Why does the media show transgender children more sympathetically?
For some reason, everywhere I go lately there’s stories about trans children. Nightline ran an episode, while Dr Phil ran one on one trans and one intersex child. And CNN currently has a video up of trans children about two children at the Gender Spectrum Family Conference.
Interest in trans people in general and trans children in particular isn’t really a new phenomena, of course, but what’s notable about these stories is how sympathetic and non-sensationalised these takes are. While there’s of course the odd bit of sketchy language, the children’s rights and identities are largely respected, and in the case of CNN allowed to speak in their own words.
Of course, it’s not all hearts and puppydogs in the media–and there’s still a lot of scaremongering out there. Just yesterday, a Canadian newspaper ran a full page anti trans hate ad that read “don’t confuse me. I’m a girl, don’t cause me to question if I’m a boy, transsexual transgender, intersexed or two spirited.” And of course there was the “psychiatrist” on Fox in the Toemaggedon story (you know the guy). The WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN mob always like to pretend as though there’s no such thing as a LGBT child, that we just need to violently enforce gender norms and then no child will ever be trans. Phew.
But still, compared to the mockery, bathroom panic, and blatant victim blaming of trans murder victims, trans children get a comparatively sympathetic media treatment. As such it’s worthwhile contrasting the sympathetic treatment of trans kids with the continued sensationalist treatment of trans adults, particularly women, and why there might be a such a great disparity between the two.
An idealisation of children as innocent
We as a culture have a bifurcated view of children as either angels or demons (but rarely full human beings). In the first view, children are idealised as innocent. Innocence is a Christianised theological category, connoting not just a lack of culpability or experience but also purity. A lack of sin. In the second view, we have the monstrous child, the demonic pure evil child familiar to us from horror movies and Stephen Moffat penned Doctor Who episodes. This is the mirror image of the angel, its opposite.
But, in realistic cultural representations, the trans child is likely to retain their innocent status regardless. In trans negative views, the mother or father are usually to “blame” for their transness, the culpability is shifted elsewhere.
An idealisation of children as natural
If children are considered innocent, then they are also often considered more natural than adults. The idea of childhood as closer to nature is an old one, widely popularised by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s writings (eg Emile) in the 18th century. Nature is pure, culture is tainted.
So for a child to be trans is to be more “natural” than an adult transitioner. The desire to provide a scientific explanation for any kind of LGBT identity is, in effect, to call something “natural,” innate. It’s not a choice, baby I was born this way. To be natural is, in effect, in innocent. So trans children already have an advantage here in being considered more natural. If they’re closer to nature, then their transness must be natural, too.
In contrast, the adult transitioner is easier to critique – blame – for “choosing” to be trans. Julia Serano noted in Whipping Girl that media representations tend to emphasis the artificiality of trans women, with a focus on make-up and clothes. Trans people, especially trans women, are considered fake. Not “really” as real in their sexes as cis people.
A cultural idea of children as not sexual
This is a really important difference between the two. Media images of trans women in particular tend to be extremely sexualised–the trans sex worker of colour is a stock figure in crime fiction for instance. The cultural confusion between gender and sexuality results in people considering transness as an intensified form of queer sexuality–the trans woman as a drag queen who went “too far,” the trans man as the butch woman who did the same. And anxieties about trans people as “deceivers” go even further, because as trans academic Talia Mae Bettcher has argued, gendered clothing itself works as a form of symbolic signalling about genital status and hence sexual availability. It’s a code, which is why we speak, nonsensically about “women’s clothing” and “men’s clothing,” as though the cuts of clothing somehow is necessarily linked to gender and sex.
So trans adults are a threat because they “mismatch” (as Bettcher terms it) the codes of cissexual heterosexuality, the organisation of genitally-determined sexed bodies into “potentially fuckable” and “not potentially fuckable.” Wearing the clothes of the supposed other sex is “cross dressing,” is a violation of the cultural line between sexed bodies, gender identity and gender expression. And because heterosexuality is so frequently premised on its melancholic rejection of homosexuality, to be attracted to someone with the “wrong” genitals is a kind of psychic threat, which often results in violence to trans people (especially from cis men). As Julia Serano says in her poem “Cocky”
“My penis changes the meanings of everything. And because of her, every one of my heterosexual ex-girlfriends, has slept with a lesbian. And every guy who hits on me these days could be accused of being gay.”
In contrast, trans children are considered to not be sexual yet – their transness is not as strongly mediated by ideas of sexuality. Sympathetic portrayals of trans children are just about gender , without a sexual component1. Adult trans people have long battled the assumption that they transition for a sexual reason, or that they’re sexually promiscuous or sex workers, but trans children don’t hit those some fears. They’re not considered dangerous in quite the same way.
So in conclusion.
This view of trans children as sympathetic may not be quite as progressive as it seems. While it’s wonderful to see trans children treated as actual living breathing human beings, and more positive representations will definitely help those children gain access to blockers and hormones, what happens when they grow up?
Because at some point, most of those children will become sexually active teens and adults–and then we’re at the same point as before. Until we start to really interrogate the ways in which we idealise children and then demonise the adults they grow into (from innocent to fallen), things won’t really have changed so much after all.
- Though we should note in the negative portrayals the fear that gender variance signals a future homosexuality is made explicit. It’s just not as dominant a motif. ↩