In a time in which trans young people are under attack from the Trump administration, state legislatures, unsupportive school districts and a cruel and unkind world, the last thing we need is an ill-informed discussion about the nonexistent “dangers” of simply supporting kids who are trans. But that’s what “Saved By the Bell” actor and television host Mario Lopez — who will apparently still be hosting the NBCUniversal program “Access Hollywood” starting in September — and conservative gadfly Candace Owens brought us, simply because it is 2019.
During an interview in June with Owens — a conservative internet personality best known for trying to exploit Kanye West and going to England to defend Hitler’s right to “make Germany great” — Lopez expressed concern over what he called a “dangerous” trend of parents supporting their transgender and gender-nonconforming children. He suggested that parental support could lead to harmful “repercussions” later in life.
“When you’re a kid,” he went on, “you don’t know anything about sexuality yet.” Though he has since walked back his comments and issued an apology, his ignorance and brazen disregard for trans audiences and for the scientific and medical consensus around the needs of trans youth reveals a much deeper problem.
First, and most importantly, there is nothing dangerous about supporting and affirming a child’s expressed gender regardless of their age. The conversations on Owens’ radio show (or in the pages of the Guardian) would have audiences believe that 4-year-old children are waking up one day, declaring a new gender and then undergoing surgical interventions the next day. This narrative is blatantly untrue — and also deliberately contrived to stoke fears of trans people and build support for a growing anti-trans movement in the United States and the United Kingdom.
The reality is much more nuanced.
What is true is that children grow and develop every day in thousands of ways. A 3-year-old is different than a 3½-year-old, and incredibly different from a 10-year-old. As parents, we know that each month brings new developments because we track our children’s development month-by-month. The idea, then, that parents and medical professionals would treat the development of all trans and gender-nonconforming children from ages 2 to 18 exactly the same way betrays the absurdity of the critique from the outset.
In the developmental context of children who are trans — those who have a gender that is different from the gender assigned to them at birth — and those who are gender-nonconforming, every reputable psychological and scientific organization supports affirming a child’s gender identity (who they know themselves to be) and gender expression (how they express their gender regardless of what gender they were designated at birth).
The American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, (which is probably a better source of child development advice than a man who reads celebrity gossip off a teleprompter for a living) recommends “taking a ‘gender-affirming,’ nonjudgmental approach that helps children feel safe in a society that too often marginalizes or stigmatizes those seen as different.”
The reason they suggest supporting children who express that they are trans or nonconforming is that it “strengthens family resiliency and takes the emphasis off heightened concerns over gender while allowing children the freedom to focus on academics, relationship-building and other typical developmental tasks.”
Supporting a child’s gender identity and expression is not the same as telling a child that they can be a truck or a dog — a favorite, and offensive, comparison of anti-trans commentators. Children who express a gender different from the gender assigned to them at birth do so in persistent and consistent ways over many months and years.
And being supporting does not mean taking your preschooler in for surgery: No young child is receiving medical intervention of any kind before puberty and no one is receiving surgery until the age of 18 (except in some limited circumstances, where chest surgery might be available around age 16). What children are supposed to receive is a loving and affirming caretaker who can reflect back to them that they are beautiful and loved, no matter what.
Sadly, when parents do have a child who is consistently transgressing norms of gender, it often takes too long for them to come to a supportive place in part because of the willingness of people in power to spread damaging misinformation about trans children. Parents whose children self-identify as trans or gender-nonconforming and go looking for information can easily find comments like Lopez’s or worse and, out of fear or even love, attempt to force their child to continue to conform.
The “repercussions” of rejecting a child, rather than supporting them, are the ones that we should worry about. Affirming a child’s gender identity or expression allows them to find their way, to learn empathy, to love and allows them to focus on being a child. Affirming a child can help ensure that they are not one of the 41 percent of trans people who attempt suicide. Affirming a child is medically recommended and it is our moral obligation as parents.
What is the worst that can happen if you show a child unconditional love when they transgress gender? They find their way to another gender later on? Or back to their birth assigned gender? So what: Their journey will have been filled with love, and they will have been able to explore who they are with a foundation of support. That is not dangerous.
But the worst that can happen when we reject our children is that they die. And it is not some extreme threat or hyperbolic message of some powerful “trans lobby”: It is the sad truth.
Lopez and Owens fear that children are just “too young” to deal with issues of “sexuality.” But a person’s gender is not the same as their sexual orientation, and we already live in a world that imposes gender (and sexuality) on children from birth and well before. From gender reveal parties to slapping bows on the bald heads of female-assigned babies to onesies for boys that say “heartbreaker” to comments about boys and girls having crushes on each other in preschool, the same people who talk about children being too young to engage with issues of gender and sexuality are perfectly comfortable imposing gender binary and heterosexual norms on their children. And even with all that imposing, cisgender and heterosexual parents keep making queer and trans kids. That is because we are who we are.
As we reflect on the world we want to build for our children, let’s not give a platform to the Mario Lopezs who speak with no authority. The worthiness and dignity of the lives of a group of young people are not political topics to be debated. These kids are our future and it is on us — adults, parents, caregivers — to be better.