The New Yorker has a report this week which is sadly pay-walled and should be made public as a civic gesture. I’ve always thought that the taboo surrounding transgender people is the final frontier in the liberal search for sexual tolerance. It’s clear that transgender people lack the social status, equal recognition and warm embracement now fortunately so often extended to our gay brothers and sisters. Part of this must be about the critical mass necessary for any successful social movement, but maybe there’s more to it. Either way, jokes about this human phenomenon, and awkward gut reactions to it, are evidently still far too common.
Which is why this report is so inspiring, in several ways. First, the sheer fact that a family and community exists in which Skylar, the female-to-male transgender teen which the report focuses on, can live without victimisation and exclusion is a surprise but also a relief. Perhaps exposure to such people does suffice to alter wider attitudes. In fact, I guess I have anecdotal evidence to support this. A similar situation has arisen with regards to a student at my sister’s school. There are no signs of bullying. It seems fair to assume, though, that in more religious circles such problems will arise.
Second, Skylar himself seems awesome in his maturity and altruism. We’re told that he intentionally picked the type of mastectomy which leaves scars, so his identity will remain proudly visible. This fits his broader behaviour, which involves talking to journalists, doctors and fellow children and teens experiencing such identity issues so that he does his bit to soften the stigmas and make the cultural climate more hospitable. These are the motives of a sixteen year old. You should be starting to see why his story is worth hearing.
A couple of moral issues the report raises. Many doctors are apparently reluctant to perform surgery and begin hormonal treatment on teens before they are adults, given the fluidity of gender at a young age and the possibility that irreversible changes will later be regretted. That strikes me as a legitimate concern. It is apparently common for homosexual children in particular to handle their same sex attractions sometimes by viewing themselves in this way. The report tells us of children under ten reconfiguring their identities and announcing they no longer wish to be understood in terms of their biological sex as early as primary school. This is definitely a delicate area. The best option appears to be drugs which delay puberty. They buy time for such teens to contemplate how they wish their future physiological development to unfold.
Second, there’s the question of what the law should say about sex and marriage obtained through deception here. That is, what if a transgender person who has been operated upon engages sexually or romantically with another person, whose interest is conditional upon believing the man in front of them is biologically naturally a woman, or vice versa? If Skylar is typical insofar as he doesn’t wish to hide his situation and become ‘normalised’, this problem will be rare. But it will arise. And I’m really torn here. On the one hand, given current social attitudes and preferences, I understand the thought that the only way a transgender person’s pool of potential partners isn’t going to be vastly diminished is if they aren’t vocal about their situation. On the other, this looks like information one can legitimately expect to know about your significant other, for a whole host of possible reasons that should be easy to envision.
Most countries have provisions for consent through deception counting as an instance of rape. Would a transgender person who has been operated upon, does not disclose their identity and has sex with someone else break the law? Should they be counted as breaking the law? This seems like a messy moral area that could really do with some work.