The Discourse on Trans Youth is Failing Youth

closeup of a transgender pride flag waving on the blue sky, moved by the wind, with the sun in the background

Shifts in social understanding are often if not always accompanied by discussions of how said new social understanding poses a threat to society, meant to engender moral panic and backlash. Rarely if ever is this done because of legitimate problems posed, rather it is almost always driven by those who refuse to accept that the world might be different than they previously imagined. We can see this pattern played out across our history, there were those who claimed trying to dismantle slavery would destroy civilization, that women weren’t smart enough to be their own people, that being gay was an affront to the natural order of the world. Now, despite the rationale and research supporting trans identities and despite the research that having access to social and medical transitioning is a major factor in good mental health outcomes for trans youth, we have people peddling lies and conspiracies framing it as dangerous. 

Not long ago the National Post published an article titled “Canada’s teen transgender treatment boom: Life-saving services or dangerous experimentation?”. True to the title, the article immediately goes on to frame youth coming out as trans as a problem, that it’s happening too often and their too often given access to puberty blockers. In many ways, this article encapsulates the failures of discourse around the issues facing trans youth; mild to blatant transphobia, misinformation and myths about trans youth, and focusing on negative possibilities while barely paying lip-service to very real positive outcomes are all things this article does. There is a conversation to be had around how we can best support trans youth, what different forms of support and resources should be included in a comprehensive approach, what other things can help reduce trans youth mortality beyond puberty blockers that can be expensive and do have side effects attached. Yet this conversation doesn’t require the discriminatory rhetoric of this youth seeking transition resources as problematic.

“But they worry that well-intentioned therapists are giving short shrift to complex, multi-faceted psychological issues, while accentuating medical treatment that can be irreversible.”

The National Post

It is true that there is a problem that medical practitioners often only see puberty blockers or hormone replacement therapy as the next option for trans youth, but that problem isn’t due to the acceptance model. That problem stems from the severe lack of services for trans youth, the lack of trans youth support group and the lack of understanding of how trans youth can find tools or strategies for coping with gender dysphoria, tied into the knowledge that if these youth face rejection or receive no support from medical practitioners their risk for suicide or suicidal thoughts is extremely high.  A 2015 survey reported that one third of trans youth responding to the survey had attempted suicide, these findings are corroborated by a later study from 2017. Researchers as well as those who directly work with trans youth often find the driving forces behind these numbers are experiences with dysphoria, discrimination, and feeling disconnected and unsupported. The feeling of hopelessness that youth may experience if they reach a dead-end in finding support would do little to improve these numbers, and it’s not impossible to see why in this position practitioners might opt to suggest blockers or hormones instead of nothing. 

“M., a mother in a mid-size Ontario city, said her daughter declared at age 15 — “out of the blue,” while suffering severe anxiety — that she was transgender, and made it clear she wanted to move quickly to testosterone treatment and gender-reassignment surgery.”

The National Post

As for “sudden declarations” of being trans and the rising (though still statistically tiny) number of youth going to gender clinics, this can be better understood in relation to how trans youth often explore their gender identity. As education about trans identities expands and more youth learn that they can explore gender rather than just have it assigned, more trans youth feel able to explore their identity and even come out to friends and family. We see them emboldened by knowing a community exists, that there’s validity to their experiences and feelings. Prior to this, we just saw more people staying closetted longer or even their entire lives. “Sudden declarations” happen when these youth have had a chance to explore with friends or other family members they might feel safer with. Notice that many of the quotes from parents in the National Post article were”relieved” their child wasn’t trans or didnt transition, or “worried” when their child came out. These are all signs of possible transphobia, even if these parents themselves don’t think they’re transphobic. Being “relieved” your child isn’t trandsgender suggest being trans is a problem, much like being saddened by seeing other youth come out as trans. Their kids would have picked up on this in their own life, felt less comfortable with them and explored their identity with other people. Yes,it happens  after questioning their own gender some youth feel comfortable as cisgender, thats a valid experience, and part of why WPATH’s standards of care for trans youth includes a need for demonstrating a long-term existence of trans identity and this is usually where the one year rule comes from for lived experience with trans identities. 

Meanwhile, media representations that parallel trans identities are tied into the disproportionate rates of AFAB (assigned female at birth) youth and AMAB (assigned male at birth) youth accessing gender clinics. Consider the way movies and shows portray men or boys performing femininity, often it’s shown with mockery and derision, something to be laughed at and insulted. It’s more than common to have a man wear a dress for a quick laugh. Comparatively women or girls performing masculinity tend to be taken more seriously in media. This is both reflective and feeds back into reinforcing the idea of men breaking gender roles as unacceptable, comparatively to the more fluid levels of acceptance of women doing so. This isn’t to say that Transphobia isn’t an issue or is less of an issue for anyone who was AFAB, but that it is different, in a way that tends to make it a bit easier to access transitioning services. 

Finally, let’s address the idea of misdiagnosis or using trans identities as a quick fix for mental health. It’s a strange thing to suggest trans youth aren’t trans they just have BPD when it’s not as if having BPD precludes being trans. It is entirely possible that trans folks experience higher rates of BPD than the greater population, similarly to how there’s quite possibly a link between gender diverse identities and higher rates of autism. Beyond that, there’s not much more to discuss aside from that it’s problematic to dismiss youth’s experiences, rather than give them the space to explore being trans while also providing resources for supporting their mental health.

None of this is novel, that a major news organization like the National Post gives a platform to problematic rhetoric in the name of “unbiased coverage” while simultaneously prioritizing discriminatory views and language. It is, however, harmful, because coverage like this is then read by well meaning parents who are just honestly confused about how to support their trans child and think they’re honestly doing the best thing when they begin to reject their child’s identity. These children don’t just stop having the experiences they have when we deny them resources or label them as confused. Articles like the mentioned one push arguments that seem easy to accept because they claim to just be worried about children’s best interests, and these arguments spread easily because people can justify to themselves fairly easily that this is just rejecting something unfamiliar because it’s dangerous. However, if there is one thing to takeaway from all of this, this isn’t the case, providing more trans inclusive spaces improves the overall health of our youth. It is essential we reject these narratives because they lead to youth losing access to lifesaving resources.