Thursday, May 20, 2010

Trans Children in the Spotlight:
How Public is Too Public?

The Daily Mail's typical subtlety.

One of the most prominent developments in media portrayals of trans people in the last 5 years has been the increasing visibility of trans children. They have appeared on NPR's This American Life, on a groundbreaking 2004 Oprah Winfrey Show, an ABC 2007 episode of 20/20 with Barbara Walters called "My Secret Self," several episodes of The Tyra Show, a recent episode of The Dr. Oz Show and a number of high profile documentaries which have shown in England but were picked up by news media in the United States. All of these episodes are framed with words like "shocking," "an exclusive expose" and "adult in nature" clearly letting us know we're veering over into the world of 21st Century sideshow. Despite the cheeseball intros, there is little question this exposure has introduced the general public to the often complex issues these children and their families face. Perhaps most importantly, through these shows and stories, families with trans and gender variant kids can find out about invaluable possible resources like Trans Youth Family Allies, and break through some of the isolation and stigma faced by people in this situation.

Cry dammit cry!

Your Dog Died... now cry!
Children's face's sell. Whether it's Macaulay Culkin's once-cute puss or Ryan White's sad but hopeful eyes which had so much to do with publicizing AIDS during the 1980s to JonBenet Ramsey's made up and coiffed glamor shots endlessly on the cover of People Magazine—children and their plight bring a vulnerability and poignancy no adult can. Like clockwork, Jerry Lewis would parade young sufferers of Muscular Dystrophy on his telethons while adult patients with MD complained they weren't presentable or marketable enough for tv consumption.

The scariest moment of your life, kid!

In today's media-driven society, it's virtually impossible to change laws and influence social behaviors without high-visibility exposure and activism which is widely covered on broadcast outlets, in print and, especially, the Internet. Many LGBT organizations have encouraged their members to get vocal about their "community membership" and advocate for the goals of the LGBT coalition. National Coming Out Day (October 11) was created as a way of facilitating dialog around coming out, easing the process for many still "closeted," and increasing mainstream coverage for those who've already come out. Sounds like a win-win.

Yet there are complex ramifications for some people who are out and visible. On May 10, 2010, Bilerico featured a thoughtful and provocative piece by Cassandra Keenan called "The Catch-22 of Trans Activism." In it, she discusses the dilemma faced by trans job seekers or employees who are concerned how high-profile activism will impact their job status. She writes:
I'm guessing that there have been many transgender folks who have struggled with this dilemma at some point: they're mistreated because of who they are, they subsequently want to do something about it, but then they ultimately decide against it because the stakes are too high. …The same applies for trans people who are out of work. How many employers are interested in hiring or retaining an outspoken trans activist?
We have ways of finding out...

Google says you're unacceptable
This poses an important question trans people face in the real world. In a culture where one Google Search can turn up a dossier of personal information about you or your family, someone whose name has been all over trans-related activism is clearly sticking their neck out. The Bilerico thread brought up interesting observations about how many well-known trans activists are either: unemployed, on some form of government assistance/disability, retired or in extremely secure executive or professional job situations. Others may ask, "is it worth risking my employment (especially in a sluggish economy) for a chance to move society forward on issues which impact my life?" How do we, as adult trans people, walk a tightrope between being vocal about our lives and the challenges we face, yet maintaining the same privacy other people cherish both in our professional and private spheres?

I believe the Trans-children are our future
Now imagine how these questions impact the lives of trans youth, both children and teens. While many adult trans people fantasize about what it would have been like to transition when they were really young or perhaps, even experience the puberty they felt they should have had, most tend to have a highly incomplete picture of what living as a child who has started transition might actually be like. We get a partial glimpse of this on the Oprah, Tyra and Dr. Oz shows, or when Barbara Walters hugged a 10-year old trans girl who started crying on her documentary, but we're only seeing the past and the present, not the challenges of these children's futures.

Doctor, it hurts when I do that...

