A non-binary story (female version)
My daughter was quite gender conforming for the first dozen years of her life. She delighted in sparkly dresses, jewelry, getting her hair and nails done, and her American Girl doll. Sure, she was the kind of little girl who wore a dress while sometimes climbing a tree, but that seemed like feminist progress. She loved playing dress up and went through the obligatory princess stage.
When she was about 12, she told me she thought she might be bisexual. Being a long-time supporter of gay rights with excellent left-wing credentials, I took it in stride, even celebrated it, as I did when she said at 13 that upon reflection she thought she was actually a lesbian. However, as she fell into a crowd at high school of exclusively LGBTQ-identifying kids, one who was already proudly medically transitioning and several lesbians who later that year also came out as transboys (ROGD anyone?), she thought she was actually non-binary and wanted top surgery.
At first, thinking we’d throw her out of the house if we found out, she didn’t tell us. That cut right to my heart - what in her whole life ever gave her such an impression of us? I could only imagine she got it from the internet, where that trope is considered gospel truth. She secretly bought a binder and mailed it to her friend’s house, putting it on only at school. Her hair and dress style altered radically within six months. She also of course changed her name and pronouns, and of course the school hid all that from us. When eventually we confronted them, they said they had to follow the human rights code. If I knew then what I know now, I would have fought them much harder.
I frequently ponder what has made my daughter decide she is non-binary, which seems a nebulous label, as if she is hedging her bets. She eventually told us the internet gave her a “language” for what she was feeling. Could that be because when you ask Google if you’re trans, the answer is always yes? Certainly, the research shows that many gay young people experience gender dysphoria, so that seems the most likely explanation, with the obliteration of young lesbians widely mourned by an older generation. She also suffers from well-hidden anxiety, which seemed to come on only with puberty. She was a supremely confident young child. Finally, she experienced a severe injury as a tween, with a months-long recovery, which perhaps could be classified as traumatic (I don’t know if clinically it would be, but it was absolutely traumatizing to her and our entire family).
Puberty also brought on social awkwardness, and for several years as she changed schools a few times, she lamented not having a BFF. But after her non-binary declaration, suddenly she had a circle of friends and “allies” (not to mention teachers) affirming, encouraging, and celebrating her every pronouncement. Pretty heady stuff.
Puberty of course also meant breast development, which she hated, and periods, which for her are unfortunately pretty awful. Does any girl or woman actually enjoy all this? From my informal polls of women of all ages, not one. But we all just keep calm and carry on.
Perhaps what puberty brought most of all though was unwanted male attention. As she began going out more on her own, along came brazen and frankly disgusting older men who would leer at her, talk to her, sometimes proposition her. The many gentlemanly men in our family were no match for the toxic masculinity she saw all around her.
So in a way, as a woman who has had her fair share of leers, gropes, and catcalls, more than a few bad periods (like the time it felt like a dagger was stabbing one of my ovaries and I literally could not get out of bed), who didn’t really like being pregnant, who for the life of me could not figure out how to breastfeed, trying until my nipples were raw and I was going insane from lack of sleep, who is tall and not too slim and thus often feels like a gargantuan next to petite feminine women, I can see the appeal of opting out of womanhood to an undeveloped brain.
And if that’s all it were - new name, new pronoun, new fashion sense, new identity - I could train my own brain to live with it. I’m not sure I’ll ever get past the throwing away of a carefully chosen and beloved first name, can’t stand the grammatical incorrectness of “they,” can’t see how my daughter dresses differently from most other girls these days for comfort (to me it just looks like 1990s grunge, when we all stole our fathers’ flannel shirts), and believe we are watching social influence writ large. And I really don’t like how she has rewritten her history, even saying she never really liked her dolls or sparkly dresses, when I know that to be patently false. Most of all, I despise my strong matrilineal line - generations of maternal history - being broken by a societal fad.
But I think in the end I’d be able to handle all that (I come from nothing but a line of tough women - yes, women can be tough! Imagine that, gender ideology.) - if not for the constant threat of medicalization hanging over us like the Sword of Damocles.
My daughter has not expressed an interest in testosterone to me. But she soon will be 18 and off at college where “T” (which the UK graded as having “very low” evidence) seems to be given out at university health clinics like candy, so that is a persistent worry. I too used to be a supporter of Planned Parenthood like the writer here - no more, due to their untenable stance on dispensing cross-sex hormones with zero assessment and on an informed consent model, with no real information given. It’s also pretty obviously a money grab, since abortions continue to go down.
The possibility of top surgery especially disturbs me. For one thing, that euphemism is so misleading, making it sound almost fun. Let’s call it what it is: a double mastectomy of healthy breasts. And for me, it’s very personal. My mother had breast cancer, which resulted in a double mastectomy. For her (remember, tough woman), such surgery really was life saving, and I bristle whenever I hear that term used with gender-questioning young people who can’t even cope with being “misgendered.” The nerve of them! They have no idea. And it really did mutilate her body, even with reconstructive surgery. So for anyone out there who thinks, well, no biggie, if I detransition, I can just get implants. Nope! It’s definitely not that simple. They’ll never look real nor experience the same feeling. So every time I see a photo of a young girl proudly showing off the scars from her double mastectomies of healthy breasts, or a cosmetic surgeon who just made thousands (apparently $9000-$12,000 USD) off that surgery holding up buckets of breasts with a smug grin, I first feel like puking. And then I want to wipe that grin off the surgeon’s face as I attempt to channel my unbelievable anger into something more constructive, like this essay. BECAUSE PEOPLE NEED TO KNOW.
So what will happen with my daughter? I truly have no idea. We have a decent, maybe even good, relationship when we avoid gender, which is most of the time. We support her haircuts and 1990s grunge style that she thinks is so cutting edge and anything non-permanent to give her more physical comfort, we’re addressing her anxiety, and she can pretty much use whatever names and pronouns she desires at school as that ship has long sailed. But it feels like an uneasy detente that I know could flare up again at any time.
Our story is not so different from others. In fact, as I write this, I wonder how many mothers could write almost the exact same essay. How many teen girls might wonder if their mothers wrote this?
And yet all the endings have yet to be written.