Inspiring Empathy by Removing the Abstraction: Tey Meadow’s ‘Trans Kids’

With Trans Kids, Tey Meadow educates readers and gives them hope for societies that are just now learning to address gender beyond the strictures of presumed binary biology.

Trans Kids: Being Gendered in the Twenty-First Century
Tey Meadow
University of California Press
Aug 2018

To be transgender in 2019 is to face near-constant scrutiny and criticism. Since 2013, nearly half of the states in the USA considered, debated, or attempted to pass a bill that would limit gender-separated bathroom access to the biological or at-birth sex of the person using that bathroom. North Carolina passed contentious legislative restriction in an act dubbed “the bathroom bill“. While that specific regulation was repealed, it was repealed in such a way as to almost certainly prevent transgender individuals to receive protection of their rights at state-run agencies, even on a facility-by-facility basis.

The discrimination goes beyond the bathroom, of course. On 26 July 2017, barely six months into his presidency, Donald Trump tweeted:

After consultation with my Generals and military experts, be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.

It took Twitter until November of 2018 to ban misgendering and deadnaming transgender individuals in its “Hateful Content” policies.

In all cases, defense of transgender people and protections is by its opponents derided as political correctness run amok, as an affront to biology, as an indicator of North America’s cultural downfall. In the case of bathroom bills, the transgender people the bills affect are presented as caricatures, as hulking or perverted dudes who just want to shout “I self-identify as a woman” so that they can sneak into bathrooms, and our innocent young daughters would not be safe, per such thinking. Twitter ignored the above transgender slurs in favor of what it considered “free speech”, only changing its policies when public perception shifted and shaming forced its hand.

As for Trump’s despicable pronouncement, transgender people are here presented as selfish freeloaders looking to hook up to a military medical plan for their transitioning medications and procedures. The subtext of all of these messages is that to be transgender is to make a choice, a choice that not only runs counter to biology but burdens the rest of society. It’s dehumanization at its most insidious, and its very real consequences include an attempted suicide rate among non-binary teens of over 40%.

It’s precisely this public perception of transgender issues and people that makes Tey Meadow‘s book Trans Kids: Being Gendered in the Twenty-First Century a vital and necessary read. Trans Kids is a multi-subject case study in which Meadow spends time with children of various ages, who along with their parents are grappling with both the private and all-too-public fallout of presenting themselves as genders other than the ones they were born with — even at times challenging the long-standing assumption in dominant western societies that there are only two genders.

After defining some terms, Meadow wastes little time in addressing the reader regarding the perspective from which the book was written:

Perhaps while reading this chapter, you turned the book over in your hands, searching for an author photo. Perhaps you wondered if, in fact, I am transgender, what I look like, what, were we to sit across from one another, you might discern in the contours of my face. If so, you are like many of us, on a distinctly contemporary quest to understand the complexities of gender, to position others in the cultural folds of masculinity and femininity, to grapple with the increasing presence among us of people who deliberately violate gender’s mandates.

It’s a striking passage in that it both refuses to answer the question that Meadow calls out and excuses the reader for considering the question in the first place. There’s a very natural curiosity, a very human inclination to want to classify and label that which falls beyond one’s own immediate understanding. The implicit answer is, of course, that the exact nature of Meadow’s gender nonconformity is immaterial to the stories that Meadow is trying to tell. Meadow offers just enough that we know that the parents Meadow is interacting with see someone who, in some way, is “like” their children. Meadow expresses some discomfort at the way in which this will affect the behavior of those Meadow is trying to document — “My body became a screen for the projected gendered fantasies of others,” Meadow says — though the reader’s sense of that effect is that the interactions are more comfortable for this familiarity. Meadow’s own nonconformity seems likely to have made the families’ interactions with Meadow more natural, in that they felt less likely to be judged.

Meadow goes on to introduce us to a variety of families, all of whom have in common a gender-nonconforming child. There’s a teenager whose parents met initial gender subversions with resistance that sometimes fell into hostility. There is a six-year-old whose excited pronouncement to his mother that new, presumably male-presenting friends “both have vaginas” is met with a purposeful, heartwarmingly unsurprised “Sure honey… lots of boys have vaginas.” There’s a middle school child born a boy and attending school as a boy who dresses in a purposefully androgynous manner, supported by his parents who are nevertheless uncomfortable with not knowing whether he “will be a gay man or a transgender woman” when he is older. There are others, too, each of whom has their own story. To be sure, while the families are involved, true to Meadow’s title it is the kids and their stories that comprise the heart of this book.

Once introduced, the examples of these children allow for Meadow to explore a number of different avenues. Early on, an exploration of the “fragility of masculinity” is used to frame striking statistics related to the difference in the ages at which children first see an expert regarding their gender nonconformity; boys are generally far older than girls when this happens, which points to parents’ reticence to accept such a development as well as a greater societal pressure on boys to be masculine than on girls to be feminine.

Later, a chapter on the anxiety generated in the parents and children as a result of outside judgment and influence is occasionally crushing to read, as we learn of the frequency at which child services is called by others who disagree with these parents’ approach, blaming them for what they see as a problem in the child. At one point the owner of a private school “confessed to [a mother] that she worried she would lose business from other families if [the child]’s trans status was known.” It is a brutal reality expressed over and over again that even those who try to be sensitive to a family’s wishes can instead tear that family down by trying to force societal bounds upon them. One chapter even spends time at a “gender clinic”, a facility whose aim is to classify children who present as a gender that conflicts with their biological sex, and then either help them in their transition or, horrifyingly, “search for the problem to which their cross-gender behavior was a solution.”

Meadow is level-headed about the clinic and goes in to the subject with an open mind, though few tears are shed for the clinic when it’s revealed to have closed, its director fired in the wake of a law introduced in Ontario in 2015 banning conversion therapy.

Despite all the turmoil that Meadow presents as evidence for the myriad difficulties that families of trans children face, Trans Kids finds its way to something like a happy ending; Meadow gets a chance to interview a child for a second time, five years after the first. What Meadow finds is a well-adjusted human being who has also come to approach gender in a somewhat playful way, contingent on a surrounding audience, not making gender irrelevant so much as centralizing it:

To position Rachel as an example of gender’s erosion would be to profoundly misunderstand the way she lived gender. Rachel’s gender was very much at the center of her life, of her self-understanding, of the configuration of her relations to others. It was also something her family and intimates thought about, negotiated with her, grappled to understand, and explained routinely to others.

With Rachel as a jumping off point, Meadow finds hope for societies that are just now learning to address gender in a way beyond the strictures of presumed binary biology. There’s hope to be found in the book’s conclusion, though never so much as to minimize the very current plight and perils that those who are living their own gender journeys continue to face.

There’s something admirable, in this cultural moment, about calling a book Trans Kids. The title doesn’t dance around its subject or insult the intelligence of its target audience, ensuring that the book’s intentions are clear before it’s opened. Beyond the daring of its title, this is a book whose depth and sensitivity pull you in throughout. Perhaps most impressive of all, Trans Kids barely even acknowledges the abstraction that the very concept of gender nonconformity has come to be defined by in the news, in the words of our political leaders, in our social media feeds; rather, it removes that abstraction entirely, giving us very real kids and parents to get to know and come to identify with.

Trans Kids isn’t likely to change many minds because those whose minds would or could be changed by it wouldn’t be caught dead reading it. For the rest of us, though, this work provides the sorts of names and stories that can inspire us all to help fight for trans equality and respect. That’s a worthy end in and of itself.