Remember when you were a boy back in 2001?
More than ever, because of Google and the Internet, news stories have become "sticky." It used to be a "human interest" story would appear on the nightly news or one day in the newspaper and largely forgotten the next week. No so with the Internet and Google. Stories from their original sources remain easily searchable and referenced and re-linked many times in blogs and news-linking sites. While only a percentage of stories from the early 90s are on the Internet, it's safe to say virtually all stories from the 2005-on are pretty much available in, at least, digested form. So while a story about a trans person in 1975 pretty much came and went (with a rare few tv shows captured on early videotape or stories on microfiche) a 2008 story about a trans child could be around for decades and is easily searched and obtainable on a computer with Internet access.

Paparazzi eat their young
Which brings us to the story of Josie Romero, a cute 9-year old trans girl who started transition several years ago. Her story first leaked out when her family lived on a military base in Japan, where her father worked as an engineer and where Josie spent most of her early life. After she started transitioning, the story leaked out when some other military families had issues about a child who is trans attending their children's school. In short order, paparazzi attempted to get pictures of the little girl. The family eventually moved back to the US to Vail, Arizona (near Tucson) to escape some of this media exposure and to, hopefully, find a more accepting environment. Shortly after they moved back to the US, limited news stories about Josie appeared in Arizona media. Eventually, they were picked up in the British paper, The Daily Mail, whose stories are typically disseminated worldwide.

Hot properties
From these articles, TV Channel 4 in England featured Josie in a film called "Body Shock: 8-year old wants a sex change." (a somewhat lurid mini-series about people differing from the norm bodies). Within a fairly short period of time, Josie appeared on a Tyra Show about trans children and a lauded Dr. Oz Show program on the same theme. No attempt was made to either conceal Josie's identity (as was done for the "This American Life" episode featuring two trans girls) or to use an assumed name. So Google Josie Romero and you get pages of hits about a transgender child.

While a 9-year old might be excited about being a "star" or having their name come up on the #1 search engine, child development experts tell us that children can react to such information in vastly different ways at different stages of their development. And the reality is, she has no choice about keeping her trans status to herself or being selectively stealth. Barring changing her name in future (Body Shock informs us her name has been legally changed on her ID, passport and birth certificate... which without SRS, would seem unlikely or even illegal) she is stuck with this legacy, like it or not. As long as the information is on the Internet, she is out.

Jerry Springer loves transkids too!
It may be the story was going to come out anyway and her parents are attempted to exert some control over the process rather than being passive subjects. If that is the case, then one wonders how much media exposure is required to calm down the howling wolves? Moreover, some appearances, like the Tyra Show, had some uncomfortably exploitive aspects to them (Tyra asking Josie and other trans kids about their genitals as well as a representative from NARTH in a "debate" with Marci Bowers and TYFA's Kim Pearson). As so often with media appearances, once one contracts to do them, there is no right of approval as to what the final content will be nor how the material will ultimately be presented. Again, this could expose children to more exploitive and sleezy presentations of their lives which will exist into their adulthoods on the Internet.

Trans kids are always trying to sneak
into the wrong bathroom.

Still looking for the rainbow
Now it seems as if Josie is continuing to have issues attending a local elementary school in Vail (she is currently being home-schooled by her mom) and a difference of opinion as to whether the principal of the school she was to attend is actually open to having Josie as a student. Josie's parents are concerned she would have to use a private bathroom and couldn't use the girls room and how the school district (or Arizona) has no actual written anti-discrimination policy based on gender identity and expression. Her parents want her trans status to be known by the other families and staff at the school while the principal prefers it be kept under wraps. At this point in Josie's exposure in media, it would seem literally impossible for her story to be kept on the down low and, now, with this pending controversy, it's likely she's to be in the press even more including a two-part feature about her on a local news station. Yes, the story might force the school district's hand during negotiations but might also impact Josie's school experience, her quality of life growing up in a small community and in future school districts.

