Waking up with a headache – kinda sucks.
Waking up with a flat chest – priceless.
Liam Kai, eighteen years old and just graduated from high school in a town near Ann Arbor, Michigan, tweeted these words on 18 June 2014. It was nine days after his breast surgery and the day after he had had the dressings and drains removed. On the same day he also posted a video on Instagram in which we watch the doctor unwrapping his bandages: Liam looks down over his newly boyish chest and whoops, ‘Dude!’ In a few weeks he will begin injecting the testosterone that will – finally – vault him out of the purgatory of an extended androgynous childhood into the manhood of body hair and a deep voice.
Liam was born female, adopted from China at six months and named Lucy by his American mothers. Always a tomboy, he had in fact been living as a boy since the age of thirteen, binding his growing breasts in constricting nylon vests. ‘I’m thanking whatever force out there that this is my last week having to bind,’ he tweeted before his surgery. ‘It’s painful, embarrassing, frustrating, and tiring.’
Shortly before Liam’s surgery, Time magazine had identified a moment in American culture by putting the glamorous transgender actress Laverne Cox, star of Orange Is the New Black, on its cover beneath the title ‘The Transgender Tipping Point’. President Barack Obama has made a point of including transgender children in his annual Easter Egg Roll, Barbara Walters has featured them on television, there are special summer camps for them and some authorities – most notably, New York City – have told schools to accept children in their ‘affirmed’ genders.
Until his eighteenth birthday, though, Liam could do nothing medically to assist his gender transition process. This is because his legal parents, a lesbian couple who had split when he was six, disagreed over the issue. After a somewhat rocky beginning his mother Beth, with whom he lives, has accepted Liam’s transgender identity: ‘I see the procedure as the plastic surgery my son needs to have rather than the double mastectomy my daughter needs to have,’ she told me just before Liam’s ‘top surgery’, as it is known in the trans lexicon. But the other parent, with whom Liam has broken entirely, vehemently policed his gender expression during his childhood: she insisted he wear dresses and grow his hair long, and that he would be much healthier and happier if he just accepted himself as female. Using court orders, she effectively withheld consent for any medical treatment while he was still a minor.
Beth has been with her current partner Andrea for more than twelve years and they have raised Liam together; he addresses them collectively as ‘moms’ (often with mock exasperation: Mo-oms!?!) and likes to call himself, on Facebook, ‘a mommas’ boy (get the plural?)’. There has been something redemptive, even victorious, for all of them in the moment of the surgery, not just in the way they believe it will make Liam’s life better, but in the physical, irrevocable marking of what they all believe to be true: he is a man.
Beth and Andrea agreed to pay for Liam’s first tattoo as a gift for his eighteenth birthday. Like muscles, tattoos are fetishes of masculinity, and Liam had been craving both for years. He had been particularly close to Beth’s father, a Midwestern farmer who died shortly after he transitioned and who, after a brief struggle with the fact that his granddaughter was now a grandson, had said, simply, to his daughter, ‘You have a very good son. He’s just good.’ Liam chose these words for his tattoo: ‘He’s just good’ is inked on the inside of his right upper arm.
‘Guys work out, they get those tattoos, they get those biceps,’ Liam said to me. ‘They have to work their asses off for those surgeries and hormones. They create the person that they always knew they were, and take pride in it.’ There was a phrase for this that Liam had found on the Internet, and liked: ‘self-made men’.
The United States is, after all, the place that defined and perfected reinvention, a place founded on the very notion of ‘transition’: across the Atlantic to a new world and (after many decades, in the case of slaves) a newly unfettered identity. America is a society that promises a transition across class if you work hard enough, and then another to happiness with the commodities you can subsequently buy, including cosmetic surgery – most of which is a form of gender enhancement anyway. It is also the society that pioneered identity politics and the idea that ‘the personal is the political’: the women’s movement, the gay rights movement and now the transgender movement, with its attendant social revolution in how to deal with gender-nonconforming children.
The term ‘self-made men’ was, in fact, appropriated to describe transgender men by the sociologist Henry Rubin, and he meant it to hold a double entrendre. Gender transition is not just an act of personal will and creativity, the phrase suggests, but also a conforming of your outer shell to your inner ‘true self ’. If you are ‘self-made’ you are made by your true ‘self’ rather than by your external characteristics. In most people, internal and external happily conform, but in some they do not, and for such people, gender transition brings them together, makes them whole.
The British travel writer Jan Morris began her 1974 book Conundrum, famously, with the line: ‘I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl.’ The early age of her awareness was not unusual: in 2009, just over half of the adult transgender participants in an online survey in Britain said they knew they were ‘in the wrong body’ by the time they were six. Like almost all transgender people of her generation, Morris suffered a deeply anguished adolescence and early adulthood, and finally had sex-reassignment surgery in her forties. She was lucky to make it: the statistics show that transgender people are dramatically more vulnerable to depression, suicide, self-harm, HIV infection and physical violence than the rest of the population.
Today, medication that delays puberty means that boys who believe they are girls can be raised as girls, and vice versa, without having to endure adolescence. They can begin taking cross-sex hormones and transition straight into adulthood in their ‘affirmed’ genders, without, in the case of transgender men, having to submit to a mastectomy, because their breasts would not have grown in the first place.
