The Trans Generation: How Trans Kids (and Their Parents) Are Creating a Gender Revolution, by Ann Travers. NYU Press, 2019. ISBN 9781479840410.
This is a good book. It is based on interviews with 19 transgender kids and 23 parents from the US and Canada, with the overall sample consisting of the experiences of 36 kids ranging in age from 4 to 20. Not all parents in the study were initially supportive, but their reluctance to accept their kids’ trans identity was sometimes due to fear for their kids future. Once reality set in, they became – whether they liked it or not – “accidental activists” for their children.
Despite a greater understanding and acceptance of trans people, trans kids still live in a state of precarity. All life is precarious, but precarity “involves social positionings of insecurity.” Modern neoliberal states govern by “imposing precarity on part of the population, but not so much that it results in insurrection.” What this means for trans kids is that there is some help, but it’s piecemeal and many less privileged trans kids are left out.
The coping strategies trans kids employ are familiar: invisibility, trying to fit in (otherwise known as “sucking it up”), living a double life, self harm or suicide, gender non-conformity, and transition. Where the latter two are possible, it is largely due to activist parents and a sympathetic school, but even under these favourable conditions, transphobic teachers and bullying are not uncommon. The bathroom and gym class are still sources of deep anxiety. Sympathetic teachers mess up. There is a story here in which a teacher outed a trans child thinking it was a sign of sensitivity and support when in fact it just put a target on his back.
Many “good” schools will address the issue by making dispensations for individuals without challenging the gender system itself. This leaves many other kids who may be experiencing gender issues on the margins and choosing invisibility as a survival strategy. “Transitioning the environment” is preferable to transitioning in schools because it allows kids to explore gender non-conformity without necessarily following the medical model of transition. Travers is careful to note that this is necessary for some trans kids, but as their study reveals several of the kids interviewed would have been more comfortable living non-binary or gender non-conforming lives had they been presented with that option.
Children who transition before puberty are able to achieve a “more ‘normal’ and satisfactory appearance” than would someone who has transitioned as an adult. Passing privileges certain trans people over others and does not challenge the gender binary. Some of the young people interviewed live in rural areas where resources for trans kids are non-existent, or were in low income households where the parents could not advocate for their kids like more affluent parents could. This leaves many trans kids to fend for themselves. It can be a cold, hard world out there.
The Trans Generation explores all these complications . The chapter on the parents includes a discussion of the effect having a trans child has on siblings and the extended family. Having a trans kid is very much a family affair and it’s traumatic when not everyone is on board. It’s not easy telling the grandparents they can’t visit if they continue to deadname their grandchild. The gender work that these parents do benefits all kids – cis and trans – but it is tiring and takes its toll.
The book has a chapter on supportive healthcare and concludes with a discussion on the way forward. Travers notes that while the gains LGBT folk have made in the last while would have been unimaginable several decades ago, “we see binary gender normativity restabilizing itself” to accommodate transgender people. Only privileged, passing trans folks are allowed into the party while “racialized, impoverished, and non-binary-conforming trans kids are denied recognition and care”. LGBT folks are doing better, but “legal and policy reform often leaves structures of oppression untouched.”
The solution is to create the gender revolution cited in the subtitle. Travers identifies four key tasks, among them pressuring social institutions and spaces to create room for kids to determine their own gender identities within a wider range of possibilities, striving to ensure that gender affirming health care is available to all, targeting damaging gender systems and ensuring the most precarious trans kids are at the centre of all our social change efforts. If we focus on the most precarious, then the privileged benefit too.
Travers has a holistic view of social change that strives to leave no one out. It is laudable even as it is difficult to achieve. It is a socialist approach that might be a hard sell in the current political atmosphere, especially in the United States.
Trans Generation is, nonetheless, a sensitive, well researched book on what can be a contentious topic. It is well worth reading.