The case of Jaah Kelly demonstrates how heterosexism and homophobia are key elements of the phenomenon known as “gender dysphoria.”
“I’d want people to know that you can do whatever you feel you want to because you have one life. The reason I dress the way I dress is because I want to. The reason I do anything at all is because I want to. It just makes me happy. I feel like there are so many people who don’t do what they want to do in life.”
– Jaah Kelly, 18-year-old female, who desisted, quoted in Michael Love Michael’s “We See You, Jaah Kelly,” Paper (June 27, 2019)
Jaah Kelly, 18, daughter of R. Kelly, born female, “self-identified” as “male,” that is, she came out as a “transgender man” a few years ago, when she was 14. This past summer, as covered by Julia Diana Robertson in The Velvet Chronicle, Jaah “has come forward revealing that she was a lesbian that had struggled with internalized homophobia as a kid. She was taught that the only way she could like another girl, was if she was a boy.”
Only 14 years old, not even legally an adult, Jaah created a now removed video on her Ask.fm account, during which she came out as a “transgender man.” “I believe I am a boy and want surgery and the medication to help me be who I was supposed to be,” she said at the time.
Due to her internalized homophobia, Jaah arrived at the conclusion that being “male” instead of female would allow her to more acceptably hold relationships with other females and more acceptably exist in a less feminine way than expected of female-bodied people. Yet, this view of herself as a “male” instead of a female did not help her; indeed, she grew even more depressed, perhaps disillusioned, after coming out as a “transgender man.”
“When I was younger, I always felt like I had to make a choice. I knew that I was a girl who liked other girls,” Jaah said, speaking of the pressure she felt within herself. “But because of what I was taught, I felt like the only way you could like another girl is if you were a boy.” She felt as if she was unable to be female, in any supposedly “correct” sense, because she was not feminine and did not feel sexually attracted to males.
As a function of heterosexism, homophobia must factor into the sociological and psychological phenomenon known as “gender dysphoria.” Where else did Jaah’s sense of incongruity between mind and body come from if not from rigid social expectations of gender and sex roles clearly rooted in compulsory heterosexuality? Her sense of “gender dysphoria” was far more about her developed discomfort with socially existing as a non-feminine female homosexual than about her having been “born in the wrong body.”
The external pressure upon Jaah’s sense of self, which she saw as her own individual problem, instead was directly correlated with her internalized homophobia that itself is a social problem unfixable through buying a new body. Compulsory heterosexuality is not only an individual and personal problem but also a social and political problem impacting the gender identity development of gender-nonconforming gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth.
However, because of the prevailing “gender affirmation” medical model, health professionals cannot legally investigate the deeper causes of “gender dysphoria,” such as internalized homophobia. We already know that restrictive social expectations for masculinity and femininity, imposed upon males and females, discourage the free existence of non-masculine males and non-feminine females, most of whom do, in fact, age into being gay men and lesbians as adults.
As Robertson added, Paper magazine’s coverage of Jaah’s story may have described, in general, the struggles faced by “LGBTQ teens,” but it neglected to mention that “doctors wouldn’t legally be allowed to look into causes, such as internalized homophobia, if Jaah had come to them. That they’d be legally required to immediately affirm a child as trans, day one, and proceed accordingly.” Imagine if Jaah, at 14, had received the surgery and the medication to become “who she was supposed to be,” only to feel more alienated from her own body.
In Dave Rubin’s interview with the sexologist Dr. Debra W. Soh on The Rubin Report, in 2018, she talked about the relationship between external pressures on gender-nonconforming children to be transgender. This exchange between Soh and Rubin included her discussing the child’s internal compulsion to choose first social and then medical transitioning, which, in fact, can be tied to external factors. As seen in Jaah’s case, socialization can lead a child to feel as if the only “true” pathway to some supposed sense of “the authentic self” can be found in medicalization.
Soh brought to attention the underlying homophobia behind some parents truly not wanting non-masculine male children growing up to be gay men or non-feminine female children growing up to be lesbians. She reflected:
“What people also aren’t talking about is that, for these kids, in some cases, the parents don’t want a gay child—and this is what upsets me the most. So, if you have a little boy who’s very feminine, he’s likely going to grow up to be a gay man. But, if you take that same little boy and allow him to transition to female, when he grows up, he’s going to appear to be a straight woman. And so these parents are being lauded as progressive, when really they’re homophobic.”
Fears of being labeled “transphobic” essentially lead to the institutionalized and systematic subordination of the best long-term interests of gay and lesbian youth. Insufficient critical inquiry, if none whatsoever, goes into how many gender-nonconforming homosexual children “self-identify” as “transgender,” therefore becoming perceivably “heterosexual” rather than proudly homosexual. This social phenomenon should be considered in relation to the anxiety and depression which come with not only being same-sex attracted but also being seen as either a non-masculine male or a non-feminine female.
