Episode 14: Transcript
Our Opinions Are Correct Episode 14
Transcribed by: Keffy Kehrli
Charlie Jane: [00:00:00] Welcome to Our Opinions Are Correct. I’m Charlie Jane Anders. I’m a science fiction writer who pretty much just constantly thinks about science.
Annalee: [00:00:07] And I’m Annalee Newitz. I’m a science journalist who writes science fiction.
Charlie Jane: [00:00:12] Today we’re gonna talk about transgender science fiction. Over the last few years there’s been a huge renaissance in science fiction about and by and featuring transgender people and non-binary people.
Annalee: [00:00:24] It’s really a… it’s a nascence, right? It’s not… it’s not like it’s comin’ back into fashion, it’s making it’s own new fashion.
Charlie Jane: [00:00:29] Yeah, it’s really like a new kind of… it’s a new wave I would almost say. And so, we’re gonna talk about it, and we’re gonna talk about some of our favorite books and TV shows and movies and we’re just gonna get into why trans people have kind of arrived in science fiction.
Annalee: [00:00:43] It’s gonna be all trans all the time. Yes.
Charlie Jane: [00:00:47] Wooo!
[00:00:48] Intro music plays: Drums with a bass drop and more science fictional bells and percussion.
Annalee: [00:01:15] So, where did this new wave start, Charlie? Where do you think that we started to first see stories about or by trans people really entering into the mainstream of science fiction?
Charlie Jane: [00:01:26] I mean, I think there was a bunch of things that happened. One thing that happened was the Wachowski siblings, the Wachowski sisters transitioned. First, Lana Wachowski very publicly transitioned a few years ago. And there also just started to be more trans characters showing up in comic books, and novels, and movies. And, just more awareness of trans people in general. I think it coincided to some extent with stuff like Caitlyn Jenner transitioning and becoming a huge big superstar meme, and Laverne Cox being on Orange is the New Black. But also, just a whole new wave of authors have come along in prose fiction in the last few years. If you look at the Nebula and Hugo ballot for the last year or two, you just suddenly see a ton of trans and non-binary people on the ballot, where previously there might be one or two of us occasionally. Like, I was on the ballot, obviously, back in I think… 2013, or 2012. Cheryl Morgan who writes a lot of wonderful non-fiction about science fiction was on—won a Hugo like five years ago, or so. But, really in the last couple years, there’s been this explosion, and you know… recently it’s just… it kind of feels like it’s kind of cresting. We’re getting a trans character on the show Supergirl who’s played by an actual trans actor, Nicole Maines, and actually, we’ve got a clip here of her talking to Variety about why it’s so important for her character to be both trans and a superhero.
Nicole Maines: [00:02:53] I think most importantly, I want fans to take away an understanding of trans people that we can be anybody. We can be whoever we want, we can do whatever we want, that we can be superheroes. Because in many ways, we are.
Charlie Jane: [00:03:08] Yeah. And like, meanwhile, my favorite TV show, and yours, I think, is Steven Universe right now and the creator of that show, Rebecca Sugar, recently came out as non-binary, and also said that Rebecca views the Crystal Gems as being non-binary. And I think that that was like, that made a huge splash, even though they are kind of identified as women, and people use the female pronoun for them, they are non-binary heroes who kind of transcend gender in some ways because they’re just light projections made form, kind of.
Annalee: [00:03:37] Yeah, they’re… rocks, basically, so yeah. It makes sense that they would be non-binary. Yeah, and I think when Rebecca Sugar came out, she said that she was a female-identified non-binary person, and so I think we’re starting to see a whole range of identities that people can have. You don’t have to change your pronoun to come out as non-binary. You can choose to be they/them. You can be one pronoun sometimes, and one pronoun in other times. We’re all trying to figure it out. It’s funny because science fiction has always had characters that transitioned their gender. When I first started reading science fiction when I was a kid, I was reading John Varley, whose novel Steel Beach is all about a future society, kind of a post-scarcity society where people just switch genders all the time. It’s totally normal. We have Altered Carbon, which came out a while ago as a novel, and is now a television series that is gonna get a second season, where people can upload their brain into whatever body they want, so people switch all the time between different genders if they choose to.
And you have, in general, I think the trope of a post-scarcity world, or a post-human world often involves easy gender transitions. Like, you see this in Iain M. Banks, you see it in Charlie Stross’s work. It’s a bunch of cis dudes, basically, writing these stories about how in the future it won’t matter if you have a penis or not, because you can just glue one on. You can just do some kind of tissue print out.
