Towards better trans understanding

  • by by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday November 13, 2018
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As Masha Gessen said in print before I could, things happened and were said at the interment service for Matthew Shepard at Washington Cathedral on Oct. 26 (YouTube has several complete videos) that surpassed expectation. In his sermon, Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay man to become a bishop in the Episcopal Church, didn't just say but emphasized, "Violence takes lots of forms, and right now the transgender community is the target. There are forces about that would erase them from America, deny them the right they have to define themselves, and they need us to stand with them."

Columbia University assistant professor of sociology Tey Meadow responded to that same, ripe-for-election-season government bluster with a blog post, "America the Bully: What the Trump Administration Memo on Gender Means for Trans Kids" (

I provide the link because it is a necessary appendix to Meadow's new "Trans Kids: Being Gendered in the Twenty-First Century" (UC Press). Despite being one of the most essential reads since "trans" went, in her words, from "just an identity" to "an industry," it never resorts to the sensational to be gripping, compassionate and itself intellectually fluid. Even the necessary first chapter, which performs duties more typical of a Ph.D. dissertation, takes the trouble to be interesting and engaging. It feels dated only in its expectation of yet richer things to come and its wariness of future blowback by governmental black-and-whiters.

As for the Bishop's injunction, it bears noting that while the LGBTQA+ community has been overall commendable in its support of trans individuals and causes, such deficiency as is there is directly owing to the fact that, however sympathetic, the majority of LGBTQ individuals nevertheless have scant idea of what it is like to be not just an outsider in society but to feel, function and live fully a gender-nonconforming life, say nothing of one in which gender identity is neither singular nor binary, and sometimes in lifelong flux.

The cast of characters in Meadow's book ranges well beyond her own, deeply reflective self — which, she (her preferred pronoun) concedes, has its own intermittent problems looking and listening without defaulting to culturally deep-seated ideas about gender as something not just binary but fixed. The book's candor is its strength.

It's hard to quantify what you don't know, but my best guess is that "Trans Kids" answered far more than half my questions (including many I hadn't articulated), then evinced the courage to raise even more than it answered, not because it left things out or because it's operationally aware that what we know now remains provisional. It invites readers — and anyone genuinely interested in studying or understanding gender-nonconforming people — to ask questions that reach beyond readily available vocabulary, arguing that that's the next right, respectful thing to do.

With no pretensions to be comprehensive — rather, with full knowledge that a fixed comprehensiveness is precisely the wrong goal — Meadow has studied select gender-nonconforming and "gendering" individuals and their mostly supportive families and social worlds in the eventual understanding that they were, simultaneously, studying her. Intuitively, that feels like an appropriate application of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

Statistics, some presented graphically, mostly appear in a chapter called "The Gender Clinic." Two softer statistics linger in the mind while reading Meadow's book. It is estimated that 1% of the population (US, anyway) is gender-nonconforming. And that trans people make up a disproportionate number of people in so-called ex-gay therapy programs and facilities.

Late in the book, when Meadow has already enthralled you with stories drawn largely from her own work in the field, so rich and individual, she declares: "The new stories told about transgender and gendernonconforming children are changing the very terms by which gender categorization happens. Whereas once we understood gender to be the social expectations that adhere to biological sexual differences, we now understand it to be a fundamental, immutable part of the psychic self that needn't cohere, in any predictable way, with the materiality of the body."

Far from a catalogue of pedantic case histories, in Meadow's stories characters reappear as they do in novels, treated with the same compassion irrespective of the thorniness of particular personalities. Late in the book you learn about how Meadow and two study participants — a mother and daughter, both differently gendered — selected the wonderful photo for the cover, and a great deal suddenly coheres.

The book's title is equally deliberate, because Meadow's focus is on the children gendering and being gendered in a new and boundary-pushing culture in which the kaleidoscope calls the colors. If, like me, you yearn to push your own, personal, operational understanding of gender in flux beyond slobbering fandom of Virginia Woolf's "Orlando," this is where to start.