Facts over phobia | A response to Diesel

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I volunteer at a support group for trans and gender-diverse minors and their parents. In these spaces I often find myself hammering home to the kids every time we engage, that the medical stuff isn’t everything, that they are valid and beautiful no matter what path they choose.

I do this because it is true, but also because I find myself having to constantly fight a false narrative that we are pushing surgeries or hormones onto children. And yet, for most of the young people I work with, it is still something they desperately want and need.

As someone who has worked long hours with young trans and gender-diverse people, I cannot stress enough the kind of damage that articles like Alleyn Diesel’s (The Witness, August 25) can do to the lives of innocent young people. To be transgender is not, as Diesel claims, a choice, or a desire to escape from social norms, or a form of mutilation, or a form of expressing one’s sexuality. To be trans is simply to not identify with the gender assigned to you at birth, and can involve myriad sexual orientations or forms of self-expression.

READ | Breaking boundaries safely

Diesel starts her piece off by referring to a previous review of the novel Detransition, Baby, by Torrey Peters, as something which drew her attention to the “fact” that “growing numbers who embraced transsexual [sic] lifestyles because of apparent gender dysphoria, are now embarking on detransitioning”. Diesel either does not realise, or counts on the readers to not realise, that the novel to which she refers is just that — a work of fiction. Further, Peters is a trans woman who was nominated for an acclaimed women’s prize for literature, much to the chagrin of the very anti-trans voices with whom Diesel aligns.

Detransition, Baby, by Torrey Peters
Detransition, Baby, by Torrey Peters

In reality there is no evidence that a “growing number” of trans people are detransitioning. While some anti-trans commentators like to cry that the rise in people coming out as trans is some kind of pandemic, the reality is likely just that more people now have the tools and language to describe themselves openly, where before stigma and ignorance forced them to remain in the closet.

This is not to belittle or ignore the lived realities of those who do detransition. Everyone deserves the freedom to decide for themselves who they are and how best to live their lives, and it is important to have open and honest discussions about how to best help and serve that small minority who do come to realise they are not transgender. But the fact that such people get touted as evidence against the necessity of medical transition is exceedingly harmful.

An analysis by Cornell University of more than 4 000 separate studies attests to the efficacy of medical transition in alleviating depression, suicide tendencies, anxiety and social isolation among the vast majority of trans people. And we have known for decades now that “conversion therapies” aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity are at best ineffective and at worst, traumatic and dangerous.

Diesel goes on to claim that in Britain and the U.S. there is “growing concern” about the rising rate of young trans people seeking gender-affirming medical care. In fact, the consensus in favour of offering such support to trans people has never been higher, but much like with those who detransition, a vocal minority are held up by the likes of Diesel, with little regard for what the informed, educated and compassionate majority are saying.

The Professional Association for Transgender Health South Africa (Pathsa), an organisation with members across the medical and psychological fields, states unequivocally in its policy statement on children that to consider trans identities and affirming health care to be some kind of ideology “is objectively false, inaccurate and could lead to significant harm should it result in parents being dissuaded to act in the best interests of their transgender and gender diverse children in accessing gender-affirming care”.

"I am transgender. I do not want to be. It is difficult and painful and it has cost me so much. And yet, I will not and cannot change. I don’t hate being trans, I hate being trans in a world full of bigotry and disgust and violence aimed at people like me."
Kellyn Botha

The policy goes on to state: “Pathsa’s firm and clear position on gender-affirming health care for children and adolescents is supported and substantiated by a number of outcome studies [...] that have produced good evidence for the improved mental health in children who were supported and allowed to socially transition.”

It is not practice or policy anywhere in the world to perform genital surgery on transgender minors. Not only that, but many trans people do not want surgeries, and those who do are more often than not excluded by exorbitant medical bills. If you are truly outraged at the thought of such irreversible surgeries being done on children, I encourage you to join the efforts of us LGBTI+ activists in banning genital surgeries on intersex newborns.

I am transgender. I do not want to be. It is difficult and painful and it has cost me so much. And yet, I will not and cannot change. I don’t hate being trans, I hate being trans in a world full of bigotry and disgust and violence aimed at people like me.

Portrait of a young man with black hat, eyeshadow
Portrait of a young man with black hat, eyeshadow and earring looking down, isolated on a studio background

Transgender people are who we say we are. The research backs this up. We are not a fad or an ideology, we are your friends, your colleagues, your siblings and your children.

The teenagers I work with are not broken. Like anyone else their age they like drawing, gossiping, and watching hilarious TikTok videos.

They speak in a slang that is often alien to me — a born-free millennial — making me feel older than I actually am.

They get into fights, worry about their grades at school, and navigate the tumultuous world of love and relationships that all teenagers struggle with.

They are, for lack of a better word, normal. And they are trans.

• Letter has been shortened.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
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