Free speech for George

We're in the middle of a pandemic and everyone refuses to log off.

A transfeminine non-binary person and transmasculine gender-nonconforming person reading a magazine together. (Zackery Drucker, The Gender Spectrum Collection)

My house growing up was about midway up a small mountain, or maybe a very large hill. Our property abutted with a state park and on the other side of the mountain-hill was Massachusetts. The terrain was utterly rural, and too remote even for cable television. Satellite television was out of the question as well, we were told. Apparently trees blocked our line of sight to the right portion of orbit to catch the satellite.

My family got the three major over-the-air networks, and Fox if we jiggled the bunny ears, and we had no internet growing up in the late eighties and early nineties. Most of my childhood free time was spent outside, exploring the woods around my house with my dog, a massive yellow Labrador named Drake.

We took so many walks through those woods, I can still picture little terrain details in my mind. The two streams that converged on one of our small ponds, the inexplicable grass field plopped in the middle of a phalanx of trees just west of our house. Often on these walks with Drake flitting around me, my mind would turn to my gender.

I was supposed to be a girl, you see. There was no explanation for it, but I just knew. I didn’t understand it, most of the time I resented this knowledge. I wanted it to go away. And I knew I couldn’t tell my parents. I alternated between thinking that every boy must feel the same and thinking that I was the only boy who ever felt that way.

Besides school and the four TV stations, my family’s only other connection to outside knowledge was a set of Encyclopedia Brittanicas, collecting dust in custom shelves behind the TV. Sometimes I would flip through random volumes just to see if anything caught my eye. Often stories of historical figures would catch my attention for days on end.

And then one day I came across an entry marked “cross dressing” and I leaned in, holding my breath while reading the words. I don’t remember exactly what it said but it felt vaguely familiar to what I was feeling about my gender. Then I saw a referral to another section marked “transsexualism.” I would need a different book for that one.

I peaked downstairs, my dad was watching some sporting event and I wouldn’t be able to get the “T” book until later. That night, after I was sure my parents were asleep, I crept down the stairs and climbed up behind the TV to grab the book I was looking for.

Under my sheets and blankets and using a flashlight I had snagged in the kitchen, I flipped through the pages, looking for the entry I had been thinking about all day. Finally I found it and read it. Then I read it again. The language was academic and felt dismissive, talking about surgeries and clothes. The clothes sounded nice but surgery sounded scary. There was no mention of hormones, which had been given to trans people for decades by that point.

I tried to imagine what my life would look like as one of these transsexuals. I didn’t even know that people could get breast implants. I imagined growing into my dad, with his balding head but longer hair, and a surgically created vagina that no one would ever see. That didn’t sound like any life I wanted to lead.

So I cried myself to sleep.

****

Last year, the most challenged library book in the US according to the American Library Association was “George,” an adorable story about a closeted trans girl who wanted to play the role of Charlotte in a school production of “Charlotte’s Web.” She wasn’t allowed to even audition for the role because the teacher said the role was only for girls.

Joining George on the list of top 10 most challenged books are five other kid’s books with trans themes and two more with LGBTQ themes. Rounding out the top ten was The Handmaid’s Tale and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

For decades, the religious right has challenged LGBTQ children’s books in library on an ideological basis. Queer books, they’d argue, are out to pervert their children, and they claimed a right to raise their children however they saw fit. In reality, these homophobic and transphobic parents understood that children could not be who they could not see.

As a child, I could not see positive examples of trans women having meaningful lives, so I could not be a trans woman who had a meaningful life.

I didn’t get the internet until we moved out of the mountain-hill house across the border into Massachusetts, but even then I had trouble finding helpful information. Search engines weren’t really a thing and most of the AOL chatrooms I found were just forums for “tranny chasers” to have cybersex with trans women. Not a healthy environment for a scared 14 year old closeted trans girl.

I dove further into the closet.

****

Trans people have long used the internet to network and advocate for ourselves. Those who were lucky enough to find friends in the early days of the internet were able to scrounge around for therapists who might not harass us so much before referring us for hormones, or surgeons who wouldn’t totally butcher us in their garage. But for those who never found those spaces, what choice did we have but to just grow up in whatever bodies puberty gave us?

In high school I imagined starving myself so I would be skinny enough to look somewhat like a girl, and maybe trying to live as a girl for a couple of years in young adulthood before my dad’s hair loss hit me too. I could get bottom surgery and get the vagina I always felt I was supposed to have and then when it was too late to pass as something close to a woman, I could just move on into being a dickless man. After all, no one really sees your genitals except your doctor and your partner(s).

I didn’t know anything about HRT and wouldn’t for another 10 years. I gave up on that idea and just decided to go with the flow of life. I met my future wife at 18 and that was basically the end of gender bending ideas for another 15 years. If you had asked me at 20 whether my gender dysphoria had gone away, I would have said yes. Because what other choice did I have?

I only just recently learned that puberty blockers for gender dysphoric kids first started to be prescribed, in very rare cases, at some point in the early nineties. I only know now that I may have been able to access this for myself with accepting parents and maybe day trips to New York City. I regret never saying anything to mom.

****

While historically the drive to censor queer kids content came from the right, in 2020 we’re seeing it also come from self-proclaimed radical feminists on the left who oppose what they call “trans activism.”

To understand why, you have to understand some of the more granular arguments that have popped up in anti-trans activism circles. Chief among them is a so-called scientific theory call “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria.” The central thesis of ROGD is that trans adolescents are not really trans, but instead have fallen under the influence of peer pressure and trans propaganda.