The use of puberty blockers was pioneered a decade ago in the Netherlands; the ‘Dutch protocols’, as they are known, stipulate that minors should only be allowed to start cross-sex hormones later in adolescence. The initial idea behind the treatment is that it buys time, until children are older and able to make more mature decisions about their gender identity. According to the Dutch tracer research, not one of the initial patients who subsequently transitioned had any regret about doing so, and the cohort reflects the psychological health of the normative population.
Still, most Western European countries do not permit medical gender transition before adolescence, and some states use their nationalized health plans assiduously to regulate the body. The response to this, on the other side of the Atlantic, is increasingly: Why wait? ‘It would be cruel to deny him testosterone,’ one mother said to me of her thirteen-year-old transgender son. ‘I know he’s a boy. He knows he’s a boy. Why not let him have male puberty along with everyone else, rather than keeping him back, thereby adding to his already considerable social problems?’
Given both privatized health care and a culture of interventionist parenting in the United States, market forces prevail. What this means is that medical gender transition is, generally, out of reach for poorer people (the hormones are cheap, but the puberty blockers cost over 4500 a month, and are not covered by insurance). But if you have the resources and the will, you can now make it happen for your children. ‘The parents are driving this,’ Dr Herb Schreier, a psychiatrist at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, California, told me. ‘They’re way ahead of the medical profession. They’re challenging us.’
Previously, an approach drawn from psychoanalytic theory prevailed: girls, it was believed, might wish to become male because they saw their mothers as disempowered; more commonly, boys might wish to become female to draw detached mothers closer to them, or to meet these mothers’ narcissistic needs. The primary advocate of this approach, the psychologist Kenneth J. Zucker, insists that the idea of transgenderism as a natal condition is ‘simple-minded biological reductionism’, and there is certainly enough evidence to implicate family and social origins in some cases.
But there is a growing body of research that suggests that hormonal intrauterine imbalances may play a role too. And the resistance to the psychoanalytic approach comes not so much from its diagnostic theory as from its cure: an often severe form of reparative therapy that seems increasingly like a form of child abuse, given its denial of the child’s reality. The sea change among parents, says Herb Schreier, is the consequence of a refusal to pathologize families. ‘This idea of blaming mothers – in the way “refrigerator moms” were once blamed for autism – and then enforcing a draconian approach, it just isn’t going to wash any more. Parents have rebelled. They have said, “You’re not going to label my kid as disturbed. This is the natural form of things for my child.”’
Then again, asks the child psychologist Avgi Saketopoulou, ‘how are we to know when gender acts as proxy for psychopathology?’ She identifies a gap, in the current culture, between the old way – which pathologized transgender identities – and the new wave of political transgender activism, which ‘fails to inquire about gender’s psychic meanings’.
Professionals in the field use language such as ‘sea change’, or ‘explosion’, to describe the number of families presenting with transgender children. This is not only because of new medical treatments, such as puberty blockers, but also because of the dramatic new access to information that parents and children now have. Liam first thought about being transgender when he watched The L Word, the American TV series. He heard Max, the trans character, talk about ‘binders’, punched the word into Google, and he was off. Later, he researched surgery options by watching graphic videos on YouTube.
Diane Ehrensaft, based in the Bay Area, where she co-runs the UCSF Benioff Child and Adolescent Gender Center Clinic, has become the country’s pre-eminent child psychologist in the field. ‘One of our biggest challenges is putting the brakes on,’ she told me. ‘Parents are anxious, they can’t get their kids in focus. They come in and say, “If my child is transgender I’m OK with it, but how can I tell?”’ Ehrensaft often advises parents that they need to learn to live with the ambiguity for a while, until things become clearer. The evidence, she says, is that ‘most gender-nonconforming children are not transgender but either “proto-gay”, or simply exploring new options for “doing” their gender.’ She makes a careful distinction between two types of children: those who articulate their sense that they are the opposite gender from the moment they can talk, and those who are ‘gender-creative’ and might grow up to be gay or lesbian. ‘For our youngest transgender children, we usually can tell quite early, although not always in one moment in time. But when we do know, we should let them fly.’
When Ehrensaft was a student in the late 1960s – at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor – she found her own identity through the women’s movement. She became part of a generation that urged men and women to think beyond the blue blanket–pink blanket stereotypes. You could be a boy and play with dolls: this would teach you to grow up and be a nurturing father. You could be a girl and play with mechanical trains: this would prepare you to be a professional woman. ‘We challenged gender expression,’ Ehrensaft says, ‘but gender identity – who you are – remains unassailable, for all but the most open parents. Now parents are struggling with the possibility that their boy who plays with dolls might be a girl, or their tomboy daughter might be a boy.’
The newly revised American diagnostic manual requires at least six of the following symptoms to be met for a diagnosis of gender dysphoria in a child: a repeated insistence that he or she is the other sex; a preference for cross-dressing; persistent preferences for cross-sex roles in make-believe play; a strong rejection of toys or games stereotypically played by one’s sex; an intense desire to participate in the stereotypical games and pastimes of the other sex; a strong preference for playmates of the other sex; a strong dislike of one’s sexual anatomy; and a strong desire for the sexual anatomy of the other sex. The shift of name from ‘gender identity disorder’ to ‘gender dysphoria’ was part of a process of removing judgement from the diagnosis, but Schreier and Ehrensaft belong to a network of professionals working to de-pathologize the condition entirely. Nonetheless, they believe in the necessity and importance of early-transition protocols, and in applying diagnostic criteria, which they paraphrase as ‘Persistence, Consistency, Insistence’.
