Gender Dysphoria and Self-Harm
A reader responds to Elizabeth Hummel
On Thursday, I posted a communiqué from reader Elizabeth Hummel in which she argues that the normalization of transitioning poses grave threats to children and teens. In my view, it’s a heartfelt piece written from a place of sincere concern. The overwhelmingly positive response from commenters demonstrates what many of us suspected was true: There are a lot of people out there who feel the way Elizabeth does and not many places where they can get a fair hearing without being shouted down.
But we cannot have healthy discourse about trans issues or any issues unless there is room for difference. It’s not enough simply to say, “You can go elsewhere to find dissenting views” and leave it at that. I want this space to be a place where actual conversation can happen, and that means fostering thought-provoking and respectful disagreement, not shouting matches, partisan punditry, or echo chambers.
To that end, I’ve invited another regular commenter to respond to Elizabeth’s post. If you spend any time at all in the comments section, you know Maci Branch. Maci is a writer, and she also happens to be a trans woman. I find her response to be serious, moving, and thoughtful. I urge even the most skeptical of you to read it with the careful consideration I think it’s due.
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The studies about skeletal damage and brain development and their suppression horrify me. I also know and am thinking about the parents of trans kids. The Texas order from Governor Abbott about investigating this care as child abuse is concerning. That said, the dialogue is not a dialogue so much as it is a hostage situation. The position that gender dysphoria is so horrible that trans people are at risk of self-harm if they do not receive this care is irresponsible. It leads to tragic consequences. For this reason, I don’t blame parents, as the Texas Governor’s orders would. I was discussing this with a friend, and he was quick to condemn Abbott. My response was, “Yes, but if I can wait until I’m 16-18 to get a tattoo, then I can wait until 16-18 until I start hormones or get surgery.” He was quick to agree with me.
The position of “my body my choice” is now mainstream in some parts of the United States. When this position becomes an ultimatum and a threat, it must be condemned as irresponsible and unethical. If trans suicide is mentioned at all, it is usually to shame or guilt people who are not trans. I would like to see more calls to value life (and the necessary institutions that make life comfortable and possible) from trans people themselves. This means that “my body my choice” has limits. “One shouldn’t harm oneself because one feels badly” must go hand in hand with my “body my choice.”
My mentor at Johnson County Community College, one Michael Carriger, recommended I read Andrew Sullivan’s books. I would like to make similar assimilationist arguments that Sullivan made in the 90s about gay marriage. I think history shows that Sullivan’s moderate conservatism with regards to gay marriage won out over radical redefinitions of sexual politics. That people are protesting Sullivan and not hearing him out about the dangers of these distinct gender politics in the hands of teenagers shows that we have learned little.
As to this only taking root in WEIRD countries. There is an argument that trans culture can’t take root in places like South America or Africa because of violence. The point has been made many times about trans women of color. Everything I read says that trans women are murdered at a disproportionate rate, especially in countries that aren’t WEIRD, unless it’s an impoverished black neighborhood in the United States. We are talking about a splinter of data in the homicides that happen in these neighborhoods, as I imagine Glenn and John would be quick to point out. Nevertheless, I have attended the candlelight vigils for Transgender Day of Remembrance, and it was not for cynical or political reasons. I take issue with the word “decadence” when the conversation is framed like this.
I would like to add that some can’t afford these treatments, surgeries specifically. Insurance doesn’t cover them in most states, as they are considered cosmetic. These surgeries can be upwards of tens of thousands of dollars. The fallacy of “think of the children” is at play here at the expense of trans adults, especially those in their twenties and thirties. This is for two reasons. Trans kids are both media friendly and able to induce moral panic. If there is anything decadent about this conversation, it’s from the people who have taken an interest in us and not the other way around.
I was more gung-ho in the past about children accepting trans identities and working to fulfill these goals, but I am urging caution now. My eagerness came from a place of envy. I wanted the time I had spent in the closet back. This is a bias that clouds every trans and gay person’s thinking about what is socially good. For this reason, trans people are not always the best judges of these circumstances. For example, it would seem obvious that medical transition would follow social transition. It would also seem obvious that more of us are coming out, and we take this for granted as a good thing. I think the logic of “old enough for a tattoo, then old enough to transition” is sound logic if met with proper medical standards. Even with this understanding, parents can give their permission for tattoos for minors. Even Texas doesn’t consider this child abuse in special circumstances.
I was raised to think of tattoos as tacky. Perhaps Glenn’s decadence criticism corresponds with my comparison of tattoos and gender identities. All the message that “tattoos are tacky” did during my childhood was make me think tattoos were cool and make me want to get one. I see a similar danger here with people getting a more serious equivalent of regrettable tattoos.
Is it appropriate to frame this as the unraveling of society? J. K. Rowling certainly seems to think so. The places where gender ideology runs into trouble are in instances where biological sexual characteristics are determining factors: locker rooms, prisons, and sports. Rowling is correct to voice her criticisms, even if we don't like the way she does it. Canceling her is wrongheaded. I'm someone who attempted suicide because of dysphoria and my mother came to read Harry Potter to me in the hospital to show how much she loved me. When I say the self-harm position is irresponsible, I'm speaking from experience. Not a day goes by that I don't regret my actions.
I have come up with an example from the Harry Potter series that illustrates this point. Remus Lupin is a werewolf. Every full moon, he transforms into a beast. It’s just part of who he is. He has no choice in the matter, and the experience is secretive, lonely, and painful. Remus’s school friends James Potter, Sirius Black, and Peter Pettigrew want to help out their pal, so they teach themselves to turn into animals in order to keep him company. It is a touching gesture of friendship, but it gets them all into trouble, since such voluntary transformations are illegal without proper training and certification, as dictated by the Ministry of Magic. The friends resent the government bureaucracy that punishes them, but the fact remains that transforming into an animal is dangerous for those who don’t know what they’re doing. These turn out to be the best years of Remus’s life, but that is no excuse for his friends putting themselves and others in harm’s way.
Animal transformation in the Harry Potter books is my equivalent of being trans, the idea of changing ourselves into something else by way of an Ovidian philosophy. Those who receive proper guidance can do it when they come of age. That is the standard and example to look to, not James, Sirius, and Peter. They should have waited. But Remus can’t help it. Be nice to Remus.
— Maci Branch