Charlie Jane: [00:05:07] I mean, I think it’s interesting. The thing you mentioned about like, 3D printing a penis, or whatever, is interesting. Because what you see in a lot of these stories of classic science fiction about gender transformation, is that they’re very essentialist. And that, there’s the assumption that a biological change will lead to a gender change and that the two are inseperable.
The classic kind of gender swapping science fiction story is All You Zombies by Robert A. Heinlein in which the character changes sex halfway through, and it’s just kind of an accident. It’s not like the main character wants to transition from female to male. It just kind of happens because she gives birth and in the process of giving birth she somehow gets a biological sex change. And… I can’t remember exactly how it happens, but it’s very weird and doesn’t really make a lot of sense, and it’s mostly there in the service of like a clever, clever time travel story. But the idea is that as soon as her body is changed, her identity will change with it, and that she’ll have no choice but to change her identity and become a man. And that’s just what’s gonna happen. And like, of course. She’s gonna wake up in a body that looks male and decide, “Oh, well, now I’m a man, and I’m going to use male name and pronouns and that’s just who I am.”
Annalee: [00:06:18] And it’s not going to change anything. It’s just like, “Oh, well now I’m just a guy.”
Charlie Jane: [00:06:20] Well, it is—I think it is supposed to change… but I think it’s supposed to be that her self-hood does change, but it’s just that as a result of the biological transformation, her identity is immediately transformed, and I think that’s—you see that running through a lot of these classic sci-fi/fantasies of gender transformation, where it’s just like, of course if your body was changed into a female body. If you were biologically male but your body was changed into a female body, you would immediately identify as a woman and vice versa, and that your identity is basically just a product of your biological sex and your physical form. And that the hard part, or the complicated part is just finding some way to 3D print you a new body. That reflects the values of classic science fiction, which was created by cisgender people and by and large was reflecting this kind of essentialism that kind of was at the core of their worldview. And has a lot to do with their kind of view of the science fictional explorer encountering the other, and the other is often not white male, kind of. So, essentialism really is at the core of their worldview in a lot of ways, I think, and when they try to imagine gender changes they come at it from a very essentialist framework.
Annalee: [00:07:33] They also come at it, as you say, from a kind of technical framework. It’s the question of, oh well, now that we have the technology, what can we do with it? Oh, we have this technology that allows us to remold our bodies. And, the thing that always bugged me later, when I kind of return to some of these books is that we see people switch gender and nothing… nothing really changes. Like, they don’t suddenly, like make less money, or have to deal with dudes grabbing their butts or anything like that. And partly that’s because, again, these are all books set in the far future when of course we have no differences at all between genders, which begs the question of why anyone would want to switch genders if there was no difference between them, but whatever. Or why they wouldn’t like, invent 14 new genders. So, I guess I wonder if you see, as transgender writers start writing about gender in science fiction, do you see a change? Do you see a movement away from this kind of essentialism, or a more nuanced view of what it means to change your sex?
Charlie Jane: [00:08:38] Well, first of all, I was just going to say that All You Zombies, the story that I was criticizing with its kind of very mechanistic gender transformation that happens, got turned into a movie called Predestination which actually has a much more nuanced and kind of emotional storyline about this character who changes gender, and then, as a newly male self, goes back in time and falls in love with his previous female self. I’ve actually got a beautiful clip of the two of them meeting for the first time and kind of like, falling in love.
Predestination: [00:09:07] You’re not how I imagined you’d look.
Do I know you?
You’re beautiful. Someone should have told you that.
You just did.
Annalee: [00:09:23] So what’s happening in this clip is that one of the versions of the person has transitioned…
Charlie Jane: [00:09:28] Basically. So it’s a Heinlein story, and in the Heinlein story it’s just like a puzzle box. Like, how can somebody be their own mother and father, and the reason they can be their own mother and father is because they grew up to become a woman and then fell in love with their future self who was a man, and had sex, and they had a baby who was them. And after having the baby, they were forced to transition their gender and become a man, and go back in time and fall in love with their female self, and father themself as a baby. And so it’s like a ridiculous, like…
Annalee: [00:10:00] It’s like the classic bootstrap time travel story.
Charlie Jane: [00:10:02] It’s purely there just to see like, how silly you can get with time travel, and kind of be like, Ooh, look, everything is like…
Annalee: [00:10:09] Also, like, amazing female to male transition surgery. Holy crap.
Charlie Jane: [00:10:11] I know.
Annalee: [00:10:12] Well, they’re like implanting like fully loaded testicles, like.
Charlie Jane: [00:10:18] It’s the future.
Annalee: [00:10:19] It’s the future.
