I watched Louis Theroux’s show on transgender kids last night. I have a transgender adolescent in my extended family. It has happened very quickly. In less than a year we’ve gone from intellectual discussions about trans to full blown coming out. Body Dysmorphia is part of it. So are mood swings, depression and being unable to face the kids at school. Studying at home under the guidance of supportive teachers and therapists is the current situation.
The young person in our family is 15. They are choosing not to fully transition or to take hormones. They are the ‘i’ part of the lgbti community they tell us. Instead of using the personal pronouns he or she this person prefers the pronoun they. They have also changed their name.
I can accommodate the name change. I changed my own name at 15 and refused to answer to my birth name. That name is all but forgotten now. I can also accommodate the idea of experimenting with gender identity. I can remember doing something similar for a while when I was growing up. For a brief while I experimented with dressing up as a boy. Once I went out dressed in tweed trousers, white shirt and tie. I had very short hair at the time and wore make up. I can clearly remember the stares I received. Other people’s reactions were so confronting I hurried home, got changed and never repeated the experiment.
I am finding the change of personal pronoun harder to get my head around. When I was doing my Masters I studied Queer Theory and Judith Butler’s idea of fluid identity. I am open to the idea that we can choose our own gendered identity but am finding the gap between the intellectual notion and the reality difficult to traverse.
Watching Louis Theroux’s interviews last night I gained more understanding about being young and trans. All the young people interviewed, whether they were 5 or 15, were absolutely authentic about how they were choosing to present themselves. They were aware that what they were doing was radical but they were totally committed to it. Many were obviously going through a very hard time emotionally and were wrestling with some big questions but their experiences were completely genuine. There was no artifice about any of it.
Watching the show I also came to understand my own reactions a bit more. Disbelief, confusion and grief are common responses amongst the families of the young trans people. Some mothers of these young people are truly outstanding people. They have obviously been through an intense emotional journey and have come to a position of acceptance. The support they offer their children is remarkable. One mother said that she’d found her child’s transgender identity gave her room to be herself more.
Maybe that’s it. The large and vocal group of young people who are currently presenting as trans are causing us to question our rigid definitions of identity. Whether or not they are simply experimenting with gender identity and will later “grow out of it” remains to be seen. Perhaps some will and some won’t. Perhaps they will always be an ‘i’ and their gender will be fluid. Maybe in assuming a fluid identity these young people are creating room for us all to move out of rigid identity structures. We are all, to some degree, caught up in the confines of identity defined by gender, race, class and age. For me, right now, it’s about questioning the narrow parameters surrounding identity and age. Maybe what our trans young people are showing us is that it’s time to break down all rigid ideas about identity and to step into more fluid, expansive expressions of who we really are. We can learn from these young people and find our way to identities that are more radically authentic.