Until recently, most attacks on the transgender community attempted to stoke fears of transgender women. By portraying trans women as unnaturally and dangerously masculine—imposters at best and sexual predators at worst—anti–trans rights groups have sought to drum up opposition to trans people in public bathrooms and use anti-trans sentiment as a wedge against Democrats. Trans men have proved more difficult to demonize, since cis men don’t generally fear men with a transition history in their bathrooms or locker rooms. So, for the most part, they have been ignored.
This indifference is starting to change. Anti-trans propagandists have begun to focus more on trans men and boys—perhaps in reaction to the success in court of transgender boys like Gavin Grimm, Ashton Whitaker, and Max Brennan, each of whom won the right to equal treatment at school. But rather than painting trans men as predators, anti-trans activists portray us as victims, led astray by peers and fundamentally incapable of knowing our own minds.
Ironically, the attitude that trans men are really damaged, naïve, easily led women seems to have begun on websites with an ostensibly feminist ethos, such as 4thWaveNow and Transgender Trend. It subsequently crossed into the mainstream with the publication of a paper by Lisa Littman of Brown University in August. Littman studied the attitudes and beliefs of parents who frequented anti-trans websites and had a child between the ages of 11 and 27 who, they believed, had falsely claimed to be transgender. A total of 82.8 percent of these parents reported that their child was assigned female at birth. And although Littman referred to the children as adolescents and young adults, or AYAs, she repeatedly quoted parents who use female pronouns and refer to them as their daughters. Sympathetic media accounts have echoed this language, referring to the kids under discussion as daughters and girls, and echoing the parents’ belief that media and peers who promote trans acceptance are turning these “daughters” into trans men.
“If your teenage daughter suddenly declares herself transgender, should you assume she’s mature enough to make decisions that will permanently affect her health, fertility, and future?” fretted Jillian Kay Melchior in the Wall Street Journal in one typical response on the right. In another, the Economist’s article on Littman’s research concluded with a warning that “squashing research risks injuring the health of an unknown number of troubled adolescent girls.”
We’ve learned that no matter how young trans girls are, they’re never too young or too vulnerable for the anti-trans camp to portray them as dangerous and predatory, too much of a risk to cis girls to be treated with dignity and respect. Now, it seems, no matter how old transgender men are—remember, Littman’s study included an adult of 27 years old!—we’re not old enough to make health decisions for ourselves, or know our own minds. This creepy suggestion of susceptibility to peer influence in trans boys suggests that trans men must not be allowed to access medical treatment for gender dysphoria and that any act of advocacy on behalf of trans youth has the power to poison young minds, turning weak-willed girls into trans boys.
That is incredibly dangerous and also sexist as hell. The stereotype that women are unable to reason or know their own minds isn’t new. It was used to reject women’s suffrage, on the basis that it was useless to give to women the vote, since they’d only vote however their husbands told them to. (By this logic, married men had two votes, an unfair advantage over single men.) Women were kept from the workplace under the theory that their biological and emotional weakness made them unsuited for labor, and arguments about women’s emotional instability were used to prevent them from seeking public office. Now, these same stereotypes about the dimness of women have been repurposed to suggest that transgender men shouldn’t be believed when we speak about the truths of our own lives and that we must be protected at all costs from the freedom to determine our own paths.
There’s a word for a system where women are kept powerless for their own good, where protection of women’s virtue and innocence means restricting them and barring them from public life: patriarchy. Imagine if the Economist or the Wall Street Journal published an argument that women or girls were being influenced by their peers to spend profligately, and therefore we must consider denying them bank accounts. I think people would recognize that for the outdated sexist claptrap it was. And when these same stereotypes are deployed to suggest that trans men are really just silly, unserious, untrustworthy girls, we must see it as one and the same.
Youthful experiments with identity don’t always mean a child is trans. Every natal female who tries out a short haircut or a polo shirt won’t go on to transition, and a small number of people who temporarily identify as trans will later come to believe that they’ve made a mistake. Only about 1 or 2 percent of trans people who seek gender confirmation surgery report regretting it, and the available data suggest that detransition is uncommon at all stages, while rates of regret decline over time.
Young people who question their gender identity deserve the freedom to work those questions out for themselves, regardless of their sex. Youth who explore their gender identities should not be stereotyped as gullible and emotionally unstable because they’ve been assigned female at birth, any more than they should be stereotyped as vicious sexual deviants by virtue of having been assigned male. No one who believes in equality between the sexes should give any weight to the condescending, patriarchal notion that, if trans men are really women, we are easily influenced and must be protected from ourselves. It is beneath us to treat such concerns seriously when they are nothing more than repackaged sexism.