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What is gender? What about the children?
On trans rights, youth, and living in a pluralistic world
I believe in the self-determination of all people in living and defining their own experience of gender. I am a queer person and I used to be a queer youth. I came into awareness of my queerness at the age of ten, not because of queer inclusive education, but because the heteronormative education I received made me realize I was “different.” I came out of the closet when I was 14 in a small town, mostly Christian and conservative high school. I received a huge amount of overt homophobia which contributed to me dropping out of high school at age 16 and leaving my hometown for the city of Toronto, where I attended an alternative school for queer youth who had been driven out of the mainstream school system due to homophobia and/or transphobia. I have spent much of my life in queer and trans communities. Most of the people in my life are queer and/or trans.
Queer world very much overlaps with the social justice orthodoxy, cancel culture, and identitarianism that I am so often critiquing. Straight people who have experiences of cancellation are often shocked to hear the extent of what goes on in my communities. From the outset I want to say that I fucking love my queer and trans culture. I love our history of struggle, our resilience, our defiance, and the ways we create relationship styles, sexualities, and gender expressions that work for us rather than conforming to heteronormative expectations. I will never give up being culturally queer. I will always have the conversation about why they/them pronouns matter and I will always correct people who instinctively they/them a trans woman who uses she/her. There are lots of jokes making fun of cancel culture and social justice orthodoxy that make fun of my people. For example, the polycule is heading to BDSM dungeon after the anarchist bookfair. Jokes like these are an accurate representation of my life and my world, and I will never give that shit up. I will never trade in my queerness or sell out my many trans and nonbinary loved ones. I will never give up polyamory, freaky sex shit, or subcultural weirdness. And — I do want to transform the rampant social justice orthodoxy, cancel culture, and identitarianism in our communities because it is bad for us, bad for the project of building solidarity across difference, and bad for addressing the urgent need to think critically and creatively about the many serious problems facing the world right now.
Being a citizen of queer world, I always shared the memes that say “protect trans kids at all costs” with the image of a panther or of a knife. That always seemed straightforward enough to me: I grew up a queer youth and knew many trans and gender-nonconforming youth. Of course I want them to be protected. As I began to deprogram from cancel culture I started to question the violent imagery associated with such memes, in particular the knife, but the overall message I still obviously aligned with. I didn’t really question what it was that we were protecting trans kids from — I assumed it was transphobia, the aggressive bullying that gender-nonconforming and queer youth often experience. It turns out that the message “protect trans kids,” like so many messages in social justice orthodoxy, has come to mean “don’t question or complicate any orthodoxy social justice culture puts forward.” Rather than being about simply protecting kids from bullying and supporting them in their self-expression, it has become a blanket statement that any conversation about how youth should be supported in exploring, questioning, or understanding gender, that does not align with the current orthodoxy, is violent and dangerous and puts youth at risk.
For as much as we criticize the Right for their “think of the children!” discourse, we in queer world have our own version of this. Another often repeated slogan is “We don’t want cis kids to be trans. We want trans kids to survive.” This message implies that trans and gender-nonconforming youth will literally die if they don’t receive the specific interventions and framings currently in vogue within social justice culture. The risk of suicide is repeated over and over again. I agree that transphobia and homophobia can lead to extremely bad mental health outcomes, and even lead to suicide. But as a former queer and gender-nonconforming youth who grew up to be a queer adult, my generation of queer and trans people, and the generations of queer and trans people before me, did not mostly die of suicide because the current interventions and frameworks around gender and sexuality were not in place. Telling trans and gender-nonconforming youth that they are very likely to die by suicide if they don’t do certain things is bad for them.
I think there are a lot of different ways that queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming youth can be supported. I think different kids need different responses. I think that the best frameworks and interventions for queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming youth is still a question that should be discussed and researched, rather than a closed case. I think that deciding how to best support queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming youth in a pluralistic, multicultural, and multi-faith context in which the meaning of gender is very important to people and widely disagreed upon is also an important and open question. I think calling people violent and anti-trans for wanting to talk about these things is inaccurate and not helpful.
