CNN Transgender Youth Coverage Generates Controversy

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday September 30, 2011

Many transgender people say that they knew from extremely early ages that they were different. For trans people, it's often clear from toddlerhood that the physical gender with which they were born is at odds with the gender they know themselves to be. Hence, a very young boy might insist that he wants to wear girl's clothing, or a little girl might exhibit male behavior that could be seen as tomboyish--but which stems from an innate and ineradicable conviction that she is actually a boy.

Such feelings of gender disconnect from the body are not simply a phase, and do not vanish over time. For transgender people, those feelings of being in the wrong body persist, and even intensify, especially as adolescence reshapes their physical forms away from childhood's less pronounced gender differences and secondary sexual characteristics emerge.

Because gender transition for those who opt for gender reassignment is so much less effective after adolescence, physicians will, in some cases, seek to delay the onset of puberty for trans children as a way of buying time in order for the child, and the physicians, to be certain that gender reassignment really is indicated.

For trans people, it's not a question. The suffering produced by the clash between physical and psychological gender identities can lead to deep emotional pain and alienation from one's own flesh. Trans people who have made the transition almost always say that gender reassignment provides a sense of relief: For the first time in their lives, say those who have made the transition, they are living in the "right" body, and are at home in their own skin.

But inner peace and acceptance are not always reflected by the outside world, especially when trans children are allowed to dress and conduct themselves according to the gender roles they innately know reflect their true nature. CNN reported on this in a Sept. 27 story.

The story began with an anecdote concerning a boy named Thomas who, at age three, insisted--in sign language, because a medical condition prevented him from verbal speech--that he was a girl. Thomas' parents, thinking he didn't understand what he was telling them, responded that he was a boy, but the child would not be convinced otherwise. Nor has she ever been: Now 11 years old, Tammy lives and dresses as a girl. But her family is subjected to pressure and condemnation by those who do not understand that when Tammy wears a dress, it's not a matter of Thomas being encouraged to act in a deviant manner. Rather, it's Tammy doing what she needs to in order to live as the girl she knows herself to be.

"When children insist that their gender doesn't match their body, it can trigger a confusing, painful odyssey for the family," the Sept. 27 article said. "And most of the time, these families face isolating experiences trying to decide what is best for their kids, especially because transgender issues are viewed as mysterious, and loaded with stigma and judgment."

The article also sought to clarify another common misconception.

"Gender identity often gets confused with sexual orientation," CNN reported. "The difference is 'gender identity is who you are and sexual orientation is who you want to have sex with,' said Dr. Johanna Olson, professor of clinical pediatrics at University of Southern California, who treats transgender children."

Even for medical professionals, it can be tough to figure out whether a child is trans or gay, in large part because children don't have a sense of sexuality or any idea to whom they might be attracted later in life.

One crucial difference between trans people and gays, lesbians, and bisexuals is that whereas being attracted sexually and romantically to others of the same gender is no longer considered a pathological condition, trans people still struggle to escape the stigmatizing label of mental illness. They are referred to as suffering from "gender identity disorder," or "gender dysphoria." Trans people insist that they are not mentally ill--they are simply in the wrong kind of body for the sort of brain they have, with gender identity being hard-wired in that brain.

Though there is some evidence to support this contention, health professionals are still divided, CNN reported. "The gender issue exists in the brain," the article acknowledged, "though whether it's psychological or physiological is debated by experts."

Either way, the American Psychological Association advises that "gender non-conforming" children should not be forced into roles as boys and girls based on their physical appearance alone. To do so, the Association warns, is to risk pushing such children toward depression and other mental health issues--including, eventually, suicidal conduct.

But parents are faced with balancing their child's needs with the hard truth that society at large is undereducated around the issue at, at the same time, anything but reserved in its judgments. That's especially true when a trans child has two parents of the same gender, as Tammy does.

"I'm a lesbian," Tammy's mother, Pauline Moreno, told CNN. "My partner is a lesbian. That suddenly falls into the fold: 'Oh, you want her to be part of the lifestyle you guys live.'" Moreno said that she and her spouse had been accused of "pushing her to do this." That, Moreno made plain, was absolutely untrue. But when their child began talking about amputating the penis that was part of her physical body, they knew they couldn't simply dress Tammy in boy's clothing and hope her feelings would go away.

So when Tammy turned eight, her mothers allowed her to decide what kind of clothes she was going to wear. Tammy chose girl's clothes.

"As soon as we let him put on a dress, his personality changed from a very sad kid who sat still, didn't do much of anything, to a very happy little girl who was thrilled to be alive," Moreno recollected.

The article generated a firestorm of controversy, a Sept. 30 CNN followup story reported.

"It's not unusual for a popular story on to have hundreds or thousands of responses, but the overwhelmingly negative tone of Tuesday's comments raised the question about the root of the hostility," the article noted. "What exactly provoked such harsh opinions?"

One answer: People are generally uncomfortable departing from binary man/woman conceptions of gender and sexuality alike.