5 seconds into the interview, Tyra
asks Josie about her "birth defect"

This is not intended as a criticism of Josie's parents who are, obviously, very loving and supportive of her and have bravely done much to inform the public about what it means to have a child who is trans. Josie was on depression meds before transition and seems happy now. There is an issue of whether a young child has enough perspective to know how making her story highly public might impact her future. This is not even the same as someone who's a child actor since it's not dealing with fictional characters, but a very real and vulnerable part of her life, one which could even impact her safety or employment in future.

Left: Adorable 10-year old Tim
Right: 17-year old gorgeous Kim selling cosmetic brushes

Zie ist Eine Zooper-shtar
Which is not to say it's the end of the world or a sign of future problems. Kim Petras, a 17-year old trans girl from Cologne, Germany who started her medical transition at 12 first came into the public spotlight on a high-profile episode of Stern TV when she was 11 years old (this would be the German magazine somewhat like Time—not Howard Stern!). News of Kim appeared internationally, often followed by long commentaries and discussions about either how caring or crazy her parents were. Kim was eventually allowed to have SRS at 16, is graduating soon from gymnasium (German high school), is pursuing a career as a pop singer and has made a large number of incredibly self-assured appearances on German, US, Spanish, Japanese and Australian television as well as large number of fan blogs on YouTube.

Left: The former Alex McLendon; Right: Rochelle Evans

They're not as cute when they're older
Alex McLendon, a trans student who in a highly publicized 1998 incident, was kicked out of her private high school in Georgia for cross-dressing has since transitioned, changed her name, attended college in Florida and seems to have put the controversy behind her. Another trans teen from Ft. Worth, Rochelle Evans, encountered a lot of publicity about her issues with transitioning in high school and has continued to have repercussions from the school issues and publicity surrounding the story.

Should these stories just not be reported? No, they need be told and they generate so much sympathy and social capital they're a key element in encouraging proper parental support, health care and transition regimens for the next generation of children and their parents who are dealing with these issues. I do wish some degree of anonymity would be encouraged, the same way it is for youth offenders, children with AIDs or crime victims (and I'm not equating being trans with any of those, just how they're treated with some degree of anonymity and acknowledged to contain some possible future stigma). These children, their identities and their futures are not public property and certainly not entertainment nor curiosity exhibits to be hauled out during ratings period. If we truly value their lives, let's honor their privacy with the delicacy and discretion they deserve and leave them their own choices for future disclosure of their histories.


  1. I know this is not the issue at discussion, but I feel this is an important point when discussing gender identity in children: ALL the cases presented in this post are MTF transgender children.

    Is this because the author only picked transfeminine children for their blog? I don't necessarily think that's the case. I think most publicized trans children happen to be transfeminine.

    I believe this is because that a male child that acts and behaves like a girl is considered much more "extreme" than a female child who exhibits masculine qualities. She's not transgender, she's just a tomboy. It's a phase.

    This attitude towards female-bodied transmasculine folks is a testament to the rigid gender role a male is expected to perform as opposed to the greater fluidity of gender allowed to females. This is the product of a patriarchal society that values maleness and masculinity over femaleness and femininity. When a female child wants to play with the boys, she's a go-getter tomboy. When a male child wants to play with the girls, there's "something wrong." Yeah, these are generalizations, but they are common enough attitudes especially among parents ignorant of gender variance.

    How this relates to trans children: FTM trans children or female-bodied transmasculine children are not getting the attention they deserve. I am concerned that a female child exhibiting a masculine gender identity will not be valued as trans and therefore not get the necessary treatment and respect as a trans individual.

  2. jmk29: Thanks for your thoughtful input--very much agree. Yes, this article came out very weighed towards the female end of the spectrum (and I plead guilty for that slant in much of this blog which I'm hoping to change). I agree with you how a lot of young trans boy's are "less visible" because they're viewed as tomboys or their parents/teachers assume they're going to grow up into butch lesbians. (and this happens with lot's a lots of more femme trans girls who are assumed to be gay boys).

