JANUARY 12, 2021
BACK IN 1991, queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote, “It’s always open season on gay kids.” Substitute “trans” for “gay,” and Sedgwick could have been talking about today. In recent weeks, Texas H.B. 68 has redefined gender-affirming medical treatment for youth as “child abuse,” while Tennessee H.B. 3 has barred all transgender youth from sports participation inconsistent with their assigned sex. This past month, Abigail Shrier released her transphobic screed, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, which claims that an increase in trans identification among teenagers assigned female at birth is the result of kids’ having been “brainwashed” by a “cult.” Why are so many lawmakers and pundits — not to mention parents — scared of gender non-conforming children? Why is the trans child so often treated less as an individual person than as a litmus test for liberalism, a limit case for family values, or a metaphor for both precarity and hope?
Notably, last November also saw the release of director Sharon Liese’s new HBO documentary, Transhood, which aims to rebuff this anti-trans backlash by replacing the abstract idea of the trans child with the experiences of four actual trans kids (aged four, seven, 12, and 15) from Kansas City. The film charts the trajectories of Phoenix, Avery, Jay, and Leena over a period of five years, and the longer we spend following them, the more resistant each kid seems to being made into a metaphor for anything. Each of them comes to their lived sense of gender at their own pace and in their own way. Moreover, each articulates their gender identification differently — calmly, in contrast to the panic their mere existence occasions among the fearful. It could not be clearer that the kids themselves have no political agenda. This isn’t some kind of liberal coup orchestrated by the left and their army of pint-sized gender rebels decked out in tutus and rainbow hair. If anything, it is these kids’ lives and self-perception that are being infiltrated by a cadre of external pressures. Each of them wants a childhood but ends up with a transhood instead.
Given the movie’s opening disclaimer (“Every transgender journey is unique”), it’s hard not to be struck by how much time and experience the film seeks to cover in under 100 minutes. The result isn’t totally satisfying; New York Times reviewer Kyle Turner charges the film with spreading itself too thin, comparing it unfavorably to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2013), which plumbed the depths of one kid’s life more patiently (but also had less explaining to do). The linear temporality of the film contributes to Turner’s sense that it is “fixated on transition,” like so many mainstream trans narratives, and yet, there is a certain ingenuity in Liese’s decision to have us watch these kids grow up. First off, the mere persistence of most of these children’s cross-gender identifications should convince skeptics that being trans is certainly not “just a phase.” But also, this long timescale ensures that we notice how the kids’ — and their parents’ — attitudes toward gender shift as they develop greater self-understanding.
Perhaps ironically, Transhood is at least as much about parenthood as it is about childhood. Jules Gill-Peterson, author of the groundbreaking Histories of the Transgender Child, censured the film on this basis, saying, “This narrative, where trans kids are infantilized by the camera and then ignored in favor of their parents’ unproblematized feelings, is why I would love to see the trans kids doc genre end.” Needless to say, this kind of power imbalance is fundamental to the structure of the documentary genre more generally, as critics including Susan Sontag and Richard Blumenberg have noted. It is also, James Marten reminds us in his article “Childhood Studies and History,” a standard feature of being a kid:
[C]hildren may be among the least articulate of all members of society. […] And they are, it goes without saying, literally without political power. As a result, it is very difficult to get at their point of view, and most treatments examine institutions, ideas, or policies that shape the lives of children rather than flesh-and-blood youngsters.
Transhood, it’s true, does not reinvent the genre of documentary, nor does it offer a radically new prototype for children’s self-determination. In fact, at several points, the film could serve as a lesson in how not to project adults’ beliefs about gender onto youth. But the parents — as even their kids seem to sense — are trying their best. Several of them express trepidation at the dearth of templates for raising trans kids, and their struggles reveal how often the mandate to help one’s child access gender-affirming treatment cuts against the grain of giving them space to explore.