The decisions are not easy ones to make, says Joel Baum, who runs an educational and advocacy organization called Gender Spectrum. ‘But if you have these treatments available, and you have a desperate kid in front of you who is clearly in distress you have to remember your medical oath: “Do no harm.” In such instances, this means assisting them to transition, rather than standing by and watching them spiral into depression, self-harm or even suicidality.’
It is an approach that meets with significant resistance from professionals who feel that pre-adolescent children are too young to understand gender, and that adults have no right to make such decisions for them – particularly given that cross-sex hormones render their patients permanently infertile. But Baum has a different way of understanding children’s rights: ‘The idea that “children should be seen and not heard” doesn’t hold any more. So when we start asking children, “Who are you?”, they tell us. It is our responsibility to listen to them.’
Baum’s statement raises a question that is one of the biggest of the current transgender moment. Have there always been transgender people and, if so, has our society not, until now, had ears well tuned enough to hear them, brains big enough to understand them? Or has the confluence of medical technology and human rights discourse created a category that did not previously exist, but into which people who might previously have struggled with gender-nonconformity can now find their place?
I am a South African man who came out as gay in the early 1980s while an undergraduate at Yale. I was a direct beneficiary of American-style identity politics. As a child in my first year at primary school in Johannesburg, where the boys and girls were separated at break time, I struggled to compete physically with boys and usually found myself playing alone. On one particular day I must have been lingering around the runnel of sorts that formed the boundary between the two sides of the playground – my reverie might have even carried me across the boundary – when a teacher pounced, and gave me a firm lecture about where I belonged. I learned a valuable lesson: if I was going to fit in, I needed to appear to accept the boundaries set for me. Transgressions had to be underground or in the ether, beyond the patrol of adults.
But what if, as a little boy, I had been time-ported to the Bay Area in the 2010s, and had landed up in Diane Ehrensaft’s consulting room because of repeated runnel-transgression? Would I have been turned into a little girl because I harboured fantasies involving my mother’s wardrobe and didn’t like the rough play of boys? Or would I have been told it was OK to be ‘gender-creative’ and developed a whole new identity beyond the gender binary? What would I have become?
When I told Ehrensaft that such thoughts made me panicky, she nodded. ‘I think you’re relieved that you grew up in simpler times because you knew who you were. If, somewhere in your consciousness, you had been conflicted or ambivalent, you might feel differently now.’ Still, she said, ‘I have to ask, are we overwhelming the kids in any way with all these extended possibilities? It’s a lot easier to walk around in a box than to have no boundaries.’
I started to wonder about my own gender, and the paths not taken. To the extent that I had been somewhat effeminate as a boy, was it because I was attracted to other boys, and therefore thought I needed to be girlish to get their attention? Or did I become ‘gay’ – a tribal identity that has never seemed quite adequate – because I needed to belong somewhere, and heterosexual masculinity was not quite capacious enough? I never thought I was a girl, but there were certainly times – imagining myself in the arms of a pimpled Lothario rather than having to pass a ball to him – when I wished I were one. What if it had been OK to cross over that runnel, or even dwell in its ambiguity, turning that seemingly impenetrable border between the genders into a borderland that could hold me?
Liam’s mother, Beth, went to China to get a girl-child.
It was partly a response to baby girls being abandoned, she told me. ‘It was all over the press.’ She was approaching forty and wanted a child; her partner at the time was willing to do it with her. Like many lesbians of her generation, she submitted her application to the Chinese authorities – albeit disguising herself as a ‘single mother’ – and in November 1996, she joined a group of Americans who set out to Hunan province to collect their children. The conditions at the orphanage in the town of Yiyang were appalling: the little girl handed over to Beth was malnourished and very ill, but, like the other infants, she had been ghoulishly made up with rouge and painted eyebrows, prettified for her new parents.
All the professionals I spoke to confirmed unreservedly that there is no correlation between queer parents and queer kids (most of their young gender-nonconforming or transgender clients came from typically straight families), but I had come to America looking, specifically, for gay or lesbian parents with transgender kids. I wanted to understand the relationship between my generation of pioneers – women like Beth who pushed the boundaries of the definition of family by raising their own children outside of the institution of heterosexual marriage – and the new generation of pioneers, exemplified by transgender children such as Liam.
I struggled to find such families. But here was one in a most unexpected place, in Middle America, in a modest but comfortable home along a row of identical face-brick bungalows, just off one of those endless commercial strips that defines American suburbia. Same-sex marriage is still not legal in Michigan, but Andrea, Beth’s partner, is a federal employee, and wanted benefits for her family. And so, as soon as the US Supreme Court struck down the federal anti-gay marriage legislation last year, she and Beth went to Niagara Falls in New York State to get married. Liam was their best man.