The idea behind ROGD came out of reports in the UK of a 4000+ percent increase in the number of gender dysphoric girls being referred to the country’s only child gender clinic. The statistic got so much attention that one of the UK writers who first wrote about the increase won an Orwell award for writing about controversial issues. On Saturday, that writer wrote a Times of London article arguing that she had been silenced because some trans people picketed the award ceremony, citing it as an example of woke culture going too far. Those who oppose trans identities generally were keen to offer an explanation for this fairly sudden rise in referrals.

The only research backing up this theory is an online survey of parents who claimed their previously gender-conforming children suddenly came out as trans after spending a lot of time with trans friends and spending time with online trans content on sites like Tumblr. Advertising for the survey was done primarily but not solely through three message boards where the idea of ROGD was first described online.

Issues with the research and theory are described in more detail here and here.

Proponents of ROGD have suggested limiting or removing their child’s access to the internet, while steadily reinforcing that the child has a biological sex that cannot be changed and explaining that men and women can be gender non-conforming. It’s essentially do-it-yourself conversion therapy designed to delay or entirely prevent a teenager’s transition.

Key to achieving that outcome, by their own admittance, is keeping children away from trans content like George or Tumblr, and keeping them away from other trans kids. Some non-affirming parents have even resorted to taking away their child’s phone and internet entirely to try to influence their child’s identity. Clearly, anti-trans advocates understand that kids cannot be who they can’t see.

To outsiders, this may seem reasonable. Trans people live difficult lives and face a lot of discrimination. Avoiding a trans outcome for our children would seem on its face to those who aren’t trans to be a net good. But in actuality, the means to get there are much more devastating for the kids themselves.

Advocacy group Prevent Child Abuse America lists isolation as a form of child abuse. “Isolating: The adult cuts the child off from normal social experiences, prevents the child from forming friendships, and makes the child believe that he or she is alone in the world,” reads a page on the organization’s website about common forms of abuse.

To those who aren’t trans, it may feel like trans people and issues are everywhere. And that’s true. We have trans actors and actresses playing leading roles on TV, even on those over-the-air channels I received as a youngster. Our issues are debated in national publications. Books written by trans people are more available than ever.

If I was a child now, even in the mountain-hill house with no cable, there’s just no way I wouldn’t have had access to positive trans content. There’s just no way I wouldn’t have the confidence to tell my parents who I really was and what I felt I needed. My life would have been completely different if they reacted with support in childhood, as they later did in adulthood.

But they could also just as easily denied my identity in modern times, especially if they read some of the scare-mongering material out there now. They could take away my internet or petition the local library to remove titles like George.

It’s pretty clear that the dramatic increase in child referrals to youth gender clinics has grown out of the increased positive media exposure of trans people in general. Looking at the numbers, it appears that the children of the past, like me, who didn’t have any idea that you could even be trans, are learning about trans identities at younger and younger ages.

If you go by the most common estimate for the percentage of trans adults as a share of the general population, currently about 0.6 percent, the number of children being referred for gender services in the UK remains below that number as percent of all children. In other words, it’s the same people who previously would have waited into adulthood to transition just deciding to come out earlier in life.

There is no need for conspiracy theories and half-baked science when common sense plainly explains the current situation.

****

Earlier this week, an open letter in support of free speech and debate was published in Harper’s. The letter named specific instances of public outcry leading to allegedly indefensible suppressions of free speech and inquiry. Named specifically was backlash to controversial science, and signing the letter were many of the most vocal proponents of ROGD and other scientific theories questioning the legitimacy of trans kids.

Those same advocates decried the backlash against the ROGD study and its subsequent correction clarifying several key problems brought up by critics. But thanks to the media attention the study received in its initial days, it’s easy to confuse this survey as a definitive scientific approach to childhood gender dysphoria. One of the clarifications in the corrected study was to say that ROGD was not a legitimate diagnosis and needed further study. Someone should inform the Wall Street Journal, and other major publications.

When trans people read the letter and see who signed it, how can we not immediately jump to the conclusion that these people want to suppress our objections to their half-cocked theories about our lives? I was taught to analyze text by considering the writer’s frame of reference in high school, was this not taught elsewhere?

It’s understandable then that trans writer Jennifer Finney Boylan would feel uncomfortable attaching her name to a letter with those names on it. I have no doubt that most of the signees just want open debate and free speech, but I’m skeptical that the handful of trans antagonistic signatories really believe in free speech.

Looking at the letter through this specifically trans lens shows that the free speech letter could actually lead to situations where free speech is suppressed and where censorship reigns, in the name of purportedly protecting children. Should we really allow people to legitimately advocate for limiting for free speech? It’s the tolerance of the intolerant paradox.

When I hear a call for more “open and free debate,” it’s a klaxon for more attacks on my life. These are not fights that trans people asked for. We’ve told the world how it could possibly change to better protect us and the world, largely, has responded by attacking us. Free speech is great, and I’m thankful to have it, but it only works when there is a mutual respect between parties. If that respect is absent, free speech goes from being an even platform, to being slanted. Those with money, power, and influence have the advantage and attack from the high ground.

To those unaffected, all is seen is words against words in the abstract, surely something worth cheering for. But for folks at the bottom, with enough time and encouragement from those at the top, those words metastasize into violence. Examples abound. In a different context, hilarious memes exchanged on white nationalist message boards about driving cars into crowds of protestors turn into actual terror attacks. Intellectual debates over whether trans women are women lead to mobs of men beating up trans women. Concerned parents take their children’s internet away.

We have no members of Congress, no federal judges, no representation in the executive branch. No serious presence in either political party, no major funders, no C-suite executives, no editors-in-chiefs, no college deans, no heads of major medical organizations, and no major labor presence.

Trans people do not have any institutional power to influence any of these debates. In our world, debate is a one way street. For me personally, that is the starting basis for any discussion about free speech.

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