When trans kids who are assigned male at birth (AMAB) socially transition, it is most often the mom that is demonized by the press and subsequently by society.
In October, a family court case out of England exploded into international media attention when a judge removed custody of a 7-year-old transgender girl from her mother and transferred her permanently to her father, who is not supportive of the child’s gender expression. This past spring a similar case in Canada resulted in a judge initially ruling that a trans child was not allowed to wear female clothes in public. These cases and others like them have become a hammer for conservative political operatives to attack the very idea of supporting transgender children — usually by attacking mothers for “confusing” their trans daughters.
When trans kids who are assigned male at birth (AMAB) socially transition, it is most often the mom that is demonized by the press and subsequently by society. Sometimes, other women come under attack; the right-wing tabloid Daily Mail used a similar case — a trans daughter, a supportive mother, an angry father — as an excuse to run a hit piece about Susie Green, the CEO of social services charity Mermaids, a U.K. organization with the mission of supporting children who are struggling with gender identity. But the paper also targeted Green’s transgender daughter, suggesting that its animus is just a larger-scale version of vilifying women for supporting their transgender kids. Mothers of trans kids now live in fear of losing their kids simply for supporting their children’s transitions.
Typical media interviews of trans kids’ parents feature the mother laying out how the family first noticed and dealt with cross-gender insistence, the initial reaction to allowing exploration of the child’s gender, and ultimately how the family has facilitated a social transition. After the mother’s take on the emotional labor of laying out why a social transition is truly necessary for their beloved child, the interviewer then turns to dad and asks “So how do you feel about all of this?” This type of coverage centers the father’s feelings in the transition for the entire family and we see it again, and again, and again.
Whether or not dad approves often signals how everyone else should feel about a child’s transition, specifically about the “loss” of a “son.” The roots for this are deeply steeped in misogyny, and established before the child is even born. Both times that my own ex-wife was pregnant, when I was still male-presenting, everyone would always ask if I wanted boys. Even when I replied that my child’s sex truly did not matter to me, I still got pushback: “yeah, but you REALLY want boys, right?” The expectation was that I would love any of my kids, but as a presumed man, I would REALLY love boys more. Interestingly, upon coming out as trans, more than one person has remarked “So THAT’S why you really wanted girls.”
The flip side of assuming that all fathers want boys is that when trans girls express a desire to transition and live as their true genders, those that oppose any child transitioning love to blame the mother. They argue, either explicitly or implicitly, that she must have groomed the “boy” to want to be feminine, as if mom really wanted a girl all along and so she projected her feelings so strongly onto her AMAB child that the kid finally took the hint. It’s true that fearing the loss of parental approval is often enough to keep a trans kid quiet — that was my experience, and the experience of most of my trans friends who waited until adulthood to transition. But can tacit parental pressure really force a cis child to pretend to be trans?
Children are sharper than we give them credit for, especially with social skills. They know at a very young age how a lot of the basic world works. They’re beginning to observe how gendered systems around them work. They have an understanding, deep down, of what society considers “normal”. When I was 8, I knew the feelings, thoughts and desires I was having were “wrong.” That boys weren’t supposed to tell anyone they were really girls. I understood the consequences, even then of what would happen if I did that. What are the consequences for a cis kid standing up for their own “natural” gender identity? At the end of the day, children understand when society has their backs. Parental approval is simply not a strong enough motivator to make children face the fear and shame of being trans. Implying that mothers “feminize” their AMAB children is just another way of overlaying misogyny on top of transphobia.
The tendency to see women as undermining masculinity and gender norms is common and dangerous, and it’s expressed especially vehemently in cases of young trans girls assigned male at birth. Trans boys children face terrible oppression as well, but I haven’t seen as many visceral reactions to international headlines; the rejection of masculinity outrages society in a way that the rejection of femininity does not. This dynamic is also in play when discussing how trans women are demonized in public access rights debates (like bathroom bills). Trans women tend to come more under fire, because of societal fear of emasculation, and concomitantly, trans men tend to be erased from discussions of trans issues. But in the few cases involving AFAB trans children — like one in Missouri about a trans boy who wanted to change his name — tend to focus inappropriately on mothers. In the Missouri case, a judge tried to cut Nathan’s mother out of the proceedings by assigning a court-appointed guardian, even though the mother was present and active in the case.
Criticism of parents of trans kids is centered in misogyny. When AMAB children transition, mom is assumed to be projecting her own desires onto her kid. When AFAB children transition, mom is failing to project a strong female presence as a role model. Both attitudes simultaneously overburden and pathologize the mother’s role as a child’s chief advocate. In fact, the mother is often at the forefront of transition efforts not because she’s the cause of the child’s gender dysphoria, but because she’s the child’s main caregiver and first defense. It’s the mother who most often puts in the emotional labor to research, consult experts, and ultimately initiate the conversation to help their child. It’s also the mother that becomes the target of hate, the biggest scapegoat.
This is part of a long-standing tradition of blaming mothers for any issues with their children. After all, it wasn’t really that long ago that “refrigerator moms” were blamed for causing autism. Supposedly, cold (hence the term “refrigerator”), unloving mothers caused children to withdraw into autism. It’s cultural gaslighting to blame a parenting style or a mother’s personality for their children’s traits that society doesn’t approve of. And it’s part and parcel of the way society blames women whether they do “too much” (the mothers of trans children) or “not enough” (the mothers of autistics).
Fathers that support transitioning children are subject to much less scrutiny, despite sometimes being their child’s strongest advocate. In the rare instances when fathers of trans kids are attacked, they’re often blamed for allowing their wives and partners to rule over them, a subtle attack on their very masculinity. Seizing the chance to criticize the mother of a child transitioner is really just about taking a free shot at women. It’s pure misogyny.
The media and courts need to stop demonizing the mothers of child transitioners and work to find ways to be more supportive of these vulnerable families.