Some of the common responses that I hear when a child, tween, or teen identifies as transgender are: “It’s probably just a phase” or “They’re probably just making a political statement” or “They’re just experimenting.”
First of all, the use of the word “just” as in “they’re just experimenting” is patronizing. It implies that you have all the facts and know better than the other person what their identity is. So let’s take that word out and look at each response separately to unravel why these are not only inaccurate, but also invalidating and extremely hurtful to someone who is transgender. Meanwhile, you can eliminate the word “just” from your vocabulary when talking about other people unless you are talking about having “just” seen someone.
“It’s probably a phase”
There is no question that some things in life are phases: teething and temper tantrums come to mind, for example. Even larger developmental periods: childhood, adolescence, young adulthood could be called “phases.” The word “phase” generally connotes something that a person will move through, or beyond. It implies instability and change. Therefore, when someone suggests that a person’s identity is a phase, it dehumanizes that person. Knowing your gender is as integral to personhood as knowing that you’re a human being. Would you ever suggest that being human is a phase? Being alive maybe. But not being human. It’s the same with gender. It’s not a phase.
“Aren’t they making a political statement?”
There’s no question that gender has been used to make political statements. Think about the women’s movement for example. Coming in several waves, it unified many people to band together and begin the work of creating equality between the binary genders of men and women. Sometimes we forget how recently this political movement took place. In fact, prior to 1974 women couldn’t get a credit card. Prior to 1978 they could be fired for getting pregnant. The women’s movement created great strides toward equality (we’re not there yet, but that’s another blog.) All of this being said, however, does not make women themselves a political statement. People can create a movement that makes a political statement but you as an individual are not that political statement. You are a human being. So are people who are transgender.
Experimentation implies there is a tentativeness to the situation; that the person hasn’t quite worked things out. While it’s true that some children, tweens and teens don’t have the language to explain their identity — especially given the strict binary options that they are exposed to here in America — most do have a sense of that identity. It may begin as vague discomfort having themselves referred to as a “boy” or as a “girl.” Or it may be quite a strong feeling of “I am NOT a boy” or “I am NOT a girl”, or “I am both a girl and a boy (or neither.)” Children, tweens and teens may be gender-fluid as well. Kate Borenstein describes this as:
…gender… fluidity is the refusal to remain one gender or another. Gender fluidity is the ability to freely and knowingly become one or many of a limitless number of genders, for any length of time, at any rate of change.
This is not the same as experimentation, however. Gender fluidity is the refusal to stay in the box that society says you must stay in. Gender fluidity is an acknowledgement that there have always been more than just two genders. For example, according to an article in Teen Vogue, published June 21, 2017, the Hijras (a term that “…people Westerners might define as transgender (or) intersex…”) of South Asia have a documented history of thousands of years. Hijras are associated with having sacred powers. Similarly, “Navajo tribes recognized four genders that roughly correlate with cisgender and transgender men and women” according to the same article. Likewise, classical Judaism recognizes not two, but six different genders.
Just because the society that we live in is reluctant to acknowledge more than two genders, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t more. When a child, tween or teen begins to realize that they don’t fit within the binary, that they are not the gender they were assigned at birth, and they begin to look outside that binary box it is not experimentation, it’s discovery.
In summary, the responses I’ve talked about in this blog often arise when we feel unstable or even fearful of a world outside of the cisgender binary. Yet this is a world that has been documented for thousands of years, and has existed since the beginning of time. When we think about our children, and our children’s friends, it is important to be willing to expand our world view so that we can approach people of different genders with radical acceptance and love.