The result of their misgivings is that after an initial consultation with Dr. Hembree several months ago, Nick’s parents have “dragged their feet” on getting the bone scan needed to help determine his Tanner stage. “We were supposed to have a follow-up visit after six weeks,” says his mother, “which I totally blew off.” She frets for a moment. “I need to do this ASAP.”
At this point Nick and his sister arrive home from school. The two share a bedroom along with an avalanche of books, toys, games, and clothing. Near Nick’s bed, in a tank, sits a bearded dragon, motionless. “It’s my prize possession,” Nick volunteers. When I ask if it’s a boy or a girl, he says there’s no way to tell.
Often called brave, kids like Nick, Molly, Frieda, and Isaac don’t see themselves that way. To them, what they are trying to do is as natural a shift, if a much more complex one, as stepping from shade into sun on a cold day. You move to your comfort. Still, parents see it differently, knowing what the world, with its violent transphobia, has in store; they cannot afford to take their children’s nonchalance at face value. Kids really don’t know what they’re doing or saying except, uncannily, when they do.
So yes, it’s astonishing how dauntlessly they choose to endure painful medical procedures and stare down the liberal perplexities of their families. But what actually seems bravest, to an outsider, is how they do these things more or less alone. And what seems scariest, to a parent, is the way that aloneness suggests how little we know about any child. Transgenderism may be the last, thinnest edge of the wedge of liberation, but it’s also the most piercing. The concept it threatens is even more fundamental than race and orientation and physical ability. Or so we’ve thought.
Which makes for the uncomfortable realization that sophisticated, pushing-the-envelope parents are not necessarily the ones who are most helpful to their pushing-the-envelope-even-further kids. “My recent observation,” says Isaac’s mom, “is that when you’re in these progressive cultures it can be harder to see that your kid is trans because you’re so steeped in this epic of gender freedom. It’s fluid, it’s great, one thing one day, another thing the next. You start applying that as a fantasy of an ideal on top of someone who might really need to be helped in a very specific way, and you can end up doing harm. It’s not all about freedom.”
Meanwhile, the Benders are ready. Unless something changes in Molly’s outlook, they fully expect to start her on puberty blockers when their doctor says it’s time. Otherwise, her mother feels, they would be “violating her rights as a human being to have an authentic childhood and to be an authentic person in this world and to live the way she’s comfortable.”
But Isaac, who now thinks of himself as “trans” rather than simply male, has lately been mulling the subject more critically. In a recent video called The Hypocrisy of Transition, he seems to be searching, from a “social-justice stance”—and as a way of avoiding his biology homework—for a clear space beyond questions of freedom and comfort. If, as he argues, there’s no inherent correlation between sex and gender, between body and self, why did he go through all this trouble to make the two “match”? What does “match” even mean? If he knows he’s a boy, why does it matter what his body says?
Because, he concludes, like everyone else, he’s a “societal person”: He inhabits a culture that believes in such things. He doesn’t make the rules. Nor, as strong as he is, can he live completely without them.