The Sissy-Whupping Method

“I didn’t know what to do. My own dad was so tough on us — always saying things like “Be a Man!”

My father’s voice cracks with grief as he continues. “I thought I had to — like he used to say — whup the sissy out of you.”

His eyes are watery, and I feel hot tears rolling down my face too. I’m surprised by how sad I feel, for both of us. I never thought, before that moment, that I’d be able to forgive him for all the yelling, the anger, the bullying. Especially for the few times he paddled me hard–much harder than he ever whacked my sister. I didn’t even understand why until that day; I didn’t even know that there was a why behind the way he acted towards me when I was growing up. It never occurred to me that he felt an overwhelming, internalized pressure to make sure I conformed; to make sure I stopped screwing up my gender so badly.

That moment when we sat looking at each other in my living room was almost five years ago now. It was the first time he came to visit me, the first time we saw each other, since I started going through life as a woman. I remember the complex play of emotions on his face throughout that weekend: as we went out to dinner, while he was buying me a dress, when I gave him a goodnight hug. A startled mix of confusion and relief, struggling with the feeling he was tying to describe to me in that conversation, the feeling like he had failed as a parent not once but twice. First, at his traditional duty of raising me to be a man — obviously, that didn’t work out so well.

My father was a little too unorthodox to simply accept that socially-mandated responsibility that rode along in his unconscious baggage. By the time I came out, he was no longer a young and scared first-time parent and now feels like he failed me more by not noticing and understanding that I was different. My parents both feel guilty about this, and I still don’t know how to set their minds at ease about it. “I should have known,” my mother said. “If I had paid attention I would have seen all the patterns. I could have made it easier for you to talk to me.” I can’t blame them for this; who expects to have a transgender child? Who wants to? I grew up in the 80s and the 90s, long before Barbara Walters started her own misty-eyed coverage of the subject.

All this came flooding back to me when someone sent me a link to this NPR story about two families struggling with their kids’ gender non-conformity. I realized that there was something different about me, that I didn’t fit right into what I was supposed to be, before I ever went to preschool… I guess I must have been three or four. But I realized just as quickly that I was in big trouble if anyone found out. I quickly became terrified and secretive. These two kids, Bradley and Jona, are not like I was. For whatever reason, they wear their gender differences on their sleeves. It’s hard for me to see that as a bad thing, especially since I don’t think I’ll ever fully heal all of my own scars — the ones a child gets when they internalize the notion that they, as individuals, are monstrously and fundamentally flawed.

It was very hard for me to read Bradley’s story — about a kid who’s basically being straightjacketed into a designated gender, and growing increasingly distressed, sad, and burdened. But I’m glad NPR told these stories side by side, because their Q&A with each child’s psychologist illuminates a vast divide in how gender non-conforming children are treated. Ken Zucker of Toronto’s Clarke Institute represents the widespread, traditional approach, where the goal is to eliminate cross-gender behavior and the desire to be a different gender. He basically describes his success rate as the number of kids he’s managed to steer away from becoming an adult trans person; as he’s said elsewhere, he wants to “help these kids be more content in their biological gender.”

Which sounds all right on paper, but how far do you go in denying a child’s perfectly innocent inclinations? Diane Ehrensaft, on the other side of the continent in Oakland, sees Zucker’s methods as “trying to bend a twig”:

I would say that I think that there is a subgroup of children who, if we listen to them carefully, will tell us, “I know who I am. And if you let me be who I am, I will be a healthy person. And if you try to bend my twig” — which is what I think Zucker does — “then I will be a repressed, suppressed, depressed person who will learn to do what other people expect of me and I’ll hide who I really am.”

No shit, Diane.

Here is the upshot: the American Psychiatric Association has just put Ken Zucker in charge of delineating the official diagnosis applied to trans people in the DSM-V. (Hat tip to Lisa.) That makes this NPR special a very timely political piece indeed.

When you have a child whose behavior and expression goes against the grain of what’s expected of them — certainly at school and on play-dates if not at home — I don’t think there are any easy answers. I don’t blame my parents, who worked at having no clue, or the parents of these kids, who looked to professionals for help and guidance. I definitely do blame the prominent psychologists and institutions that pathologize and try to “fix” kids who are happy expressing their own gender until they encounter the disapproval and hostility of others. You read stories about these kids and the external pressures on them are what really stand out to me:

The year before, Jamie went to school, forgetting about some red polish on her toes.

