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I Was Robbed of My Transgender Childhood

Critics who stand in the way of the rights of transgender children stand in the way of their adolescence. I should know—I missed mine.

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Feb 16 2017, 10:38pm

Illustration by Kelsey Wroten

This week, the Trump administration announced that they were dropping Obama-era support for a lawsuit defending the rights of transgender students to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify. The move was long expected, despite the fact that Trump and his supporters like to trumpet the president's support of LGBTQ people.

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But for many on both sides of the political aisle, the fight for the rights of transgender children is a bridge too far, and though how we treat and should treat gender-nonconforming and transgender children remains one of the most controversial fights within the transgender rights movement, what's often lost among it are the lived experiences of trans kids.

Not all trans people know that they're trans when they're a child. But some, like me, did. The truth is that when I was growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, the existence of trans people seemed wholly confined to Jerry Springer guests or horrible movie punchlines. I didn't know that regular people, much less kids, could transition—and anyone I came across in the media that did transition were portrayed as freaks. What kid wants to grow up to be a freak? Even today, in an age of unprecedented trans visibility, transgender children are subject to horrific acts of violence; back when I was growing up, the idea of transitioning was that much more dangerous. From my earliest moments of self-awareness about my gender identity, I decided it was something I had to hide.

But I mourn now what I lost, and it's the everyday experiences of girlhood I missed that really bring me to tears today. Sure, I have some positive childhood memories—a cross-country family road trip in an RV, or the many great times I had on an athletic field—but those memories are always viewed through the lens of my gender incongruence. The most positive memories I have from childhood are those in which my gender didn't matter; the truth is, my girlhood was empty.

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I grew up in a small town in the Berkshires, in the westernmost county in Massachusetts. It was one of the most progressive areas in the world, but even being gay was a scandalous idea at the time. In some instances, my parents tightly controlled my gender presentation; I remember moving into a new house and asking to paint my room red, white and blue, and being told by my mother that my father wouldn't approve, because red is considered a "feminine" color. If I couldn't even paint my room red, how was I supposed to grow out my hair or try out new clothing styles?

Being unable to explore my true gender stunted the development of what could have been deeper friendships with other girls, as well; because I tried so hard to fit into a cisgender, heterosexual identity, I often misinterpreted innocent acts of friendship as sexual attraction. I remember meeting a girl in ninth grade study hall, Sarah; she was extremely smart, and we had unexpectedly deep conversations for ninth graders. I interpreted everything I felt for her as a crush, but she politely declined when I asked her out, insisting that we were friends. And the truth is that it was always the thought of sleeping with boys as a girl that I found sexually compelling; I was a straight or slightly bisexual girl all along, but I lost out on what could have been the kinds of deep, sisterly friendships many women get to enjoy, because I did not transition and instead tried to fit the women in my young life into my careful heterosexual front. I can still remember the names of my many "crushes," and it's no coincidence that I'm still friends with many of them to this day.

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And the thought of having missed experiencing my high school prom as a woman is especially saddening. My date Karis had essentially been one of my best friends for years, and she looked adorable in her long, deep purple dress, with her hair piled atop her head with curly tendrils falling off to the side. I, meanwhile, wore an ill-fitting, rented tuxedo with mismatched accents, and the contrast was striking. What is meant to be a cultural hallmark of American adolescence became a panic-attack-inducing ordeal for a closeted trans girl like me. I didn't even dance at my own prom, and though I was able to fake my way through the night, it left me completely empty inside. The chance to have experienced prom as my true self—as Katelyn—is now long gone.

It's important for those who stand against the existence of transgender children know the true effects of their ideology. There will always be children who experience gender dysphoria who decide to never acknowledge it to an adult, and there are many growing up in families and areas that make transitioning while young too dangerous or difficult to undertake. I hear from closeted trans teenagers on social media often, and I can sense how desperate and scared they are. Sometimes the only advice I can offer them is to wait until they're in a safer place in their lives to come out.

The more hostile our society is to the concept of a child who transitions, the less likely it will be that such children will ever even attempt to rectify their gender identities, much less do so at a young-enough age that they will have the proper childhood I was denied. While many Americans look back on their adolescence with nostalgia, for trans people who knew when we were young, ours represent overwhelming regret. Every advocate for conversion therapy for trans children and every dropped lawsuit in support of trans students' rights ends up sacrificing the childhood of more trans children. We must continue to work to make transitioning for children safer and easier, and to save those children from regret.

Follow Katelyn Burns on Twitter.

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