attempt to erase the way people live now, by appealing to some putative unknown future.

Individual freedom of choice vs conforming to the ideal

Its intriguing. I have a series of flashpoints with certain radical feminists. And they aren’t about issues per se, so much as the response to that issue.

Sex work? On the whole, I think its probably not ideal: but there are circs in which it makes sense for an individual. So don’t accuse individuals of betraying the whole of womanhood if they opt for it.

A boob job? Make-up? “Femme” lesbians? You know: there are intelligent informed adult women who opt for these for themselves and so long as they don’t, then, try and impose those choices on others, I believe they have the right to.

Whereas, making people feel bad about themselves because they fail to conform to some theoretical model, whether of feminism or of genderqueerness: that’s wrong. And when it shifts into actively stopping people from having access to particular options (like puberty blockers) that starts to become evil.



11 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Shirley Anne said,

    What frightens me about all of this is why the mainstream of society wants absolute conformity. Why does everyone HAVE to conform? Does society feel threatened by those who seemingly don’t fit the mould? I sense a certain smugness in those who achieve minor victories over the less informed and less militant among us who don’t fit the requirements and are too weak to make a stand. For those who do make a stand it must feel like having a fly in the ointment for society.

    Shirley Anne xxx

  2. 2

    AJS said,

    I think the *real* problem which needs to be addressed is the gender binary stereotype in society.

    Now, it’s a limitation of the universe that sexual reproduction with two sexes is the most successful compromise between genetic diversity and actual reproductive success. (Requiring more individuals to reproduce increases genetic diversity, but adds complication. Experiments simulating the evolution of sexual reproduction usually tend to settle on two sexes, barring outrageous initial parameters.)

    But the actual mechanics of reproduction is an almost trivially small part of what humans do, and to define us in terms of nothing but our genitals is to ignore the greatest part of our humanity.

  3. 3

    pollik said,

    It is difficult, isn’t it Jane? I suppose I sit in genderqueer camp, although most people meeting me in the flesh probably wouldn’t spot it. I hope I have never taken that, in a diversity friendly society, GRS would NEVER needed…I don’t think I have. I suspect there will always be those for whom surgery will remain the most viable route.

    Like you, I have done the same thought experiment and come to the same conclusions.

    “The rarefied argument going on right now is between those who argue for a purist genderqueer point of view and those who argue for diversity”

    Are not these both on the same side, or have I got it wrong? Both these argue for acceptance of a person’s gender ID, irrespective of society’s adherence to gender convention. The other side would be those who for whom surgery and gender binary works best (this is not saying that they deny binary as the only way to look at it.

    Up until now, I have been a strong supporter of the path that starts with blockers…the potential benefits are huge. Mish has given me reason to pause for thought. Any medical intervention has a drawback. Mish’s position is that blocker may/probably will affect adolescent development in areas other than puberty. The young person’s emotional and psychological development is also like to be affected. The potential cost of this needs to be weighed up against the potential benefits.

    At the time of writing, I haven’t been able to do any further reading…in particular the outcomes in those countries where blockers are already in use.

    I have been away for the last 24 hours…still trying to catch up, at the same time as dealing with a few domestic problems.

    Ah, ain’t it great being trans?????

    • 4

      janefae said,

      Sorry, but i have very little time for what i’ve heard so far on the above (not from you, but from various elsewhere): which isn’ to say that there aren’t things to be taken account of.

      If what is being said here – and as far as I can see, that is indeed all that is being said – is that there are a number of specific risks to the individual, some of which are poorly quantified, then I agree. I’m sure there are.

      At the same time, there are risks from not doing anything…and I am pretty sure you are aware of THOSE risks. (Was talking just today to someone who is writing about a case where a young teenager killed themselves while waiting for blockers).

      Meanwhile the psychological, etc. seems to be much overdone.

      If someone is up for consideration for blockers, they are likely to be in a pretty extreme place psychologically and socially already. Of recent cases that have obtained a fair amount of publicity in the UK press , all have featured children who began to “transition” at age 6 or 7 and who, if they stay the course, will have endured the taunting, bullying and everything else that goes with being obviously different (wearing the “wrong” gender clothes for starters) before they so much get a sniff of puberty blockers.

      Again, document the sorts of harm done OVER AND ABOVE what a child would endure for simply being gay, trans or genderqueer in a straight world and that is a consideration: but against that is a parallel narrative that is well attested, because I have encountered so many cases of this: children and teenagers forced though an unwanted puberty who have opted for self-harm and extreme anti-social behaviour before some form of intervention based on the presumption of trans-ness…and an overnight clearing up of a lot of issues.

      Sure: there could be latent effects.

      I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with loads of research to look at the consequences of BOTH options: blocking puberty where it shouldn’t be; and not blocking it where it should. And if such study can pinpoint key factors to look at, questions to ask, so much the better.

