Do We Truly See Her?: Homophobia and Gender Dysphoria

Photo by Donovan Cleckley (2018)
Photo by Donovan Cleckley (2018)

Analyzing the case of Jaah Kelly, we see how homophobia can factor into the symptoms of distress seen in diagnoses of gender dysphoria.

I ask myself why so few people truly care about non-feminine lesbian girls and non-masculine gay boys to the point that such people would collaborate with—or be complicit in—systemic medical violence against them. Lesbians and gay men have lived and died under at least thousands of years of tyranny. Around the world, we, as homosexual people, have seen it all, with our lesbian sisters experiencing the worst of misogyny and homophobia. Tyrants have used our bodies and our lives, our experiences under homophobia, as mere fodder for their ideologies, which is why I cannot hear them speak anymore. I see only their silence.

Members of our society assume that male children must be masculine to be male and female children must be feminine to be female. This point of view, which is pervasive, corresponds to how society itself, by and large, also pathologizes gender-nonconforming children, all of whom become deemed as being deviant. For the sexes to be different, biologically and physiologically, does not deny similarities in terms of activities, behaviors, and clothing choices between males and females. Sex denialism harms more than it helps, because the problem never has been sex. Rather, it has been how, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, gender prescribes how we ‘should’ be rather than recognizing how we are.” However, non-masculine male youth and non-feminine female youth remain seen as somehow not their respective sexes, simply by virtue of their gender nonconformity.

Among the more politically “conservative,” some seek to “fix” the mind to match the body, while, among the more politically “liberal,” others seek to “fix” the body to match the mind. Unnecessary medical interventions, performed under false pretenses to farm profits, would constitute a severe human rights violation. Such circumstances, if found to be true, would be worthy of fully defunding and shutting down every single organization associated with the practices being performed. Every day, I see enemies, from “the right” to “the left,” that lesbians and gay men face in this fight for our freedom from both misogyny and homophobia being forcibly fed to us all. We should ask ourselves why.

“Woman feels inferior because, in fact, the restrictions of femininity do belittle her. She spontaneously chooses to be a complete person, a subject, and a free being with the world and the future open before her; if this choice has a virile cast, it is so to the extent that femininity today means mutilation.”

Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1949)

“A lesbian, closeted on her job because of heterosexist prejudice, is not simply forced into denying the truth of her outside relationships or private life. Her job depends on her pretending to be not merely heterosexual, but a heterosexual woman in terms of dressing and playing the feminine, deferential role required of ‘real’ women.”

Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Signs, vol. 5, no. 4 (1980)

I

Jaah Kelly, 18, daughter of R. Kelly, although observed female at birth, came to identify as “male,” that is, she came out as a “transgender man” a few years ago, when she was just 14. This past summer, as covered by Julia Diana Robertson in The Velvet Chronicle, now 18, 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 a 14-year-old, not even yet 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.  

We must consider that, first, Jaah has been sexually oriented toward members of the same sex, that is, homosexual, as well as gender-nonconforming. Being gender-nonconforming seems typical of most homosexual people, since, by nature of us being homosexual, we exhibit a degree of deviance from gender expectations. It would follow, then, that our perceived gender expressions tend to differ, sometimes quite significantly, from those of our heterosexual counterparts who share our same sex.

And so Jaah arrived at the conclusion that being “male,” instead of female, would allow her to more acceptably hold relationships with other females. In addition, being “male” would allow her to exist, more acceptably, in a less feminine way than expected of people observed female at birth. 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.” Jaah reflects on her feelings:

“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. 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 “correctly” female, because she was a non-feminine female and did not feel sexually oriented toward members of the opposite sex. This sense of herself as both homosexual and gender-nonconforming resulted in a felt sense of pressure, an idea that she could never be like most other females. To me, it would seem a bit too simplistic to assume that Jaah’s case is extraordinary, given the stories of other lesbians who have expressed similar sentiments to hers.