Charlie Jane: [00:10:20] And like, yeah, and so, for Heinlein it’s just a puzzle box, but then they—the Spierig brothers made it into a movie in which they actually try to think about what that would be like emotionally to go back in time and meet your past self who is in a different gender, and fall in love with your past self, and Sarah Snook who plays the male and female versions of the character is amazing, and puts so much into it. And then later, the character gets older and turns into Ethan Hawke, and it’s like, oh, whatever. But, you know.
Annalee: [00:10:47] The thing I love about that scene is that it’s this kind of beautiful moment of self-care. I feel like it’s—I mean, let’s set aside all the weird ooky stuff about like having sex with yourself, which actually is lovely, you should feel free to masturbate as much as you want, but there’s still something kind of creepy about it in the film. But, as like a psychological mechanism of your older self going back and meeting your younger self, and saying, like, “Actually, you’re ok.” That’s a really … I love that idea, and I think that’s something that’s missing from a lot of stories about being trans is—in science fiction, is that feeling of before the person transitions like all of the uncertainty and doubt and self-loathing sometimes that the person is going through and how much they need someone to just sit down with them and be like, “Hey. You know. You’re awesome. Go ahead and do what you want to do.” Get something tissue printed or whatever. Get your 3D printed gender here.
Charlie Jane: [00:11:42] Go be yourself.
Annalee: [00:11:43] But, to go back to my earlier question about whether it changes things to have trans creators involved in this process of talking about gender transitions in science fiction, do you see a change? Because we’ve been talking about this Heinlein story a lot, which is still, like, cis dudes kind of telling the story. So, what about when trans writers are in the mix and they’re telling their own stories, how do you see those as being different?
Charlie Jane: [00:12:07] I mean, it’s interesting because there have been trans creators in science fiction all along. We had Rachel Pollack, who I’ve been just reading a bunch of her stuff in preparation for this episode, and she was openly trans and writing science fiction back in the ‘80s. She was writing Doom Patrol, this comic book that Grant Morrison used to write.
Annalee: [00:12:25] Oh, wow, so awesome.
Charlie Jane: [00:12:25] She took over Doom Patrol from Grant Morrison and immediately added a trans character to the book. She also wrote a novel in 1988 called Unquenchable Fire, which won the Arthur C. Clarke award. The novel takes place in Ploughkeepsie, New York, which I think is where she’s from, and it’s all about the horror of living in upstate New York. And the kind of stultifying kind of stifling society there, and at the same time it’s very weird and warped. Rachel Pollack is a tarot expert who puts a lot of like weird symbolism and bizarre imagery into her novels and they’re usually fantasy and they’re kind of like very weird and out there. And at the same time, Unquenchable Fire is about a cis woman who becomes pregnant with like a magical pregnancy. And it is, in some senses, a little bit… in that novel at least, there’s no kind of suggestion that there’s anything other than the gender binary even with trans creators, like Caitlín Kiernan, and Poppy Z. Brite really transitioned after his hey day as a horror writer, I think.
It’s only recently that even with those creators that we’ve seen more exploration of openly trans themes and like, questioning beyond the gender binary. One creator I want to mention really quickly who is super important in the history of science fiction who doesn’t get mentioned a lot as an important trans science fiction creator is Wendy Carlos who was a pioneer of the Moog synthesizer. I hope I’m pronouncing that right.
Annalee: [00:13:51] Yeah, the Moog.
Charlie Jane: [00:13:50] The Moog. She was the daughter of Moog, just like Worf is the son of Moog. Anyway. She pioneered the Moog synthesizer.
Annalee: [00:13:57] Also, she’s… she’s part of this whole tradition. I feel like that electronic music is like ruled by trans people now.
Charlie Jane: [00:14:06] I guess so, yeah.
Annalee: [00:14:07] Like, it’s so…
Charlie Jane: [00:14:07] Yeah, there’s Sophie, and like…
Annalee: [00:14:09] Who’s like my goddess or whatever. I don’t even care. Pick a deity, pick a gender designation for that deity, like, she’s all everything. But, I mean, it’s not just her. I mean, it’s—there’s a ton of trans people in electronic music. I guess, just because you know, it’s science fictional, maybe, or… I don’t know. Tell us more about Wendy Carlos.
Charlie Jane: [00:14:28] She did Switched On Bach, which has a really silly name, but is an amazing album. It’s basically like an album of Bach fugues done on the Moog synthesizer, and it’s just so freaking cool.
Annalee: [00:14:39] And people were listening to it constantly in the early ‘80s. I feel like you could, like, when I was a kid, you would hear it everywhere. Like, at the roller skating rink where I was in a lot. That was a place I was hanging out a lot.