“Some boys noticed and I was really scared, so I said it was bleeding,” she said. “I got some tissue and acted like it was bleeding.”

What needs fixing in this picture? Do gender-different kids need to change, or do they need protection from ignorance and bullies? Is it really healing, increasing the well-being of a patient, if you force them to become different so they won’t get harassed? Will it save children who are in elementary and middle school from the tragic fate of Lawrence King if we restrict their behavior to what’s considered proper?

Obviously I’m biased here, but please bear with my belief that my own life, despite shit I had to go through, is not really a “bad outcome.” The lives of other trans people, despite discrimination and violence, are not a plague-pit that we have to rescue kids from with a straightjacket. Despite scars, I and a lot of other trans folks are pretty happy and healthy. What’s more, I have a lot of hope that the next generation of kids will have an easier road, no matter which turns and forks they end up taking.

These kinds of discussions tend to drift into a few fairly predictable digressions, so I figure I might as well mention some now. Conservatives freak out about other children being exposed to something “bizarre” that ruins their innocence. More reasonable people wonder if kids are being tracked prematurely into an adult notion of transgender identity, and worry about kids taking hormones or making other irreversible life decisions. The theoretically-minded quickly get into discussions of etiology and nature vs. nurture: what causes this kind of situation, is it something in a child’s biological makeup? Is it something environmental that we could change? (Would we want to?)

All of those are important questions, but they’re also a little besides the point here. Letting a child play and dress and call themselves what they want is not the same thing as deciding that they should take hormones, nor does it automatically set them on that track, despite what Zucker claims. Kids are fluid, and not all kids who are gender non-conforming stay that way, not all go on to be trans adults. Ehrensaft also cautions against parents who read too much into a child’s behavior too quickly, and also against overconfidence that gender identities are certain or fixed.

You may have noticed that I’m not even referring to these kids as transgender like she does; to a lot of people that implies a certain course in life, which just doesn’t make sense at an early age. I would rather acknowledge that not everyone who transitions is always going to stay in a particular gender, especially if they’re still young and figuring their life out, but “trans” carries a connotation of permanence in the current discourse because the idea of fluidity is a little too scary for many people.

As for permanent medical decisions, the professionals who provide trans health care have a pretty good understanding of what’s permanent and what’s not; there’s a reason why some kinds of decisions are off-limits until someone’s both mature and mentally healthy enough to make them. People tend to panic and assume the worst about “permanent decisions” in kids’ lives without realizing that denying a child certain kinds of medical care and keeping them on the default path can be an equally permanent decision — it just doesn’t seem that way to most people because it’s “normal.” For more on that, the second part of NPR’s series has more on hormone blockers and kids who are facing a potentially dysphoric puberty.

When it comes to the origins of differences in gender identity and expression, does it really matter one way or the other? Once you have a child who feels strongly enough about their gender that you have to make them very unhappy to “bend their twig” into changing? Parents have to figure out what to do as their child’s life moves forward, regardless of origins, and nobody has been able to provide a clear answer yet on what exactly might cause this kind of human variance. Proponents of social-psychological theories haven’t been able to point to any particular event or family structure or pattern of parental behavior that can consistently be found across trans people’s histories. Biological theories have offered up some clues but nothing very conclusive. It might surprise you that I actually tend to agree more with Zucker on this:

But I think the hidden assumption is that they believe the child’s cross-gender identity is entirely caused by biological factors. That’s why I call them essentialists. Liberals have always been critical of biological reductionism, but here they embrace it. I think that conceptual approach is astonishingly naive and simplistic, and I think it’s wrong.

Obviously he’s tarring and feathering “liberals” in a gross way that displays his leanings — but he’s right that biological reductionism crops up in all sorts of unlikely places. There’s simply no way that anything as complex as gendered behavior is entirely biological; it’s a complex interplay of factors, some of which may be biological, others of which are surely social. Nobody is biologically hardwired to prefer pink; poor Bradley feels the way he does about pink because he imprinted somehow (maybe partly biologically) on female role models in his life or surroundings who in turn have an association, as a class, with the color pink. In another culture it could be black, or orange, or polka-dots.

