Real conversations, one at a time
When my daughter approached me and her father more than four years ago to tell us that she was a transgender boy, the floor dropped out beneath me. As I came quickly to understand, she was the embodiment of the Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD) girl: well-meaning liberal parents, everything princessy and pink as a child, a chest full of dress-up clothing, and complete impatience for people who saw her short haircut and couldn’t see that OBVIOUSLY she was a girl. Obviously! But when she started high school, my cool baby feminist introduced herself as “Tommy,” and—again, another cliché—her teachers and the entire school administration conspired to call her “Tommy” and he/him at school, all the while using her real name to our faces, the faces of the only parents she’ll ever have.
To this day, it’s the betrayal of the school that still angers and frustrates me the most. Because—spoiler alert—our trans-insanity had a surprisingly happy and speedy end. The day after her freshman year of high school ended, I offered to take my daughter shopping for summer clothes. She walked right into the Juniors section of a local department store, and picked out some cute shorts, tops, and a new girl bathing suit. I said nothing, but later that night nearly collapsed in relief and joy when I told my husband about our shopping trip. For four months, our bedroom was the only place we could talk about our daughter, using her real name and sex. It was a haven from the crazy charade we were expected to participate in outside.
But this is a story that has been told many times over on these pages. My essay today is about the grass-roots work I’m doing to try to put an end to the needless and damaging medicalization of children with mental health and normal developmental challenges. My daughter desisted, but I know how many other children and parents are suffering because of the reality-denying death cult that is transgenderism.
I am a North American academic in the field of women’s and gender studies, and I am protected by the great privilege of tenure. I used to have a high internet profile, so when I learned about Lisa Littman’s pathbreaking paper in 2018, I went on social media to urge fellow academics to read the paper, and even if they disagreed with her conclusions, to support her academic freedom. I also tried to engage people on what I thought was an obvious feminist point, which is that we should encourage girls to love their developing bodies, not to harm them by wearing chest binders (or in some ways, the even more disturbing and surely pornography-influenced “packers”). How silly of me to think these were uncontroversial opinions for a scholar to share!
You can guess what happened next. Yes, I was dog-piled, repeatedly targeted via social media accounts for the high crime of “transphobia” over the next three years. I was called all kinds of names, and assigned all sorts of evil motivations by these mind readers. I was sent abusive emails and was accused of “erasing the existence” of several people with Anime avatars with merely the opinions in my own head. Longtime online mutuals quietly unfollowed or blocked me; I heard from other friends that there were campaigns pressuring my followers to drop me because I’m a “known transphobe.” I even lost a 30-year friendship with a woman I considered my best friend in my field. This is a woman who once scolded me for “not trying hard enough” to breastfeed my daughter, and now she’s completely on board with medicalizing teenagers and amputating healthy body parts.
The insane distortions of this movement would be funny if their consequences weren’t so horrifying. But fortunately, real-world true believers like my former friend are rare.
Since then I’ve completely dropped out of social media. The echo chambers we all fall into are alarmingly distorted and push us all further and further into weird ideological corners we’d never be pushed into in real life. So, after fifteen years online, I went “stealth” and into the real world, having conversations with people one-on-one about transgenderism and its danger to young people. In part, I was inspired by the example of Christopher Ellston, or @BillboardChris on Twitter, who goes out in public with his white sneakers and sandwich board sign to have one-on-one conversations in person with passers-by about transgender ideology and how it’s hurting young people.
First, I started raising this issue with colleagues in my academic department. In dozens of one-on-one, quiet conversations in people’s offices, not a single person has disagreed with me, called me a bigot, or scolded me for my thoughtcrimes. Most thanked me for raising the issue, saying things like, “I’m terrified that if I use the wrong word with a graduate student I’ll get fired,” or “I’m so glad you brought this up, because I thought it was just me who couldn’t make sense of this movement.” I even raised the issue with a colleague who has a trans-identified son, and he said that he agreed with me completely and is terrified for his son’s future health and well-being. Of course he is—he has eyes and ears and has fathered two children and understands intimately that humans are, like other mammals, sexually dimorphic. That’s the real world that most people inhabit, not the online not-so-fun-house of make-believe and let’s-pretend.
Next, when corresponding over email with friends and acquaintances, I would ask after their daughters, and a few replied that their daughters now believed they were their sons or were “non-binary.” When I told them that I knew what they might be going through because of my daughter’s brief trans-identification, and said that I had serious problems with what I see as an internet-enabled instance of teen contagion and mass psychosis, they (every single one, all of them men) said they agreed and were so happy to hear they weren’t alone in their heresy. They were bewildered—like me, they all saw themselves as good liberals and accepting people, but they didn’t think their children were transgender. I shared all of the usual resources with them—Genspect, Transgender Trend, 4th Wave Now, PITT, articles by Lisa Marchiano, Abigail Shrier's Irreversible Damage, Helen Joyce’s Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, and Kathleen Stock’s Material Girls, and the “Gender: A Wider Lens” podcast with Sasha Ayad and Stella O’Malley. I reassured them they weren’t bigots or hateful people—they were just fathers who loved their daughters and probably knew better what was best for their kids than anonymous Anime-avatars on the internet.
I think it makes a difference for fellow liberals, and especially men, to hear this from a woman who is a Professional Feminist. I have come to feel recently like I’m a kind of gender critical Jehovah’s Witness: “has anyone talked to you about transgenderism today?” But I wouldn’t keep doing it if people were unwilling to talk to me. (And believe it or not, I’m not always the person to bring up the subject.)
More recently, I’ve been having these one-on-one conversations with women and men in my community. Some of these are people I meet with regularly—like a farmer at the farm stand, or my stylist, a bookstore owner, a fitness instructor, or local teachers. Some of these people are liberal, some are more conservative, and some are right wing. But you know what? They all listen, and they open right up with questions, more questions, and these conversations can go on for hours. Nobody in the real world believes in this internet-driven fantasy life of a few disturbed adults and, unfortunately for us parents, some of our mentally fragile kids. Most are relieved to hear that “even a left-liberal feminist college professor” thinks this is nuts. If more of us speak up to one another, we can make real changes on school boards and in our communities when we see gender ideology taking root.
Most people watching this parade can see that the emperor has no clothes. The overwhelming majority of people see what’s happening, and they see how damaging it is to young people, to their families, and to our society when we’re asked to applaud lies and participate in harmful fictions. Just as much of the advice at PITT focuses on getting kids offline and into engagements with their real bodies in the material world, so we parents and other adults need to exit the online performative screaming matches and start talking—and listening—to real people in the real world. Real people know a real person when they see one. They can tell when you’re being honest about your opinions, and they’re more than willing to share theirs, if they think you won’t scold them for using the “wrong” word, or hiss at them for sharing what they’ve been told is a “bad opinion.”
Meanwhile, you can find me at the farmer’s market, at the park, on campus, in the library, at the coffee shop, and on the bus, making authentic connections to real people in the real world. I encourage all of you to do the same, especially if you aren’t the parent of a trans-identified child. Many of them are too terrified for their kids to be authentic right now, so it’s up to the rest of us to make the real world safe for real people with their real ideas and opinions again.