A huge part of the challenge faced by parents of trans-identifying kids is linguistic herding. Their kids — and their kids’ friends — seem determined to police every aspect of the language they use in the home, correcting and suggesting in equal measure. The most prominent herding strategies of the Trans-English dialect involve names and pronouns: name-wrongthink is ‘deadnaming’; pronoun-wrongthink is ‘misgendering’. Overnight, parents are expected to amend their language to match the child’s new identity, and woe betide the parent who puts up a fight.
From the parent’s perspective, this feels like a rewriting of history worthy of 1984’s Winston Smith. A boy presents a new, female identity as though it has always been there, making the announcement as though it were a sort of correction. But from the kid’s perspective, it is a correction. Unlike the transsexualism of old — with its fastidious gatekeeping and two boring prerequisite years of therapy — today’s transgenderism has at its heart the logic that it’s possible to have always been a woman, but never to have noticed. A young man’s body may therefore be functioning, in his mind, as a sort of veil: what’s underneath the veil was there all along. ‘I am trans,’ by this logic, not only means ‘I’m female’ but ‘I have always been, and will always be, female.’ By using terms like ‘deadnaming’ and ‘misgendering’ to nudge his mother this way and that, the young man earnestly believes he is helping his mother to arrive at an immutable truth.
For those on the receiving end, this behaviour pattern isn’t fun. Parents are not only expected to ditch the names they painstakingly selected for their kids, but to do so with glee. Many of them feel as though they’re being asked to pretend that a funeral is in fact a christening. The boy sees his new identity as an upgrade, burgeoning with new possibilities; the parent sees it as self-effacing, with some even experiencing it as a sort of suicide. ‘You’re denying my existence!’ goes the cry of the misgendered, the deadnamed: but the feeling is mutual. Both sides believe themselves to be correct. And in an era where the ‘lived experience’ of a fourteen-year-old is as valid as that of the fifty-year-old — if not more so — parents are expected to collude in the lie that they know no more about the workings of the world than their Minecraft-brained teenagers.
But the most disconcerting aspect of this linguistic mismatch is the way in which Trans-English turns the temporary into the permanent, and, in so doing, makes any discussion of behaviour — what the kid is actually doing — impossible. Take the statement ‘I am trans.’ Here, the adjective ‘trans’ implies permanence, or even essence: much like the ‘tall’ of ‘I am tall’ or the ‘Mexican’ of ‘I am Mexican’, it’s difficult to foresee the circumstances under which it might change. ‘I am transitioning’, on the other hand, is simply what I’m doing right now. Where the verb emphasizes the activity, and thus the potential for other, countervailing activities, the adjective emphasizes the state, fossilizing behaviour into a property which is unlikely to change.
The subtitle of my Quillette series consciously included the phrase ‘parents of transitioning boys,’ rather than ‘parents of transgender boys’ for this exact reason. The parents I spoke to want to talk about what’s happening in their families, and we tend to talk about what’s happening by using verbs. Using an adjective here would have conferred upon these young men an internal status which their mothers and fathers don’t believe is forever — or, at least, isn’t forever in their sons’ cases. The effects of the transition which their boys intend to pursue, on the other hand, are very much forever.
Just as the choice between verb and adjective has implications for permanence and innateness, so does the choice between adjective and noun. Nouns are defined by their inherent properties: queens must be royal to be queens, giants must be tall to be giants. For many trans-identifying young men, there is a headlong rush towards nouns, ‘woman’ and ‘girl’ being the most critical examples. It isn’t a coincidence that the angriest of arguments rotate around statements such as ‘trans women are women’, now so frequently tossed about on social media that it is often abbreviated to ‘TWAW’ for convenience. Like the shift from ‘transitioning boys’ to ‘transgender boys’, the shift from ‘female-identifying’ to ‘woman’ makes the mutable yet more immutable. The grammar of Trans-English is the grammar of persistence.
There’s a broader point here. The logic of many therapeutic models — CBT perhaps being the most obvious example — is to shift the client’s mind from who I am (noun) to how I am (adjective), and then from how I am (adjective) to what I’m doing (verb). Breaking down stubborn behavioural patterns is almost impossible if the people exhibiting them are convinced that they are innate. Action-oriented forms of therapy seek to tease out the impermanent; to encourage recognition of temporary feelings which may pass, and may even be controlled; to open out new avenues of behaviour which may lead to more positive outcomes. ‘I’m a depressive’ is less useful than ‘I’m depressed’; ‘I’m depressed’ is, in turn, less useful than ‘I’m drinking too much.’ It’s far easier to imagine a strategy against drinking too much than to imagine a strategy against being a depressive.
Like therapists, then, parents may find it useful to be sceptical of nouns. Resisting the drift towards permanence is an all-consuming business for those parents who believe that their sons have wrongly identified oestrogen as a panacea. Moving from noun to adjective and from adjective to verb — from what you are to how you are, and from how you are to what you’re doing — provides a route out of the language of forever, circumnavigating endless conversations about who is and isn’t a woman, what female means or does not mean. Dysphoria can, and should, pass — and, more often than not, will pass, without medicalization. Nouns may well have come to be your enemies; but verbs may yet prove your greatest allies.