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Documenting the Trans Generation: Kids, Families and the Fight for Rights

A Q&A with transgender professor and author Ann Travers on their new book about growing up trans.

Katie Hyslop 23 Jul

Katie Hyslop is The Tyee’s education and youth reporter.

Ann Travers wants you to know there are transgender people in your life right now. You just might not know it. Travers’ own family certainly didn’t.

By their own account, Travers — now an associate professor in Simon Fraser University’s anthropology and sociology department — had a privileged childhood growing up in Toronto in the 1960s and ’70s. Travers lived in a white middle class family and neighbourhood, where a university education was the expectation and the norm.

Already undervalued for being perceived as a girl, Travers, who identifies as non-binary and prefers the pronouns they/them/theirs, was also visibly gender nonconforming and queer from a young age.

“That was not OK in my family. I was born in 1962, so that was really not OK anywhere. And I didn’t even know that gay people existed until I was maybe 11 or 12,” said Travers.

“That was one of the real injustices that I experienced that made me more sensitive to injustice more broadly.”

That sense of injustice fuels Travers’ latest book, The Trans Generation: How Trans Kids (and Their Parents) Are Creating a Gender Revolution. Through interviews with 19 transgender kids and 23 parents of transgender kids conducted over seven years, Travers covers how much has changed since their childhood when it comes to acceptance and visibility of a spectrum of sexualities and genders.

But the book also highlights the continuing struggles for those who don’t fit the rigid man/woman gender binary. Like finding a safe place to pee, or having others accept and use their preferred name and pronouns. And as the worsening conditions in the United States for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and two-spirited youth show, any gains in rights and representation are easily clawed back.

Travers sat down with The Tyee earlier this week to discuss The Trans Generation, the gains trans kids are still waiting for, and the benefits of de-gendering public institutions and spaces for everyone.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Tyee: Who is this book meant for — kids?

Ann Travers: No. I think in a lot of ways the interviewing was good for the kids, because I saw them, and to interact with someone who believed they are who they say they are was really good for the kids. And to feel like they were playing a part in educating other people.

I think the book has multiple audiences. It has a scholarly audience, and an audience of parent activists, policy makers, educators, anybody who works with children. And for all those audiences the basic message is that children should be able to determine their own genders without limit, and without being expected to be consistent, even. People should be able to explore their gender, and that when someone tells you what their gender is, that’s how you proceed, with no questions asked — other than to make sure you understand.

I wanted people also to transition spaces and institutions away from the sex binary as a way of creating space for all children, because it limits all kids. When I became a parent and started navigating the world with small children, it was so difficult to keep people’s gender bullshit away from my kids. It was really impossible. So that made me think about it a lot.

But one of the key messages that I want to send is that if you really do care about trans kids, then you need to be concerned about racism, about colonialism, etc., rather than looking at it as a single issue of mostly white wealthy parents being frustrated because they can’t pass their privilege onto their mostly white trans kids.

I purposefully don’t have a white kid with coloured streaks in their hair on the cover like the other books on trans kids tend to. They’re very vulnerable and my concern includes them, but they’re not at the centre. I’m more concerned with the majority of trans kids who are invisible because it’s not safe for them to show themselves because they have no allies and advocates, or the kids who are unable to be invisible because they’re just read as gender nonconforming and they exist without support.

One thing that surprised me when reading the book was the definition of trans was a lot broader than I thought it was.

And it’s very contested. There are some people that believe that you should use transgender just for people that other people call transsexual. For sure, the LGBT community is very diverse. But it’s generally accepted that transgender is an umbrella term. Certainly in scholarly literature and in a lot of activism, trans has a rather open-ended [definition], and for political reasons that’s where I situate myself, with the use of trans and transgender as available for people to claim as they see fit. Like any category that has clear boundaries around that reflects the interests of some and not of others, I’d prefer not to police the boundary.

It’s easier to be some kinds of trans people in certain contexts, and that’s really important to acknowledge. I’m a white, middle class professional who lives in an unbelievably hospitable bubble. I have a really good life, I’ve gotten used to being respectable.