It is a Saturday night in April 2014, a few months after the wedding, and I am sitting with the three around the kitchen table. A pot of vegetable soup and a jug of iced tea are between us, and two miniature poodles rebound like pinballs off every available surface. Beth is heavyset and grey-haired, with an unkempt charm and a deadpan delivery that skates a thin line between Midwestern earnestness and irony. Her partner Andrea is her foil, a wisecracking Jewish woman from the East Coast, every story a comedy routine. There is a lot of laughter and good-natured ribbing around the table. Liam is – literally – the straight guy of the trio.
Liam has a handsome broad face and an easy smile; he carries himself with the studied elegance of someone who has spent much of his life looking at others to try to figure out how to comport himself.
He is fastidiously neat and impeccably groomed, and favours clothes that might be described as ‘preppy’: today he is in a pressed pink-and-blue button-down shirt over neat navy shorts. ‘I’ve studied the way guys speak,’ he says. ‘I’ve trained my voice to hit the floor, but I can go no further until I get the T [testosterone].’ Many guys don’t hit the floor anyway, and when we were just chatting, I was only reminded that he had been born female when he laughed unselfconsciously – a delightful girlish bubble – or when I paid attention to his impossibly smooth skin.
As we sit around the table, Andrea has a way of addressing Liam directly when telling me about him: ‘Girls have to confine themselves, not take up too much space, but you didn’t have that. You sprawled. And you’d chug like in the beer commercials, and give a frat-boy belch at the end! Being an old-fashioned lesbian myself, I thought that that’s what we had on our hands.’
‘I don’t think I ever thought Liam was transgender,’ Beth adds. ‘I’d buy him a lot of girl-power stuff. “Girls Rule!” I wanted my daughter to be a strong, confident girl.’ Inevitably, we spend much time talking about clothes, those primary gender markers, and always the first site of resistance for gender-nonconforming kids. As a girl, Beth tells me, Liam was almost oblivious to clothes: ‘He would just wear whatever. Pick it out of a pile on the floor. But you should see his wardrobe now. Everything is very organized. He cares very much exactly what every article of clothing is.’
‘I was OK being a girl,’ Liam chips in. ‘I just hated looking like a girl.’ But when he reached puberty and his breasts started growing, his discomfort developed into full-blown depression. Mandated by court to attend therapy as part of his parents’ legal battle, he mentioned his distress over his other parent’s rigidity about gender, and told the therapist that he sometimes had to remind himself that he was a girl. The therapist called Beth into the consulting room, and told both of them that Liam was transgender. She began spelling out the future, rapid-fire. ‘Liam was so excited,’ his mother remembers. ‘He wanted it all. Now. But all I knew about transgender was what I saw on talk shows. I was terrified. I kept thinking, This isn’t what I want for my child. He had always been so healthy. I could not think of hormones and surgery. I wish I’d been prepared.’
Beth, in shock, complied at first. All of Liam’s girl stuff was given away. Binders were ordered, and letters were written to the school. But then she panicked, and insisted that Liam go back to being Lucy – at least until there was more clarity. He had to send back the binders and return to clothing that was at least gender-neutral. The crash, a few months later, was perhaps inevitable. The trigger was the second Twilight film, where a boy becomes a werewolf at a certain age. With that, Liam explained, came a new physique: ‘He goes from scrawny to muscular and cuts off his long hair. It’s a huge transformation of identity into a kind of supernatural being with a big, sculpted body. It was a teen phenomenon, and I was very excited about seeing it.’ He pauses, and his eyes well up. ‘It was painful. To see that this guy had muscles instead of breasts. Muscles that everyone was attracted to, and that I would never have.’
Liam began planning to overdose on painkillers. He did not do anything, but for the first time, he says, ‘I had a plan.’ At his next session, he told his therapist about his suicidal thoughts – and collapsed, weeping: he could no longer live as a girl, he said. This was a different therapist to the first one, a more careful one, or perhaps a better-informed one in this rapidly evolving field: she referred the family to a gender specialist, and Liam and his parents began planning, carefully, how he would begin living as a boy. For Beth, this was the turning point: ‘I became a momma bear, 100 per cent behind Liam’s transition.’
The three decided on his name, Andrea says, the way they made all their major decisions: ‘on the back of a napkin at our favourite diner’. Liam chose a name to reflect his Chinese heritage, and so a thirteen-year-old girl named Lucy Kelly left her eighth-grade class one day, and a thirteen-year-old boy named Liam Kai came back the next.
So quickly did Liam transform from a depressed, introverted and untidy little girl into a confident, talkative and shipshape little boy that, when the school year ended four months later, he received the annual boys’ prize for ‘Leadership, Scholarship and Service’. ‘I was the dude!’ he kept on saying. ‘They have one for girls and one for boys, and I was the dude!’
The achievement, says Beth, was in Liam being acknowledged, finally, ‘as a guy’ – in a regular public middle school in Middle America that was willing to put his male name on a trophy before it had even been changed legally.
The glory of the ‘Dude Award’, as the family calls it, offset some of the difficulties that followed. Liam stopped hanging out with the girls he’d been friends with since the beginning of his school career, which saddened him: there was a new barrier between them that he did not quite understand. And he never quite made friends with the guys, because he did not go through male puberty, as they did. Some of them gallantly lent a hand by showing him the guy way to wear a hat or to sag one’s jeans, but if he tried to talk about girls or dating them, ‘things would get shady’, he says. ‘That would mean this was real.’