II

Homophobia seems to be a largely undiscussed factor in the mental health condition known as gender dysphoria. It seems to me that, although both psychological and sociological factors seem to be at play, much of the conversion about gender dysphoria reduces it to the individual psyche. Where did Jaah’s initial sense of incongruity between mind and body come from if not from rigid social expectations of sex roles associated with her sex? For her, 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.” In “No Child Is Born in the Wrong Body,” coauthored by endocrinologist Dr. William J. Malone, evolutionary biologist Dr. Colin Wright, and Robertson, they write:

“Consequently, an adolescent female may find her behavior, personality traits, and preferences more ‘masculine’ than most girls and most boys.  This could lead her to incorrectly conclude that she is the opposite sex.  That child’s parents could become confused as well, noticing how ‘different’ their child’s behavior is from their own, or from that of their peers. That child simply exists at the end of a behavioral spectrum, and ‘sex-atypical’ behavior is part of the natural variation exhibited both within and between the sexes. Personality and behavior do not define one’s sex. […] What is being called ‘gender identity’ is likely an individual’s perception of how their own sex-related and environmentally influenced personality compares to same and opposite sexed people. Put another way, it’s a self-assessment of one’s stereotypical degree of ‘masculinity’ or ‘femininity,’ and it’s wrongly being conflated with biological sex. This conflation stems from a cultural failure to understand the broad distribution of personalities and preferences within sexes and the overlap between sexes.”

Although pervasive, the assumption that non-masculine male children are non-male and that non-feminine female children are non-female is as misogynistic as it is homophobic. It has become institutionalized under the theory that somebody observed one sex at birth truly can be the opposite sex by virtue of a perceivably atypical gender expression in childhood. The social construction of “trans kids,” aside from hiding how social transitioning itself facilitates medical transitioning, hides both its misogyny and homophobia. Assuming that a feminine boy might be a “girl” or that a masculine girl might be a “boy” is itself both misogynistic and homophobic in the treatment of gender nonconformity as a pathology.

This pathologizing, what seems to be an extension of the medicalization of homosexuality, has been naturalized and normalized as central to “progressive” politics. Politically “progressive” critics refuse to consider how misogyny, homophobia, and capitalism intersect in this medicalizing of gender-nonconforming youth. Perhaps the pain of collaborating in misogynistic and homophobic medical violence would be too much to ponder, but, even more than that, the profits being made are too great to pass up.

III

Applied to Jaah’s experiences, we see how she saw the external pressure upon her sense of self as her own individual problem for which medicalization would be her best solution. But, instead, what she felt was, in fact, directly correlated with homophobia that is itself a social problem unsolvable through an individual buying a new body. In Jaah’s case, her feelings of being non-female did not arise from her being a straight man trapped in a lesbian body. Rather, as she says herself, her distress was rooted in her being a lesbian who deviated from the expectations of femininity expected of people observed female at birth. Given such a case, it would be critical for us to consider the impact of homophobia on the gender identity development of homosexual youth who exhibit an atypical gender presentation in childhood and adolescence.

According to the gender affirmative model, a child observed one sex at birth, who exhibits an atypical gender expression for that sex, becomes seen as potentially the opposite sex. Following this assumption, if the child feels discomfort from his or her deviation from sex-based gendered expectations, he or she must be affirmed as the opposite sex. Then, social transitioning follows, with the child learning that medical transitioning is merely a natural and normal part of the process to self-actualization.

Under the gender affirmative model, which now dominates both the U.S. and the U.K., mental health professionals cannot investigate the deeper causes of symptoms associated with gender dysphoria. Such an attempt at investigation would itself be seen as “conversion therapy” under the current guidelines. In a case like Jaah’s, clinicians must agree with the patient’s initial self-diagnosis of herself as the opposite sex, affirm her as “male,” prescribe her cross-sex hormones, and write her letters for surgeries. There would be no question, lest these professionals be outed as “conversion therapists,” as happened to Dr. Kenneth J. Zucker, for seeking to explore if hormones and surgeries would be helpful or not. They cannot ask whether or not the young person, even a 14-year-old lesbian, is truly the opposite sex and a straight man trapped in a lesbian body. We see no mention in the coverage on Jaah of how the gender affirmative model would have negatively impacted her sense of self. As Robertson adds:

“[I]n many states, such as New York, 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, then only 14 years old, had been affirmed from day one as the opposite sex to become “who she was supposed to be,” only to feel more alienated from her own body. Such circumstances would, as it seems, worsen her mental health, likely further contributing to anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. Contrary to the assumption of medicalization being helpful rather than harmful, then, affirmation itself would lead to alienation as opposed to alleviation.

