The XX Factor

Are Progressive Parents Ready for Transgender Kids?

Waving the flag for LGB and T.

Photo by SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images

Jesse Green’s feature article in this week’s issue of New York Magazine on transgender kids and their parents is the most nuanced, open-minded, and compassionately critical discussion of the subject that I have ever read—I cannot recommend it highly enough. While Green’s delicate parsing of the complicated tangle of issues—childhood agency, parental responsibility, psychology, biology, cultural bias, etc.—resists summarization, one way of describing the article is as a look at what happens when  the most intimate kind of personal and familial struggles are exposed to a perhaps sympathetic, but clearly underprepared, progressive culture.

Indeed, one of Green’s central interests is the idea of transgenderism as a kind of final liberal frontier. Sure, we can all deal with the gay thing, but messing with biological sex? That’s—in the words of many of Green’s sources—like playing God.

Transgenderism may be the last, thinnest edge of the wedge of liberation, but it’s also the most piercing. The concept it threatens is even more fundamental than race and orientation and physical ability. Or so we’ve thought.

That a person’s biological sex (as related-to-but-distinct-from gender, which is the toolbox of clothes, mannerisms, ways of speaking, etc., that we all use to perform “femininity” or “masculinity” to the world) could be mismatched with their brain’s sex continues to vex many progressive-minded people, even members of the lumped-together LGBT community. To most of us, our sex seems so essential that the idea of wanting—or desperately needing—to change it on a physical level simply does not compute. But as Green so eloquently shows, the parents of transgendered kids are increasingly being forced to reboot their assumptions: 

Everyone has felt what it is to be sexually attracted to someone, so it’s not generally difficult to imagine what a gay child is talking about. But it takes a powerful act of imagination to understand what a transgender child, in his perfect little body on the changing table, might be feeling, or why he might become terrified as adolescence approaches.

Throughout Green’s reporting, we see well-meaning, deeply loving parents doing their best to develop a vocabulary for a language that doesn’t even fully exist yet. And it’s not just clever, gender-neutral pronouns—ze, Mx.—that are at issue. These parents are the vanguard for anyone who believes that people should have the right to control their own bodies, and as they learn from and negotiate a way forward with their brave children, the rest of us should be taking copious notes.

Because as Green deftly demonstrates, transgenderism isn’t just some fluid “one thing one day, another the next” gender studies class or drag show; it’s a fundamental manifestation of humanness, and as such, one that must be approached with compassion, patience (on both sides), and, above all, respect.