      What I will not tolerate – and I am afraid most of mish’s postings look like this – is USING the scare tactic of unknown risk as a means to deny treatment to children who need it, when actually the denier really doesn’t believe the treatment should be given out anyway.

      One last point: in UK law (and other jurisdictions beyond) the point about “age of consent” is another smokescreen. “Children”, so long as they prove themselves competent in a legal sense can choose contraception at age 12 without parental veto: I’d rather they didn’t. But if we are to make a big fuss about this issue for possibly trans kids, then I’d want to know why contraception is an issue that children can be considered competent to choose, where puberty blocking is not.


    • 5

      janefae said,

      also, this thing about which “camp” you sit in is another red herring. I don’t much care whther you describe yourself as trans, genderqueer or fish.

      I can well believe that for you, gq works, while for me it absolutely would not. I also get that in some utopian future world, we might all be gq. But we live in the here and now…not the then.

      So I don’t care whether my mind has been twisted beyond recognition by 60’s psychosocial pressures and I have been indoctrinated by the ghost of Dr Spock: I’m the only me I’ve got…and I’m not about to swap me for anyone else. And if…a few months back…some rabid reactionary reparative therapy gonk attempted to seriously block me from getting my grs…I think I might now be facing a charge of manslaughter.

      And no: I don’t write that lightly. I think no-one who is not, has not been trans in the ts sense can understand the longing…the sheer desperate NEED…to change.

      So I’m perfectly happy for you to be gq, me to be ts, (and others to be fish).

      For me, the other camp is not you or them: it is those bods who attempt to tell it “like it is”: who tell me that there is one way to go, based on whatever cock-eyed theory is this week’s flavour of the month, and who would deny to others the freedom to be what they know themselves to be on that basis.

      So, a cuddly, tolerant gq-ism is totally fine by me: while a know-it-all, silencing erasing gq can go to hell (in the nicest possible way 🙂 )

      As footnote: me first degree is psychology. It taught me a few things. Above all it taught me the pointlessness of big theories. For the history of 20th century psychology is mostly of one big theory following another. Fad of the day, week, year: and no matter how certain the academic community was in the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, there was always a new certainty bustling along behind to take its place.

      So please: if a child tells you they need puberty blockers, listen to them. By all means explain all the risks in gory detail: ask them pointed question; but at the end of the day, respect THEM and don’t supplant theory for their self-knowledge.


  4. 6

    Alex said,

    Whereas, making people feel bad about themselves because they fail to conform to some theoretical model, whether of feminism or of genderqueerness [or the binary gender system]: that’s wrong.

    The voice of reason: so enjoyable to read balanced views. Thank you for another excellent post, Jane.

  5. 7

    mishmich said,

    Because you don’t know me, Jane, the thing you have missed is that I did at one point support this idea. Now I question it.

    The two approaches are not completely comparable, because one involves active intervention, and the other does not involve ‘force’, it involves simply letting nature take its course. The argument is between letting things happen, or actively stepping in and changing the course of development. And actually the situation is more complex, the side that doesn’t involve intervention as you describe, currently has involved intervention that I consider highly negative – trying to reinforce the gender as assigned at birth. You said elsewhere, if it walks like a duck… well, what I have clearly said is that I resist both approaches. I would prefer to see children allowed to develop without intervention, of either type – and to have the problem of bullying dealt with not by treating the child who is bullied, but by dealing with the bullies. Unfortunately, bullying has become so pervasive in British culture, people are effectively resigned to it now – from primary school right through to the way employers and government now operates, bullying pays.

    I could be swayed; OK, a different type of example, for illustration – when I see a young woman talk about her experience with AIS, having been bought up in an accepting family which does not insist on subjecting their child to the interventions recommended by specialists until the child is able to decide for themselves, having surgery at 17 because they decide on that, hearing somebody who is calm and well-adjusted despite having dealt with what for most would be crushing, and for years left many scarred emotionally and physically – I stand in awe. Then, as you have pointed out about yourself, and I certainly know from my own experience, and Polly will probably agree, when we were 12, we were a fucking mess because of all the crap we had to deal with. And, as you so rightly point out, a child who has gone through so many years of gender-based bullying and abuse will be just as much a mess. Do you honestly believe that such a child could be deemed competent to make such a decision? I wouldn’t have had any idea what I would have decided when I was 12, or if would even have been able to understand what was being proposed. I was very depressed, angry, and pretty shut-off.

    I am sure that, like in the example I gave, there will be a handful of enlightened middle-class parents who would be able to help steer their child through this turmoil and end up with a stunningly well adjusted young adult, who would be as awe-inspiring as the person in the example I gave. But, unfortunately, if you think that this would happen generally, or that some people would not simply push their “freak-kid” (which is how some parents will see them) down such a route to sort out their “problem”, you are as naive and idealistic about this as you claim me to be.

