Engaging in Incomplete Discourse Will Further Marginalise Trans Youth
Updated: Jan 17
Responding to “JK Rowling Might Actually Have A Point On Trans Youth” - Cam Nghiem.
By Margaux Zandona and Jay Johns.
[Content Notice: discussion of transgender youth transition; mention of dysphoria; mention of mental health; discussion of sexual assault.]
Who would expect that in June 2020, after everything that had already happened, JK Rowling could add fuel to the dumpster fire by publishing an essay containing her thoughts on the mainstream debate on transgender rights? In the Maastricht Diplomat article, “JK Rowling Might Actually Have A Point On Trans Youth”, Cam Nghiem interprets and addresses two aspects of her essay. The first is her focus on the health of young people, which he takes as proof that she “might actually have a point”; all the while advocating caution when dealing with the lives of gender-dysphoric youth. The second is an attempt at evaluating Rowling’s personal take on access to gendered bathrooms, which he dismisses as “understandable” projection of trauma after sexual assault. Of course, we can agree that concern for children’s physical and mental wellbeing is invaluable—so why take the time to write this response?
I was concerned by Nghiem’s portrayal of the youth for whom he advocates caution. He supports JK Rowling’s concerns that doctors aren’t being cautious, presenting Dr Edwards-Leeper’s comments on the pressures that trans-identified teenagers might face, and on the fact that they might not always want medical transition. He criticises affirming care, defining it as listening to the patients “without critical questioning and [assisting] them with transitioning.” However, there’s no acknowledgement of the distinction between several forms of social and medical transition, and, more importantly, the different care available to different age groups.
— Why is the lack of such distinction worrying? It allows for the assumption that children are being encouraged into full medical transitions.
It’s key to remember that only puberty blockers, which pause or delay puberty, are accessible to teenagers under sixteen. This is one of the approaches that falls under Gender-Affirming Medical Care (GAMC), the range of practices that “help align one’s body with their gender identity.” GAMC makes surgery and hormone replacement therapy (HRT) available to transgender and gender non-conforming individuals only from late puberty. This process is preceded and accompanied by thorough assessment and monitoring by transgender health professionals including pediatricians, psychiatrists, and endocrinologists. It’s distinct from social transition, which helps people explore the social presentation of their gender.
With these distinctions now in place, it’s easier to get why, according to the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, GAMC is “the most widely accepted and preferred clinical approach in health services for transgender peoples around the world”; it’s also harder to take Nghiem and Rowling’s concerns at face value, given their incomplete presentation of transition processes. Yet despite the clear effort within GAMC to provide care as exhaustive as possible, studies show that transgender people face restricted access to it.
All this isn’t to disregard how recent the field of GAMC for youth is. Nghiem does attempt to tackle this point, presenting us with the nebulous concept of a “lack of research regarding transgender and gender non-conforming children.” Yet again, insufficient specificity makes it hard to evaluate or discuss his point—and, since the only alternative offered is “cautious practices”, we’re left to decide whether or not we support a practice that Nghiem is plainly misrepresenting. Similar misrepresentations in mainstream media have facilitated hardline opinions and legislations withholding GAMC access for minors—as in the UK and USA. I’d draw the reader’s attention to a statement by The World Professional Association for Transgender Health, The European Professional Association for Transgender Health, as well as other professional associations, reminding us of “several studies demonstrating the clear mental health benefits of gender-affirming medical treatment (including puberty blockers).”, emphasising the dangerous social, psychological, and medical consequences of withholding treatment. Nghiem has decontextualised Dr Edwards-Leeper’s and other psychiatrists’ statements on transition, unintentionally warping the reality of the situation, and removing any emphasis on transgender health professionals’ validation of transgender children’s identities.
Nghiem goes on to invalidate Rowling’s second concern regarding invasion of women-only spaces, arguing that it’s irrelevant, since same-sex sexual tension exists, and that cisgender women can be victimised by anyone, including other cis women. I’m not focusing on this interpretation’s idiosyncrasy, but on how it cripples its own attack on her transphobia. Again, Rowling’s concerns have weak foundations: she starts from the flawed premise that any trans woman could be a man. In doing so, she denies that trans women are women, and undermines their identities. She asserts that gender-segregated bathrooms should be out of bounds for trans women because they may assault cis women, and follows her premise through to its natural conclusion: that marginalising trans women solves the issue. For many, this witch-hunt rhetoric is compelling, and effectively subverts pro-trans legislation. By focusing his response on whether gender-segregated bathrooms will protect “natal women and girls” from sexual assault, Nghiem misses Rowling’s intention, though rightly argues that her claims are invalid; and inadvertently, further reinforces transphobic discourse.
— So what’s my point?
Rowling’s essay has force and intention, with roots in a wide, fundamentally transphobic narrative. It’s harmful to the transgender community—youth included. Regardless of our stance, here and elsewhere in the media, Rowling clearly supports the idea that trans and trans-affirming movements threaten the wellbeing of women and children, and expresses her desire for the purity and authority of biological sex to be upheld. We can surely see that the world perceived by JK Rowling, where children are being pushed to transition by trans rights activists and careless doctors, is hyperbolic and tired; and that decontextualising her ideas lets this world thrive. Let me be clear: perpetuating and redeeming these views is dangerous. Rowling doesn’t just discredit the identities and struggles of youth and adults; to do so, she also weaponises the valid, crucial societal obligation to care for children and prevent rape. By ignoring the people that these approaches hurt, Nghiem marginalises the trans demographic amongst the children whom he says we should treat with caution. We must abandon incomplete, who’s-right/ who’s-wrong, clickbait discourse, and instead engage in discussions that will benefit the people getting hurt—or else we’re part of the problem.
An Analysis of JK Rowling’s essay:
“Responding to JK Rowlings Essay | Is It Anti-Trans?” — Jammidodger
Examples of social and legislative oppression of trans people:
[CN: transphobic and racist hate crimes; discussion of public bathrooms; discussion of gender reassignment; discussion of self-harm and suicide.]
“Puberty blockers: Parents' warning as ruling challenged” — BBC (UK)
“Meet the Safe Schools Alliance, who want to ban trans kids from bathrooms and redefine what an LGBT+ hate crime is” — Pink News (UK)
“This year, at least six states are trying to restrict transgender kids from getting gender reassignment treatments” — CNN Politics (USA)
““Horrific spike” in fatal violence against transgender community” — CBS (USA)
Some transgender online presences (Twitter):
(https://twitter.com/thejeffreymarsh) — Jeffrey Marsh
(https://twitter.com/JustTransGirl) — Just a trans girl
(https://twitter.com/Alex_Bertie) — Alex Bertie
In the spirit of conversation, the Maastricht Diplomat recognises, at the behest of the above authors Margaux Zandona and Jay Johns, a previously incomplete discourse on the topic of trans youth. We also thank the authors for their desire to resolve the debate with the MD and Mr Nghiem in a respectful manner, so that all parties may use the opportunity to learn and grow. We encourage all conversations at the MD, including rebuttals, and so all reader's letters and concerns are welcome to be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org