Charlie Jane: [00:14:51] I wore out my vinyl copy of Switched On Bach. And then she also did the soundtracks for A Clockwork Orange, and Tron. And actually, here’s a tiny bit of a snippet of her Tron theme.
Tron Clip: [00:15:03] Tron theme synthesizer plays. It is very ‘80s synth. Like, extremely so.
Annalee: [00:15:22] The secret Tron subtext of trans identity, like, maybe all of those programs were trans, you don’t know.
Charlie Jane: [00:15:28] Yeah. I mean…
Annalee: [00:15:28] Maybe the world inside the computer… everybody is just switching gender all the time. We just didn’t see it, because we just got the cis gender Tron… tron… trans tron.
Charlie Jane: [00:15:38] I mean, what gender do those programs really have? Like, you know…
Annalee: [00:15:42] No one asks.
Charlie Jane: [00:15:44] No one ever asks them.
Annalee: [00:15:44] Nobody asks. They’re like, oh, I just assume you’re a dude because you’re a program. Like, nobody bothered to ask their pronouns. Yeah. So, I think, definitely. Definitely there’s a trans subtext to Tron.
Charlie Jane: [00:15:56] But, you know, I feel like in the last ten years, there’s been a little bit more conscious attempts. Caitlín Kiernan, I found an interview that she did in 2008, where she talks about being trans, and she says that as a trans person, she wants to write about what she calls, “The transmutation of flesh.” Which I found a super fascinating quote. And it’s this idea that she’s interested as a trans person in people whose bodies change state, people whose souls, or inner lives are at variance with what their bodies suggest. People who are kind of at odds with their assigned gender or assigned identity, and later she wrote this novel that a lot of people talk about called The Drowning Girl, which came out in 2012, and I think won a bunch of awards. It won the Tiptree Award and the Bram Stoker award, and I think it was nominated for a bunch of things. Where there’s a trans character and there’s also just a lot of stuff about people whose bodies magically transform, you know, I think one of the characters when they’re underwater transforms into kind of a sea serpent. It’s really cool, and I feel like there’s been more stuff like that.
Like, if you read these anthologies, that came out in the last few years, there’s been a series of anthologies called Transcendent, that’s basically like the year’s best transgender speculative fiction. I’ve been lucky enough to be in it a couple of times. You know, reading those anthologies, which were edited by K.M. Szpara, I think, the first one, and then Bogi Takács, I think the second and third. There’s a theme that keeps coming back of bodies that are kind of changing in ways that are not just what you’d think of with transgender people, but just in general, kind of transforming, mutating, and also dopplegangers and other selves, and like, duplicates and versions of yourself that are outside yourself.
It’s like that scene from Predestination where the two versions of the same person meet. There’s a lot of stories like that that are being told right now, about like, meeting another version of yourself that I think are really interesting and I think that that’s a thing that we’re kind of working out right now in trans speculative fiction.
Annalee: [00:17:51] That’s so interesting. I was also thinking that there’s just the plain old kind of inclusion happening in stories now, like… JY Yang, who identifies as non-binary, their series, the Tensorate series, I think the third one just came out, have non-binary characters in them that use they and them as pronouns, and just, that’s it. It’s like… nothing special. I mean, it’s special because the characters are awesome and they ride dragons and things like that, or actually naga, which is even cooler. If you want to ask me about like the hierarchy of where naga sit on the dragon scale, we can maybe do that in other episodes, it’s very important to me.
One of the things that is really interesting about that is that I think with non-binary identity, we’re seeing people experiment with new pronouns. So they and them is really just kind of one variation on many different kinds of pronouns that people are using to try to explain or represent what it feels like to not really be male or female which is something that our language is not super good at it, and something that our culture hasn’t thought a lot about. And so, it makes to me perfect sense that science fiction is a place where we explore that first, because it’s a realm of speculating. Speculating about how culture and identity could be different.
I wanted to ask you, Charlie, if you feel like your experience of being trans has affected your writing at all?
Charlie Jane: [00:19:17] Yeah, I mean, I think about this a lot, obviously, and…
Annalee: [00:19:21] I bet you do…
Charlie Jane: [00:19:22] You know?
Annalee: [00:19:23] You and I talk about this a lot.
Charlie Jane: [00:19:24] Yeah, when I was starting out as like an openly trans science fiction author, like 15—more than 15 years ago. I felt kind of isolated. I felt like I was alone, and I felt like there wasn’t a lot of other people out there. I met Cheryl Morgan. I eventually met Roz Kaveney, who by the way, Roz Kaveney has this fantasy series called Rituals, that’s really fascinating and awesome, and has like trans characters, I think.
