Transsexuality is not an “Issue”: Children’s Books and Symbolic Reality

January 30, 2009

My jumping off point here is a post by Helen G, of Bird of Paradox, Trans-Friendly Books for Children (and some related (and obnoxious, transphobic) discussion here):

There seems to be a comparatively large number of books written around the subject of gay and lesbian relationships but we could find nothing about transsexuality. It occurs that this is an area which perhaps should be given more attention by authors and publishers, given that it’s not uncommon for trans children to know at quite an early age that they have a degree of gender dissonance.

OK, I say, this is a good point, but I think it’s missing something–the analogy is flawed. But! My POV was (kind of) expressed in a cited post:

There was a time I naively assumed that I wouldn’t have to worry about sexism in my child’s books until at least story books, maybe not even until chapter books. Surely board books, written to start reading to infants so young they only understand the rhythm and rhyme of the words, would be immune!

That naivete lasted until maybe five minutes after the Boychick got his first book.

The truth is even board books, even modern board books, are rife with sexism, heterosexism, racism, and of course, what’s a good word, cisgenderism? (One can’t even call it transphobia, for it’s more the complete lack of acknowledgment that gender isn’t always obvious, simple, and binary. Transphobia might be a step up.)

I disagree with the terminology question–refusal to incorporate the fact of our existence in one’s actions in the world is one of the most deadly forms of transphobia:

When these corporations do justify their denial of basic medical care to trans people, one rationalization comes up repeatedly: the U.S. Federal Food and Drug Administration has not given approval for the use of any medications for transgender body modification. The Federal government does not supervise, regulate, approve or acknowledge the use of hormones to alter the gendered characteristics of one’s body. The FDA has never acknowledged, I believe, that trans people even exist.

When I buy my finasteride and delestrogen, they come to me, as most medications do, with small neatly-folded inserts outlining their proper use and potential side-effects. These texts are carefully regulated by the FDA. Nowhere in those long texts am I mentioned. They never discuss their use by transgender people, never acknowledge their potentially transformative effects when used with certain bodies, never even acknowledge that anyone under 50 would ever have a reason to take them. Similarly, I am never reflected in the advertisements for these drugs. Their extensive websites or occasional magazine ads have no trace of trans bodies. In the vast, proliferating world of consumer capitalism, trans people just don’t constitute a market niche when it comes to drugs.

I am invisible to my health insurance company, invisible to the FDA, and invisible to the pharmaceutical industries. This invisibility is how these institutions express their transphobia and the hatred of trans bodies. We are not seen. For some, this lack of institutional acknowledgement has dire consequences. Already excluded from the wage economy, many poor trans women in Philadelphia turn to sex work to pay for their hormones. Poverty, police abuse and HIV have taken a severe toll on the lives of trans women in the city. As trans people modifying our bodies, we are using these corporation’s drugs towards unapproved and unacknowledged ends: the gendered rebuilding of our bodies. We pay the bill, and we live with the consequences. For me, choosing to take hormones is the best decision I’ve ever made.

Michelle O’Brien, “Tracing This Body: Transsexuality, Pharmaceuticals, and Capitalism”

But regardless, I’m right there with Arwyn when I say that transphobia is integrated into these books, that it’s part of our culture down to the way infants are taught language, and that that foundationalism (ha!) is true of sexism, racism, homophobia, etc etc., to the point that explicit/bigoted transphobia can even be helpful, in that it acknowledges our potential existence, and only denies that existence a place in our understanding of reality through violence.

When Helen writes I can remember very clearly the day when, aged five, I realised that “something wasn’t right with my body”. But I had neither the language nor the resources to say or do anything about it, I think she elides an even more crucial point–that by the age of five, she had been successfully indoctrinated into believing that her identification as/desire to be/discomfort with ‘not being’ a girl was an affront to symbolic reality. It’s not. Without a preexisting identification of cissexuality with Reality, that wrongness, that lack-of-fit, doesn’t exist. The only thing separating pre-pubescent trans kids from living their genders is the demand that they not do so–not hormones, not height, not anything, physical differences between cis boys and cis girls at that age are practically nil.