Homophobia contributes to children idolizing the masque of heterosexuality, to appear more heteronormative, with no mainstream “LGBTQ” institutions and organizations caring to draw any distinctions between sex and gender. Why should we call non-masculine males “female” and non-feminine females “male,” instead of expanding what it means to exist as male (including feminized males) and female (including masculinized females)? Boyhood can include activities and clothing associated with girls, just as girlhood can include activities and clothing associated with boys; preferences for objects associated with the opposite sex do not make somebody “the opposite sex.” Nor does one’s sense of self regarding one’s own body, or even one’s sexual standpoint in relation to the body of someone else, make one into some other sex than one is.
As an ideology, transgenderism relies upon the profoundly unfounded notion that someone can be “born in the wrong body.” This position depends on a pseudo-religious, pseudo-scientific view of human consciousness in which the mind can exist separate from the body. It then follows that medicalizing gender nonconformity can “correct” the body and allow somebody to be “reborn,” this time with the body “fixed” to fit the mind.
If we analyze transgenderism as a system of beliefs, which it seems to be, then it amounts to a postmodern, sadomasochistic cult built upon worshipping gender roles and reaffirming sex stereotyping. Gender-nonconforming, homosexual children learn to see medicine as “magic” to “fix” their bodies through hormones and surgery. By far, in both theory and practice, it becomes comparable to pathologizing homosexuality itself, beyond gender nonconformity. Indeed, most homosexual people rebel against traditional notions of masculinity and femininity by virtue of us rejecting the binary gendering that heterosexuality itself engenders.
Why do contemporary conversations about sex and sex stereotyping (i.e., “gender”) seem so reactionary, in which a gender-nonconforming male child must be “female” and a gender-nonconforming female child must be “male”? Who precisely does it help when we pathologize, intentionally or unintentionally, gender-nonconforming patterns of behavior exhibited by lesbian girls and gay boys?
At present, the dominant conflation between sex and gender does not help expand our ideas about what it means to live as either male or female; rather, it ends up undermining challenges to masculinity for males and femininity for females. Also, it essentializes social and cultural sex-based gender stereotypes as if interchangeable with biological and physiological sex traits. As Robertson likewise observed:
“If only ‘LGBTQ’ institutions and media would stop intentionally conflating the words ‘sex’ and ‘gender,’ and start teaching people that we need to expand our idea of ‘girlhood’ to include buzz-cuts, toy trucks, playing with worms, digging and spitting. If only they’d teach people that ‘gender’ is just a set of roles and expectations, a hierarchy positioning girls and women as objects for male consumption. That lesbians have a long history of flipping off the rules of ‘gender,’ and we do it long before we even understand what it is we’re fighting against.”
Unfortunately, the prevailing “gender identity ideology,” as it has been called, only posits a reversal of the conservative notion that maleness signifies innate masculinity and femaleness signifies innate femininity. Instead, this queer heterosexism posits that masculinity signifies some innate “maleness” and femininity signifies some innate “femaleness.” Then, presumably, the sexed body must be “fixed” to match “the gendered mind,” medically altering that sexed body to transfigure it into “the opposite sex,” that, through artifice, one might discover “the authentic self.” Ideologically, both perspectives, on changing the mind or changing the body, constitute dangerous forms of essentialism that put straitjackets on the diverse, human personalities of gender-nonconforming people. Whether conservative or liberal, neither point of view truly helps the little boy or little girl struggling with his or her developing sense of self and his or her formation of individual identity in relation to others.
Medicalizing all gender nonconformity in children will not help the majority of these people who will most likely not be ideal candidates for medical intervention to reduce “gender dysphoria.” While it indeed remains questionable deciding who exactly constitutes an ideal candidate, no rational basis exists upon which to presume that most gender-nonconforming children, whether male or female, absolutely require social and medical transitioning in order to survive. In fact, as seen in the cases of desisters and detransitioners, social and medical transitioning can exaggerate “gender dysphoria” and intensify body dysmorphia, aside from other health complications.
Above all, gender-nonconforming youth, especially homosexual ones, need love from their guardians, their caregivers, and their peers; they need to feel comfortable in their own bodies, no matter what activities they choose to do or what clothes they choose to wear. But, as we have seen, it is far more convenient to the status quo, and much more profitable indeed, to reduce “gender dysphoria” to an individual problem, with a medical solution, rather than consider it as a social problem produced by the prison of gender itself within our heterosexist society and culture.
If I could plead with both right-wing and left-wing people, then, through my tears of anger, I would say: We desperately need nuance in all public discourses on gender identity development. Nothing should be oversimplified. We need honest conversations about the complexity of human growth as it pertains to sex, gender, and sexuality.
Oversimplifying continues only to the detriment of ourselves and our children. We truly need to draw distinctions between what we mean by sex (that is, primary and secondary male or female sex traits) versus gender (that is, masculine or feminine sex stereotypes). The biological and physiological should not be confused with the sociological and psychological, although this confusion persists.
We must not continue failing gender-nonconforming youth by conforming to one ideology or another that essentially prevents us from being both compassionate and critical. Academics and researchers should not feel too intimidated to share research on gender identity development in infants, children, adolescents, and adults. No longer should terrified silence occupy the rightful place of meaningful dialogue.