But even in the hypothetical case that Bradley is emulating and identifying with his mother and female relatives, friends, and media role models, is this really such a horrible outcome in and of itself, setting aside the risks of societal prejudice? Honestly, I’d be more worried about the number of male-assigned children who don’t identify with women at all. Zucker needs to believe that gender identity isn’t biological because his program of changing kids’ behavior is founded on it being less innate. But the problem isn’t innateness or lack thereof; it’s who is forced to change and what societal prejudices don’t have to.

Zucker and the establishment vision of trans kids clearly see gender non-conforming behavior as a problem that has to be nipped in the bud, lest it take hold, spread and ruin a child’s life. A boy who prefers to play with girls, a girl who refuses dresses and long hair, or a kid who insists that they’re a different gender than their family is “at risk.” That’s how you treat a disease.

What’s even more ludicrous is that this method isn’t really anything new, under the hood — it’s just a new version of the time-honored “whup the sissy out of you” approach that has a long history in my own family. Of course, Zucker isn’t hitting or yelling at anyone. It’s a kinder, gentler approach that tries to more subtly push kids onto a more orthodox path. But when I read about what these kids go through, I can’t help but remember that the worst, longest-lasting bruises aren’t the ones from getting beaten up on the playground — they’re the psychological ones.

The rationale given by mainstream psychology for treating gender non-conformity this way is exemplified in the comments of top APA officials at an annual meeting a few years ago, when the controversial subject of the Gender Identity Disorder diagnosis came up:

Spitzer [who chaired the working group that developed the first DSM to include Gender Identity Disorder] maintained that certain behaviors “are part of being human—part of normal development.” In all cultures, adults expect certain “essential” things to happen as children mature, and these always include fulfilling gender-based roles and engaging in gender-congruent behaviors. It is thus legitimate for psychiatrists to identify a disorder in which persons of one gender reject these roles and behaviors and assume those of the opposite sex. He rejected the view he ascribed to Hill that “everything is socially determined” and that straying far from those expectations is an acceptable variance of human behavior.

[…]

The failure to identify with the gender with which one was born “is a dysfunction,” he said.

It’s a failure and a dysfunction to not follow the prescribed rules of society, in other words: the rules that your genitals determine how you act, how you dress, who you associate with, what you call yourself. Of course, a lot of psychological dysfunction does deal with coming into conflict with societal rules — don’t hit people, don’t scream for no reason or masturbate in public, etc. But when it comes to those rules about gender, we are slowly starting to have a choice to actually accept and protect trans kids. The story I linked to above is a good example; Jamie’s school in Colorado is supporting her, and there are more and more institutions that are choosing to support and protect difference instead of trying to stamp out nonconformity. The APA seriously needs to catch up to the times.

With that, I’ll leave you with a few links and ideas on what to do. You can read the thoughts of a clinical psychologist who also happens to be trans; she points out that Zucker’s approach is basically “reparative therapy” — it’s no wonder he gets cited by ex-gay movement proponents. Although I don’t know if I quite understand this given that the DSM is a diagnostic tool rather than a prescriptive tool, and given that previous DSMs were written from similarly retrogressive approaches, she also feels there’s “an additional danger that gay and lesbian communities need to be cognizant of […] if Zucker and company entrench conversion therapy in the DSM-V, then it is a clear, dangerous step toward also legitimizing ex-gay therapy and re-stigmatizing homosexuality.”

If you want to read up more on Zucker or the Clarke Institute you can check out Andrea James’ repository of information. The subjects of scrutiny often complain that these pages are defamatory, and I certainly don’t think the research compiled there was making any attempts to shed a favorable light on them — but whatever you think of that, a lot of the quotes and referenced links speak for themselves.

You can also sign an online petition or find contact information for the APA on Mercedes Allen’s post at Bilerico. Finally, I want to point out that a lot of larger gay rights & trans rights organizations may be very hesitant to engage this issue, which makes it even more important that a variety of people, not just trans people, make their opinions heard about the APA and their decisions.

