Media FAIL in Coverage of Study on Gender Conformity and Abuse

“Gender Uncertainty Risky for Kids.”
“Child Gender Nonconformity Linked to Higher Risk of Abuse.”
“Kids Who Veer From Gender Norms at Higher Risk for Abuse.”
“Gender identity issues can harm kids’ mental health.”

These are just a few of the headlines that have been used in pieces referencing a new study on gender conformity in children and risk factors for abuse. Similar headlines have been published in virtually every mainstream media (MSM) outlet including CNN, ABC News, and the AP.

Framing the issue in this way smacks of victim blaming and transphobia, for three reasons:

This coverage conflates being transgender and being gender nonconforming/veering from gender norms. While there may be overlap in the categories, being trans is not the same thing as being gender non-conforming, and there are tons of gender non-confroming people who may not identify as trans. The study dealt with gender nonconformity among kids under the age of 11, and its findings should be reported as applying to that category, which could include but is certainly not limited to children who identify as transgender.

Secondly, this kind of framing make it sound like gender non-conforming kids are to blame for their own abuse. Trans is a gender identity, not a”risky behavior.” Where are the headlines putting blame on the perpetrators of violence and abuse against trans youth? I think you’d be hard pressed to find a headline like “Parents more likely to abuse children who identify as trans,” even though that’s at least equally as accurate a description of the study and its findings.

Lastly, I’m disturbed at the implication that it’s the gender non-conformity, rather than the stringent social norms, pressures, intolerance, bigotry, fear, and general pearl-clutching around gender, that poses a risk to young children. While the study did find that gender nonconformity before age 11 years was “a risk indicator for physical, sexual, and psychological abuse in childhood and lifetime probable posttraumatic stress disorder in youth,” correlation doesn’t imply causation. What about the fact that most of the mental health risks associated with gender non-conformity aren’t about the gender non-confirming part, but instead how society treats people who choose not to conform?

And while there are certainly important and necessary reasons to talk about the dangers and health disparities that trans people face, this study and the headlines it inspired aside, I’m skeptical of the larger framing of “trans people as tragic.” As Jos wrote in her groundbreaking piece “I am not your tragic trans narrative”:

“Even when I write or speak about trans experience, there’s inevitably someone somewhere on the internet who responds with how tragic it is that someone has to live like this – who sees my transness as an illness, either something wrong with my mind that I’m sadly off about (the compassionate anti-trans take) or something that should be respected for social justice reasons but is still so, so sad.

Here’s the thing: we’ve all got our own experiences, but in mine being trans is not tragic. It’s incredible. In fact, I’m fucking amazing. And my transness has a lot to do with that. I’ve broken one of the most absolute rules handed down by our culture, and that gives me a vision that goes beyond what seems possible to what’s needed and desired. Coming out may have felt like a necessity, but it’s given me incredible strength, the ability to take big leaps of faith, make exciting mistakes, and find liberating new possibilities. I’ve become a more caring, compassionate friend in a real way, because I also take care of myself. And it’s given me an extraordinary community if trans and gender non-conforming folks and allies who are honest, direct, incredibly loving, and fucking hilarious. And hot. So damn hot.

What’s tragic is a culture that thinks trans folks are so wrong it wants us dead, or that insists we must conform to a tragic narrative to excuse our existence. That’s the problem, not being trans. Which I happen to think is pretty fucking awesome.”

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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  • Tasasha Henderson

    When I first saw the headlines, I thought the same thing;that the media is implying that gender non-conforming youth are the cause of their own abuse, not society’s homophobic, transphobic and messed up views about masculinity and femininity. It would be great to read an article society’s dangerous views of gender are hurting and often times killing youth and what we can do about it.

  • Aine Hawthorn

    This (commentary about not being the tragic figure) reminds me of the tired old storyline of the ‘tragic queer’, as seen in ‘Well of Loneliness’ and ‘Brokeback Mountian’. It was tiresome applied to same sex relationships, it’s equally as tiresome applied to Trans folk. Can we have a new paradigm please? None of us are inherently tragic, we’re awesome.

  • AMM

    … we’ve all got our own experiences, but in mine being trans is not tragic. It’s incredible.

    I think that many of us who don’t fit into Society’s Procrustean bed feel the same way. I am what I’d call gender non-conformant (though not trans), and non-conformant in other ways that are harder to describe or even understand, and I caught non-stop hell for it as a child. I eventually learned to throw off those childhood messages and enjoy being who I am (whatever that is! I’m still figuring out.) I don’t know how much is due to becoming a grown-up, how much is due to moving out of what I call “the Ante-Bellum South”, and how much is due to the times a-changin’. (The counterculture hit central Virginia about the time I graduated from High School and moved away.) But people don’t harrass me any more for being the way I am, and some people even like it!

    One thing I’ve noticed, both in my own life and now in my two sons’, is that Society is much more brutal towards children who deviate in any way from Society’s expectations than towards adults. It’s not just gender. If you’re too smart, or not smart enough, or not athletic enough, or too — well, the list is endless, and just about every kid has got something “wrong” with them, if you’re looking for somebody to pick on. Another way it’s worse for kids is that kids don’t have the skills to deal with the abuse, either to avoid some of it or to keep it from hurting them so much.