Before trans kids can think of themselves as “wrong,” they have to be introduced to the idea that their genders are inauthentic–the separation of cis and trans has to occur, and then the possibility of transsexuality has to be, in psychoanalytic jargon, foreclosed–the incompatible idea is rejected as if it never existed. The very potential for transsexuality would make our theoretical “ground” when writing about sex and anatomy nonexistant. Western culture depends on transphobia to create meaning in the world. I’m not saying that the whole thing would come crumbling down without transphobia, but that concepts we can’t even think currently would have to come in to replace it in order for the whole thing to *not* come crumbling down. Refuting cissexuality-as-reality, cissexuality-as-default is tantamount to refuting positivism/the scientific method/the idea that Truth is or can be objective–which is part of why we have to search for a “cause”–because we need something to help us acknowledge being trans as valid while maintaining that there isn’t anything wholly interior/subjective/qualitative about personhood. I hope you see the problem.

I hope I’m not reading too much Spivak to make sense anymore.

So here I come back to transsexuality-as-an-issue:

Targetting that particular demographic makes good sense, but I wonder if perhaps children themselves should be given access to the tools they need to help them in their own self-identification. To paraphrase Ruth, “I am thinking of something the five-year old Helen could have read that might have helped… but also something that the five-year old Helen would have actually been likely to read rather than have been stuck in a ’specialist’ bookshop like News from Nowhere whilst Helen read Thomas the Tank and the Hobbit”.

On one hand, I want to praise the move toward “trans kids need access to this info, it’s normal, and it’s something five year olds need to have info about and yes are actually capable of understanding.” But on the other hand, if we approach the world from a perspective that cissexuality isn’t “natural,” if we come from the perspective that all gender & sex are self-determination, then there isn’t a book about dealing with being trans–in the background of every children’s book has to be an assumption that kids are uncovering gender for themselves and making what they wish–it may or may not be foregrounded, but the idea that a kid could look at another kid and say “that’s a boy” or that a character could be glossed as a girl in some abiding, permanent, unconditional/absolute/non-tentative way is impossible if we dare to think gender self-determination. In a trans positive world, there are no trans books because there are no cis books–which, currently, are essentially all books.

So, now we come to the drama. The original offending comment:

Don’t you think offering “trans-friendly” books to CHILDREN is a bit like offering pro-plastic-surgery books, or pro-limb-lengthening-surgery books, or gastric-bypass-friendly books to kids? I mean we’re talking about major pharmaceutical dependence, the long-term consequences of which aren’t yet known, and major surgical intervention against what is in actuality healthy flesh. Are none of these trans-advocates concerned at all about children being indoctrinated and influenced to do themselves bodily harm, when they might under less woman-hating circumstances simply be lesbian women or women who otherwise do not adhere to societal gender roles in style or behavior?

So, this whole bodily harm/self-mutilation idea. Mayhem. What does that really signify? What does self mutilation signify?

“major surgical intervention against what is in actuality healthy flesh”–we are changing something from the real, healthy order of things, the natural to the unnatural–that is the essence of self-mutilation. It’s not self mutilation to have, say, an appendectomy or Laparoscopic Anti-Reflux Surgery–even though both involve the removal of healthy tissue–because the tissue in question is irrelevant to our understanding of personhood and reality–whereas in all the cited cases of surgery, one is talking about social characteristics of the body.

The commenter’s presumption is that one can somehow avoid the “subject” of transsexuality entirely, that existing children’s books are not the opening salvos in a war against trans kids. Every single statement she makes about “boys” and “girls,” by assuming that reality is cissexual, are immediately dependent upon a foreclosure of transsexuality. (that is, rejecting it as if it had never existed) That one can be “trans friendly” but not portray it as part of symbolic reality, as “normal”:

guess I was thinking of “trans-friendly” as being more “pro-trans” because that’s the aura it’s taken online. If it were possible to simply portray it, without making it seem like a good thing, or without making it seem like it’s just as normal as being a non-gender-conforming female, intersex, or male person, then, I wouldn’t have a problem with it.

She’s saying–so long as transsexuality is talked about in a way that makes it clear that it’s still up-for-debate, not a-part-of-the-underlying-reality-that-makes-this-discussion-even-possible, and not “normal”–part of the real symbolic order–just a deviation therefrom, an aberration that doesn’t have to be accounted for when we think about the world, it’s ok with her. Her position isn’t even one of wanting to make sure to denounce being trans, because she’s fine if there’s no material out there–she has *no concern* for the “girls” that she’s supposedly advocating for, only for maintaining cissexual dominance over the meaning of reality.

