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The November Atlantic has a fantastic article by Hanna Rosin about transgender kids, which I read hungrily in the hope that it would add to my understanding of the topic. Sadly, it confirmed many of my worst fears. There’s a heart-rending story about 8-year-old Brandon (pictured left) who, from the moment he could speak, has insisted he was a girl. His bewildered parents, who live in an area where “a boy’s a boy and a girl’s a girl,” eventually wind up at a transgender conference where they meet kids and parents going through the same kinds of challenges. The article outlines in broad strokes the evolution of attitudes on the subject of gender identity, though I’m not sure “evolution” is the right word. “Pendulum” seems more appropriate since we seem to swing back and forth between the two following dogmas:

Gender is hard-wired and immune to cultural influence


Gender is entirely cultural with no biological basis

Otherwise known as Nature versus Nurture.

The fact that gender could be a mix of these two things seems not to have entered into the minds of the “experts” who treat these kids. Notably absent from interviews with them is any awareness of the fact that they may not have at their disposal all the information required to form a comprehensive theory of gender. And since all of the kids (and indeed all of the psychologists, physicians, and researchers who study them) exist within a cultural framework, it’s nearly impossible to isolate non-cultured traits. In fact, the few twin studies performed on the subject have revealed that, while sexual orientation seems to have a strong biological basis, gender identity does not.

So what gives? Little Brandon’s mother only wants her son to be happy and seems willing to re-educate herself if necessary to support his decision to live as a girl. Reading their story, you can’t help but empathize with both of them. Soon Brandon’s mother will be faced with a decision far more serious than whether or not to let him wear make up and dresses. She has to decide whether to administer puberty-blocking hormones. The treatment is physically reversible, but, as many people who have taken them can attest, once you start down that road, it’s hard to stop. When your body starts looking like a girl’s and people start treating you like a girl, it creates a feedback loop that is difficult to break out of.

Eight-year-olds demand a lot of things: cookies for breakfast, twelve ponies and a castle for Christmas, the freedom to beat up their siblings without consequence. Is it possible that the desire to switch genders should be treated, at least in some cases, as one of those kinds of demands? Is an eight-year-old truly ready to make a decision as weighty as swapping gender? Does an eight-year-old even know what gender is?

I find it interesting, for example, that Brandon’s fondness for make up could be interpreted as a hard-wired feminine impulse. In many cultures, particularly in pre-industrial indigenous cultures, men wear as much make up as women. The fact that in Western society only women wear make up is, therefore, a highly specific cultural phenomenon. Seen in this light, Brandon’s desire to wear make up is an act of voluntary self-socialization not a natural feminine impulse.

But those abstract distinctions don’t really matter to Brandon and his mother. For them the choice is clear: swap genders now and live like a “normal” girl or go through life (provided it’s not just a phase that goes away on its own) as an effeminate misfit.

Is there another way? We don’t demand rigid conformity to norms in all things. Why gender? The average man is taller than the average woman, but we don’t demand that short men take human grown hormone or that tall women have their legs shortened. Is it possible that we’re demanding too much of these children and not enough from society as a whole? Shouldn’t we be better than the mother of Brandon’s former best friend who rejected him on “Christian” grounds? Perhaps if it was okay for a boy to wear make up, Brandon wouldn’t be faced with the prospect of puberty-blocking hormones. And why shouldn’t it be okay for a boy to wear make up? It doesn’t hurt anyone.

Utterly absent from this otherwise insightful article was any mention of compassion. Not once did someone suggest that Brandon might be encouraged to love his body as it is and still enjoy playing with dolls. Not once did anyone question the ethics of endorsing rigid gender boundaries despite ample evidence of the pain they cause. Perhaps when faced with a little boy like Brandon, instead of figuring out how to fix him, we should figure out how to fix ourselves.