If the last few weeks have proven anything, it’s that being a trans and/or gender non-conforming kid is really hard, even in an age when trans people are gaining a small amount of greater acceptance.
On February 13th, The White House decided to roll back President Obama’s directive that encouraged schools to let students use the bathroom that aligns with their gender and threatened to cut federal funding to schools that failed to comply. In the wake of that decision, on March 6th the Supreme Court decided to send the case of Gavin Grimm, the teenage plaintiff in a transgender bathroom rights case, back to lower court.
Less than two months into the Trump administration, and the attack on trans people, and especially on trans youth, has already begun.
But, another surprising conversation on trans kids has arisen from noted Nigerian author and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s recent comments on trans women. Adichie received criticism from the trans community after her BBC interview in which she made the argument that trans women and cis women should be categorized differently because they were socialized differently. Adichie’s comments hinge on the idea that trans women suddenly “change” genders at some point in their lives, meaning that until that magical moment, they are recipients of male privilege.
As a trans person who sometimes uses the internet, arguing with trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), or more pointedly trans women exclusionary feminists (TWEFs) is just par for the course. A particularly vocal group of internet trolls, TWEFs argue fervently that trans women are not women and that popping out of the womb with a vagina is the sole criteria for participating in and receiving the protections feminism seeks to provide. Given their propensity for completely circuitous (il)logic and their incredible stamina in flame wars, I’ve mostly stopped arguing with them for the benefit of my mental health.
Something, however, was different after Adichie’s comments. People whose opinions I’ve tended to respect, even vocal supporters of the trans community came out in favor of Adichie’s comments. I felt compelled, once again, to take to my keyboard.
I don’t need to and am, in fact, not capable of speaking directly to the experiences of trans women and femmes; they’ve covered that fiercely here, here, oh and here. And, I don’t want to detract from the issue at hand: that cis feminists are actively excluding trans women from their feminism despite the fact that trans women regularly face harsher violence and discrimination than their cis counterparts.
What I do want to do, given the fact that Adichie’s comments seem to hinge on how peoples’ experiences in youth affect their worldview and how they navigate privilege, is make a few points about how we understand childhood socialization, particularly as it impacts transgender people.
First, the basis of our system of childhood gender enculturation is transmisogyny. Coined by Julia Serano in her 2007 book Whipping Girl, transmisogyny is the “assumption that femaleness and femininity are inferior to, and exist primarily for the benefit of, maleness and masculinity.” Those of us who were socialized as girls experienced this in a somewhat obvious way. We were told regularly that there were certain things we couldn’t do because we were girls. We had to work twice as hard to earn the respect of our teachers and peers. We were expected to be quiet, docile, and submissive in the presence of men.
But, those trans and gender non-conforming people who were socialized as boys developed in the same exact system. They were also constantly reminded that femininity and womanhood were inferior, that their feminine traits or their identity as girls was deserving of ridicule and punishment. On top of that, we live in a culture that uses physical and psychological violence to rid people who are socialized as boys of their femininity and feminine traits. The disciplinary techniques by which we are forced into binary genders may be different, but the outcome is the same: teaching kids that femininity and womanhood is inferior.
Regardless of what the outside (cisgender) world may see, that is not privilege. A main objective of our feminism should be embracing and lifting up femininity. It should be make space for gender non-conformity and rejecting raising our children to subscribe to a harmful gender binary rather than reinforcing it by privileging certain experiences over others as Adichie did.
This is a point I think a lot of people, including Adichie, are getting hung up on or, given the general lack of representation of trans men and non-binary AFAB people, simply haven’t considered: it can be both the case that trans men who were socialized as girls are impacted by their childhood experiences of (trans)misogyny and that trans women who were raised as boys are as well. However, when it comes to our lives in and beyond transition, trans men do have male privilege and trans women do not.
Being a trans kid means attempting, from all angles, to navigate a world that degrades femininity and womanhood and disciplines us into a binary gender system.
Second, although many more trans kids are growing up in a world where they can explore their gender identity, they are still subject to the discipline and discrimination enacted by a transphobic society. Even those kids who are being given the opportunity to transition have to contend with bullying and harassment from kids, teachers, and parents alike. According to a 2011 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 82 percent of trans students reported feeling unsafe at school.
Being a trans kid means navigating a world that was never meant to hold you, protect you, and keep you safe.
Lastly, as someone who grew up in a time before trans issues were widely spoken about (at least outside of insensitive jokes and television talk shows), I had no idea that I was transgender as a kid. I didn’t even know people like me could transition. All I had to go on was an incessant feeling in my gut that something was deeply wrong with me and that I was different from other people in ways that I needed to overcompensate for or hide.
Kids today who may have access to more information about transition still have to contend with prevailing ideologies of gender and transition. Because our society privileges adult knowledge over kid knowledge, trans kids both have to resist the norms that are being enforced on them during a very impressionable time in their development and prove to the adults in their lives that they have a firm and intimate knowledge of their own identities. This feeling of not fitting in with the world, of having to constantly resist what you’re being told in the face of a pervasive, binary gender system can take an immense psychological toll.
According to the 2015 US Trans Survey, 40 percent of trans people have attempted suicide at some point in their lives, while many more have experienced serious mental health concerns. I entered adulthood with a host of mental health issues that at one point led me to a stay on a psychiatric ward. Giving myself permission to pursue transition was the only thing that brought me back from the edge. And, I continue to suffer from social and general anxiety, rooted in the trauma of dysphoria and discrimination.
Being a trans kid means contending with psychological stress and trauma no kid should have to go through.
For Adichie and her supporters to insist that being raised a boy is to have experienced male privilege, is to ignore both the ways that transmisogyny impacts trans women and femmes throughout their development and the struggles that trans youth face when it comes to being believed, heard, and treated with dignity and respect. It uncritically centers people who were born with vaginas and it is completely dismissive of the mental and emotional toll that trans kids experience, whether they are out or not, whether they know they’re trans or not.
And, it stands in stark opposition to the kind of feminism trans people want to see: one that centers bodily autonomy and self-determination and one that uplifts femininity of all kinds.
Apart from other vectors of privilege including race, class, ability, religious affiliation that grant some of us easier passage through trans childhood than others:
Being a trans kid is hard. Period.