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Recent mainstream media attention seems to have brought the “T” in LGBT from “occasional afterthought” to “strong finish.” (See especially the New York Times on boys wearing pink .)
However, the issues and situations of people who don’t feel they belong in the gender everybody else is comfortable putting them in, are often different from those who are not heterosexual. Lesbian, gay and bisexual children and teens may act and dress in gender-bending ways (exuberantly, defiantly, tentatively, rarely or never) but being a different gender is not what they seek. A transgender person, usually from a pretty early age, has a strong sense that s/he just doesn’t fit, and the gender-bending dress and behavior is an attempt to be more true to an internal himself or herself. (Also see information on relevant scientific research here.)
While many lesbian, gay and bisexual folks question and/or rebel against the traditional gender roles and behaviors of the heterosexual majority, transpeople may have a much more nuanced stance and embrace some of the stereotypes for their felt gender.
Attraction is a completely separate parameter from gender identity. This means some trans-women are attracted to men, some to women, some to both and others to neither. To a straight person, it might seem to make sense for a girl who likes girls to transition to a boy who likes girls, but why would a boy who likes girls want the complication of transitioning to a girl who likes girls? Until you get to know a transperson, it can be difficult to understand how the kids who want to transition feel their lives are already hopelessly complicated with pretending.
Here’s a thought experiment: A hormonally and genetically male teen has always felt more comfortable in the “girls’ world” and long desired to change genders. This person has become emotionally very close and romantically attached to a young woman. Their relationship continues after his transition to female. Which feels stranger to you: that a hetero-romantically successful man prefers to be a romantically successful lesbian, or that a woman’s attraction to a man might be less dependent on specific body parts and gender roles than we usually assume?
Our notions of gender seem to be part of the bedrock of our understanding of the world, and are a key piece of our sense of order. Things that don’t fit kindle deep sparks of fear. These may flare up as “protect the children from the negative reactions of others” bonfires. For example, a March 2013 article in the New Yorker about the issues and decisions transgender kids and their parents face as they approach puberty was criticized for naming and running a close-up photograph of a female-to-male teen. The teen, the argument went, was too young to truly give informed consent to all the ramifications of national celebrity, and so was being exploited by the media and possibly his parents on behalf of a social movement. Is this a realistic assessment, or the projection of the critics’ unease onto the imagined less-tolerant “others”?
But the dangers for trans kids are real. Studies of trans teens alone are rare, but a 2011 survey of LGBTQ students GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) found that those who describe themselves as gender-nonconforming are more likely to experience violence and harassment in school than those who consider themselves gender-conforming. This was true for incidents based on both sexual orientation and gender non-conforming behaviors themselves. (See the full report here.)
The prospects of lifelong hormone therapy and surgery – major, irreversible, and expensive – raises the stakes and a host of additional issues for trans teens and their parents. This complex issue touches on body image, teen judgment abilities, the current state of health insurance coverage and more. For parents anxiety about surgery can be an engine that pulls many train cars with feelings of loss. More in-depth discussions to come here.
Meanwhile, here is a source of general information from GLAAD (media communications center for LGBT communities, formerly known as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation)
And information about health care for transgender people from the American Medical Students Association
Last but definitely not least: art about the journey of transition