Wednesday, March 20, 2013


When I've written about parental overshare, my focus has been on published articles and memoirs written by the parents themselves. It's only there that you get the mix of writerly ambition and irreproachability. A parent cares, and has his kid's best interests at heart. So if he's written a memoir about his kid's most private moments, this is not the airing of dirty laundry. It's an act of courage. And so on. I've made this argument enough times (since 2008! this post gets a "persistent motifs" tag) that I'm not going to repeat it any further.

What I haven't looked at so much (some, but not much) is the question of articles written about real-life children, articles that name names, but where the author is a journalist not related to the subject. My feeling is, was, that these are a different animal. We don't assume the journalist has the same intimate knowledge of the child's worst moments, nor that the journalist is trying to show off her own parenting skills. No preexisting trust has been violated, and if, years down the line, the kid resents the journalist, this does not also destroy the kid's relationship with his parents. There's something really specific, as I see it, about what happens when the "journalist" is the parent.

But it's still bad form to forever lock a child's identity with information in an article the child can't have possibly consented to, and if there's any way to use pseudonyms and leave photos of the child out of it, why not? This came up recently, when a NYT story on a transgender six-year-old inspired controversy enough to get the paper's public and national editors involved. And... the case for making the child super-identifiable wasn't so strong. That this kid's story had appeared elsewhere doesn't mean the paper doesn't get to make its own decision whether or not to further publicize, or to what degree. According to the public editor, Margaret Sullivan, "parental approval, along with the child’s own willingness, should rule the day." I've emphasized, because the child in question here is for goodness sake six years old. What, in the world at large, can a child that young consent to? What can a child that young possibly have thought through in terms of repercussions of an article in the New York Times? How is this even a question? Six!

Sullivan adds that she "can envision other situations in which parents advocating for a child in this way – those with autism or Down syndrome, for example – would not raise these kinds of questions." The difference there, though, depending on the severity of the autism or Down syndrome, is not just one of stigma (although arguably there's stigma there as well). It's also that a child who could never conceivably read an article about herself in a newspaper is arguably different from one of average intelligence who will one day Google herself.

But re: stigma, precisely because being transgender is stigmatized, this is the sort of thing individuals should get to reveal about themselves in due time, and not have revealed for them to a national/global audience. (Shall we also shed the stigma around rape by providing names of individual victims without their consent?) And with six-year-olds, there's the distinct possibility that they will not identify as transgender as adolescents or adults, and are in fact showing early signs of being gay, or not showing signs of anything in particular. This doesn't mean families and communities shouldn't allow a child to cross-dress, or otherwise be open to the possibility that the kid will be transgender. They should do all of that. But it does mean that an article in the NYT about "a Transgender 6-Year-Old" (from the headline of the post about the controversy) raises extra flags. As would, I suppose, an article about a heterosexual, cisgender six-year-old.

Anyway, in the NYT comments of all places, I found a link to this excellent post by Zeynep Tufekci in response to the controversy. Seems she and I (and a whole bunch of NYT commenters - perhaps a tide has turned?) agree.


alex said...

I especially liked how the article's first sentence was "______ was born a boy," and four paragraphs later her mother talks about how she has anxiety attacks when called a boy. Okay then!

Anyway: I think a big part of the issue with this particular story is that transgender issues are generally viewed using the same framework as LGB ones, i.e. that it's better to be out and have pride and all that because it's nothing to be ashamed of or whatever. Which, yes, it's nothing to be ashamed of-- but in a way completely different from liking someone of the same sex. Being gay or lesbian or bi is a perfectly normal part of the human condition, but being trans is, in my experience, best understood as essentially a congenital condition-- a treatable one, and no more shameful than being born with any other disorder, but also something that many (most, from what I've seen) would prefer to keep private given the option, regardless of how accepting society as a whole is. I know I would.

Phoebe said...

There's something to this. While some trans adults will want to be out-and-proud transmen, transwomen, or to transcend the gender binary, others (most?) will want to be viewed as the gender they feel they've always been, but just didn't get a chance to be outwardly until whichever point in their lives. While it seems a dangerous word to use in this context, for fear that it would seem to imply that refusing to identify as what one was born was the problem... I suppose "disorder" works insofar as the biological sex failed to match the gender identity of the same individual, which is I think (?) how you're using it. In any case, I agree with you that this is different from being L, G, or B, in which case being true to one's self generally means coming out. Especially for a little kid - this is a child who wants to be called a girl, not who wants to be called a transgirl.

So... even if this particular biologically-male child does eventually identify as a woman, she may not want her bio-male origins so Googleable. It's not just that she may grow out of it and he-the-man will not want that phase so prominent.

alex said...

Yeah, I mean "disorder" as in physiological rather than mental problem.

And yeah I'm glad you mentioned the reverse, which is that this kid could very well wind up not being transgender as she ages. Especially after reading that New Yorker article you linked, with the part about how parents are actually feeling pressure to assume their gender-deviant kids are trans rather than just, you know, kids doing kid things. Like you (and the New Yorker piece) said, most kids who are "gender deviant" while very young don't wind up being transgender. And the article didn't mention that many (most, from what I've seen, but I only have anecdotes to draw from) adults who transition weren't notably (if at all) gender deviant as kids.

I dunno. On the one hand I'm definitely glad that there's been such a huge increase in awareness in the past few years that being trans is a thing that exists and can be treated; but on the other it does seem like there's way too much emphasis being put on gender-deviant *behavior* rather than the bare-bones brain-body disconnect that actually causes people to seek transition (and is what makes me think it's better looked at primarily as a condition or disorder than an identity). I guess it's understandable, since the former is easy to observe and the latter isn't, but yeah. And either way, I cringe when these kids' faces and names are plastered all over the internet.

(Oh yeah and I'm trans [female] myself, for context. Although I don't know any other trans people personally-- by anecdotes I mean accounts I've read online on support forums or blogs or whatever.)

Phoebe said...


All of what you say makes sense, and you'd certainly know better than I would.

As far as I can tell, there is a case for including "T" with "LGB", but it has its limitations. It's useful insofar as it's an umbrella for any identification that isn't what everyone around a kid assumed would be the case from birth (ie. straight, cis), and thus which could get push-back from the not-so-tolerant, from bullies, etc. And obviously, anyone who transitions post-adolescence, or after already experiencing/announcing a sexual orientation, is likely to have a same-gender preference either before or after transitioning, and so will feel a part of that world anyway. And, in my anecdotal and reading-about-this experience, there are a significant number of trans people who do wish to transcend the gender binary, thus "queer."

But, as you say, this leads to a problem: those who simply were born into the wrong bodies may not identify as "queer," and may simply feel they have a problem in need of fixing, and set about to dealing with this whenever that becomes possible. And then, as much as shame shouldn't enter into it, pride wouldn't necessarily, either.