Why are large orgs nervous? Because some people are suggesting that “Gender Identity Disorder” be removed from the DSM entirely, just like homosexuality was. Although on the surface this might sound like a good idea, the existence of an official diagnosis is the only way that many trans people are currently able to get trans-specific health care. This is because our society’s idea of health almost always requires that you be pathologized as “sick” in order to get any kind of treatment — a problem that affects many different kinds of people. But it’s a double bind. Trans people, especially trans youth, need both access to health care when we need it AND freedom from pathologizing stigma that’s only really deserved by the forces that discriminate against us.

Fortunately, there are other models that could be pursued. Kelley Winters of GID Reform has been advocating tirelessly for changing the definitions and depathologizing them without deleting them entirely; if you want to write about this issue or write a letter in support of change or against Zucker-style “traditional” gender-restrictions, I urge you to check out her site, especially her page on gender non-conforming youth which points out that the diagnostic criteria have gotten overly broad, are unequally applied to boys and girls, may be used for homophobic purposes, etc.


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About Holly

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43 Responses to The Sissy-Whupping Method

  1. katlyn says:

    I’m a senior in high school and we listened to this NPR story on audio in my sociology class last week.

    I was appalled at the psychiatrist who was telling the mother to try and “control” her child by not allowing him to play with certain toys or act a certain way. And how she described his complete change in behavior; becoming increasingly distant and depressed and living a double life.

    It was really interesting to hear both stories at once, but also pretty heartbreaking.

  2. Drakyn says:

    Quoting myself, here is more American Psychiatric Assoc. contact info:
    After searching I found this: How to contact the Psychiatric Ass.’s board’s staff, their advisers, as well as the APA’s general contact info.

    And I’m going to read Ms. Winter’s page now.

    I’m curious katlyn, how did the rest of your class react to the story?

  3. Dolores Shade says:

    Great post, Holly. Thank you so much.

    I was talking with my brother a few weeks ago, and he mentioned that a friend of his was having a baby shower and since everyone already knew the baby’s “gender,” she had decided to keep the name a secret until after the child was born.

    I corrected him, as politely as I knew how, saying that, while ultrasounds can determine sex (for the most part), the kid’s gender wouldn’t be apparent until well after he or she was born.

    My brother harrumphed, saying “Where I work, the words “gender” and “sex” are interchangeable.” Case closed, then. I guess.

    He and his wife are the parents of twins, a boy and a girl. The little boy is always in blue–he’s six months old but he’s already a “scamp.” The little girl is always in pink, and everyone makes jokes about how much she likes shoes and make-up and how her big brother is going to have to keep an eye on her when she starts dating Her big brother. Who’s actually her twin.

    I’m sorry for rambling. Long story short, thank you very much for writing such a fantastic essay. Now I just need to figure out a way to get my brother to read it.

  4. The failure to identify with the gender with which one was born “is a dysfunction,” he said.

    It’s a failure and a dysfunction to not follow the prescribed rules of society, in other words: the rules that your genitals determine how you act, how you dress, who you associate with, what you call yourself.

    This is, I think, Zucker’s biggest blind spot. I laughed out loud when he said that if a black child came in expressing a desire to be white, then he would help that child feel comfortable being black (his point being that if a boy wants to be a girl, one should help him feel comfortable being a boy). But what would that hypothetical treatment look like? If it was anything like forbidding Bradley to use “girl” colors such as pink and lavender, then Zucker would presumably hand the kid a hip hop CD and force them to wear cornrows, forcing them to conform to his idea of a black person’s identity. Comfort has nothing to do with it.

  5. Feminist Jen says:

    But even in the hypothetical case that Bradley is emulating and identifying with his mother and female relatives, friends, and media role models, is this really such a horrible outcome in and of itself, setting aside the risks of societal prejudice? Honestly, I’d be more worried about the number of male-assigned children who don’t identify with women at all.

    Love the way you put this. And thank you for how thoroughly you addressed this entire issue, especially the double bind transfolks face because being diagnosed with a “disorder” is the only path to treatment.

    I don’t have much to say because you were so articulate and thorough, except thanks!

    feminist love,
    Jen

  6. Sarah J says:

    thanks again, Holly.

