Monday, May 12, 2008

Transgendered Children, Permission, and Fairness

As I listened to a heart-wrenching story on NPR last week about two young transgendered boys receiving very different parenting and psychological care, I was hoping some smart people would reflect upon it. Aspazia has a wonderful post on the story that shows her continental roots, while Richard comments here and here in a way that is cleanly analytic. But while the two differ in their methodological approaches, they share a common sense that the treatment of young Bradley, who after being beaten up by two older bullies (10 year olds) for not being masculine enough and preferring to play with girls.

His parents were rightly scared for their child's well-being and sent him to see a specialist in Toronto who believes that gender at a young age is entirely malleable and whose treatment required a complete removal of all his favorite toys, a prohibition on playing with girls, dictating what colors he can and cannot color with, what he is allowed to draw when he colors (he must draw male not female images), and on and on. It was seemingly right out of A Clockwork Orange.

This was contrasted with another young boy, Jonah, whose therapist saw nothing wrong his his transgenderism. Jonah was happy and well-adjusted with his life as a girl. "She made it really clear that, you know, if Jonah's not depressed, or anxious, or having anything go on that she would need to really be in therapy for, then don't put a kid in therapy until they need it," the mother said. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Of course, broke isn't only defined psychologically, but also sociologically. Bradley was perfectly fine at home playing with Polly Pockets. It wasn't until the playground where the bullies came on the scene that Bradley was deemed to have a problem. The problem with Bradley is that others have a problem with Bradley. Bradley did not have permission to be different and difference without permission is vigorously punished.

I full well understood the concern. I'm now a parent and I was bullied growing up for being different. It lasted until I became a notably good lacrosse player. At that point, I obtained permission to be weird. I remained weird relative to the hyper-masculine posing that is the norm in athletic circles right on through college. When in a scrimmage in the pre-season of my freshman year, I played very well, I again received permission to be different. You get a free pass if you can show that you conform in a way that augments their masculinity -- he helped us win a game and therefore be more masculine than those wimps, so if he's a smart kid who doesn't play the rest of the bullshit game, we'll overlook it. That's not to say that it doesn't lead to plenty of ribbing, letting you know that your difference takes you away from the socially enforced norm, but that is different from the take-him-out bullying.

All of this has been incredibly prescient for me lately, as my son (the shorter of the short people) who is in kindergarten had a day in first grade last week to prepare him for the move next year and has just started little league. He does not have the issues that Bradley and Jonah do. He is very much a ball kid who is incredibly comfortable in his body,m much more naturally athletic than his old man. Indeed, he has been obsessed with baseball for the last couple of years and we often play in the basement or back yard and he has become pretty good for a pipsqueak.

At the same time, parents who are fully aware of the pernicious effect of traditional gender roles and stereotypes and an older sister who is his most frequent playmate. As a result, like Bradley, he loves Polly Pockets (he gets very upset if his sister will not let him play his favorite one), plays dress up, and went through a year of dance class.

What is interesting, though, is the reception he got from his visit in first grade. From his sister (the informant already in the class) the responses from the elementary school kids were "awesome," "great soccer player," and (striking fear into his parents' hearts) "Your brother is cute." His athletic ability and natural good looks (which he gets from his mother clearly) puts him in a privileged place, a place where he will get permission to be weird, permission I did not have. This permission, of course, only goes so far, but it does cover things that other children lower on the totem pole will not have.

At the same time, when he plays well in little league, it is clear that the indoctrination into guy culture is starting. The little comments, the complements subtly laced with gendered language, the praising of good play, all reinforce the connection between his beloved baseball and masculinity. I am helping the coach and hope to be able to counteract the influence, but seeing that it is there -- not through conscious design or explicit intent, but simply in the structure in which men naturally operate. It is so entrenched as to be invisible, but when one boy plays better than your son, you need to pull in the boy to save the masculinity of both yourself and your son. You get affirmation through association; the athletic youth is given some power to bestow permission, a power children quickly become aware of and a position of privilege and power that lasts into high school (being part of the cool kids), through college (often ossified in the fraternity and sorority systems), and on into the business world.

And here we come to the difference in the treatment of the transgendered boys and a question of fairness. The draconian treatment of Bradley may or may not be misguided and may or may not cause problems later in life, but either way it is designed to protect him. We live in a society where transgendered people are mistreated and the hope is that the treatment will allow Bradley to escape the hardships of life that he would face growing up in a society wrongly biased against the transgendered. Being transgendered is something which is is incredibly hard, if not impossible, to receive permission for. Jonah, on the other hand, is not being asked to change now, and may very well have it harder later, unless well-adjusted transgendered adults can alter the structure, making it so that transgendered folks do not need permission to be who they are. But the lives of those who blaze the trail for those who come later is a very difficult one. Jonah may make things better for transgendered children who come after him, but getting to that place will involve run-ins with the bigotry that is in our culture. One cannot listen to the voices of everyone involved and not wish that poor Bradley would get the support that Jonah gets. But then the question becomes whether it actually is fair to Jonah to ask him to be one of those who breaks down barriers, to oppose bigotry, to fight the good fight for innocent people who are simply living different types of lives. It is one thing for an adult to make the brave choice and stand up, but this is a child who can have no idea of the entrenched bias and unfounded fear and hatred that is out there for those who are different. Is that a fair load to put on a child's shoulders?