Supporting Transgender and Gender Creative Youth: Schools, Families, and Communities in Action
reviewed by Hilary Lustick - January 24, 2015
Title: Supporting Transgender and Gender Creative Youth: Schools, Families, and Communities in Action
Author(s): Elizabeth J. Meyer & Annie Pullen Sansfaçon (Eds.)
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 143312209X, Pages: 260, Year: 2014
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Supporting Transgender and Gender Creative Youth is an edited volume of research studies, parent guides, and conceptual papers that emerged from a conference of Canadian academics in the fall of 2013. The conference was intended to begin a national conversation in Canada about childhood gender-creativity (p. 1) that would push individuals, institutions, and policy agendas concerned with gender identity, development, and safety.
The mental health field has undergone a major ideological shift in recent years, recognizing that gender-nonconforming individuals are not mentally ill, but rather distressed (p. 3) over their mismatched biological and mental gender identities; however, contributors argue that the current healthcare system, which monitors access to surgery and hormones, is ironically the most intense form of gender regulation our society is capable of producing (p. 5) because Canadian society is still organized on the basis of a binary understanding of gender (p. 5). The editors view the book as part of a larger social action research project to disrupt this binary.
The book is organized into three sections on gender in relation to clinical settings, schools, and parents and other caregivers. The first section situates discussions of transgender issues in the history of psychiatry, psychology, and medicine. A prime example of social action research is Jemma Toshs account of a protest against Ken Zucker, a psychologist who treats transgender children by encouraging activities typical of their biological gender (p. 48) and restricting their contact with any adult who accepts their gender-atypical behavior. Tosh analyzes the arguments made against Zucker; she also details the protest itself, which took place outside a major academic conference. These dual analyses offer an example for how social action can engage directly with academia.
The second section focuses on schools, and is comprised of several innovative empirical studies. Meyer details a professional and developmental framework for educators who are working with gender-creative and trans youth in their schools (p. 9). Meyer examines practice and policies, although teachers own attitudes are analyzed more deeply. Two articles examine gender identity in the rural context, both in general and for LGBTQ youth specifically. Hampton outlines helpful, concrete steps for creating safe spaces for LGBT students in rural communities, while Jiminez demonstrates the unique ways students make sense of genderparticularly femininityin rural environments.
The final section focuses on parents and other caregivers. Within this topic, there is great diversity: one article focuses on how queer parents make conscious space for their childrens gender identity to develop. Another focuses on parents experiences and feelings about their own non-conforming children. A third tracks a working group of parents as they talk through their attempts to navigate the health care system on behalf of a gender-nonconforming child. With the exception of interviewing children themselves (which authors felt would raise ethical concerns), the issue of atypical gender development is examined from every possible perspective.
This book reiterates two key messages, one of which is practical and applicable, and the other of which is abstract but potentially galvanizing. The first message concerns the increasingly popular liberal standpoint that being transgenderthat is, feeling oneself to be a different gender than ones biology would suggestis natural and should be respected along with homosexuality, bisexuality, and other dimensions of human difference. Now, I understand that there are limits to this liberal perception of the issue: it allows for transcendence of the gender binary, but nevertheless maintains that binary. It means taking the focus off gender nonconforming youth and putting it on the structures that they encounter. The authors argue that we must shift to a more transformational idea of gender that does not mistake conformity with equity.
The second major message of this book is that institutions such as education, the health care system, social services for children and families, the criminal justice system, and sport and physical recreation are key points of contact that must be on board with this new transformative gender framework (p. 65). Surely the authors recognize the enormity of their appeal: that as individuals, we must push back against what we have been taught, and at the same time, push not only for better legislation but also for more acceptance in public institutions; however, the recommendations for institutions are vague and therefore less helpful in the quest for real social change.
For example, Travers recommends that the health care system prepare medical staff and mental health providers to affirm patients gender identity and link those diagnosed with Gender Dysphoria to hormone blockers, cross sex hormones, various sex reassignment surgeries, and gender affirming counseling (p. 66). Yet she also demands high-quality access to health care, which requires further discussion: how do we define high quality health care in a paradigm where individualsnot doctorswould be determining their need for hormone treatment? Similarly, since the health care system (as well as education, social services, and criminal justice) must necessarily formalize personal information, including gender, it is hard to imagine revamping these systems to address the authors demands without an anarchic obliteration of these systems as we know them. Whether or not such revolution is in the authors consciousness, it would be helpful to at least note that the aspiration for total restructuring is not a task for social actionrather, it is a vision that undergirds concrete work, inspiring citizens to work within their spheres of influence to push back against social reproduction.
The questions and contradictions with which I walk away from this text, however, are the result of a political decision to remain pluralistic. Just as the authors respect an infinite multitude of possible genders, so the editors thoughtfully represent a diversity of perspectives and opinions within the scholarly community that need to be heard, mapped, and pursued. Within the same volume, for example, are authors who eschew the word transgender for its relationship to gender binaries and authors who embrace the term to honor those who feel it identifies them; there are authors who see sex-reassignment surgery as an example of gender policing and those who see it as a right to which all individuals should have equal and safe access. There are more gaps left in the research on transgender youth than there are definitive answers, but this book establishes that definitive answers are not the goal. The goal is to generate as many questions and confusions about gender as possible, until what became clear to the writers of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual becomes clear to citizens and politicians: gender, like language, is a construction, a set of social rules created to be broken.