    I blogged this myself, but it means a thousand times more to have it from someone who’s been through it…and absolutely to have the links to actually do something about it.

    I can’t be the only one who hopes that Bradley’s parents listened to Violet and Jona’s stories and realized that they can stop listening to Zucker.

    And Girl Detective…that’s just awesome.

  7. Speck says:

    As an advocate for transgender and gender-nonconforming children and their families, I’ve got a whole lot to say on this subject. Being at work, however, I’ve got very little time in which to say it. Most importantly I’d like to note that the effects of gender oppression and reparative therapy don’t stop at depression and maladjustment. Transgender kids have the highest suicide ideation rate out of any marginalized group, at over 50%. That’s one out of every two trans kids that seriously considers ending their own life. What’s more, while suicide is often regarded as an issue that only arises once someone reaches puberty, transgender kids typically begin considering suicide much earlier. Not more than a few months ago, a 10 year-old in Britain hung herself after telling her parents she wanted to live as a girl. In other words, Dr. Zucker isn’t merely facilitating the abuse of young children, he’s indirectly responsible for their deaths.

  8. Leah says:

    Great post.

    I think the first npr link is broken. That or I fail at the internet.

    Are there GOOD resources out there for parents of gender non-conforming kids?

  9. Speck says:

    Absolutely, Leah. There’s a couple organizations that work with transgender kids and their families. My own, TransActive, is one of them, and does boots-on-the-ground work in the Pacific NW, educating teachers and doctors, bringing families of young trans kids together, and working with the legal profession to make sure these children’s best interest is represented in court. Trans Youth Family Allies is another, and functions more as a national clearinghouse of information and support for families. There’s also a great video on YouTube called “Out of the Shadows” that serves as an introduction to the issues and opportunities faced by gender-nonconforming kids.

  10. laurab says:

    Obviously I’m biased here, but please bear with my belief that my own life, despite shit I had to go through, is not really a “bad outcome.” The lives of other trans people, despite discrimination and violence, are not a plague-pit that we have to rescue kids from with a straightjacket. Despite scars, I and a lot of other trans folks are pretty happy and healthy. What’s more, I have a lot of hope that the next generation of kids will have an easier road, no matter which turns and forks they end up taking.

    I think this is a very important point. If being more-or-less heterosexual and more-or-less gender-role-conforming is supposed to net you a perfect life, well, someone owes me a great job, awesome apartment, and adorable black lab puppy. I’m just saying.

    I don’t mean to minimize the very, very real pain that trans folks go through. I know it’s real. I know the world is horrifically unkind. I know that the physical dangers are very real. It’s important to realize that and to protect and support trans people where and when we can. But the idea that IF one is trans, one WILL be unhappy forever… that really irks me. Likewise the idea that the rest of us get to go through life skipping and singing.

    On that note, I would like to share an anecdote that makes me smile. I grew up in a pretty rural, fairly conservative, extremely white town in Northern New England. (That I felt stifled and frustrated you could probably infer.) My mother worked in a town about an hour away that was known to be fairy ritzy and stuffy and highfalutin’. One day she told me about how every day when she was driving to work, she would pass a certain pedestrian who liked to go out for a daily walk wearing a dress, heels, and a full beard. And she said it always brightened her day to see this nonconforming person in this horrible stuffy uptight town. Of course, she told me this story when I was in my late teen years, so I’m fairly certain that my response to it was something along the lines of, “yeah, whatever, ma” — it was not until many years later that I realized not only how rare her attitude was (at the time I barely understood what “transgendered” meant) but also what she was teaching me.

  11. Kristin says:

    Holly, thanks for this post. As usual, you’re inspiring to read.

  12. sara no h. says:

    Much love, from the bottom of my gender-fluid heart. <3

  13. Solitary says:

    The more I hear about stuff like this, the more I realize how extremely lucky my brothers and I were growing up.

  14. jayinchicago says:

    Very thorough and insightful post.
    Even though I use quotes and roll my eyes whenever I say or type “GID”–I’m so thankful to live in a world in which I could get health care to change my body to better match what’s in my head.