Because of the breast-binding, Liam stopped doing sport, particularly swimming, his passion. His life took place outside the rituals of suburban American life, like summer camp and sports meets, and he spent most of his time at home. He became very involved at Riot Youth, an ‘LGBTQQA’ (‘Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning and Allies’) youth group in Ann Arbor, where he was a youth facilitator, but his weekends were lonely and isolated. He found company in television dramas, and creative outlet through his own writing: he is an obsessive writer of fan fiction, which he posts online.
Liam says, too, that he has been unlucky with dating. The girls he met through the Riot Youth group were too often involved in adolescent self-harming such as cutting; the girls he courted at high school would back off, he felt, because he was transgender. But when he runs through his history, it is clear that he has been busier than many boys – certainly, than I was during my teen years. There is something quite typical in his account of his love life: like his peers, he has experienced the adolescent intensity of longing and loss.
Liam started high school the year after he transitioned, and enrolled as a boy. He made the decision not to ‘go stealth’, which in trans parlance means living in your affirmed gender without revealing publicly that you have transitioned. The younger you transition, the easier it is to go stealth, but Liam says he hates secrets – and besides, there would be some kids at his new school who would have known him as Lucy. Before Liam found a way to come out, though, the issue was precipitated when he overheard a male classmate say, referring to him, ‘I don’t know what to call it.’ He was very upset. Together with his parents and his peers at the Riot Youth group, he decided to confront the issue head-on. He approached his homeroom adviser and asked to lead a class discussion about it.
The atmosphere had been somewhat tense beforehand, recalls Carol, one of Liam’s teachers. ‘Some students had known Liam in middle school and talk was spreading, not necessarily malicious, but gossipy. But things pretty much changed immediately when he spilled it and said, “This is who I am.” A ninth grader! Insane, right? This shift happened. After everyone knew, it was just like, “OK, then.” Sure there were students who were still uncomfortable. But the behind-the-back talk stopped, because Liam said, “If you have questions, ask me.”’
Carol had first known Liam as Lucy, in middle school, and become close to her as her seventh-grade teacher. When Lucy told Carol she wanted to transition, ‘I wanted to support her all the way, but in the back of my mind, I couldn’t stop the questions: This is such a huge decision at such a young age. How does she really know?’ But when Carol encountered Lucy, as Liam, again in high school, ‘I could not get over the transformation. This very depressed, even verge-of-suicidal, girl had turned into a self-confident leader, educating others, one of the school tour guides, the initiator of the annual talent show.’ Liam’s gender transition, she says, was ‘a no-brainer. He is who he is supposed to be.’
All the adults I spoke to about Liam were filled with similar awe. I understood it as something beyond the sometimes-kneejerk ‘affirmation’ that is identity politics boilerplate. It seemed to me that they, the best kind of prairie liberals, revelled in the redemptive story about a kid who is transformed – who succeeds – against the odds, by being true to himself. Even if they were writing a Hollywood movie in their heads, they were expanding their consciousness about who people were, and what rights they deserved. That’s an American impulse worth celebrating.
Ann Arbor is a university city and, as such, has long been a liberal outpost in the American Midwest. Every year, the Riot Youth group holds a ‘Queer Prom’ at the Neutral Zone, a teen centre just off campus, and I had timed my visit to the city to coincide with this. The theme, this year, was ‘Eighties versus Nineties’, and the Neutral Zone was done up as a disco. At around 5 p.m., the kids started to trickle in beneath a sign that set house rules: ‘Queer Prom is for LGBTQQA youth because regular school proms are not always safe and welcoming.’ No drugs, no nudity, no touching without permission, ‘no staring, no pointing and no gawking at others’ – and, of course: ‘Respect people’s preferred names and pronouns. If you don’t know, just ask.’
The kids were dressed up in either ‘Eighties’ or ‘Nineties’. I struggled to tell the difference: the eighties seemed to be remembered as fluorescent gothic, the nineties as flannel grunge. The most popular dance songs were the Macarena and the theme song from a new Disney hit, which had the kids gathered in ecstatic circles screaming, ‘Let it go! Let it GO!’ Gay anthems that would have had everyone on their feet in my day, like the Weather Girls’ ‘It’s Raining Men’, left the dance floor cold, and there was little to distinguish this from any other teen party, save that some girls had shaven heads with rat-tails and were smooching other girls.
Liam was there, wearing chinos and plaid. He said he was doing Boy Meets World, an iconic nineties sitcom, but he looked just like himself. He slipped out early, telling me that it was not his scene. He had become increasingly uncomfortable with the term ‘queer’, he said, which seemed to have ‘taken over the space at Riot Youth. When they spoke about “straight” people, it was usually to talk about other people, who were either homophobic enemies, or “allies”. I thought, Hey! What about me? I’m sitting here. I’m straight!’ Later, his mother Beth would tell me, in her deadpan way that suggested how her son’s conformism might be a form of rebellion against her own generation, ‘Liam is a very traditional straight boy. Well behaved, not a rebel at all. He has a strong idea about how guys should be: he doesn’t approve of long hair on a man, for example. And he gets crushes on the cutest girls in the class.’