I also used to repeat the statement that puberty blockers when used on youth have no negative side effects and are entirely reversible. Like so many others in social justice culture, I received and spread the orthodoxy that youth medical transition is always positive and not that big of a deal. I believed that anyone raising concerns was misinformed or simply trying to scare people. After all, puberty blockers are entirely reversible! That’s what I had heard and I was happy to share this information with any concerned straight people I came across. I had no idea where I got this information from. It was just regularly repeated in queer world. The idea was that medical transition options for youth are vital and necessary suicide prevention, and that the side effects to such interventions, if any, were far outweighed by the positive benefits. I believed and repeated all of this without question for years.
It’s only in the last few years, as medical transition options for youth became more common and widespread, that I started to hear about some of the downsides and issues with this approach to supporting trans and gender-nonconforming youth. These include the increasing number of detransitioners, people who medically transitioned and later decide they are not trans, potential issues in sexual function for adults who used puberty blockers in their youth, impacts on what types of vaginoplasty (bottom surgery) are possible for trans women with less genital tissue due to going on puberty blockers in their youth, and a lack of information about the longterm impacts of these interventions. There are a number of potential risks and downsides to youth medical transition, both for youth who turn out to be trans adults and for youth who grow up to decide they are not trans. Sometimes those risks are outweighed by the benefits, but not always. Acknowledging this does not mean that youth medical transition should never happen. It means that medical transition for youth has risks associated with it, and these risks should be known, considered, researched, discussed, and taken seriously. As Jesse Singal has written: “it would be foolish to pretend that unless you’re a transphobe, there’s nothing to discuss here.”
And yet — despite constantly writing about highly controversial topics, I have never written about trans issues before. In queer world, even mentioning that there’s risks involved in youth medical transition that should be taken seriously, is treated as a “rightwing dogwhistle” and inherently transphobic. I have been called a terf (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) for appearing on Blocked and Reported, Katie Herzog and Jesse Singal’s podcast, two of the journalists linked above who have written about some of the risks associated with youth medical transition while being explicitly pro trans rights. The interview was not even about this topic, but even associating with these two is enough to be called transphobic (that’s how cancel culture works). Katie Herzog experienced a massive cancellation campaign for writing about detransitioners. Natalie Wynn, a youtuber, herself a trans woman, experienced a massive cancellation campaign for including a voiceover from Buck Angel in a video, an adult performer and trans activist, who is vocally critical of youth medical transition. Buck Angel, while I admit he is becoming increasingly intense and even disrespectful in his approach, is entitled to have opinions on the topic, and is a trans elder who is utterly dehumanized and treated with contempt. It doesn’t surprise me that queer and trans people who have critiques or questions about youth medical transition end up hanging out with Right wingers, because on the Left we don’t let them speak.
I am in no way claiming to be an expert on youth medical transition. I am not saying I agree with everything those critical of youth medical transition say. But I do think that youth medical transition is a complicated topic and it makes sense to me that people have different opinions on it. I don’t think that asking questions about youth medical transition, talking about research that points out the possible risks of youth medical transition, or even, outright being critical of youth medical transition are necessarily transphobic positions to take. My concern is that social justice orthodoxy has made it a social crime and cancellable offence to think critically and openly about these topics. Not only am I against censorship and the suppression of critical thinking and open discussion on principle, but I am also very concerned with the impact of the Right being the only place where people with questions, disagreements, or concerns can speak.
It is striking to me that I feel anxious to write about this topic because I write about controversial topics all the time. I am, at this point, pretty unfazed by writing about controversial things, but this topic is insanely emotionally charged in my communities and seen in entirely black and white terms. In even mentioning to someone I know that I was planning to write an article about this I was immediately told that my ideas are “half baked” and asked why I would even write about this since I’m not trans. This same person insisted there is no taboo on writing or speaking on this topic, while simultaneously being incredulous that I would dare write about it. I know that I will be called a terf and transphobic for writing about this. It doesn’t matter that I am explicitly and openly in favour of the self-determination, autonomy, and dignity of trans people, and their full inclusion in society.