  15. dear god, reading about the parents taking all of bradley’s toys away broke my fucking heart. i remember the real emotional attachment i had to my dolls and stuffed animals, they had names and personalities, and i treasured each and every one. to take those away is like this huge punishment when s/he has done nothing wrong to deserve a punishment. cos thats when you get toys taken away, when youve done something wrong.

    if i were a pirate with a pirate ship id rescue zir.

  16. fred says:

    Girl Detective, I’m not sure I like the way you put it, but I like your point. I even wish it was acceptable to go further. I think race as we see it is a construct of little worth: I’m white, my brother is asian, my sister is black (the wonders of adoption). My sister-in-law is white. What exactly does that make my nephew? The way I was raised means I sometimes have a hard time figuring out the race of a person — especially white and asian who look real close to me — when asked about it. Does gender have to be different and just a choice between male and female? Does it have to be that tied to sex? I wish I could say no to both, but I’m probably wrong.

  17. Pingback: links for 2008-05-14 at Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture

  18. Thank you for your great post Holly.

    I’m quite horrified that behaviour would be forced on a child so much, to the point of not letting them live their lives as they feel… But I’m not surprised in the slightest.

    What I also find interesting is the rest of the story in regards to trans children: how many people are intimidated into conformity, as you mention. How a lot of kids may indeed be trans but they just follow what is given to them, and are made to be afraid of being the ‘other’ sex.

  19. SoE says:

    The NPR article mentioned that in Zucker’s opinion kids are flexbile with the gender they want to belong to. Actually I think he’s right but his therapy is the best way to screw kids badly. Does he really think taking all your favourite toys will make you more comfortable in your own gender and not provoke a violent backslash like the girl in the second article?
    Also, implying that transgender kids are really into everything society dictates for the opposite sex, might prove an obstacle for e.g. a boy, who isn’t into make-up and dresses, but still feels like being in the wrong body.

    I might have said it before, but anyway… Kids don’t have a problem with Sarah becoming Sam unless somebody tells them it is.

  20. Nick Kiddle says:

    He and his wife are the parents of twins, a boy and a girl. The little boy is always in blue–he’s six months old but he’s already a “scamp.”
    Funny story: I was sitting on the bus one day with the xCLP, a female-bodied child who was that day wearing brown dungarees and a blue T-shirt, wriggling on my knee and trying to escape. The guy in the seat opposite me said, “Oh, he’s a typical boy isn’t he?”

  21. Ono-Sendai says:

    I’m tempted to nitpick the NPR articles for things like describing a hypothetical transwoman as “an adult man who chooses to become a woman” and referring to her using male pronouns, but on balance, they’re much better than other articles I’ve seen about gender-nonconforming kids.

    A lot of mainstream articles equate gender identity with a desire to do stereotypically boyish or girlish things. If there were a drinking game based on them, the very first item would be “Drink when they say ‘wanted/didn’t want to play with Barbies”. In fact, I keep waiting for someone to propose a one-sentence diagnostic criterion for GID, based solely around Barbie dolls.

    As Kelley Winters points out in the article you linked, the idea that part of being a normal boy or girl is playing with the right set of toys is coming from the medical community. I suspect there’s another layer of sexist bias coming from reporters who frame stories about gender nonconformity in terms of the larger society’s ideas about what boys and girls should be.

    When I read these stories, I often feel like I’m trying to tease out the kids’ sense of who they are from the reporters’ sense of who they ought to be (and the parents’, and the therapists’.) And even then, the kids are very likely expressing themselves with terms they’ve picked up from their parents, and their therapists, and even the media!

    (and please note that I’m not equating gender-nonconformity with sexism, I’m saying that the coverage of gender nonconformity is often steeped in sexist assumptions.)

    You may have noticed that I’m not even referring to these kids as transgender like she does; to a lot of people that implies a certain course in life, which just doesn’t make sense at an early age

    I agree with you. I’m certain that as the years pass, it will be clear that some of these kids are certainly transgender. I’m equally certain that if we looked at a large group of gender-nonconforming kids, we’d see their lives taking a variety of shapes.

    (Again, let me try to be perfectly clear: I’m not saying that the label “transgender” is so awful that we should protect kids from it until it’s absolutely necessary. And I’m certainly not anti-labels – we can’t discuss anything without them. My concern is with using a misleading label that makes us think we know all about these kids at a time when we really don’t.)