But I don’t want to centre my own experience because I’m very privileged. I share the concern by many queer scholars of colour and working class queer and trans people that centering trans issues around trans rights, which requires a certain amount of race and class privilege to mobilize, is very damaging.

What are some of the common misconceptions that people have about trans kids?

That it’s somebody else’s idea and not theirs. One of the parents I interviewed said that her in-laws said ‘it figures that Jordan would have a trans kid,’ because Jordan themselves is trans. When in reality Wren is so trans, and it would be so much easier for Wren to be gender nonconforming, and the anxiety that they do and have experienced about being trans really weighs on them. So often there is the idea that they’re being influenced.

I also think that people think there’s only one way to be trans, this whole narrative of being born in the wrong body and that you need to identify with a binary when in fact there are many, many ways of being trans, some of which have not been discovered because I only interviewed so many kids and so many parents.

There’s also the misconception that being trans is their only point of vulnerability, which again erases the issues around racism, colonialism, poverty, disability and other dimensions that many trans kids experience.

And also that trans kids are uniquely negatively impacted by the two sex system, when in fact feminists have been talking about this for a really long time, that imposing gender norms and stereotypes on children is a major cultural activity and it’s very damaging.

What would be a less damaging way to raise a child?

To be open-ended. It would be wonderful if it was possible to do what the parents of Storm in Toronto did. The censure that they experienced — they had social welfare people knocking on their doors and they were getting hate mail. But to be able to say, ‘This is Storm. We’re going to use they/them/theirs until Storm lets us know otherwise.’ This understanding is gender is not genitals, and then children could pick clothes they like. We wouldn’t have girl and boy aisles, we wouldn’t have the coloured clothing, we wouldn’t have the boy and girl toys. You wouldn’t have to check M or F on a community centre sign-up sheet.

And also that sexism would be eradicated. I coach little kids baseball, and every now and then someone will say something like, ‘Oh, you throw like a girl,’ and I’ll say, ‘excuse me?’ That male superiority and all that bullshit about not crying and stuff like that, I would like to create a far more open-ended way for children to develop and explore. There’d be no racism, poverty.

I think that providing adequate resources for every kind for children to grow and develop is a bottom line. And that includes the ability to determine their own gender from a range of options. With a lot of visible queer and multiple gender options, the knowledge that gender is a spectrum. It certainly would have been better for me.

What would be the impact on all kids to remove the gender binary from schools?

They wouldn’t have the trauma of the wrong bathroom. They would go to the bathroom when they needed to go to the bathroom.

It would be really great if they could just like what they like and like who they like, and that cross-sexed friendships weren’t so problematized. Like my five-year-old son being best friends with a girl at school; he ended up not being [friends with her] because he got the message ‘Langston and someone sitting in a tree,’ and that’s really unhealthy because he really liked this kid, they were good friends. They’ve known each other for years. I find that very harmful, the damaging of so-called cross-sex friendships, and then all the weird shit that happens around dating and treating girls as non-persons. It’s really unhealthy.

I think it would be really beneficial for all kids to not experience sexism or dole it out.

I understand how it would definitely help trans kids, for example, to have bathrooms that aren’t divided by gender.

Or sports teams.

Or sports teams. But in the book you mention one trans kid who got sexually assaulted in a bathroom, and the white jocks who bullied other trans students. The last thing my 16-year-old self would have wanted to do is go to the bathroom with one of those jocks.

I think you need to start good bathroom etiquette in kindergarten. To assume that people are safe in bathrooms to begin with, and that allowing trans people into those bathrooms is going to create a lack of safety, is ridiculous. Because trans people are far more vulnerable in bathrooms than cis people are. But not all cis people are safe in bathrooms.

I think there should be a wide range, there should be a lot of bathroom facilities available in all public spaces, and that there should be options for privacy, as well as multi-stall gender-neutral bathrooms.

We need to teach really respectful bathroom etiquette, like the bathroom is a space that everybody needs to use and it is on you to make that a safe space for everybody.

There’s lots of concern in the media, and I’ve noticed even with my own family and friends, about the authenticity of people who ask for their preferred pronouns. For example Jordan Peterson’s argument that some people will ask for particular pronoun usage because they want attention. What do you say to people who fear that?