Trust me, I didn’t want to write this article. I am cancelled enough already. I told myself that youth medical transition is a relatively fringe topic, mostly outside my wheelhouse, and one that doesn’t need to be weighed in on by every controversial writer. I told myself that my largely agnostic views on gender don’t really need to be spelled out. I told myself that someone else would eventually come along to articulate a nuanced perspective on this from the Left, and from inside queer world. But, if I’m honest, the real reason I haven’t said anything is that I’m scared to. Queer wold’s reaction to nuanced or critical positions on this topic are so intense that it scares even me. But at this point, the Right is so effectively using this and related issues to mobilize a multiracial, multi-faith coalition that I think the Left should be concerned and have a more robust and good faith response than simply calling them bigots. The issue of “gender ideology”, as the Right calls it, or what I would call social justice culture’s current orthodoxy on gender, is now important not only in its own right, but because it is being strategically used to strengthen Right wing movements.
Denying and downplaying the risks associated with youth medical transition and calling anyone who brings this up anti-trans is just one aspect of the current social justice orthodoxy on trans issues. Along with the question of youth medical transition, are the related questions of how youth transition should be treated in schools, and how gender should be discussed and taught in schools. All of these questions come down to two major questions: What is gender and how should we think about it? Who is responsible for helping children make decisions about who they are in the world? What I want to point out is that both of these questions are complex questions. The first is a philosophical, metaphysical question. The second is an ethical question. Both pertain to major aspects of our lives: gender and children. What I want the Left and queer world to understand is that it absolutely makes sense that people have different opinions on these questions, and that their opinions on these questions are important to them. I think we would be way more successful in our goal of protecting trans and gender-nonconforming youth and adults if we allowed for good faith discussion on these fraught and complex questions, and if we accepted that we likely won’t reach agreement and will need to find a way forward anyway.
Many people in the world believe that there are two genders and that those genders align with biological sex. The idea that “woman” and “man” are meaningful and important social categories rooted in biology is something that a lot of people believe. Many religious and cultural beliefs and customs that are extremely important to people are grounded in this way of looking at gender. In social justice orthodoxy this framing of gender is seen as both obviously false and inherently bigoted and transphobic. Believing in the existence of two genders rooted in biology is seen as transphobic in social justice culture even when the people who hold this belief insist that trans people should still have protected rights and be able to understand themselves and live in the world as they they see fit. Transphobia is defined not as denying rights or self-determination to trans people, but as having beliefs about gender that do not align with the social justice culture framings of gender.
I think this is a problem. The reality is that we live in a world with billions of people with vastly different cultures, belief systems, and worldviews. Gender is an extremely important and meaningful category to a great number of people. It seems very unlikely that we will ever come to one understanding of gender that we can all agree on and I think pursuing that goal is a waste of time. I also think that calling people bigoted, transphobic, or anti-trans because they believe in the existence of two genders rooted in biology is both inaccurate and ineffective as a political strategy. I think a better strategy would be to insist on the self-determination, autonomy, and dignity of trans people, and their full inclusion in society. That goal is possible even if we don’t get on the same page about what gender is.
I think a very helpful analogy here is tolerance for religious worldviews in a pluralistic society. I live in a city with a great number of people of various religious backgrounds. I share day to day space with Hasidic Jewish people, Reform Jewish people, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists, and other religious and spiritual groups. These people have vastly different worldviews when it comes to important philosophical and metaphysical questions. They structure their lives in significantly different ways, understand the world in significantly different ways, have different customs, different ways of dress, and different social roles within their cultures. I do not need to agree with their worldviews or self-understanding in order to believe in their right to religious freedom and self-determination. I don’t need to believe in Allah to believe in a woman’s right to wear hijab wherever she wants. I don’t need to understand why exactly the Hasidic Jewish people in my community clearly don’t want my dog coming near them in order to respectfully keep her away from them. I can actually have major disagreement with some of the social roles regarding gender that are upheld in many religions while not attempting to enforce my understanding of gender on others. I can practice tolerance, open mindedness, curiosity, respect, and sometimes, principled disagreement, without demanding that others conform to my worldview. I believe that this is what we should be striving for regarding gender and trans issues. It is not necessary for someone to agree that gender is a self-identification in order for them to respect someone else’s gender self-identification. What matters is how we treat people and that we are respectful and tolerant of difference even when we don’t understand it or agree with the worldview that upholds it.