    Just to point out however, that much of the media I'm quoting actually had quite a presence of trans boys. The 2004 Oprah show highlighted trans boys in 2 of the 3 profiled families. Tyra (and Oprah) has regularly had a trans

    The recent Tyra show on trans kids had several trans boy teens including one who's been on her show 3 times (and also twice on Oprah... as recently as early April '10). The Dr. Oz Show featured a trans boy teen. There has actually been pretty much 50/50 representation of male/female spectrum on these issues on the shows I've mentioned. I do agree that, in documentary films, there do seem to be more films about female-spectrum trans people than male and, yes, I think it's the "forbidden stigma" attached to trans girls which is responsible for that. That the "distance traveled" between what's acceptable for masculine girls -> trans boys is shortered (and thus, less compelling to media) than the distance between acceptable boy behavior -> trans girls. I am starting to see some pieces about trans guys identifying, for instance, as gay men which even sidesteps the "tom boy" since some of these men never were "tom boy" or "butch" ID'd from the get go. The media is lagging behind the complexity of our community.

  3. JMK29: Forgot, here's a link about the most recent "trans youth show" which Oprah had in early April and her guest, Jake (who she's had on before). He's now in a gay male relationship.

    I'm still trying to find a video copy of the show. :-)

  4. I do want to point out that producers working with children associated with TransYouth Family Allies are vigorously screened and trained. This doesn't preclude them making 'mistakes' but we do our best. Also, the children and families put forth are also screened for their readiness and resilience. Our children/families are working closely with counselors and other professionals to ensure their mental health and vitality. There is a fine line between providing education, creating understanding and facilitating sensationalism. We try to strike a balance and always strive to put the welfare of the child first.

    Kim Pearson
    TransYouth Family Allies

  5. Kim,

    And I greatly appreciate the work you do. Unfortunately, once children are put on the air (and subsequently online), it's hard to take back how it was presented. And I'm sure you know, from your numerous media appearances, that the agenda of the presenter/producer isn't always initially obvious. There is a desperate need for education, but am just pointing out how that balance can adversely impact a young person's future in ways which can't be initially understood.

  6. re: "they're not as cute when they're older" and the gender distribution of trans kids in the media, I think there's a connection. If you watch the shows, they're full of little trans girls and teenage trans boys. Little trans boys are ignored (we just don't have any shock value) and older trans girls aren't considered as cute and sympathetic.

  7. "her name has been legally changed on her ID, passport and birth certificate... which without SRS, would seem unlikely or even illegal"

    It may be different for minors, but name changes on ID and passports don't require SRS anywhere in the US that I know of. Birth certificates vary from state to state, so it's hard to say.

    Changing *gender* has been a different story -- you're right that, in most jurisdictions, SRS was a pre-requisite until very recently. And in some states (Texas and Tennessee spring to mind), gender on state-issued ID, such as a driver's license, can never be changed.

  8. I saw the Tyra show featuring Josie, and I admit, as a twentysomething trans woman who indeed has had fantasies of what her life would have been like if I had had the courage to come out younger, I confess, I eagerly lapped up the experience of watching Josie, and was hugely inspired by her bravery and integrity (Tyra, on the other hand, ugh...her condescension [sp?] makes me sick lol).

    But I never really paused to think about the possible ramifications that might become Josie later in life, and to that end, I'm thankful I read this essay, as it has given me a lot to think about.

    1. I also worry that Josie has had too much publicity. I was able to find Vanessa easily on Facebook by just searching for the name that was on the screen. I do cherish that I found her and later met her in person at an event.

      As an update, Josie and Vanessa no longer use the names they had in the documentaries. I hope in the future they use their old names to protect their privacy.


Any posts found to contain transphobic, homophobic, racist or sexist content will be deleted. Personal attacks will not be tolerated.