I don’t think anyone is wanting a special pronoun for attention, but so what? So what if someone says I want you to call me they/them/theirs? Fucking call them they/them/theirs. You just have to assume that there’s a legitimate reason, and by not respecting people’s pronoun usage, you know for sure you are doing damage to some people in a really significant way.

Jordan Peterson is a laughing stock among scholars, an absolute laughing stock. His scholarship is so shoddy.

He’s not, though, amongst the public.

I know, but then a lot of people believe Trump, too. I would put him as the Donald Trump of scholarship, absolutely. It justifies patriarchy, white supremacy, anti-LGBT sentiment, and it’s a really oppressive worldview that causes harm to many people.

Obviously it’s becoming more dangerous again to be trans in the United States. What about Canada?

Well, it just became more dangerous to be trans in Ontario because of the repeal of the sex ed curriculum.

Did you read the news saying the Ford government will be including gender identity in whatever they do next?

Yeah, but I haven’t seen [the new curriculum] and I don’t know how they’re going to deal with it. They’re still building on something that was [last updated in] 1998, and the sex ed curriculum — the 10 per cent of the 2015 curriculum that deals with sexuality — is life saving and life improving.

There’s no doubt that promising to repeal the 2015 curriculum was designed to appeal to a conservative base in Ontario and that it worked. And that conservative base is not welcoming to LGBT kids and people. So I’m very concerned, I think it’s a really damaging movement.

For queer and trans kids, they’re getting the message that there are a large number of people who don’t want them to be OK. And some studies have shown that in states or schools that have anti-homophobia policies, or constructive gender and sexual diversity policies, or states that have same sex marriage, the self-esteem of LGBT kids is higher. It’s hard to measure, but we know that self-esteem and mental health struggles lead to increased likelihood of self-harm and suicide attempts.

And certainly the change in tone from the White House has had negative consequences for queer and trans kids. Not to mention undocumented kids, racialized kids, poor kids, etc.

What would you say to people who don’t think they know any trans kids, but want to help?

The most important thing to understand is that the majority of trans kids are invisible. You do know trans kids, you just don’t know it. You should be avoiding making general statements about what girls are like and boys are like, and avoid organizing children into sex-based activities. Talk openly about being supportive of queer and trans rights and people, and create around you an atmosphere of trust and openness. And that way you may actually — you might not know it — have an impact on queer and trans kids.

I’ve had students come to me years later and tell me they were on the verge of committing suicide, but the time they spent in my class was a difference maker. I certainly know that at low points in my own life that having a great high school teacher, or a university professor, it could make a difference. And we know from studies on resilience that kids who come from horrible backgrounds, if there’s one adult somewhere that treats them with respect and kindness, that can be enough to get them through. You just have to assume that they’re in every group and behave accordingly.

What’s next for you?

Well my current interests are looking at how girls get pushed out of baseball and trying to find ways to push back against that. I think the ways are subtle, but I notice: I coach little league baseball, and in the eight-year-old category there are so many girls playing. But by the time you get to the level where the nines and tens are playing, there were three girls in Little Mountain Baseball. So what’s happening?

I’m also working on a project to create a video game depicting the daily life of trans and gender nonconforming kids in the Greater Vancouver area: the Gender Vectors of the GVA project. I’m doing work to open the eyes of policy makers and people who organize children’s environments to show the way in which gender nonconforming kids are harmed by binaries, and what kinds of safety nets exist and work.

I’m a longstanding advocate for queer and trans kids, but this book is probably the best work that I will ever do.

What makes you say that?

I’ve never worked harder on anything in my entire life, and I feel like, for better or worse, it is literally the best work that I am capable of doing. And I feel like it’s a significant contribution about something that really matters.

I’m 56, so my career isn’t over, but I don’t know that I’ll ever do a project of this magnitude again. It was a tremendous drain on family resources, etc. I loved working on it, but writing something this intense takes a lot of time.

'The Trans Generation: How Trans Kids (and Their Parents) Are Creating a Gender Revolution' is published by NYU Press and is available in bookstores and online.  [Tyee]

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