These kids, whose parents respect their identities and offer support for their self-expression, are undoubtedly among the lucky ones, not least because they appear to be middle to upper middle class and mostly white. (Claiming a trans identity at all may not be thinkable — let alone actionable — for youth who face multiple types of marginalization.) Even amid their good fortune, it is striking how much of these kids’ emotional burden is foisted upon them by their parents, who can’t help but over-express their own feelings about their gender ordeals. The gender binary, as we all know, leaves no one unscathed. When, upon learning from a doctor that a puberty-blocking implant will cost $2,500, 12-year-old Jay’s mother breaks into tears as he looks on stoically, his face rigid with guilt. When Phoenix’s mother pushes her four-year-old to ascend the stage of the family’s gender-inclusive church and declare that she is a girl and prefers she/her pronouns, Phoenix demurs, saying, “Mommy, I’m feeling shy,” and turns to hide. And Avery’s mother responds to the Pulse nightclub shooting by telling her that participation in an upcoming Pride parade might put her at risk of violence. Asked if she still wants to participate, Avery answers, “No! I don’t want to die!” This is heavy stuff for a nine-year-old who, by her own admission, would rather be playing Xbox or giving her puppy a bath.
Throughout the film, such gender-focused conversations serve as a release valve for the parents’ hopes and fears, while also stoking the children’s sense that what they are, often to the exclusion of all else, is trans. Toward the end of the film, Avery, now age 12, declares herself done with being a trans poster child. She refuses to do yet another book tour:
Avery: I don’t want to even have a book. I’ve done too much in this world. It’s ruined my life enough, and now everyone in this world is going to know, and it’s just going to make my life worse.
Debi (Avery’s mother): A couple of years ago, you wanted people to know …
Avery: Now I don’t. That was a really silly, stupid mistake.
Then, in one of the movie’s most revealing moments, Avery adds, “I don’t just want to be known for being transgender. That’s not how I want to make people happy.” The flip side of parental rejection, as it turns out, is acceptance so overwhelming that it turns the trans child into “a trophy,” as theorist Jack Halberstam puts it in Trans*, “a mark of the family’s flexibility, a sign of the liberal family’s capacious borders.” Like all signs, this trophy figure of the trans child stands apart from the kid: it claims to refer to a real, complex person, even as its symbolic qualities obscure what it feels like to live in one child’s particular body and world.
Children, as Halberstam goes on to say, “are dense figures of social anxiety and aspiration both,” such that trans childhood offers a case study in “how normalization works.” The phantom ideal of the “normal” (the implicitly cisgender) haunts Transhood throughout. Avery insists, “I’m just your normal transgender girl.” Leena, an aspiring model who constantly checks her image in the mirror, admits, “I always, like, nitpick myself … I don’t want somebody to look at me and question my womanhood.” And Jay asks his endocrinologist when he can start testosterone to lower his voice and increase his height so that he’ll fit in with the other teenage boys. He refuses to come out as trans to his middle-school girlfriend and peers, even as he reflects, “There might be people like me at school. Maybe they’re hiding it, too.”
The kids aren’t the only ones who prioritize fitting in. It should come as no surprise that less accepting parents often encourage this kind of hiding, asserting that being closeted is in the kid’s best interest. Often, such parents police their child’s non-normative gender expression by emphasizing the external risks that such behavior might invite. The claim that they restrict their child’s wardrobe or behavior as a means of protection against ostracism or violence allows such parents to circumvent acknowledging their own investment in having their child present (or not present) themself in a certain way. More surprising is the fact that open-minded parents, like the ones in Transhood, try to shore up their trans kids’ identities by slotting their child into linear narratives of transition so they can “pass.” It’s hard to gauge to what extent their fears of visible gender difference, or their pursuit of medical interventions to help their kids look and feel cis, are due to the limited mainstream media representations of trans life. Regardless of its origins, this blinkered and exclusionary quest to uphold the binary ought to trouble cis and trans viewers alike.