"Someone who is transgender is not only crossing gender boundaries, but also defying them," Stetson University sociologist Diane Everett told CNN. "If people can't relate to you as an either-or, they have a hard time relating to you in their general comfort level."

Those attitudes are all the more inflexible when they are attached to religious beliefs, Everett added.

"God created man and woman," the sociologist said, summing up the religious objection to GLBT people in general. "Automatically, man is male, woman is female, and they shouldn't cross these lines."

Inner Lives versus Potty Talk

The article made note of the fact that while transgender people are trying to talk about the deeply personal pain of being pressured into living a gender role that does not fit them, or else face stigma for insisting upon dressing and living as the gender with which they identify, public discourse tends to center on morality--and devolve into arguments about who may use which restroom.

Indeed, foes of trans rights across the nation have adopted the restroom angle because it resonates with skeptical non-trans, heterosexual voters. Trans rights bills are routinely disparaged as "bathroom bills," and anti-trans efforts cloaked in the label of "biology based bathroom" use. Moreover, trans equality foes raise the specter of sexual predators using trans-inclusive anti-discrimination laws to infiltrate women's restrooms in order to spy on, and possibly assault, women and girls.

All of that feeds back to the idea that "innocent" children might be forced into an "unnatural" gender role.

"It's true that most people are either male or female and it is immutable for most people," the National Center for Transgender Equality's Maura Kiesling told CNN. "Most boys act like stereotypical boys, most girls act like girls."

But when that's not the case, many people have a hard time making the conceptual leap that outer appearance might not directly and universally correlate to internal experience. Anti-trans people express the same fears--unsupported by medicine, science, or the direct life experience of those involved--that anti-gay people raise: That "normal" children are somehow being "turned" into GLBTs. But trans equality advocates insist that it's crucial for the message to be heard that parents who allow their children to "socially transition" by wearing the clothing appropriate for them, they identify as are not harming their kids. Quite the opposite: They are trying to protect and nurture their trans children.

"Why in the world would anybody be so hostile about parents really trying to understand something about their children that wasn't in the original playbook as parents?" Kiesling asked. "They're doing the best they can trying to do right by their kids."

Social misconceptions, lack of understanding, and fear can be co-opted for political purposes by anti-gay and anti-gay groups like the Family Research Council-affiliated One Million, which recently helped drive the brouhaha surrounding the casting of Chaz Bono on reality show "Dancing With the Stars." Though Bono--born Chastity, the only child of Cher and Sonny Bono--looks like a man, One Million called for a boycott of the program and claimed that the sight of the heavyset, bearded man dancing with a female partner would be "confusing" to children viewing at home. The claims generated a great deal of publicity for the group and its message, even though they did not appreciably hurt ratings and may even have boosted viewership.

Meantime, the same anti-trans mindsets continued to percolate. At conservative chat site, the conversation centered around the idea that tans people who transition are "mutilating" their bodies, and around issues of child welfare and insinuations that gay activists were out to harm the young.

"[T]he problem, is that these two women are not hurting themselves they're having this little boy injected so as not to have the boy go through male puberty and have been bringing him up as a girl," one chat participant posted, referring to Tammy and her parents.

"This is a classic case of the child needing to be taken away from these nuts," the posting continued. "These two freaks then should be jailed for child abuse."

"Clueless!" declared another posting. "When a suicidal child wants to be who he is by killing himself, responsible adults don't support and assist in the suicide. When an addicted child wants to be who she is by injecting heroin into her veins, a responsible adult doesn't escort her to her dealer and then help to hold the needle steady. Yet when mentally disturbed children want to mutilate their bodies, these journalists don't understand why a story supportive of these unhealthy desires draws hostility.

"The harsh opinions come from the fact that decent parents see our duty to our kids as including guidance and not just unthinking 'support,' " the posting continued. "Children need adults in their lives, and liberals have abandoned (or never accepted) their responsibility to act as adults."

"These kids are too young to make such life changing decisions," declared another comment. "They're 'pretending' at this age. They probably believe if they changed their minds, they could always go back. They have no idea their 'parents' have mutilated them beyond repair. They'll forever be walking Frankensteins.

"This isn't a child's choice," the comment continued. "At this age, this is an insane parents choice."

Others speculated that environmental toxins, whether chemical or ideological, were to blame.

"This is obviously a social disease, brought on by our twisted culture," one posting read. Another referenced a claim of falling male fertility rates.

Others simply clung to a credo that dictated that "liberals" and the media were to blame.

"It is time for these freaks to seek mental help," posted one chat participant. "This pro queer, cross dressing biased liberal corrupt media is so out of touch with reality."

In the meantime, trans individuals face high rates of assault, even murder, and fight with government bureaucracies for even the smallest accommodations--not just in terms of restroom use (or, failing that, officially 'gender-neutral' restrooms) but also in terms of securing identification such as driver's licenses that match the names, faces, and genders they live with as their everyday selves.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.