Trans Kids: Being Gendered in the Twenty-First Century

Trans Kids: Being Gendered in the Twenty-First Century

by Tey Meadow

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Trans Kids is a trenchant ethnographic and interview-based study of the first generation of families affirming and facilitating gender nonconformity in children. Earlier generations of parents sent such children for psychiatric treatment aimed at a cure, but today, many parents agree to call their children new names, allow them to wear whatever clothing they choose, and approach the state to alter the gender designation on their passports and birth certificates.

Drawing from sociology, philosophy, psychology, and sexuality studies, sociologist Tey Meadow depicts the intricate social processes that shape gender acquisition. Where once atypical gender expression was considered a failure of gender, now it is a form of gender. Engaging and rigorously argued, Trans Kids underscores the centrality of ever more particular configurations of gender in both our physical and psychological lives, and the increasing embeddedness of personal identities in social institutions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520275041
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/17/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 794,919
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Tey Meadow is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Columbia University. Meadow is coeditor of Other, Please Specify: Queer Methods in Sociology with D'Lane Compton and Kristen Schilt. 

Read an Excerpt


Studying Each Other

I heard Rafe before I saw him. His lilting voice cut through the din of animated chatter in the crowded sitting area of a large hotel suite. Around him, a group of thirty-five teenagers lounged trading magazines and junk food. Even among the dizzying movement of denim-clad legs, brightly colored sneakers, and sweatshirts, I picked him out immediately. He was positioned in front of a cluster of seated kids around his age, gyrating his hips with his hands crossed over his chest. He spun around several times and abruptly stopped, planting his feet with improbable force. I later learned he was demonstrating a move from a recent Britney Spears video. I remember I was struck at the time by the intense hot pink of his skinny-legged jeans, how they set off tiny flecks of bright neon colors in his otherwise muted black T-shirt. Rafe was very stylish.

He wore slouchy boots and an artfully arranged scarf. His deliberately coiffed brown hair was streaked with highlights, cut in a jagged, punky, feminine style. It fell in front of his eyes, which he accentuated with smoky shadow. He shook it from his face with a toss of his head. His comportment suggested dance training. Much about his presentation of self, his dramatic vocal inflections, artful makeup, fluid graceful body movements, reminded me of the gay men of musical theater I met when I first moved to New York City as a teenager. Yet Rafe confounded easy interpretation. I caught myself looking at him intently. While some may have read his posture and campy humor as classically "gay," it was also evident that what was on display was far more than a performance of sexuality; some core part of the being that was Rafe was deeply and essentially feminine. He drew me in from the start, and I found myself gravitating over to his group, where I attempted to perch myself on the edge of a sofa to watch him command the attention of his peers. He immediately paused, jutted a hip in my direction, pointed his finger, and loudly challenged, "And who are YOU?"

In that moment, Rafe was asking me the very question that was so often, and by so many adults, directed at him.

Rafe was sixteen years old and lived with his parents, Claudia and Rick, in a middle-class mid-Atlantic suburb. We met at a weekend conference for transgender and gender nonconforming teenagers, children and their families. Claudia explained that she and Rick were engaged in a process of supporting Rafe in his ongoing efforts to understand his own identity. The onset of puberty had been an excruciating time emotionally for Rafe. He was devastated by the idea that his body would masculinize, that his voice would deepen, and that he would begin to sprout facial hair. He said it felt like a betrayal. With the support of his parents, he elected to go on a newly available hormone regimen that suspended his male puberty. Two years later, Rafe was still actively considering whether he wished to make a social transition, to live in the world and be recognized as female. His parents told me they discussed these issues often.

They are not alone.

Doctors, psychiatrists, politicians, parents, and journalists are all talking about transgender children. From medical journals to neuroanatomy labs, from mainstream magazines to personal parenting websites, from churches to college classrooms, people are puzzling out what makes some small minority of very young boys and girls depart, sometimes radically, from the type of gender behavior other children appear to enact naturally and automatically. Is it something intrinsic to their physiological makeup? Is it something in the wiring of their brains? Is it the product of poor, deficient, or absent parenting? Or is it simply benign human variation? Should boys be allowed to wear dresses? To use girls' restrooms? Or should we, instead, be encouraging these children to acclimate to their socially assigned genders? Why do we see so many transgender children today when in previous generations they were all but absent from public sight?

We have reached what some cultural commentators are calling a "transgender tipping point." From Caitlyn Jenner to Chaz Bono, images of adults who elect to change their social gender categories are now a mainstay of media discourse. Concomitant with the increasing visibility of transgender adults, a new vocabulary for understanding childhood gender nonconformity as incipient transgenderism has changed the way parents think about gender.

This transformation in cultural understandings of gender has led parents and some medical professionals to argue for significant changes to institutional practices around gender categorization. And they have been remarkably successful. Gender is no longer simply sutured to biology; many people now understand it to be a constitutive feature of the psyche that is fundamental, immutable, and not tied to the materiality of the body. While psychologists have been thinking this way since the late 1950s, it is only in the last decade or so that this sex/gender split has affected the administrative and institutional categorization of children.