Annalee: [00:19:50] Roz is one of the pioneers. She’s been out and trans for a really long time.
Charlie Jane: [00:19:53] Yeah, and she’s been a huge part of the science fiction community as well. But, I felt really isolated and alone, and I feel like I was trying to find ways to write about transness in science fiction like 15 years ago and I think that part of what always fascinated me about it is that we are in some sense a product of science. There are things that I’ve been able to do to modify myself to fit my gender identity that are only possible because of science, and at the same time there is a kind of weird fantasy aspect to being trans. To kind of encountering your true version of yourself and entering into this kind of numinous dark forest of uncertainty and like confusion. I’m never not going to be confused about what the hell I’m doing with myself. I’m never not going to be fearing that I’m doing it wrong or feeling as though I’m kind of making it up as I go, and I feel like that kind of leeches out into my fiction in a lot of ways. I feel like even I don’t have characters who are openly trans or who are openly, you know, questioning their gender which does—a lot of my characters do in one way or another, I’m always kind of poking at that feeling of like, I have no idea what I’m doing or who I am or what all of this means, and I’m just kind of making it up as I go, and I feel like that’s something that if you write about it in different ways, you can hit a lot of people because most of us, even if we’re not trans, don’t really know what the hell with ourselves, kind of.
Annalee: [00:21:26] We’re also given a ton of categories for our identities that turn out to be complete bullshit, right? Like, you’re told, ok. You have to go have a job. All right, now you’re an engineer, and that means certain things about you, or, you’re going to be a grown up, and that will mean certain things about you, and it all turns out to be complete lies. Like, your identity can change radically in all kinds of ways that don’t fit these categories we’ve been given, and I think that that’s something I see in your fiction, and maybe for you that comes out of having witnessed with your own eyes, your identity change, and how people transform how they treat you and things like that.
But, I also think that it is relatable, as you said, because the process of growing older is finding out how many of these things that we think of as being really solid and dependable are totally up for grabs. I mean, right now as a nation, we’re kind of coming to grips with the fact that the presidency is not what we thought it was. It can actually be a whole bunch of other things. We thought presidents would act a certain way, but, nope, turns out. They can just act a totally different way and they’re still president.
So, that sense of disorientation, I think, hits us in all kinds of places. And gender is just one of the most fundamental ones.
Charlie Jane: [00:22:43] Yeah. And I think that it’s good that in the middle of our sort of national identity crisis and our kind of collective meltdown about who we are as people, it’s good that part of that is that we’re kind of recognizing that gender is one of the things that we’ve created collectively that is bullshit.
I also wanted to mention, by the way, that like, the last couple of years have seen a lot of really great stuff coming out by trans masculine authors. In particular, there’s been like a flood of new works by trans masculine people. There’s The Merry Spinster, by Daniel Ortberg, which is a collection of retellings of fairy tales. There’s Tomorrow or Forever by J.S. Kaulfus, who’s a non-binary trans masculine person.
Annalee: [00:23:29] There’s like, literally everything written by Yoon Ha Lee, which are all amazing.
Charlie Jane: [00:23:32] Yeah. And which often have like a thing of people being put into different bodies and like the third book in his trilogy has somebody who has their 17 year old consciousness put into their body as a much older person, and they’re like, whoa. I was 17 a second ago and now I’m like suddenly in the body of myself as like a much older person, which I think is fascinating. There’s Jordy Rosenberg, whose book Confessions of the Fox has become a huge breakout hit this year and kind of features weird alternate history. There’s just been a lot of really interesting stuff, novels, in the last couple of years, I feel like.
Annalee: [00:24:06] And there’s a ton of short stories coming out, too, from young writers who are identifying as non-binary and trans.
Charlie Jane: [00:24:11] Yeah, and if you look at those Transcendent anthologies, and like, also there’s like an anthology called Meanwhile, Elsewhere that came out recently, that’s got a lot of trans writers in it. And, if you just look at the list of short fiction finalists for the Hugo and Nebula for the last couple of years, you see a lot of these people turning up. And it’s really exciting.
Annalee: [00:24:32] Yep. We’re just turning all science fiction into trans everything. All trans everywhere.
Charlie Jane: [00:24:42] Speaking of our collective identity freakout, and our sort of collective national freakout over trans identity in particular, the past few weeks have seen a really dramatic conversation around a brand new idea of like, rapid onset gender dysphoria. And I know that you read the paper and you’ve been kind of looking into that. So what is this about and why is science suddenly having this debate over trans identity?
