At a party recently, two of my good friends informed me that their teenagers, formerly a boy and a girl, were newly identifying as a trans girl and a gender-fluid person; once him and her, they were now her and them, respectively. The next day, I met a girl whose best friend had left for spring break as a girl and returned to junior high as a trans boy.
I couldn’t help wondering: Why the sudden surge of transgender teens?
Were there always children who felt antsy in their assigned gender — but never safe saying so in a pre-Caitlyn Jenner world? Could the explosion of social awareness be enticing some angsty adolescents to “try out” gender nonconformity as an option they wouldn’t have considered before? And is it insensitive to even ask that?
Bren Fraser is a therapist who works with transgender clients age 7 and up. “It’s become a specialty for me,” she says, confirming that there are gender-questioning students at all of our public high schools, junior highs, and even some elementary schools. “I’ve seen much more growth in the last two years — even more in the last year.”
But one teen insists it’s nothing new. “There have always been tons of gender-nonconforming people,” says Belle, a 16-year-old who identifies as gender fluid. “Native Americans accepted nonbinary people for centuries! So there aren’t more of them; they’re just finding more community and positivity for their identities. Teens are starting to be less afraid to show their true selves, because they see other people like them. And communities at school or Pacific Pride are making safe spaces for teens to figure out who they are.”
Seventh grader Ella figured out who she was this year: an agender person named El. “I don’t feel any particular connection to being male or female,” says El, 12. “I just feel like I am who I am.”
El was always a tomboy who liked sports and action figures: “I didn’t exactly want to be a boy, but I didn’t really feel like a girl. When I found out what agender was, I was almost crying. I was like, Oh my god, I’m not weird! I just felt so good about myself.” They cut their hair and began speaking in a deeper voice — but things can still be awkward: “Every day at school, people look at me and I hear whispers. There are some people who are afraid to talk to me because of my pronouns. They’re afraid they might mess up.”
My friend Julia was taken aback when her high-school-age daughter announced she was gender fluid. “She said, ‘Sometimes I want to be a boy, and sometimes I want to be a girl.’ Neither my husband nor I knew what the hell she was talking about,” Julia says. “So I called Pacific Pride and said, ‘Do you have any groups for parents? I want to get myself educated.’” They did, and she did.
But Julia has an opinion about the whole thing: “I think this is a reaction to the hypersexuality of high school, especially for girls who don’t fit the in-crowd mold,” she says. “I think they’re saying, ‘I’m not even going to play that game.’ She doesn’t feel like she was born in the wrong body — she just doesn’t want to conform to society’s roles of male and female. There’s a little bit of protest and social justice mixed in, and those are things that I completely support, so why would I not support her? I mean them. Damn it.”
But for some parents, the transition can be torturous. Another friend’s 14-year-old son began identifying as a trans girl last year but doesn’t present as female — doesn’t wear feminine clothes, have girl friends, or even shave, um, her mustache. So when multiple Los Angeles therapists urged them to start the kid on hormone replacement therapy, the parents resisted.
“All of them are pushing our child down that road, and our child is not showing us that she wants to go down that road. It’s really dangerous,” says my friend — who is about as progressive as they come. “I mean, we don’t even let her eat chicken with hormones in it!”
Obviously it’s important to take these kids seriously; about 41 percent of gender-nonconforming people in the U.S. have attempted suicide. But … is there room for dialogue?
“I think it’s amazing we live in a time where you’re allowed to have that exploration,” my friend says. “But as a parent, if you say, ‘Wait, let’s slow down and have a conversation,’ you’re looked at as being unsupportive. There are no open doors to just … try it on. And the idea of knowing at 14 who you’re going to be for the rest of your life? Every adult will tell you they’re not the people today that they were convinced they were going to be when they were 14.”
For her part, therapist Bren says she’s never had a client’s gender identity turn out to be “just a phase.” But if there’s one thing that is sure to change — and keep changing — it’s society’s ideas about gender.
“The kids that are coming up now, they don’t look out at the world the same way. They’re open to something different,” Bren says. “I actually think it’s an exciting time. Being curious is a great thing.”
Starshine Roshell is the author of Broad Assumptions.