Off Limits: My Transgender Teen’s Body Is Not Up for Discussion

The bodies of all my children are off limits, of course. But since my youngest came out as transgender, I’ve observed an unsettling phenomenon: Trans people are treated as though being trans carries with it an obligation to accept intrusive, highly personal questions about their bodies — questions that are never posed to or asked about cisgender folk (that is, those whose gender identity aligns with the sex assigned to them at birth). The sense of entitlement with which these questions are asked implies that anyone and everyone has the right to know what is going on underneath a transgender person’s clothing, and this includes transgender teenagers and children. Pretty messed up, right?

Sometimes these sorts of inquiries come from the most unexpected sources. Recently the mother of another trans child caught me completely off guard when she asked me if she and her daughter could take a look at my daughter. She explained that they wanted to see what a transgender teen looks like up close and personal, to see how she is developing now that she is several years into adolescence. This parent also asked a number of even more inappropriate questions that I declined to answer — nor did I produce my daughter for a viewing. I’ve also been asked if my teenager has had or will have gender-reassignment surgery (GRS), which is not an option for minors, not to mention the fact that this is no one’s business but our family’s.

I understand people’s curiosity, the human desire to understand things that don’t align with our particular worldview, but it’s not my responsibility to satisfy that curiosity. I believe that people ask such questions because, on a basic level, they want (or hope) to know that the sex organs and characteristics of the person in question match up with that person’s presumed gender, because when a mismatch does exist, confusion inevitably ensues. Reconciling the disconnect requires work, the serious soul searching and intentional effort it takes to understand ways of being outside the norms we have grown to believe apply to everyone. I have also found that the people who ask these kinds of questions have done little research on their own before coming to my transgender child to satiate their curiosity.

I find the blatant inquisitiveness about trans bodies, particularly trans women’s bodies, to be downright invasive, in part because the questions are often cloaked within polite conversation and are therefore so unexpected. Janet Mock  brilliantly exposed the absurdity of this troubling pattern when she flipped the script on a cisgender interviewer, firing intensely personal questions of the kind that she routinely encounters herself, such as “Do you have a vagina?”

Perhaps you can remember when you were transitioning into your adolescent body. Do you recall the changes appearing without warning or apology? You might have been the recipient of comments about the baby hairs sprouting from your chin or the size of your emerging breasts. I recall cringing at these observations as my body careened forward in its high-speed race toward the foreign destination known as adulthood. But as hard as such changes might be for cis teenagers, trans youth are often doubly confounded by adolescence, their changing bodies becoming a source of significant inner turmoil. All too often these years mark the tipping point between mere confusion and utter despair.

To add insult to injury, if trans youth who’ve begun puberty begin receiving healthcare in the form of puberty blockers or hormone therapy, they will inevitably go through a second puberty. As part of their ongoing treatment, these teens must also have periodic physical examinations and engage in intensely private discussions with medical practitioners who may in fact be the most caring and dedicated providers but nevertheless remain unfamiliar adults. At 15, talking about the “down there” with anyone is painfully awkward, but it’s especially so with your mother in the room.

Cis people are never expected to discuss their genitals in casual conversation. This is where privilege comes in: People whose gender identity aligns with the sex assigned to them at birth aren’t expected to explain or defend themselves, or to bare their all. Even though cis bodies vary as much as trans bodies do, we take it for granted that they don’t, or we allow for certain variations and not others. And when we focus on any person’s genitals, we reduce the sum of their identity to that one body part; likewise, when we rely on a sexual marker, like breasts or the absence thereof, to tell us “who” a person “is,” we miss out on everything else that defines their identity: what they think, feel, do, create.

As much as we might like to believe otherwise, having one particular set of parts or another does not authenticate any identity, objectively speaking; these anatomical components simply reflect the meaning we attach to them. I believe a change in focus is possible — a change away from the mindset that individual body parts have the capacity to define us. We as humans are capable of such organic shifts in collective thinking.

For those of you interested in learning more about the transgender experience, I suggest first reading some books that will answer your questions, like Trans Bodies: A Resource Guide for the Transgender Community, or surfing the Internet to educate yourself with the vast collection of resources now available. And please watch this moving and highly informative short video made by YouTuber ElloSteph with members of the trans community in response to Leelah Alcorn’s death:

And if you are ever in doubt about whether to ask some burning question, first ask yourself if you would pose the same question about the body of a non-trans youth or adult, perhaps your own child or a student or neighbor. If the answer is no, don’t ask. If you find yourself biting your tongue, keep biting.

(First published in the Huffington Post on 1/18/15,  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/liz-hanssen/off-limits-my-transgender_b_6481682.html)