I never believed I would have a negative word to say about the transgender movement. I was born into a middle-class family of liberal Democrats. My grandparents emigrated from Europe in the 1920s to escape fascism. My father was a small business owner who lobbied for socialized medicine in the 80s due to his health issues. I was a nerdy science girl who loved the outdoors and earned a degree in environmental science in the 90s; my liberal roots run deep. I’ve been a fan of the Squad, have a Black Lives Matter flag flying in my front yard and a garden of native plants to support wildlife in my backyard. I was appalled at the bathroom bill business in North Carolina a few years ago. Of course, my thinking was that transwomen are women, transmen are men; who can that possibly hurt? (As it turns out, the answer is my family and me.)
My son has always been a bit of an outlier. He was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome (now autism spectrum disorder) at age five. As part of the diagnosis process, his IQ was measured, and the results classified him as highly gifted. He was my first child, so I did not know what ‘normal’ development looked like. My sister was shocked when he was reading signs at the zoo at only two years old. As he grew, he became obsessed with farm equipment, then aircraft, then arachnids, then ancient Egypt. That year he was a Bastet cat for Halloween (look it up, I had to!). He was different, but to adults, different in the best possible way. To his peers, not so much. He was physically clumsy, did an inordinate amount of unexpected humming, and had absolutely zero interest in tossing a ball back and forth.
Elementary school was a slog. In kindergarten, he refused to do the “choral reading” (because he had read the entire board upon entering the classroom, including the teacher’s personal notes about meetings and schedule changes). In later grades, he would walk around and look out of the window to get some sensory input but could still turn around and answer any question the teacher asked. Teachers and administrators did not understand or tolerate this. They saw it as a “behavioral issue”. Fortunately, my husband and I found an excellent charter middle and high school for smart kids. Our son thrived there, reading Shakespeare in sixth grade, placing in the county spelling bee, winning the school science bee, hanging with other quirky outliers. He was finding his groove and finally making friends.
Then came high school and puberty. At age 15, my quiet and anxious—but generally content—kid became extremely moody, isolated, and generally miserable. I finally did a mom-snoop of his computer and saw he was declaring online that he was “TRANZ”. My first instinct was to believe this. I must have one of the one-in-a-zillion kids who was “born in the wrong body”. I didn’t pay much mind to the pictures of anime girls that I’d also seen on his computer or the questions about “feeling weird in my body” that were posted on forums and answered with “You’re probably trans, hormones will make it better”. I did inwardly question why I’d never seen any typically feminine behavior or interests from him. Still, then I told myself that I was stereotyping women. I was a liberal democrat! The articles I’d skimmed on NPR and MSNBC seemed to indicate that transgenderism was a real, medical thing. Even though I have a science degree, I blindly assumed that the science behind this was correct because it was all over the mainstream media. Dwayne Wade, an NBA star, had a trans kid!
When I pressed my son about not ever seeing earlier signs of this desire to be female, he agreed. Somewhat strangely, a day later, he told me that he had “always felt this way.” (Look up transgender online influence.) I had seen a female name he was using online and asked him about it. I then began to address him with his preferred name and pronouns. I asked a million questions. He had no desire to change his clothing choices; he’s a sweatpants and Star-Wars-T-shirt kid. He had no interest in makeup or nail polish. He didn’t know yet if he was attracted to girls or boys. I thought I was being supportive by asking all these things! My son’s answer to how he knew he was transgender was that it just “feels right.” He said he would “definitely like to start hormones someday”.
For an extremely specific reason, that’s the comment that led me to do some deeper research.
At age 49, I have stage four autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease. It’s a hereditary disease that killed my paternal grandmother (before the invention of dialysis). My mother was on dialysis for eight years before receiving a transplant that lasted another eight before comorbidities of the disease led to her death at 57. Science has come a long way, and my older brothers live with transplanted kidneys and are doing well. I am on a new medication that may extend my kidneys’ life, but eventually, likely in the next decade, I will reach stage five and need dialysis and/or a transplant. My three children have a 50% chance of inheriting this disease. We watch their blood pressure as an indicator, not wanting an official diagnosis with imaging until we see signs. Once diagnosed, it can be challenging to get insurance, and we never know what the next administration will change about the American healthcare system.