That change has been sweeping. On June 13, 2010, the U.S. Department of State issued a new passport policy, in effect allowing parents to change the legal gender of their minor children. Because passports are "breeder documents," they can be used to change state identification, school records, health records and more. Parent activism is similarly changing the medical management of transgender youth; endocrinologists now widely recommend the use of puberty-inhibiting hormone therapies for transgender adolescents. Medicare lifted its ban on coverage for transgender health care, making such treatments more widely available to families. In 2013, the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual debuted a new version of its clinical diagnostic criteria for "gender dysphoria," which limited the diagnosis to individuals experiencing "clinically significant distress" about their gender (rather than applying the diagnosis to all transpeople) and separated gender into a category wholly apart from sexuality. Finally, in late 2017, the Endocrine Society updated their initial guidelines, urging research into the biological underpinnings of gender identity and installing a multidisciplinary, team approach to gender management in children, consisting of psychological and endocrinological care, administered in concert.

Some local administrative practices around the country are changing dramatically as well. By 2017, thirteen states had enacted laws prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity or expression in schools that are enforced by the state or human rights agencies, and hundreds of school districts around the country have instituted similar policies on a local level. High school students have successfully lobbied for genderless bathrooms and locker rooms in schools across the country. Some worry that the election of President Donald Trump will erode some of the laws protecting trans youth, and indeed, since 2016, North Carolina and Texas both introduced so-called bathroom bills, laws that specifically require transpeople to use public restrooms associated with the gender they were assigned at birth. The federal government rescinded a directive mandating the provision of transgender students with gender-appropriate bathrooms in schools. Bathrooms are a locus for cultural disagreements about trans inclusion; and trans youth in other states continue to lobby successfully for gender-neutral facilities or use of those consistent with their identities.

Transgender children are popular subjects of reality television shows, the news media, documentary films, and children's books. National Geographic released a documentary called The Gender Revolution in 2017, along with a print edition of the magazine that depicted the first transgender person ever featured on its cover; that person was a nine-year-old child. This followed on the heels of similar documentaries by independent filmmakers, as well as large-scale investigations by the BBC, PBS, and others. There are children's books about children who identify as members of the other gender or who enjoy dressing or playing in gender-diverse ways. There are guides for parents on raising a gender nonconforming child and a rapidly expanding literature for the clinicians who serve them. There are dozens of personal stories by parents and young people themselves. There are self-help books for teens and parents. In short, "trans" is not just an identity; it's an industry.

It appears we are "surrounded by evolving notions of what it means to be a woman or a man." Facebook now offers some fifty custom gender options to its users who eschew male and female labels. The dating app Tinder lists thirty-seven. Oregon offers a third gender category on driver's licenses, and there is political momentum for such a policy in California. Some expect that other state agencies may soon follow suit. Is this, as some commentators have opined, "the beginning of the end of the gender binary?" Or are we heading into a new era where proliferating gender categories supplement existing notions of male/female complementarity?

Some conservatives worry that we are eroding gender distinctions altogether. Erin Brown, writing for the Culture and Media Institute, lamented that "propaganda pushing the celebration of gender-confused boys wanting to dress and act like girls is a growing trend, seeping into mainstream culture." Fox News psychologist Dr. Keith Ablow declared that "this is a dramatic example of the way our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity — homogenizing males and females, when the outcome of such 'psychological sterilization' ... is not known." He warned other would-be gender-lenient parents that supporting deviant behavior in children poses serious danger, not merely for them, but for the larger culture that relies on adherence to ideas of sexual difference.

On the other side of the debate, facilitative clinicians dismiss the connections between social supports for gender nonconforming behavior and the active encouragement of adult LGBT identities. What's notable is not that they do this, but how they do this. Gay psychiatrist Jack Drescher notes, "I can say with 100% certainty that a mother painting her son's toenails pink does not cause transgenderism or homosexuality or anything else that people who are social conservatives would worry about." Indeed, he continued, feminist notions that gender is culturally determined are themselves erroneous. "Most studies show that if boys were given Barbie dolls, they would pick them up and use them as if they were guns." In Drescher's estimation, most children are gender typical, and socialization is unlikely to turn them into trans kids; by the same token, some kids are trans, and no amount of social engineering will change their innate identities.


Transgender children "throw into sharp relief" the social process of gendering to which all children are subject, as well as the important ways in which that process has shifted in recent decades. There is a long and studied tradition within ethnomethodology of using gender transitions to illuminate the underlying, often obscured, social processes that consolidate social gender relations. Rather than "inverting" gender, transpeople "elaborate the particular configurations of sexuality, gender and sex that undergird and give meaning to [the concepts] man and woman." Anthropologist Don Kulick, in his study of Brazilian travesti, suggested that transpeople "perfect" gender expectations, that their mobilization of ideas, representations, and practices associated with maleness and femaleness "clarify and distill them, draw them to a logical conclusion, purify them to an extent that it becomes possible to see in them central elements of [culture]."