Annalee: [00:25:07] What is happening in science? So, basically, a couple of weeks ago, a journal called PLoS One published a paper about something called “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” by a sociologist named Lisa Littman at Brown University, and it immediately generated a huge amount of pushback from the scientific community. In it, Littman defines what she says is a new kind of… basically malady. She’s using terms like “Rapid Onset” because she’s thinking of it as basically a kind of an illness. And, she says that this is something that’s afflicting cis girls, so people born female, where they suddenly, due to peer pressure and exposure to social media, decide that they’re trans. But, maybe they’re not really trans because maybe it’s just a result of peer pressure, or maybe it’s because they have other trauma, or they have depression, or they have other things that are undiagnosed. And so, the paper essentially suggests that when parents discover that their child “suddenly” identifies as trans that maybe they’re not really trans, maybe it’s some other problem, because if it comes on suddenly, like this “rapid onset” idea, that maybe it’s cause for skepticism.
[00:26:35] So, the controversy, well, there’s already the controversy of kind of claiming that. But then, the real controversy came from the fact that the study was conducted in a way that is profoundly biased and unscientific. And PLoS One, the editors of the PLoS journal have now said that they are going to retroactively re-examine the paper and re-examine its assumptions. Brown University has said that they’re no longer going to link to the paper and promote the paper while it’s undergoing this post-publication examination.
The reason it got published at all is that the ethos of PLoS One is that they will publish scientific papers that are technically correct and this paper is “technically” following the scientific method, however… I’m not sure how they got that because the… Littman, the researcher, the way that she conducted her research to discover this new malady was by doing a Survey Monkey poll, which… uh, Survey Monkey is just… it’s actually commonly used in social science research, it’s just an anonymous polling software application that you can do online. Probably many of you have taken Survey Monkey polls of various types. And she created this poll asking parents about whether they had seen this sudden onset gender dysphoria, and she called for participants in this study—she only got about 250 participants—she posted about it on three different websites, all of which are aimed at parents who are questioning their child’s gender identity. Questioning their trans identity. So they’re specifically sites geared toward parents who already reject the idea that their child is authentically trans. They think it’s a phase, they think it’s the kid is wrong, they think the kid is asking for attention, there’s a variety of reasons why parents believe that their kids aren’t really trans when the kids say that they are.
[00:28:41] And, so she was—this is a classic example of sample bias. She was sampling from a group of people who already had this belief that their kids weren’t really trans, and then she built this paper around the idea that there were all these kids who weren’t really trans, who were coming out as trans “suddenly, unexpectedly.” And, she made no effort to talk to trans kids, or any of the kids who had been identified by their parents as having this malady. She made no effort to talk to parents who believed that their kids really are trans, just even as a kind of a control group. There was no control.
[00:29:20] Also, the entire survey was conducted anonymously online, so she had no way to even make sure that these were actual parents that were responding. I mean, we know for sure that there are a lot of anti-trans activists online, TERFs, and other people like that who would easily—who would have been very motivated to take this kind of survey and try to populate it with data that would back up their perspectives.
Charlie Jane: [00:29:45] Yeah, and also the part I don’t get—isn’t adolescence in general a period of rapid change and like… change in gender expression generally, like? You know, don’t all teenagers change how they express their gender during adolescence?
Annalee: [00:30:00] I know, right? Like, how come there’s no paper on like, “Rapid Onset Femininity Disorder.”
Charlie Jane: [00:30:06] “Rapid Onset Gender Conformity,” you know?
Annalee: [00:30:09] Yeah, “Rapid Onset…” because here’s… one of the things that Littman talks about in the paper is that these are all kids who start watching videos about gender transition and then they decide nefariously that they’re going to do it because they think it’s gonna make them happier, or they think it’ll get them acceptance.
[00:30:27] But the fact is that we know from looking at statistics on YouTube that some of the most videos are make-up tutorials and fashion videos where people have a hall of like a ton of fashionable outfits that they’ve gotten and they try on. And these are primarily watched by teenage girls who are learning about “traditional” femininity. And even though you see the exact same kind of transition, like rapid onset of use of cosmetics, rapid onset of obsession over fashion, nobody’s like freaking out about that and saying, “Oh, but why aren’t these former tomboys continuing with their tomboy ways? Why have they suddenly become so feminine?”
[00:31:10] So, I think part of the problem is that yeah, she’s identifying a typical feature of teenhood as being kind of pathological.
Charlie Jane: [00:31:18] Yeah, and like, also… it kind of comes back to this ongoing debate about trans teenagers in general, which, you know Jesse Singal has written some heavily criticized articles about this over the past few years. And like, this idea that like, that there’s no harm done if you don’t transition and that that’s the default, and that there’s something aberrant and also, you know, damaging about allowing teenagers to transition. Whereas, isn’t it either, isn’t it irreversible and potentially damaging either way.