When Liam came to Riot Youth four years ago, he was one of about five transgender kids: most of the others called themselves ‘gay’ (‘lesbian’ is a creepy word for American teens). Now, almost none go as ‘gay’: everyone is either ‘trans’ or ‘queer’. The number of kids who come to Riot Youth has increased, but some of Riot Youth’s adult facilitators say that perhaps being gay has become so normal and acceptable in liberal Ann Arbor that there is no need for regular gay kids to come to an after-school programme in the first place. All of Ann Arbor’s schools have very active Gay–Straight Alliances. Those who come to Riot Youth are the ‘queer ones’, the oddballs, who don’t fit in.
‘Queer’, formerly a slur, has taken an unexpected route back into youth culture through the dense academic field of ‘queer theory’. Influenced by Michel Foucault, scholars such as Judith Butler and Michael Warner understand gender and sexual identities to be contextual, socially constructed rather than biologically determined, and therefore fluid and mutable. The embrace of such instability is a profound challenge to identity politics, which demands rights precisely on the basis of inherent immutable characteristics like race, sexual orientation or gender identity. ‘Queer’, of course, means ‘different’, or ‘skewed’, and suggests a sensibility coming from having grown up with a covert – and even shameful – identity. To see things from a ‘queer perspective’ is to look at the world askance, to see it afresh. It is something I value in my own vision; something that I believe – perhaps a little arrogantly – separates me from those boys who could kick a football and smooch a girl with equal effortlessness at school.
Before the kids started pouring into the Queer Prom, Sean – one of the party’s organizers and Liam’s contemporary in Riot Youth – patiently explained to me how they saw the difference between ‘gay’ and ‘queer’. I write ‘they’ because this is Sean’s own ‘preferred pronoun’: they were born female and have a female body, but identify as ‘genderqueer’ rather than as ‘male’ or ‘female’. Sometimes, they told me, they experience gender dysphoria and bind their breasts, but at Queer Prom their breasts were free in a loose flowing top, over denim shorts and big, masculine lace-up boots. ‘“Gay” is what we do,’ Sean told me. ‘“Queer” is our culture, who we are.’
In my generation, ‘homosexuality’ was what we did and ‘gay’ was who we were. It seems to me that, for Sean’s genderqueer generation, ‘they’ is the new ‘gay’. For me, coming out as ‘gay’ in the early eighties was not just about acknowledging my sexuality and accepting myself: it was also about identifying with a subculture – political and social – and setting myself apart, with some defiance, from the mainstream. Thirty years later, when fifteen-year-old Sean went home and told her faculty parents she was a lesbian, ‘they were completely chill’, Sean told me. ‘But when I came out as genderqueer, they said, “No way can we do that.”’ They keep calling me by my legal name, and use “she”. In their mind, it’s just too difficult to change. I’m, like, if you try for two months it’ll be difficult, and then you’ll get it, OK?’
How things have changed: in liberal America, homosexuality is, as the TV sitcom would have it, The New Normal. Gay people can join the army, run corporations, get married, have kids, host TV talk shows. In this context, little wonder that there was no conflict in Sean’s family over sexuality. But when Sean’s quest for self- expression drifted further, into gender identity, the generational lines were drawn.
Sitting in on a meeting of families of transgender kids while on my trip, I had watched an otherwise supportive father (so he said) explode over the pronouns: ‘It makes no sense, and it’s too complicated. Every kid in my son’s social group wants to be called a different pronoun.’ (Other options include ‘ze’, ‘hir’, ‘zir’, ‘ey’ and ‘em’.) ‘How can I possibly remember? And if you get it wrong it’s like you’re denying their very identity!’
He has a point. But it is reductive to see genderqueer kids as being overly demanding, spoiling for a fight with adults, or simply ‘going through a phase’. Rather, they are finding room for individuation from their parents; this impulse to rebellion can be immensely creative: it germinated not only hippies and punks but feminists and gay liberationists too. Sean’s girlfriend, Charlotte, an exuberant nineteen-year-old trans woman, told me about a new word doing the rounds for those kids attracted to the subculture because it is cool or rebellious: ‘transtrenders’.
Now, at many American colleges, the gender-neutral pronouns have become the norm. In my days at college, the ‘transtrender’ equivalents were the ‘LBGs’ – ‘lesbians before graduation’. They caught much flak from the hardcore dykes, but when I look at them now, many of them married to men and with kids, it seems to me that, rather than having abandoned their undergraduate experimentation, they have carried the lessons they learned about gender stereotyping into their more conventional adult lives. Meanwhile, for men, being ‘gay’ has turned out to be not so defiant after all, but is rather about proving to the world that you are a real man, despite your homosexuality: hence the hyper-masculinity – the facial hair and the muscles and the tattoos – that has become so much part of gay culture. I feel as out of place in it as an adult as I did on the boys’ side of the runnel as a child.
I wonder how much richer – or, perhaps, freer – my subsequent life might have been if I had had a few transtrending or genderqueer years. Who knows whether I would have moved into a more gender-challenging adulthood? I don’t think I would ever have transitioned into female, but maybe I would have had more female-born sexual partners (that stopped when I was sixteen), and a better body self-image too.