  22. estraven says:

    As a parent, the “therapy” proposed by Dr Zucker seems to me complete torture.
    There’s one point I would like to make: the life of transgender people could be made easier by spreading tolerance of effeminate boys and masculine girls.
    I’m a straight female, and a happy mother of three, but I’m not feminine and never was. I dress in comfortable clothes, flat shoes, don’t wear makeup, don’t shave my (abundant) body hair, and don’t hide my grey hair.
    Family and society pressure made my teenagers years very unhappy. We could just stop all this gender-conforming insanity and make this world a happier place for so many people at no extra cost.

  23. Thomas, TSID says:

    Well, maybe one reason why “liberals” think that gender identity is in part innate is because the advocacy of the approach that it is totally malleable has been a disaster. It seems to me that complex phenomena like gender expression and sexuality are not likely to be monocausal, and trying to attribute them entirely either to biology or to environment is likely to produce absurd results. Or tragedies. I think we have to deal with them as complex systems. Zucker seems to accept that there are some “true” transsexual folks, but also believe that he can push kids who are not really “that”, whatever “that” is, back towards “normal,” whatever that is. Moving past his stunted view of gender (I’m with Girl Detective here), I see no indication that he has a real set or criteria for when, as a clinician, he encounters a transperson that cannot be “fixed,” and who is better off transitioning, though his assessment of the “good old days” of restrictive criteria would suggest that he agrees that there are some. In practice, does he think he can “save” every kid he treats? Or does he have no way of telling, and just figures if he can’t “cure” them then they’ll transition? In which case, presumably he thinks he’s done no harm by trying, all evidence to the contrary?

    Zucker is a tool. And I don’t mean that in an offhand way.

    Holly, this was both powerful and thought provoking, and it resonated with me for reasons having nothing to do with your transgender experiences; I suspect that the personal aspect will resonate with many of us who survived violent homes or struggle to maintain relationships with deeply flawed parents. Thank you.

  24. kxo says:

    Hey, genderqueer undergrad psychology student here (in Behavior Analysis, no less!). Mostly I’d just like to say that, thankfully, change is on its way. Maybe it’s just the university I go to, but I can see the queering of mainstream psychology beginning. With any luck, the future practitioners of tomorrow that are being taught today will continue to spread the idea that assigned-gender nonconformity is not indicative of some pathology that needs immediate and aggressive treatment. It will take time, but hopefully my generation can undue the damage of those in power now. I’m hopeful, anyway.

  25. CBrachyrhynchos says:

    Just wanted to bump this and say that this is a most excellent post.

  26. amandaw says:

    Holly, this was both powerful and thought provoking, and it resonated with me for reasons having nothing to do with your transgender experiences; I suspect that the personal aspect will resonate with many of us who survived violent homes or struggle to maintain relationships with deeply flawed parents. Thank you.

    Seconded. I relate as a child of a deeply flawed parent, as a person with a disability (which is not to equate the two, but to recognize the medical field’s flaws in approaching us both), as someone concerned with issues of gender as a whole — and as someone whose heart cries when she sees such suppression. It opens old wounds, and it hurts that so many more children have to go through it even now.

  27. CBrachyrhynchos says:

    I just wanted to add something in this. I think in many ways I got lucky in that my parents were relatively relaxed and low-key about most of the gender strum and drang I went through. I think a big part of that was that my dad made the “sissy” choice of pursuing a career in classical music out of a rural coal town in the late 60s. Although I do remember they found my earliest forms of dress-up to be very embarrassing.

  28. Thomas, TSID says:

    strum and drang

    Band name.

  29. CBrachyrhynchos says:

    *snerk* it should be sturm and drang of course.

  30. Ismone says:

    Great post, Holly. Hearing someone discuss this whole anxious masculinity thing is always enlightening. For a so-called individualistic society, we sure are a pack of conformists.

  31. Sarah says:

    I’m very happy to see this on a large blog.

    Wanted to add some info on the DSM revision. I won’t post the whole thing, but the APA released a statement on 5/9/08 about the Sexual and Gender Identity workgroup.

    All DSM-V work group proposals will be based on a careful, balanced review and analysis of the best clinical and scientific data. Evidence accumulated from work group members and hundreds of additional advisors to the DSM-V effort will be considered before final recommendations are made.