The film’s youngest and most gender-fluid subject is the exception who ends up proving the rule of the norm’s hegemony. At age four, Phoenix, clad in a rainbow dress and sandals worthy of a Disney princess, self-identifies as a “girl-boy.” However, after switching from home-schooling to public school, Phoenix is the only one of these kids to eschew gender non-conformity in favor of his birth-assigned sex. At nine, clad in a lumberjack-style flannel shirt, he totes a BB gun around the yard, almost unrecognizable. Smiling, he declares to his dad, “I’m definitely a boy.” How much of this pendulum swing is attributable to the social pressures of Phoenix’s mainstream school? How much is the result of watching his parents go through a divorce, or noticing that his grandparents stop coming around due to their anti-trans sentiments? And might his mother’s change of heart, her admission — in front of him, no less! — that she prays his younger sibling won’t turn out trans, too, have something to do with his rejection of femininity?
Mainstream society offers a million reasons not to be trans, if one can help it (and even if one can’t). Many of these circulate offstage in Transhood, hyper-focused as the film is on the parent-child relationship. Public spaces — schools, bathrooms — are, for the most part, mentioned obliquely and in relation to policy. And because we don’t get to witness the pressures these kids face at school, the nuclear family becomes a stand-in for society more broadly. The film negotiates between the shelteredness of a safe childhood and an undercurrent — of which the parents, at least, are always aware — of danger from outside. The social world gets filtered through the home, barging into the film in the form of Leena’s social media feed, or a TV news update about the Trump inauguration blaring into the living room. Even when Jay gets outed as trans by classmates, we find out, as he does, through his smartphone. The tearful confession he makes to his girlfriend, met with near silence on the other end of the line, is emblematic of the emotional double-whammy trans kids face: the vulnerability of radical exposure, and the loneliness that comes with telling the truth about oneself.
Moments like these seem more revealing than the normative framework of Transhood, which, like most mainstream media — as Kathryn Stockton has shown — neutralizes the threat of gender-variant kids by presenting them as sexually innocent and presumptively heterosexual. To its credit, however, the film resists the trap of making its subjects into symbols of anything outside themselves. And while the early onset of these kids’ cross-gender identifications suggests that gender is at least partly presocial, Transhood does not purport to distill something “essential” about gender from their stories. If anything, Phoenix’s rejection of nonbinary identity, like Avery’s change of heart about being a trans poster child, suggests that kids’ relationships to gender — both in themselves and in public — change over time. While this emphatically does not mean that trans identification is temporary, it does mean that parents and other adults need to remain open to the fluidity of children’s gender expression, without treating that plasticity as an excuse for imposing a binary. As Avery’s mother, Debi, puts it, giving trans children the space to explore their identities is a way of showing that “you love them enough to give them a chance to figure it out.”
The crux of the matter is that only the trans child themself can figure out their gender; no one else can do it for them. Truth claims about one’s gender identity — like claims of physical pain, or of being in love — are unverifiable from the outside. In this vein, we might understan Transhood as mapping out what Judith Butler identifies in Giving an Account of Oneself as the “enabling and limiting field of constraint” within which all identity formation takes place. The film represents the limits of parents’ efforts to grasp their children’s lived sense of gender, as well as the social and structural barriers trans kids face as they try to assert their own agency. The emphasis here is relational, revealing not only how vulnerable trans kids are to social pressure, but also how fundamental an affront their mere existence poses to society’s entrenched assumptions about authenticity and self-knowledge.
As adults, we have a choice about whether to perpetuate the myth of the child-as-innocent, the child-as-victim, the child-as-infinite-possibility — or not. We have the chance to disentangle understanding from control. What is it, after all, that parents, teachers, doctors, and lawmakers stand to lose if we give up the belief that we are both the arbiters and the protectors of a child’s right to claim their gender? Relinquishing this paternalistic attitude of mastery might help us to realize that children’s gender identifications may be precarious not because of some deep-seated doubt, but because of how closely they attend to the messages adults transmit about which lives are livable and which identities deserve respect. If there is one thing Transhood makes clear, it’s that trans children are always already listening. Now, the onus is on us to hear them out.
Michael M. Weinstein is a poet, critic, and literary scholar. Currently a Helen Zell Creative Writing Fellow at the University of Michigan, he is at work on a nonfiction book about the social and romantic lives of transgender Americans. You can find him on Twitter @transpoetics.