The Right is arguing that schools are teaching “gender ideology” and “indoctrinating” children. Social justice orthodoxy insists that it is not indoctrination to teach that trans people exist. But I think this is a bad faith response. What social justice proponents want is not for schools to simply teach that trans people exist, but to teach a particular worldview about gender. We want schools to teach that gender is fluid, can change, and is based in self-identification, not biology. Whether or not you believe that this is what schools should teach about gender, you must admit that teaching this is not the same as simply teaching that “trans people exist.” It’s teaching a particular worldview about gender, one that not everyone agrees with. I understand that this is a fraught thing to say, and I understand why queer and trans people reading this might get really upset at me for saying it. I understand personally and viscerally the impact of a heteronormative education system that inadvertently taught me I was abnormal by teaching that heterosexuality is the only normal way to be. And yet — I still think the question of what worldview we are teaching in schools when we live in a pluralistic, multicultural, multi-faith world matters and should be discussed.
One thing that I think it’s useful to point out here is that queer and trans people ourselves don’t actually agree on what gender is. We have major internal disagreement. The social justice orthodoxy on gender that we are putting forward as what should be taught in schools is actually an uneasy mash up of the two major schools of thought on gender within queer and trans world. One school of thought, often described using the words trans-medicalist, transexual, or pejoratively, truscum (but maybe that’s a tumblr thing and isn’t happening anymore? lol I don’t know), describes being trans as the experience of having dysphoria (an intense feeling of not-rightness) with biological sex (or what the other school of though would call the “gender assigned at birth”) and pursuing medical transition to ease that dysphoria. This school of thought usually looks at gender in a binary way, sees being trans as a medical issue, and finds the other school of thought appropriative and disrespectful of “real” trans struggle. The arguments in favour of youth medical transition usually rely on this framework, and yet some of the most vocal critics of youth medical transition are adult transexuals, who believe that many youth who aren’t transexual are medically transitioning, and who also argue that youth medical transition actually disrupts possibilities for successful medical transition as an adult. Buck Angel is one of these people and is constantly being called out for being a transmedicalist.
The other major school of thought on gender in queer and trans world is summed up in the idea that gender is fluid and meant to be explored and played with. This school of thought argues that not all trans people are “binary” (transition from man to woman or woman to man) and that nonbinary is a gender identity that exists outside of the gender binary. This school of thought generally argues that dysphoria is not necessary to be trans, that medical transition is not necessary to be trans, and even that being outwardly gender-nonconforming is not necessary to be trans. Medical transition options like hormones and surgery can be used not to “pass” but to challenge the existence of coherent gender all together. This school of thought generally argues that you should never assume someone’s gender because gender is an entirely internal and self-defined experience that has no particular external look at all. While transexuals often want to be “read” as the gender they identify with and actively seek to communicate that gender to the world through appearance, mannerism, and dress, those in the gender fluid school of thought believe we should do away with communicating gender through codes like dress or mannerism, and should instead never assume and always ask.
If you are not inside queer and trans world you are likely unaware of this internal disagreement, but it’s a major one. Both sides claim to have the correct opinion on gender and both sides call the other side transphobic and bigoted. Social justice culture does its best to create a synthesis of these quite contradictory worldviews by encouraging gender exploration and play, encouraging the asking of pronouns, and establishing gender as a self-defined experience, while also highlighting dysphoria and the need for medical transition options to relieve dysphoria. I am not here to weigh in on which of these worldviews is more “correct” but simply to highlight that even we do not agree on what gender is, so it is not surprising that those outside of our communities may have still other ideas. Perhaps we could, instead of attempting to bully each other into agreeing on what gender is, practice tolerance on gender worldviews in the same way that we practice tolerance on religious worldviews. Instead of trying to decide who is right, we can, to the best of our ability, live and let live. We could teach that people have a whole bunch of different ideas about gender, but what matters is that we treat each other with respect. We could allow for self-determination and autonomy, even if we don’t agree.
The place where this gets the most complicated is the question of children. By their very nature, children are semi-autonomous. They depend on adults in their lives to meet their needs, care for them, teach them about the world, and make important decisions on their behalf. The question of what decisions should be made by parents and which should be made by institutions of the state is a fraught one. I am very sympathetic to the concern that leaving children entirely to the decision-making of their parents with no other options or recourse can create powerlessness for children in situations of abuse. Those who challenge this concern will argue that in actual cases of abuse it’s easy enough to get the police and children’s aid to intervene. As a survivor of child abuse, I know that this is not true. A lot of abuse children experience is not responded to or intervened upon even when it is reported. I understand why queer and trans people would argue for not “outing” queer and trans kids to their parents.