Rose grew up in Ann Arbor, and hails from the Riot Youth generation just before Liam and Sean. Twenty-two years old, she has just graduated from a small liberal arts college and moved with her girlfriend to the Bay Area, where she is looking for work in the chemical industry. She has slim, boyish looks and likes to ‘strut and play tough like any butch’, she told me, but she chose the name Rose for herself to honour her femininity.
Rose was born a girl and came out as gay when she was twelve. She found Riot Youth and, during her high school years, shifted from being gay to being trans, changing her name to Fynn and her pronouns to the masculine. This was, she says, in part because of the influence of older transgender people in the group and in part – she now believes – ‘because it is socially validated in our world to be a man. Being a man in our culture is having agency, being aggressive and strong rather than bitchy and scheming.’ Rose watched Liam grow up in Riot Youth, and has no doubts that Liam is transgender and is doing the right thing by transitioning: ‘I’m not saying trans men don’t exist,’ she says. ‘Of course they exist, and for some people transition is obviously right. But for many young women like myself, young women in adolescence, at a time of great vulnerability, it’s an attractive option to become a guy.’ Particularly if you are a tomboy, and the other option is to become a butch lesbian: ‘a big fat predatory leather-jacketed dyke on a bike, that’s how we saw them. Who wants to be that?’
When she became Fynn she noticed the difference immediately: ‘the way people looked me in the eye, a level of respect and politeness that was never present when people thought I was a woman, or saw me as a tomboy’. Once eighteen, at college, she started taking testosterone. ‘I went to a counsellor and he gave me a letter after only two consultations. I was hugely excited, but when I look back at it now, I think it was nuts! Only two sessions, before sending me on this irrevocable path?’ She never felt comfortable on the T, she says. And then she fell in love with a woman who issued her a challenge: ‘You can’t be a man, and also be in these lesbian spaces and this lesbian relationship. You can’t have your cake and eat it.’
Her new partner, says Rose, helped her accept herself as a woman. She stopped the T for a few months, started it again and stopped it, finally, seven months after she had first started (not knowing, at the time, how dangerous it is to go on and off hormones like that). One of the ways Rose’s partner helped her, she says, was by giving her a copy of Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg’s 1993 coming-of-age novel. ‘I read it, and realized that all those things I loved about being a man, including loving women, could be part of stone-butch culture. When I was this butch tomboy teen, I felt it would be easier and more tolerable for me to imagine living out the rest of my life as a man than as a woman. I often joke that I had to be a man before I could find the courage to be a woman.’
Rose now lives as a woman, albeit one with a deep, masculine voice; Leslie Feinberg, by the way, identifies as a ‘transgender lesbian’, and uses gender-neutral pronouns. Some of my own older butch lesbian friends like to joke, with only semi-mock horror, that the new transgender movement is rendering them a dying breed. The transgender social revolution is in many ways a consequence of feminism, but it has issued it some challenges too. Colleges such as Smith and Barnard are being forced by law to revise their admissions criteria, and even the iconic Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival is in crisis over door policy: should transgender men and women be allowed in, or only ‘woman-born women’? While the genderqueer movement seeks to blur the gender binary, or to do away with it, transgenderism can be about reasserting it: stepping over it, from male to female or vice versa, rather than exploring the spaces in between, along a gender continuum. This has led to some concern that ‘binarist’ professionals will use the new medication to regulate gender-nonconformity in children, rather than to liberate it.
While Herb Schreier, the Oakland psychiatrist, acknowledges the risk, he says that the transgender movement has profoundly altered cultural conceptions of gender, by opening up the possibility that identity is not fixed at birth. He told me about a seven-year-old patient who has been flip-flopping for three years between being a boy and being a girl. The kid went off to a transgender summer camp and came back with an announcement: ‘Mommy, at last I think I know what I am. I’m a “they”.’ Schreier, in his sixties, looks back at the gay movement: ‘Who would have imagined a generation ago that two men or two women could marry and make a family? In the generation to come we’re going to look back at gender and say, “Oh, that binary stuff, we’re over it, thank God!”’
It is hard to imagine something as entrenched in human culture and history as the gender binary disappearing, ever. Still, something is happening in the United States, in this unexpected two-step choreographed by the transgender phenomenon and its corollary, the genderqueer movement. It is captured best, perhaps, in the words of the psychoanalyst Virginia Goldner: ‘My body is no longer my destiny. It is now my canvas.’
Like Liam and like Sean, Rose is fashioning a gender for herself in a way that feels right to her, with the tools available to her – now testosterone, now feminism – at different points in her young life. Her gender changed, in high school, because of what she learned through Riot Youth, and then changed again, at college, because she fell in love with a lesbian. In this way she is like most of us, in that she has been moulded in her youth by the shape of her context. If she had grown up in rural Appalachia, where her father comes from, she might not have found the transgender category; if she had fallen in love with a more heterosexually identified woman on campus, she might have carried on with the testosterone. This might be a measure of the fluidity of this time and this place – the proliferation of options facing young Americans – but it is also a function of human development.