Annalee: [00:31:50] If you have a cisgender girl who starts watching these kinds of videos about fashion or whatever and maybe gets eyebrow tattoos or gets some kind of permanent transformation to make themselves look more feminine…
Charlie Jane: [00:32:08] I mean, what I was getting at is more that puberty is irreversible in either direction. If you’re in the middle of puberty and you don’t take puberty blockers, then, assigned male at birth, you’re going to grow facial hair. You’re going to have all these physical changes that are going to be incredibly difficult and excruciating and expensive to try to reverse later. And if you’re assigned female at birth, you’re going to grow breasts which you’re going to have to get top surgery to remove later, and like, there’s a lot of changes that happen in adolescence that are irreversible, that if you just force people to go through adolescence in their assigned gender, it’s going to be a lot harder later to deal with.
Annalee: [00:32:45] Well, it was good enough for my generation to through puberty, and you’ll go through puberty, too. Um… so. I think that you’re right. I mean, this definitely plays into the kind of Jesse Singal style… I would call it, kind of fear mongering about the idea that there’s this huge number of kids that are seeking attention by wanting hormones or hormone blockers, and the reality is it’s an incredibly tiny number of people, and also, there’s really so much evidence now that not allowing a kid to have the kind of gender expression they want can be really harmful. There’s tons of evidence for that.
[00:33:24] And it’s funny because in this article about the “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” by Lisa Littman, one of the things that she says is that these kids are doing this because they think it will make them happier, and that’s a really suspicious thing. But it’s like, but wait, isn’t that the whole point? Like, if a kid thinks they’ll be happier as a different gender, or with a different gender presentation, like, that’s what it means to go through adolescence. You try a bunch of identities to see what makes you happy and there’s a lot of ways that this can be finessed where instead of giving the kid what this paper calls “cross-sex hormones,” you can simply have puberty blockers, like you said. There’s ways of kind of delaying that so that the kid can try on an identity and see if that fits, if indeed there is some question in the kid’s mind.
[00:34:16] The other thing that this really made me think of, a lot, was how in the 19th century all these male doctors invented the idea of hysteria, which was a disease that somehow only women suffered from. I mean, it emanated form their womb and it was basically just a name for a bunch of different symptoms that women had. Mostly when they would get incredibly angry and freak out, or they would have fainting fits, or a lot of it had to do with rage. And this was, again, this was late 19th century, and there were a lot of reasons for women to be angry at that time. And the diagnosis and description and kind of propagation of the idea of hysteria was done by men, among men, for men. Women were not consulted. Nobody asked women, like, “So, why are you pissed off?” It was just, well, it must be a terrible disease. And I feel like this study participates in that same kind of pathologizing of a group who isn’t even consulted in the kind of—in the generation of the name for this malady. Right? Like, this “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria.” I don’t understand why it would somehow ruin the study for this author to have consulted trans kids to ask them what they felt. Do they feel like it’s rapid onset. Do they feel like they were maybe brooding about it for two years and finally came out to their parents. What was really going on?
Charlie Jane: [00:35:47] The pathologizing language is part of what upsets me so much about this. And also, this notion of peer pressure. Like, this idea that people are so easily swayed that just hearing about other people’s gender transitions is just going to suddenly make them be like, “I’m gonna do that, too, that sounds fun! Whee!” It just seems weird, this idea that it’s based on peer pressure. I’m wondering what’s the mechanism by which that’s supposed to happen. Why is that peer pressure supposed to be so powerful, and also… yeah…
Annalee: [00:36:20] Well, it’s this idea of social contagion, which is a very well accepted idea in sociology, where it describes things like memes, or transformations in political sentiment. I mean, it can describe a lot of things where we imitate behavior in people around us. And, you know it happens. I mean, we’ve all been part of social contagion, where you see people doing something—it could be something really minor, like wearing white sneakers and suddenly you’re like, desperate for a pair of white sneakers. Or, it could be something like, as I said, changing your political point of view. So, the idea in this study is that a lot of these kids who are transitioning are in social groups—according to their parents, because again, this is all reported by parents. These kids are in social groups that have a higher number than average of trans kids in them. I don’t know that any teenager picks a group of friends to have like a perfect representation of the population of the United States in them. None of these parents seem to be freaking out about, like the fact that their kids aren’t hanging out with a racially diverse group of people, but they’re really worried that it’s not—that there’s not enough cisgendered people in their child’s play group. Or their friend group. And so, the theory, or the hypothesis in this paper is that because these kids have so many friends who are trans that they’re kind of just imitating what they see in their friend group because they want to conform, and they want the validation.