A lot of my queer and trans friends openly mocked religious families at the recent 1 Million March 4 Children who had their kids carrying signs that said “I belong to my parents.” This was treated as obviously bad and possibly even abusive. The parents were framed as treating their kids as property. But is that the only way to understand the word “belong”? Belong can also mean belonging. I find myself wanting to remind my Leftist friends that it is absolutely understandable for marginalized people to fear trusting the state with their children. Think of residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, and the long history of governments stripping kids from their families and putting them in foster care without ever trying to resource or uplift the family. Queer and trans people’s sudden embrace of the state as arbiter of what is “good” for children is surprising to me. Do we not remember being seen as unfit to parent for being queer?
Again, I don’t claim to have the solution to this fraught ethical question. I do believe that families should hold the right to raise their children in their own culture. I also believe that sometimes cultural practices violate children’s right to autonomy and should be outlawed, for example genital mutilation of children carried out for religious reasons. I believe that schools can be an important space for children in abusive homes to experience interventions that could be life-saving. I also believe that the state has a long history of overriding parental authority in ways that are racist, colonial, and wrong. Both families and schools have the potential to be spaces of unchecked authority and abuse, or of being spaces of encouragement and growth. I think that if our goal is to support children and families, from diverse cultures and of diverse experiences, then we need to be having real, considered conversations about these fraught ethical questions rather than shouting each other down.
Many proponents of social justice orthodoxy, who think of themselves as defenders of racialized people, religious minorities, and immigrant communities, were surprised to find that the 1 Million March 4 Children was not just a bunch of white Christians, but was a diverse crowd with a lot of representation of Muslim and immigrant communities. In Montréal, activists on the social justice side were yelling “Go home transphobes!” to immigrants and racialized people who are frequently told to “go home” by racists and xenophobes. The 1 Million March 4 Children was constantly called an “anti-trans” march despite the fact that the organization does not consider itself anti-trans. Both sides righteously declared themselves protectors of children. Neither side is willing to sit down and talk about what it means to protect children and what it means to raise children in a diverse, pluralistic world that holds many different viewpoints. The 1 Million March 4 Children claim not to be anti-trans, and the social justice side definitely doesn’t think of itself as anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant, but here we are.
We have to find a way to live in this world together. Since almost everyone involved would agree that they respect the self-determination and self-identification of adults, and since everyone involved is concerned for the wellbeing of children, I wonder if we could try to have a productive conversation, instead of righteously shouting each other down. I wonder if we could accept that we are not going to agree on a great many things, while rigorously searching for the common ground we share.
The people marching in 1 Million March 4 Children are the very people who we need to reach and learn to work alongside if we want to stand even the slightest chance against climate change, and the many other horrors of capitalism. The Right wing is absolutely happy to use this issue to build coalitions on the Right among people who are not usually on the same side. The Right will use this issue to bring religious minorities and immigrants to their side, as well as the many other people who are tired of being shouted down and called bigots for thinking critically or asking questions. Then the Right will continue to enact policies that erode social services, keep working people poor, decimate the environment, and ultimately work against cultural pluralism. We need affordable housing, well funded healthcare, unionized jobs, community centres and daycares, and real climate action. We can only fight for these things effectively in broad-based coalitions of people, people who necessarily have different worldviews and different understandings of gender. We can undertake this coalition building while absolutely insisting on the self-determination, autonomy, and dignity of trans people, and their full inclusion in society.
I know it feels emotionally soothing to have simple and straightforward answers, to know who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are, to know the “correct” take, and to be on the “right side” of history. Unfortunately — things are not that simple. Real life is complicated and full of fraught ethical questions. The real world is populated by billions of people with extremely different worldviews. And yet we have to find a way to work together, or we will watch our world go up in flames.
Clementine Morrigan is a socialist-feminist writer, educator, and public intellectual based in Montréal, Canada. She writes popular and controversial essays about culture, politics, sexuality, and trauma. A passionate believer in independent media, she’s been making zines since the year 2000 and is the author of several books. She’s known for her iconic white-text-on-a-black-background mini-essays on Instagram. One of the leading voices on the Canadian Left and one half of the Fucking Cancelled podcast, Clementine is an outspoken critic of cancel culture and proponent of building solidarity across difference.
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