If I need to back that up I’ll need another post–it just gets kinda convoluted. The short version is that she acknowledges that a certain group is suffering distress, but is only interested in making sure they *don’t* get a certain kind of resource, rather than making sure that they do get other resources. Furthermore, her paranoia about even a single children’s book that “pushes drugs and self-mutilation” on kids is demonstrative that she isn’t really worried about how many kids it might cause to transition–because individuals’ cissexuality is much more robust than that, but society’s isn’t.* Society’s myth of universal cissexuality *is* incredibly fragile, and has to be protected at all times–but what has to be done is not to create a stronger foundation (which they never ever do) but to disrupt any other conversation that’s happening. (see my Radical Feminist Troll series, especially parts two and three)

This is why these “discussions” cannot continue to be tolerated in feminist spaces–because the premise is to keep our very reality in check, our existence and validity as people at bay, our lives up for debate. That frame unmakes us, it strips the connection between transsexuality and personhood, its very point is to undo us, making us objects that make funny sounds that seem almost like speech. They demand that all participants ground themselves on earth that doesn’t hold our weight.

Margie’s whole deal with “oh I don’t care what adults do, just don’t indoctrinate the children” is precisely about making sure that no one comes into this world without the cissexuality-as-reality frame. She has no concern for whether people actually “mutilate” themselves, no concern for the welfare even of her putative victim, let alone trans kids–only that that “mutilation” remain aberration, unreal, only that our purchase on reality is too unstable to actually give us the support to go interpreting that reality, challenging the cissexual supremacist one, and have it taken seriously.

*Ruth’s comment here is kind of amazing:

“We were talking about the gullibility of young children and whether it’s ethical to exploit that in order to make adult people feel better about their pharmaceutical and surgical choices.”

Arrrgh! No we weren’t! Not sure what conversation you were having but the original post was about trans friendly books for children… and now they’re being exploited? What, you think the kind of books we meant were ones that went like this?

“Sally,” said Sally’s Mum, “if you want to play with Lego Technic and have a train set, you’ll have to have an operation.”

“Really?” said Sally, puzzled.

“Yes. And you’ll have to take some special tablets too.”

“Oh,” answered Sally. “I’m not sure I like the sound of that.”

“Well, it’s either that, or you go back to playing with my little pony.”

“Well,” pondered Sally, “I couldn’t cope with any more Rainbow Brite dolls, so I guess I’ll just have to do as you say.”

Comic version by Drakyn:


25 Responses to “Transsexuality is not an “Issue”: Children’s Books and Symbolic Reality”

  1. If you quote Ruth’s brilliant summation, you really should also link Drakyn’s illustrations of that summation.

  2. jaywhatshisname said

    “Society’s myth of universal cissexuality *is* incredibly fragile, and has to be protected at all times–but what has to be done is not to create a stronger foundation (which they never ever do) but to disrupt any other conversation that’s happening.”


  3. […] deals with not-really-record-labels (such as Madonna and Jay-Z’s 360 deals with Live Nation) Transsexuality is not an “Issue”: Children’s Books and Symbolic Reality – 01/30/2009 My jumping off point here is a post by Helen G, of Bird of […]

  4. drakyn said

    Can I just say yes to this entire entry?
    ‘Cause you’re just all kinds of amazing.

  5. Cedar said


    yes, yes you may. ^-^

  6. Yeah, I like the statement that the myth of cissexuality is fragile. In several of the arguments I’ve been in over the past six months, cis people have insisted that it is vitally necessary to define “transsexuality” as abnormal and aberrant. That it cannot be seen as normal.

    Plus there’s this entire belief that “transness” is communicable through socialization and exposure.

  7. msruthmoss said

    I felt so uncomfortable and angry reading Margie’s continued nastiness.

    Thanks so, so for writing this, it is so important to me not to be a typical bigoted cis-gendered feminist.

    Ruth x

  8. Cedar said

    🙂 Thanks for commenting over there and here! It’s important to not let it go unchallenged, though after a certain point I think it starts becoming feeding-the-troll and by directing energy to those conversations it furthers their ends of making trans women feel unsafe and unable to fully participate in the blogosphere…also draining the energy of any and every trans positive participant into rehashing the same damn conversation… but, really (after Margie’s, obvi) that’s Anji’s fault for letting Margie keep commenting/thinking it was a “discussion” in the first place.