Like Kulick, I draw on ethnomethodology in an attempt to situate the families I study within the context of contemporary American culture. "Doing gender," being a man or a woman in a social sense, is not an ontological position. Instead, as sociologists Candace West and Don Zimmerman tell us, it is something we "do" because our very "competence as members of society is hostage to its production." Gender is a "routine, methodical and recurring accomplishment." Individuals organize interactions and engage in social activities to reflect or express our gender, and we interpret the behavior of others as expressions of the same. This is not unlike Judith Butler's theory of gender performativity, typically understood as a poststructuralist and psychoanalytically informed correlate of symbolic interactionism. Gender is culturally "citational," always in a state of being iterated or reproduced. As Butler says, "We act and walk and speak and talk in ways that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman." The ways individuals signal gender, and the ways those signals are received, interpreted and integrated are the material of this book.

Postmodern gender theory and symbolic interactionism share an approach to understanding the social reproduction of gender. Our individual selves are forged through interaction. We assume social roles, with an eye to how they are received by the audiences with whom we interact. In "Doing Gender," West and Zimmerman separate out sex, sex category, and gender. While "sex" is determined by normative biological standards, our "sex category" is a social assignation based on sex but established and sustained by the "socially required identificatory displays" that accompany maleness and femaleness. "Gender," in contrast, is the "activity of managing situated conduct in light of normative expectations of masculinity and femininity."

The interactional work of "being" a man or a woman in society requires that there be a relationship among these three elements. We are assigned a sex category based on our biology, which we must then maintain with our quotidian behavior. Gender performances are structured to appear as if they are naturally occurring; thus it is the reiterative power of the social that produces the very forms of gender it then constrains and regulates. Gender is an achievement, rather than an attribute, one that is aimed at significant others assumed to be oriented to its production. We do gender with others to establish ourselves as fluent actualizers of our bodies, and always "at the risk of assessment" by others. Negative assessments of gender performance can result in stigmatization and loss of social and material capital.

This is a paradigmatic example of interpellation, though sociologists don't typically think of gender in this way. In "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses," Louis Althusser described the ways that the State — by which he meant the duality of the actual regulatory, repressive state apparatus and the invisible ideological schemas through which it executes control — calls upon each individual to become a subject, to participate in the community as a particular type of person and to accept the overall ideological structure. This process happens entirely outside our awareness, one might even say prior to it, relying on our psychological need for recognition in order to develop a psychic life. There are both ideological and material manifestations of this process, the sense of "being" and of "doing" through which we experience and execute gender. So when a baby is born and the pronouncement is made, "It's a boy!" the baby is both hailed into gendered subjectivity, and simultaneously becomes accountable to maintain that subjectivity. Both the child and the adult experience this hailing as a benign statement of fact; indeed, most people would resist the notion that this is a moment of ideology. To paraphrase Althusser, one of the practical effects of ideology is the denigration of the ideological character of ideology.

This concept of assessment yokes it to normative gender. We are beholden to reproduce normative masculinity or femininity, and failure to do so results in failed social integration. But what if assessment is no longer merely the process through which hegemonic gender reproduces itself through threat of sanction? What if it is now a moment where the hegemony might, in some cases, also re-sort individuals into new gender categories that may or may not adhere to their bodies? Our symbolic understandings of gender are multiple and emergent, and have concretized into a social classification system that encompasses new forms of gender.

Transgender children, hailed into an originary gender category, actually seek to incite that very accountability process, using it to make claims on otherwise prohibited forms of action and identity. Through a sociological examination of their interactions with parents and social institutions, we can see that accountability is constitutive of gender, even in its nonnormative forms. Accountability processes function not only to restrict, but also to elaborate rapidly proliferating forms of gender. Gender is a process of interpellation. We are hailed into maleness or femaleness by others. Once hailed, we are accountable to maintain the boundaries of that category with our quotidian gender behavior. Small infractions, of course, trigger precisely the kinds of sanction West and Zimmerman outlined. But there is a certain threshold beyond which transgression can change the very category into which one is interpellated. Parents, doctors, psychologists, teachers, can move an individual child from one category to another, and the entire apparatus, all the social processes previously employed to shore up an individual child as male, then shift to consolidate the very same person as female. In this way, gender is fundamentally relational, though paradoxically, many of us also believe it to be immutable. And while gender assessments are routine parts of social interaction, assessments of nonnormativity incite a range of social processes, from sanction to celebration. As gendered subjectivity is relieved from a rigid and dependent relationship to the body, our lexicon for communicating the subtleties of gender in all its varied configurations is expanding exponentially. And individuals, for their part, are examining one another with ever greater attention to detail.


Excerpted from "Trans Kids"
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Copyright © 2018 The Regents of the University of California.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Tables and Figures ix

Acknowledgments xi

1 Studying Each Other 1

2 Gender Troubles 24

3 The Gender Clinic 54

4 Building a Parent Movement 94

5 Anxiety and Gender Regulation 142

6 Telling Gender Stories 187

7 From Failure to Form 212

Appendix A A Note on the Language of Gender 227

Appendix B Methodology 229

Appendix C List of Interviewees 241

Notes 247

Glossary 263

References 267

Index 289

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