Last week, in a letter sent to House Republicans, Indiana state representative Bob Morris called for a block to a proposed resolution honoring the 100th anniversary of the Girl Scouts of America. In his letter, Morris referred to the Girl Scouts as “the tactical arm of Planned Parenthood,” populated by “feminists, lesbians, and Communists” and promoting the “homosexual lifestyle.” Morris’ letter (and later statements in its defense) comes on the heels of the YouTube video posted by a group called HonestGirlScouts.com, which is calling for a boycott of Girl Scout cookies in response to a Colorado troop’s decision to allow a 7-year-old transgender child into its troop.
That same week, a report was published in the journal Pediatrics by Dr. Norman Spack, founder of the Gender Management Services Clinic at Boston Children’s Hospital, which provides medical and psychological services for transgender youth. The topic of Spack’s report is “pubertal suppression” – use of hormone-suppressing agents to delay the onset of puberty. Since the 1990s, according to Spack, there has been a fourfold increase in the number of pediatric gender patients presenting at the clinic, and pubertal suppression is just beginning to take hold as a viable treatment option.
All of this is bringing the issue of childhood gender dysphoria onto the cultural radar screen, and clearly we can’t get any more polarized than this. On the one extreme end of the continuum, we’ve got people like Bob Morris, who believe that the behavior of transgender children shouldn’t be encouraged. Or people like Debbie Schlussel, a conservative political commentator, who, in response to the popular children’s book My Princess Boy, said the following: “[T]he tolerance of turning America’s boys and men into pink-encrusted powder puffs, isn’t tolerance or ‘acceptance’ at all. It’s the absorption, the digestion of the absolutely absurd–the complete abnormal– into our definition of what is okay. And it’s not okay. It’s just the further defining of deviancy down that continues to afflict and destroy America.”
And on the other side, we have people like Norman Spack, who believe that offering pubertal suppression treatment can be a lifesaver for many transgender kids. Without treatment, these children might engage in self-mutilation to try to change their anatomy. They face verbal and physical abuse from their peers. And they are at significant risk for stress, depression, and suicide attempts. Withholding treatment, given these realities, may do much more harm than good.
I’ve had transgender students in my classes ever since I began teaching at Sacramento City College eleven years ago. And, I have to say, I’ve witnessed quite a shift in that period of time. In the early 2000s, the few transgender students I knew (all of them transwomen) were typically in their 30s or 40s and perhaps just starting to transition. And none of them passed well. They desperately wanted to be seen as women – not as transwomen, but as women. They wanted to blend in. But, with deep voices and Adam’s apples, there was no way that would ever happen.
Fast-forward to the present, and the landscape changes dramatically. The transgender students I know (both transwomen and transmen) are quite young – some in their late teens, many in their 20s. This cohort is far more likely to have experienced some level of acceptance and support from their families. Quite a few are on pubertal suppression treatments. And, while each student I know is at a different point in the transition process, they tend to be happier, more socially connected, and more at home in their bodies. And many of them pass incredibly well.
The trend towards incorporating pubertal suppression into treatment, while utilized for years in the Netherlands and in Scandinavia, is just starting to gain some traction in the United States. However, not all medical professionals are fully on board with this, citing ethical concerns, possible side effects of hormonal suppression, and the motives of parents in choosing this form of treatment. All fair concerns, to be sure, although pediatric endocrinologists who treat gender conditions follow careful guidelines and engage in comprehensive evaluation before any hormone suppressants are administered. According to Spack’s report, which details 97 girls and boys treated between 1998 and 2010, the children and families receive psychological counseling and are monitored until the first signs of puberty emerge. This is when puberty-blocking drugs might be administered, allowing time for children to mature emotionally and to be sure that they want to proceed with permanent sex reassignment. The beauty of these drugs, according to Spack, is that their effects are fully reversible, in case a child decides to opt out of permanent reassignment.
I’m sure Bob Morris would recoil in horror at all of this. It challenges our conventional wisdom about what it means to be “male” or “female.” And it also raises issues about how we, collectively, deal with the discomfort that gender nonconformity can provoke. Do we silence transpeople and make them conform in order to deal with our transphobia (a.k.a. the “Bob Morris” approach)? Or do we practice acceptance of others, and handle our discomfort on our end (the “Girl Scouts” approach)?
Enjoy your Girl Scout cookies. Personally, I’ve always liked the Thin Mints.