    We are all idealistic, but sometimes we forget that our own idealism is idealism, we just think it is right. Idealism is not a fault, without it slaves would not have been freed, women emancipated, and Apartheid ended.

    • 8

      janefae said,

      Side-stepping. You would like to see children evolve “without intervention” of all kinds, as though the basic ill here is “intervention”. What other areas would you wish children to evolve in without “intervention”?

      Education? Influenza? Blood transfusions?

      There’s a lot of very fine wordplay around this issue, but the point missed here is, to me, much simpler.

      Your position – your preference for people to evolve without intervention – is ideological. Its a preference about what SHOULD happen, which you back with some degree of science but which neither you nor i – nor possibly no single living individual – is qualified to call on basis of knowledge. What we have, as in so many ethical fields, are shadows of knowledge.

      I don’t have this allergy to intervention. I also take the position that, if the individual wants something, no matter how misguided, you deal with that question. You don’t substitute another question of your own.

      I can see how, in some remote future genderqueered world, your position makes sense. In the meantime, one lives with the present. In that present, there are risks of all kinds, both through chemical intervention and through other interventions.

      I don’t know the absolute answer: i do know that had I, as i have become, been aware of and offered puberty blocking at 12, i would have jumped at it. I am also aware of the hurt and grief of those who wish equally that they had been given such an opportunity. And by talking theoretically as you do, you in effect erase their being: you argue, subtly, that who they are, what they are is a mistake.

      The real difficulty i have, with this argument and with some of the participants in it, is that i don’t much respect the motives of those taking part. I am well aware that bodies like the Christian Institute come out with all manner of conclusions that are deeply hurtful and deeply harmful to the LGBT community, while sheltering behind a smokescreen that they have no axe to grind and “only want the best”.

      And i have difficulties with some of the individual credentials in this debate. Which is a large part of the problem.

      We kicked off with a piece by Dreger that was seriously insulting. Dreger is a grown-up academic with loads of credentials. Reading her arguments carefully, she does make some good points: but the insult…the train stuff? What was that? Carelessness? Or someone so high on their own intellect they think a bit of shock journalism helps their own cause?

      And then you wade in behind her. In the past you’ve certainly advocated positions that, for all you argue subtly that they aren’t, look about as transphobic as a lot of the Christian Institute output. You see the problem? You have some sensible points to make. But just as i’d be interested in a study by a Jewish scholar re-examining the history of the holocaust – and really not too bothered by a similar work from a member of the BNP – you are not a good person to be putting these arguments.

      And certainly not in the place you were putting them and the tone you were using.

      What was your intent? There are arguments for and against puberty blocking. I don’t believe that the arguments in the world as we live it are absolute: as in i don’t believe that any premise has been advanced that would argue towards it not happening at all. So it IS all about risk evaluation.

      Yet the main thing i think you have communicated by your interventions is a view that you personally are opposed to it and, frankly, if you wish to advance that view in a trans forum, you need far better creds than you have.

      Did i attack your integrity? Not sure> What expertise are you claiming? I’m not an expert in this area (apart from the legal stuff): but i’m not convinced you are either.

      What i did see is you getting the law fuddled on age of consent and then not responding to a direct question on that…and simultaneously supporting a person whose tone and language most people there found offensive and appearing to put an argument that erased a whole community.

      Now…if you genuinely want to contribute to trans thinking on this subject, i’d say you need to unpick that before you bring forward any more “evidence” – cause to be honest, you’re mostly winding people up and no-one is really able to hear you on this topic.

      ALl the best,


  6. 9

    mishmich said,

    Erasing adult transsexuals because I don’t agree with interfering in a child’s development? Don’t get that. Idealistic because I don’t agree with an idealistic shift in medical practice, the justification for which is basically theoretical, and will take years for the evidence to accrue.

    I couldn’t respond, because when I got up, the thread was closed. Gillick is vague and complex. 16 seems good to me, it works for a lot of things. As I said, I doubt some of the kids climbing the walls would meet the criteria.

    And you question my motives, and something about the Christian Institute and Holocaust denial. Nope, you lost me there I am afraid. I don’t get the connection.

    And you ignore what i have said about my experience, which obviously is secondary to yours – because you transitioned and had reassignment in the past two years. Right, of course you know more than those of us who have been around this business for a decade or me. It wouldn’t matter what my expertise is, because you do not regard people with expertise as having any merit. Oh, unless they support your beliefs. Which is not exactly scientific, now is it?

    Not much seems to have changed in the ‘trans’ community in the five years since I last visited – apart from who shouts loudest.

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