All this to say that we don’t need any extra medical interventions in our lives. So, I went looking into what it really means to be transgender. There are very few studies, but I found that if you take your child to a gender clinic, it appears to mean your kid steps on a conveyer belt from puberty blockers to cross-sex hormones (98% did so according to one study), to potentially multiple surgeries (current evidence for this is anecdotal, but the ranks of detransitioners telling their conveyer-belt stories are growing). All of this has been shown to be potentially damaging to human bodies, with long-term effects (such as decreased bone density and sterilization) especially for those with pre-existing conditions (like hypertension, which is comorbid with polycystic kidney disease).
My kid may not have gotten the green light for these hormonal and surgical interventions because of our family’s medical history; however, I’m nowhere near certain of this. The one therapist we contacted to help us gain some extra understanding showed my son the genderbread person at the first meeting and told me a gender clinic would be our best bet. I almost went with it, but I was becoming more and more confused and uncertain.
I also began to question what seems to be a societal shift back towards antiquated gender stereotypes and clichés. My son seemed to be questioning his manhood, possibly because he is an autistic, non-athletic, socially awkward boy. It appears that those qualities, rather than being part of the spectrum of being a human male, are now being seen as a reason to eschew maleness and instead conclude that your body must change. This did not jibe with my liberal ideal of individualism and self-determination.
Around this time, I learned of my son’s two schoolmates who had also announced that they were transgender girls. These are quirky, intelligent, boyish boys. I connected with their moms, both of whom are liberal Democrats. They seem not to have questioned the party-line concept of being born in the wrong body and have already taken their children to the gender clinic in a nearby city. Both boys are now on puberty blockers and female hormones, as well as taking voice lessons. Little therapy was involved in their support; instead, they were provided primarily with gender affirmation. And these kids want it so much. They think it will make everything they dislike about themselves go away. Both these moms say the gender clinic is the most wonderful, accepting place, and they just love going there. Their insurance covers everything, even the expected surgeries! I began to feel like I was in a sci-fi novel. How are these kids all in need of medical intervention to try to change their sex? How come therapists weren’t going deeper with questioning their motivation? What kind of temporary-happiness-pushers are these gender clinics?
I still don’t have answers to those questions. However, I have awakened from thinking that affirmation of everything my pubescent, autistic teen feels is the way to be a supportive parent. My husband and I have agreed that until we can find a therapist who can go deeper than the genderbread person and unquestioning affirmation, our son is better off without therapy (though the search continues). We now use only our son’s given name and male pronouns. We spend time together as a family and try our best to limit screen time. We are approaching this as a stage of self-exploration and questioning that would be typical for teenagers if not for the intense online and suburban liberal pressure to push instant happiness and “problem-solve” in the form of taking hormones and planning for surgeries.
So here I am, in my lovely suburban neighborhood, wondering what it means to be a liberal who is committed to protecting confused children, whether autistic or neurotypical, who have been led to believe they were born in the wrong body. I wonder when more of my generally like-minded, politically aware friends and neighbors will begin to question where things went wrong. I never thought I’d feel politically homeless. I’ve joined groups of other parents who are in the same place, with nowhere to go but to the other party. I began to connect with others whose families were being hurt, torn apart even, by transgender ideology. I feel I’m still holding onto my liberal democratic values, including following the science and protecting the vulnerable. But I may have to hold my nose and pull the ballot lever for the other side because the Democratic party is systematically ignoring the absence of solid science on this issue. They are dismissing the concerns of families of autistic children like mine. I cannot allow more children to be damaged.
Ellen McEvoy is a former environmental scientist and full-time mother who writes about the challenges of parenting in the 21st century.