    I couldn’t finish reading the thread. It was gross. It’s always good to know that it makes cis people uncomfortable too. :-/

  9. msruthmoss said

    “though after a certain point I think it starts becoming feeding-the-troll and by directing energy to those conversations it furthers their ends of making trans women feel unsafe and unable to fully participate in the blogosphere”

    Must admit I hadn’t thought of it like that. Good point.

  10. Cedar said

    Even more importantly, the ideas and questions she brings up–how do we do this, make women’s space that works? –they go unanswered (for the most part). We *need* to work on that shit, and almost all space for it gets eaten by trolls. And for a trans female spectrum person to participate in a discussion of how to do those things, who wanted to take her at face value, ze/she would have to pick through pages and pages of attacks for any kind of *relevant* discussion.

    To the extent that consistent internet access is class privilege, as is the time to sort through bullshit, to the extent that being able to stomach that shit is correlated to privilege (ability, cis privilege, male privilege) and to be able to speak and remain confident and be taken seriously in a “debate” setting is also privilege, we keep out trans women’s voices, and the more disadvantaged the more kept out. And thus, to the extent that there *were* any discussion about moving forward, it’s still institutionally transphobic/trans misogynistic, racist, classist, etc.

    Transphobic cissexual radfems know they can’t convince us, and I don’t really think they think they can convince our allies. What they can do is paralyze us, what they can do is make feminism such an unsafe and scary place that they won’t have to deal with us even if we *are* “allowed in”, what they can do is make it seem like it is “so hard” and “a huge issue” when it’s just not. It’s not hard, in fact it’s a non-issue if you’re willing to treat it like one. and actually most cissexual feminists aren’t like Heart or dirtywhiteboi or Polly Styrene. (I refuse to label Rich any kind of feminist.)

    (from What Gets Missed, part two of my RadFem Troll series)

  11. shiva said

    I agree with most of this. But:

    Without a preexisting identification of cissexuality with Reality, that wrongness, that lack-of-fit, doesn’t exist. The only thing separating pre-pubescent trans kids from living their genders is the demand that they not do so–not hormones, not height, not anything, physical differences between cis boys and cis girls at that age are practically nil.

    Before trans kids can think of themselves as “wrong,” they have to be introduced to the idea that their genders are inauthentic–the separation of cis and trans has to occur, and then the possibility of transsexuality has to be

    I’m not sure about this bit. I know trans women who, for example, tried to cut their penises off at 5 or younger, and some who felt the “wrongness” around their bodies before they even had any social contact with other children (one, for example, an only child who grew up in a very small rural community and whose parents consciously didn’t “do” gender roles). So, while i’m not saying what you’re saying isn’t also true, i think that for at least some trans people the “lack-of-fit” is to do with (physical) sex, not just gender, and the neurological “body-map” stuff is the most plausible explanation.

    (Of course, even if the “wrongness” for one person is biological and social, and for another person entirely social, it’s incredibly difficult, maybe impossible, to disentangle how much of it is one thing or the other – i think that, as with disability, one of the reasons trans*ness does freak out “mainstream”/binary-thinking Western culture is precisely because it’s at the frontier of the biological and the social and not easily reducible to “only” one or the other…)

    As for “mutilation”… gah, this stuff is increasingly convincing me that the radfems who hold those kind of views, like Abrahamic religious fundamentalists, are so far removed in worldview from me that no meaningful dialogue is possible. Alteration of the body (regardless of the form of that alteration) per se is not mutilation. Alteration of the body without consent is mutilation. Yet these radfems seem to consider consent entirely irrelevant, which can only mean that individual autonomy and liberty has no place in the foundation of their worldview – and a feminism which does not have bodily autonomy and individual sovereignty over the body as central principles is incomprehensible as feminism to me…

  12. Cedar said


    Re: social/biological, I maintain my point is consistent with the counterexamples you provide–because desiring one’s body to be different/identifying it as female doesn’t require feelings of shame, while it may get you to “my body shouldn’t be like this, it should be like that” it doesn’t get you to “my body is wrong (dirty, shameful, etc)”. And loads of socialization has happened by age 5. And, I would maintain, that unless one had already been trained into thinking of the genitals as inordinately significant, give or take ~four square inches of flesh (at that age) being dissonant would not carry over to ‘my whole body is wrong’. Whereas, upon puberty, large swaths of one’s body are sexed/gendered in ways that might feel super uncomfortable.

