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On being trans youth

By Max Robinson - posted Thursday, 2 December 2021

As children, we are introduced to the idea of linear progress, both in our own lives and in society. You will grow up and become something – a man, or a woman, a firefighter or a pop star. These intangible tick marks of progress along the timeline of our lives are what we are told we are born to march towards. Yet, as girls grow, we are faced with a new type of progress that must be made – from the ugly-duckling nature of wild, untamed girlhood to the beautiful captive swan-woman she is expected to become. The girl body, demanded to progress along the presented 'natural' route, becomes a project.

What happens to those of us who swim against this current? I wanted to dress 'like a boy' my whole childhood. My earliest memory of conflict with my mother was over an extremely flamboyant dress that she wanted me to wear to a boy's birthday party when I was four years old. Neither of us had access to the framework of transgenderism then, though we both saw how that paradigm explained my behavior once we encountered it. My mom wasn't a tyrant; she would have let me wear something different if a compelling reason to do so existed. But lacking the language more likely to convince her, I instead couched my complaint in non-specific, oppositional phrases like "I don't want to."

It was not compelling. I wore the dress. No other girls were invited to my friend's birthday, and the boys certainly noticed what I was wearing. It didn't matter that I loved bugs, dinosaurs, and Pokémon, just like they did. I was the one that didn't belong, and I blamed this on the garment rather than the other differences between being a little boy or a little girl. It was a formative humiliation. I was too much of a tomboy – weird, rude, absorbed in eccentric interests, and unable to interest myself in more normative ones – to fit in easily with the other girls, who I relentlessly mocked back then as 'girly girls'. I hadn't realized yet that, among the boys, I would always be marked.


These expectations were stressful when I was four. With each passing year after that the pressure grew substantially. I got the message: girls are supposed to grow up into women; women want to look pretty for men. Other girls wanted to look pretty and I didn't, driving a wedge between us, but the boys weren't so sure about me either. So what was I?

Pathologizing difference reinforces the importance of adherence to norms, increasing distress over the perceived imperfection. In relation to expectations about sex stereotypes, if your parents think the way you are is sick, you probably will too, eventually. In theory, this message could even be communicated covertly, by parents who believe themselves to be totally 'gender neutral'. In practice, I've never actually seen someone parent without referencing gendered norms to their children in any way. In Trans Kids, parents and others' determination to enforce 'normal' behavior is shown to be highly disruptive to the gender nonconforming child – such as arguments over clothes and toys, concern from family members and teachers, trips to the doctor, and being called names by their peers. In every narrative I have heard about the life of a child identifying as transgender, it was always made clear to the child that, whether at home, at school, or the world at large, defying sex-based stereotypes in their behavior was not acceptable.

The parents consistently appear to lack insight into how discrimination has shaped their children, but in telling the story of their son's or daughter's early life, the details speak for themselves: homophobic bullying at school, continual negative reactions from both adults and same-age peers, parents bribing kids into wearing certain clothes to avoid harsh reactions, parental frustration, fear, and anger on a varying scale, trips to the doctor or therapist over the child's behavior.
If you are in an environment that punishes violations of sex stereotypes and you have no way to change that environment, seeking transition is highly adaptive behavior. 'Becoming' the gender which is allowed to act in the way you're punished for acting makes good sense, when no other way of relieving the tension between how you behave and how others want you to behave is made known to you.

When I was 16, I was sure that I needed transition, and I was skilled at convincing adults to be sure, too. I was excruciatingly jealous of kids who 'came out' in time to get blockers. Now that I'm grown up, it's hard to put into words how grateful I am that I didn't receive them. I understand that health is conditional and fragile for all of us, and I relish mine; I would never risk it over something as trivial as my appearance. I understand a lot now that I didn't then.

What I wanted when I was a child, or even a teenager, is not what I want as an adult. As I sought out and found explanations for my distress that made more sense than the idea I was born biologically destined to transition, I came to see my habit of blaming my body as an understandable mistake. I gradually developed more adaptive habits, like identifying outside causes for my pain and organizing alongside other women to meaningfully address these together. I am overjoyed to be a lesbian now that I understand that contexts exist where my sex can enable, rather than conflict with, my ability to exercise agency and fully participate in a community of my peers.

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Edited excerpt from Chapter 4 in Detransition: Beyond Before and After, 2021, published by Spinifex Press.

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About the Author

Max Robinson, who lives in southern Oregon, became involved with lesbian feminism in an effort to make sense of her experiences with medical transition. She provides direct support services for developmentally disabled women. She is the author of Detransition: Beyond Before and After.

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