Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Too Young to be a Boy

In my volunteering program this year, there's a transgender 15 year old. This kid is physically female, but identifies as male. He's a troubled kid, but basically a nice kid who's had a whole heaping of trauma in his life (alcoholic mother, deaths in the family, etc). He's also high functioning autistic and has ADHD, which makes things more difficult. And he seems to get bullied a lot by other kids - being autistic and trans can be a bad combination for that.

Notice that I used 'he' to refer to this kid? I couldn't have said the above paragraph in the volunteering program, because I've been officially forbidden to use male pronouns to refer to this boy. Some mental health program that's involved in this kid's care has decreed that all involved should use female pronouns for him. Apparently because he's too young to know his real gender.

Now, I've read research that suggests that transgender teens are not too young to know they're transgender, and early transitioning is better for the kid's mental health. And all I've seen of this kid indicates that he has given this a great deal of thought and knows that this is who he is - although we haven't spoken directly about it a lot, he knows a great deal about the physiology of gender differences (he was explaining some stuff to a random bystander about why guys have Adam's apples), and he's quite consistent in saying he's a guy. In fact, sometimes he almost seems to forget he's physically female and talks as if he's born male, saying things like 'I'm the only guy left in my family' (he had two brothers die).

Not only that, he outright told me he prefers male pronouns. Given that, it feels like a betrayal to call him 'she'. Even when he's not around to hear it.

But, if I call him 'he', I risk getting in trouble. I'm not sure what the consequences would be if I pushed the issue. At worst, they'd ask me to stop volunteering. Which would be bearable, but is something I really want to avoid. Firstly, I like to think this kid gets some benefit from me being around, given that I get what it's like to be different, and I've already made it clear I'm supportive of transgender rights. And secondly, one of the other participants, a 12 year old autistic girl, is getting to be a good friend of mine, and I really don't want to lose my only way of having contact with her.

I've settled reluctantly for the choice of avoiding pronouns as much as possible when referring to the transgender kid. I'll structure my sentences so I can use his name only, without it being too awkward. But the whole situation makes me extremely uncomfortable. This kid is having a really rough time, and I know one thing I could do to make it a little better, but I'm forbidden to do it. At least the kid looks convincingly male, so people who don't know him well perceive him as male. (I'm actually kind of amazed at how, using simply dress, hairstyle and mannerisms, he's managed to make a female body look entirely male. Of course, the fact that he looks pre-pubertal obviously helps. I don't know if he's on hormone suppressing drugs or just a late developer, but either way, he doesn't show much sign of puberty.)

But what kind of mental health provider would think it was in this kid's best interests to try to make him deny who he is? Especially when the research evidence shows otherwise? And what frustrates me most is that I really have no power to do anything about it, and fighting this is only likely to make it worse. And the one who loses in all this is the kid. Hopefully he can hang on until he's 18 - he's a tough kid, and he seems to be coping remarkably well given all he's dealing with. But what kind of damage is this doing, and how hard will it be for him to heal from it?


Blogger Kara said...

I am guessing the therapist that said it does not have experience with gender issues. Often doctors (including therapists) will think they have to be omniscient so even if they *should* refer something to someone who deals in a field they will try to do something anyways. Which leads to some royal messups at times.

But yes, if the child has specified a pronoun that is the correct one so it is just a question of how to achieve that. How do the parents feel? If they prefer 'he' that would really help your case. I would talk to your volunteer supervisor there and discuss the situation with them. Tell them that you are in an awkward position because your first responsibility has to be to help the child and you are being told to do the opposite of that. Even worse, betray his trust, which will make things much harder for your entire organisation in working with his case.

7:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more ... and I feel for the stuckness you are experiencing.

Back in the 70s when I was spending time as 'the first woman engineer' and then 'the first woman maintenance supervisor' in the factory where I worked, I had to devise ways to avoid pronouns in order to shift the 'always male' paradigm and make space for the women who would be mechanics and engineers after me (preferably without the 'lady engineer' qualifiers).

The easiest turned out to be using the plural. Not 'when the mechanic does this, he ...' but 'when mechanics do this, they ...'.

You may be doing a huge service to everyone there if you can keep pronouns out of your speech even when you're talking about individuals who are unambiguously one or t'other.

Maybe in this generation we can finally begin to get over the idea that the first thing we should know about people is which of only-two genders they must be assigned.

And by all means support this kid in every way that you can.

3:07 AM  
Blogger Lindsay said...

Officially forbidden to call him "he"?? That's ridiculous.

And yes, I think you're right to feel that calling him "she" would be a betrayal --- I think it would hurt him every time he heard it.

2:48 PM  

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