    Again, I’m not saying it’s gender roles kids have been trained into, it’s the causal relationship between penis & testosterone and thereby manhood; vagina & estrogen/progesterone and thereby womanhood, and the ontological significance of genitals (which is super weird!! They’re, like, 1-3% of your bodyweight, people!)

    What said feminists would counter with is that the assumption of unconstrained free choice within a patriarchial system is incorrect–there are forms of inducement more subtle than a gun to your head but no less problematic. They would say that all choice is socially conditioned, and in some cases people get locked into doing things without the ability to step back and refuse. And they’re right. I still don’t think it gives them the right to be equally coercive tho.

    And again, piercing my ears without my consent isn’t mutilation, unless unpierced ears are a symbol of personhood (e.g. slaves marked by ear piercings, as they have been at various times in history). It doesn’t become mutilation until one has “lost something” of significance to the observer (genital sensation, the ability to walk upright, cissexuality, etc).

    But, yeah. agreed.

  13. Cedar said

    Alternately put, Shiva, the penis/vagina has to be established as an abiding, unchanging characteristic of the body, unlike height, weight, skin tone, size…. frequently kids haven’t established gender consistency by age 5–

    By the age of around three years, in the gender labelling stage, children become able to label themselves and others as boys or girls accurately. It is not for another couple of years, however, that children are thought to enter the gender stability stage and appreciate that this classification would remain stable over time (i.e. a boy would grow up to be a daddy, and a girl would grow up to be a mummy). But only in the final gender consistency stage, at around the age of 6 or 7 years, were children judged to have an insight into the constancy of sex regardless of the passage of time, changes in context, or transformations in physical features.

    Basically, a condition of being “male” now doesn’t mean that will continue into the future, in the mind of a 4 year old definitely, and likely in the mind of a five year old. (turns out, 4 year olds are right!) So, even here, just in the idea that one stays a girl or boy, there’s a lot that has to be established socially.

  14. […] as Hazel says, “Society’s myth of universal cissexuality *is* incredibly fragile, and has to be protected at al…Yes, being trans* can be difficult.Yes, there are a lot of dangers out there for trans* people. But, […]

  15. Anji said

    but, really (after Margie’s, obvi) that’s Anji’s fault for letting Margie keep commenting/thinking it was a “discussion” in the first place.

    You’re right, it is, which is why in the end I just stopped publishing her comments. :/

  16. Dori said

    Oh Margie…

    She got herself banned from Womanist Musings after a 350 comment hate fest where she felt entitled to pull out every transphobe bingo square that there is.

    Your takedown of her commentary is a gorgeous sight to behold, and makes me feel so much more relaxed after dealing with her.

  17. Cedar said

    Should’ve taken about five, not three hundred fifty. Also: why don’t blog writers put these people on auto moderate? …

  18. Cedar said

    Oh, and what I’d come here to say: thanks. It’s good to hear.

  19. Dori said

    Renee prefers to let her community of commenters take these arguments apart and to have the words of bigots on display so that people can see why this work is still needed. She also tries to live up to a spirit of open discourse even with those who are not engaging in good faith. I understand her reasoning and support her choice to run her community as she sees fit. It can be rather frustrating at times though.

    and in reference to the other part of my and your commentary, I have seen your work referenced repeatedly on LJ and in various other trans positive places. I’m a fan 😀

  20. […] I’ve touched on this before, I hope it’s made sense, but this should make it a bit more concrete. […]

  21. Arwyn said

    What I was doing in that quote (“can’t even call it transphobia”) was, gropingly and poorly, trying to articulate a thought that while what we think of as “____phobia” may be the actively antagonistic attacks of hate speech, hate crimes, etc, the most base and fundamental form of it is to pretend that the hated “other” simply doesn’t exist (ok, and I was exaggerating for dramatic effect, which I am afraid is a recurring fault of mine). I DO wish I knew of language that distinguished between the “lalala, you don’t exist” kind of transphobia and the more overt “you suck” kind, because I find it difficult to convince people that “merely” excluding the “other” is ____phobia, because they inevitably argue back “but I don’t fear/hate them!” I can’t help but think that if we had a WORD for that kind of ignore-ance, that we could better counterattack it.

    And I hope that made some kind of sense, because I’m sick and up well past my bedtime…

  22. […] be. Many people commented there but special thanks to Drakyn, Grace, Pazi, Emily, Lisa, Jay, A.W., Cedar and Sable Twilight (anyone not linked, it’s just because you didn’t leave a URL so […]

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