[00:37:45] Which doesn’t, again, doesn’t take into account all of the literature and all of the kind of observations that we can make, having all been teenagers, that when you’re a teenager you seek out friends who are like you. And, when I was a teenager, it turned out that a bunch of my friends in high school were queer. One of them was trans, later came out as trans, and you know, that was because we were nerds and we were kind of gender weird and we sought each other out, and it wasn’t about conformity, it was just… you want to be friends with people who understand you, you know?
[00:38:16] So, I think that this study is a really great example of how, unfortunately, science as much as it’s supposed to be objective, and it’s supposed to lead to enlightenment, can also be used to really shore up regressive ideas. It can also be used to try to guide therapy for teens, I mean, that’s one of the things that worries me about this study, is that clinicians are gonna read it. PLoS One is a very respected journal, it’s not like it’s been published in Bob’s Backyard Barbeque Journal. This is a major—I’ve written about tons of papers that have been published there. They’re going to take it seriously. Like, people are going to start—clinicians are going to start saying, “Oh, I think that might be Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria and not a true trans identity.” And it’s going to affect the lives of teenagers. This isn’t a scientific paper that’s about you know, an ancient civilization, or about how electrons behave. It’s going to affect people’s lives. And it’s going to affect the lives of very, very vulnerable people. Young people, trans people, non-binary people. That’s a huge danger. It’s not a neutral kind of mistake to have made.
Charlie Jane: [00:39:26] Yeah, and just one final thought about the whole social contagion idea. I mean, before I knew that there were other trans people, which I can remember when I didn’t really know that there were other trans people, or that that was a thing that you could identify as, I was just really confused and didn’t know what the hell was going on with me, and just was like. I don’t understand, this is really confusing and upsetting. And you know, I feel like it’s that way with a lot of things. A lot of things, until you find out that there’s a name for it and that other people experience it and you’re not alone, you just might be on your own, being really confused and isolated. And I don’t think that that’s a good outcome. I don’t think that’s an outcome that we should push for.
Annalee: [00:40:07] Depressing.
Charlie Jane: [00:40:07] For people to just feel isolated and like they don’t have any framework for understanding their own experiences. I don’t think that that’s a win.
Annalee: [00:40:20] I think that you’re right, and I think one of the things that’s really worrying about this paper is that it seems to pathologize the idea of a queer support network or a community. Because it’s not just about saying, oh, these kids shouldn’t be allowed to identify as trans. It’s saying, there’s something pathological about queer kids wanting to just hang out together, and like you said, I mean, that’s how people who have any kind of identity that’s different from the mainstream find support and prevent themselves from being really depressed is to have friends they can share with. I mean, what if you’re like, I don’t know, like the only kid in town who likes to play D&D, like I was, and then I found other kids to play with. And, again, actually when I was growing up, that was pathologized. Like, D&D was considered Satanic in the town where I grew up, and kids did get in trouble for it. I guess that’s just to say that grown-ups often try to figure out ways to undermine communities of kids, but I think in this case, it’s particularly pernicious, because we know for sure that, like you said, the way that queer kids and trans kids learn about themselves and learn healthy—learn about healthy role models, is by having a community. So, this paper is saying, “Welp, if your kid is seeking out communities of trans people, this is a sign that they probably aren’t trans.”
That’s literally kind of the point of the paper, and so, we’re waiting to see. Like I said, the editors of PLoS are evaluating the paper. It’s still available online. We’re gonna have a link to it in the show notes so you can check it out for yourself, but I’m really hoping that they’re going to issue some kind of a statement or update about it and really condemn it for having poor research methods.
Charlie Jane: [00:42:05] I hope so, too.
Annalee: [00:42:05] So, on that cheery note… you’ve been listening to Our Opinions Are Correct, a podcast which is about science fiction and science.
Charlie Jane: [00:42:15] Thanks so much for listening. Please sign up for the podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts and Stitcher and whereever else you can find podcasts and please leave a review if you enjoyed the podcast. Please follow us on Twitter at @OOACpod.
[00:42:28] Thanks so much to Women’s Audio Mission for letting us record there. Thanks to Veronica Simonetti for production, and thanks to Chris Palmer for the music, and we’ll see you in two weeks.
Annalee: [00:42:37] And, by the way, it’s new music this week.
Charlie Jane: [00:42:40] Yeah, new music, whoo hoo!
[00:42:42] Outro music plays. Drums with a bass line including bass drops.