    The Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders Work Group, chaired by Kenneth J. Zucker, Ph.D., will have 13 members who will form three subcommittees:

     Gender Identity Disorders, chaired by Peggy T. Cohen-Kettenis, Ph.D.
     Paraphilias, chaired by Ray Blanchard, Ph.D.
     Sexual Dysfunctions, chaired by R. Taylor Segraves, M.D., Ph.D.

    Each subcommittee will pursue its own charge, provide ongoing peer review, and consult with outside experts. The DSM-V is expected to be published in 2012.

    Blanchard is chairing the paraphilias group. His big claim to fame is autogynephilia.

    Dr. Cohen-Kettenis being the chair of the GID committee seems to be a good thing. However, having Blanchard as the chair of the paraphilias group seems to be a bad thing. And obviously having Zucker chair the whole work group is awful.

    I think there should be action about this. I would love the big organizations to get involved. I can’t see anything good coming of Zucker or Blanchard being involved with the DSM revision. Zucker’s viewpoints are not only damaging to the issue of gender identity but also to the issue of homosexuality since many of his statements involve wanting to prevent kids from turning gay.

    And whatever the APA says about not having him be the deciding factor on anything for this workgroup, the mere fact that they have put him on the workgroup, let along in charge of it, gives credibility to his psychological theories and practices. From what I’ve read it’s more than just taking away kids’ toys – it involves taking away parental attention and affection whenever they act outside of the “right” gender role. It’s abusive and damaging, which is the opposite of what a healthcare provider should be doing.

  32. PhysioProf says:

    That is an incredible well-researched well-reasoned post!

  33. Abigail says:

    I loved the post, and the clarity of the thought.

    I do not have a psychological health problem. I have a physical intersex problem, to do with the development of my genitals and secondary sex characteristics.

    This, to me, is sufficient of a “disorder” for me to be entitled to health care, and treatment to ameliorate the situation. However, I still had to pay for it myself.

  34. BWrites says:

    Thanks so much for this post, Holly. I think it’s important to point out that these kids aren’t just test subjects; they’re people, who will grow up to be adults, and how they’re treated now is a huge aspect of that. The next day after the NPR story with Zucker, a woman with a transgendered husband wrote in, saying that if someone had accepted her spouse for who she was as a child, perhaps her family wouldn’t be in such turmoil now.

    The DSM revision committee is scary as hell.

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  36. bitchphd says:

    My parents both feel guilty about this, and I still don’t know how to set their minds at ease about it.

    Speaking as a parent? You will probably never be able to do this. Not being able to protect one’s child is the nightmare of all parents. I’m sure your folks thank god that you survived, and that you forgive them their failures, but no conscientious parent, I think, would ever forgive themselves.

    The story about the red toenail polish makes me proud of my son, who insisted on going to school with red fingernail polish during a period in which he was being teased by a couple of other boys for having long hair. And even prouder of his teacher, who took the lead teaser aside and said “yes, he’s wearing red nail polish, and you will not say one word about it,” as well as of the lead teaser, whose response to that–to his great credit–was to say to the other kids, when they started to say something, “he’s wearing it because he likes it, leave him alone.”

    I made a point, when I learned that (from my son), of telling the teaser, the teacher, and the teaser’s mother how very impressed I was by his maturity and leadership. The teaser was visibly pleased to hear it.

    Things are changing, a little bit, a few kids at a time.

  37. Bobthemole says:

    dear god, reading about the parents taking all of bradley’s toys away broke my fucking heart. i remember the real emotional attachment i had to my dolls and stuffed animals, they had names and personalities, and i treasured each and every one. to take those away is like this huge punishment when s/he has done nothing wrong to deserve a punishment. cos thats when you get toys taken away, when youve done something wrong.

    I completely agree with you on that. Who let this idiot anywhere near children in the first place?

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  41. Darya says:

    Thanks for a great post. I’m a transwoman who is in the middle of transition at the age of 56; that’s the dark side of “conforming to your birth gender”. When I grew up, sissies got whupped at whatever age they were, just like women who didn’t “behave”.
    Great post, like I said.

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