We were all formed by the paths we chose to take or ignore, driven by the callow passions of youth or inertia, before we knew better.
There is, of course, one detail that separates the ‘LBGs’ of my generation from the ‘transtrenders’ of today: the irrevocable physical changes that accompany medical transition. Liam no longer has breasts; the testosterone is deepening his voice, giving him new hair and muscles and even reshaping his bones. In his instance, and in the vast majority of transgender people who undergo transition, this finality is redemptive, in the way it helps conform the outer shell to the inner self, and vaults them over that very runnel that attracts the genderqueer bunch. But Rose worries that girls starting testosterone or having surgery in adolescence ‘don’t necessarily have the mental capacity to understand the misogyny in our culture that might be informing their decisions. I certainly didn’t.’
Still, Rose is not angry with anyone for misleading her, and she believes in ‘encouraging experimentation, as long as it’s not blind’. She lives in the Bay Area, after all, the cradle of American experimentation, from psychedelic drugs to gay liberation to the Internet, in a generational ecosystem of trans and queer people with whom she came of age. She loves her deep voice, she says; the fact that she has chosen the name ‘Rose’ rather than gone back to her birth name is a sign of the way she is constructing femininity to her own specifications, rather than accepting it as preordained.
In the ‘self-made’ ethos of the current moment, Rose is even seriously considering having top surgery, as many stone-butch lesbians have already done, without becoming men.
‘I just love taking my shirt off. And there’s not a lot of places I can do that, with breasts.’
Because of his slender build and his small breasts, Liam was advised to have ‘periareolar surgery with purse-string closure and chest liposuction’, as his doctor’s website calls it, rather than a full double-incision mastectomy. He was happy with this advice: the double incision might have been more effective in removing all breast tissue, but it would have left unsightly scars beneath the nipples. Liam’s doctor has posted a video on YouTube demonstrating periareolar surgery, and Liam viewed this, with some discomfort, before making his decision. I, too, forced myself to watch it: a circular incision is made around the nipple, which is removed and held hanging by a ‘purse-string’ thread, while the breast tissue is sucked out of the cavity, before the nipple is sewn back on. The effect is of an unfurling red rosebud where the nipple should be.
I know, from my conversations with Liam, that he was terrified by the surgery, and that he struggled with the convalescence, but he saw it as pain that had to be taken, so that he could be his true self. But, culturally, he comes from a different world to mine: a Nip/Tuck world where cosmetic surgery is increasingly common, a Twilight world where digitally enhanced bodies are perpetually in flux. In the Bay Area, where Rose now lives, body modifications such as tattooing and piercing define hipster culture today, in much the way that long hair defined hippie culture forty years ago.
‘Bottom surgery’, as genital surgery is known, has been available for over seventy years for transgender women; even longer, if one includes the castration that eunuchs have endured for millennia. But for transgender men, it is still in its early stages, and many choose to live without it. There are two options: metoidioplasty, which enlarges the clitoris with hormones, or phalloplasty, which creates a penis out of skin tissue grafted from the arm or thigh. In either case, the urethra can be rerouted through the phallus to allow urination, and the labia majora can be sewn together to form a scrotum, into which prosthetic testicles can be inserted. Liam says he is in no hurry to do any of this – and hopes that, by the time he is ready for it, the procedures will have become more advanced.
In the few weeks since I last saw Liam, he has entered adulthood with an extraordinary velocity. He turned eighteen. He attended his high school prom, which he much preferred to the Queer Prom: he wore a silver tux, and his best girlfriends were in extravagant organza.
He graduated from high school, second in his class. He had his top surgery and moved out of home to a summer-school programme at the University of Michigan, where he would start, as a freshman, in September 2014. And he began his testosterone injections.
Liam celebrated the Fourth of July by posting his first shirtless portrait on Facebook. ‘Happy Independence Day!’ he wrote, relishing his own. ‘They say never to post something that you might regret, but honestly, I’d regret NOT uploading this: the first time I’ve felt the sun on my chest. Three weeks, four days post-op and two days on testosterone. It’s all still so hard to believe! . . . Thanks moms for everything you’ve done; I wouldn’t be here without you.’
The photograph, taken by Beth in the park near their house, is deeply moving. Liam is wearing cargo shorts, the band of his American Eagle underwear showing, of course. His chest is boyish and he has the serious self-conscious look of any teenage boy figuring out what to do with his new adolescent body.
My own journey into this research, my queerness as a critic, leads me to try to find my own meaning in this beautiful, celebratory photograph. I would like to believe that even if the Liam in the photograph identifies as a straight man he will always be ‘genderqueer’ in a way, because of the particular journey he has undertaken from female to male, an experience that no amount of testosterone can douse. No matter how able people like Liam are to ‘go stealth’, I would like to believe that they are afforded a gender consciousness that the rest of us can never have, because of the way they have transcended the binary, crossed that runnel.
But that’s my stuff, not Liam’s. Or at least, not his right now. ‘I’m happy,’ he writes in his post, eighteen and shirtless, next to the image he has posted on Facebook. ‘Even when I’m upset, I’m happy.’
I believe him.
Author’s note: At their request, pseudonyms have been used for Liam and the adults around him, and for Rose.
Image © Lauren Cook