Trans* Kids and Media Messaging


Lately there has been a huge increase in the number of media news stories about trans* youth, especially pre-pubescent kids. Mainstream media shows them, blogs cover them, and stories get passed around on social media. Many of these stories are uplifting tales of families that accept and nurture their non-gender-conforming children and go on at length about how they are managing their local school systems and other barriers to acceptance for these kids. The kids featured almost always seem to identify firmly on the other side of a gender binary from the sex they were assigned at birth.

While seeing examples of accepting families is reassuring and inspiring for many, I’m worried about this messaging. I don’t think it’s function is to increase acceptance of trans* people in society. In fact, I think it’s primarily designed and intended to enforce the gender binary and emphasize a very particular kind of story about who trans* people are.

There is a standard narrative of the trans* experience that goes something like this: “Though born as a boy, Sally always felt like a girl. She liked pink things and dolls as a child and wished she could turn into a girl. Family and society pressures caused her to try very hard to be a masculine boy/man and this made her miserable. After years of being depressed and sometimes suicidal she finally came out as a woman. After transitioning and living full time as a feminine woman she lives happily ever after.”

This story is accurate to some degree for some trans* people. It is NOT accurate for many. This is not the RIGHT way to be trans* – there is no right or wrong way to identify or perform one’s own gender. But this is the story that cis people generally recognize as being THE trans* experience, and any other process is questioned by many. If this is not someone’s narrative they risk being labeled as not a “real” trans* person.

The “cute trans* kid” stories largely serve to enforce the idea that “real” trans* people firmly identify as the opposite gender to their assigned birth sex from a young age. I am concerned that this leads to diverse trans* experiences being lost in the messaging and increasing ideas that there is such thing as the right kind of trans* person – someone who consistently identifies on one side of the gender binary for their whole life. It threatens the legitimacy of people who discover their gender identity at a later age or who do not identify on the ends of the gender spectrum at all.

I will say that these stories are reassuring to me in the sense that it is good to see some kids having much more accepting experiences than people in my generation and older generally did. Many of the parents in those stories are doing good by their kids and making real changes in their school systems. That’s great – but when we share those stories and see them in the media we must also be aware of the other messages they are sending and how those messages may not be in the best interest of trans* people in general.

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  1. I’ve often thought about this (although as a more-or-less gender conforming, cis, straight person). When I read those stories of trans kids, I’m often struck by how girly or boyish the kids are. I mean, I have always identified as a girl, but I’m not particularly girly. Why would I expect trans* kids to track so closely with expected gender norms?

    • Yeah, I suspect that the extremely gendered behavior described in these articles is more a function of the journalists’ perception and story telling than the actual preferences of the kids. Though it can also be true that early in transition some adults experience a period of sort of extreme gender performance while we figure out what is actually most comfortable for us. It may be that many of these kids do the same thing, just much earlier. Certainly lots of cisgender kids have periods of extreme gender performance too, while forming their identities, so it would make some sense for trans* kids to do the same.

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