IV

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. This exchange between Soh and Rubin included her discussing the child’s internal desire for social and medical transitioning being tied to unexamined external factors. As we see in Jaah’s case, because of what she learned, she thought that females could not be either sexually oriented toward males or non-feminine. Homophobia can lead a homosexual young person to feel as if the only pathway toward authenticity can be achieved through artificiality.

Soh brings 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 reflects:  

“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” have led to the institutionalized and systematic subordination of the best long-term interests of gay and lesbian youth. In academia, critical inquiry has been suppressed as far as scrutinizing how “gender identity,” as a concept, conflicts with sex and sexual orientation.

V

Homophobia contributes to homosexual youth, from a young age, idolizing the masque of heterosexuality. Sex and “gender identity” appear conflated in most writing, so much so that words like “lesbian” or “gay” have become confusing with regard to trans-identified people. With how “gender identity” presides over sex and sexual orientation, people observed male at birth (“MtFs”) can be “lesbians” and people observed female at birth (“FtMs”) can be “gay men.”

It is significant that we remember that most trans-identified people, like most of the general population, are exclusively sexually oriented toward members of the opposite sex. Regardless of how activists feel about Dr. Ray Blanchard’s decades of work, he has observed that the majority of trans-identified males (“MtFs”) have previously lived their lives as heterosexual males—neither homosexual nor bisexual males. The minority of trans-identified males are either homosexual or bisexual. This observation, applied to trans-identified females (“FtMs”) seems likewise to be true, that most of them are sexually oriented toward members of the opposite sex.

Therefore, most trans-identified people are heterosexual people being misrepresented as “lesbian” (for heterosexual “MtFs”), gay (for heterosexual “FtMs”), or, in the vaguest of terms, “queer.” “Queer,” in fact, can mean anything, being itself a term conceptualized, vis-à-vis queer theory, to be vague, very much not particular, in its usage. The term “queer” neither has to refer to lesbian, gay, or bisexual people, exclusively, nor must it even do so; indeed, it can refer to heterosexual people who are “kinky.”

The conflation of sex and “gender identity,” the false claim that “sex is a spectrum,” and the breaking down of sexual boundaries vis-à-vis queer theory has undermined sexual orientation being on the basis of sex at all. As such, homosexual people, who are exclusively sexually oriented toward members of the same sex, can no longer define ourselves as separate from members of the opposite sex. If members of the male sex can be “lesbians” and members of the female sex can be “gay men,” then actual lesbians and actual gay men lose our boundaries as homosexual people. “Gender identity” being used to violate the sexual boundaries of homosexual people is, in and of itself, homophobic in nature, since it disputes sexual orientation being sex-based.

VI

Why should we call non-masculine male youth “female” and non-feminine female youth “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 orientation in relation to the body of someone else, make one into some other sex than one is. This assertion that sex, sexual orientation, and “gender identity” should be separated as concepts, in both theory and practice, does not dehumanize anybody. The conflation of sex and “gender identity,” however, prioritizes trans-identifying people, most of whom are heterosexual, at the expense of homosexual people. Refusing to recognize this conflict itself contributes to homophobia.

That one can be “born in the wrong body” depends on a mind-body dualism in which the mind can exist as separate from the body. It follows, then, that medicalizing gender nonconformity can “fix” the body and allow somebody to be “reborn,” this time with the body “fixed” to fit the mind. This point of view is as false as it is profitable for the medical-industrial complex.

Whether diagnosed, or even self-diagnosed, homosexual youth, most of whom are gender-nonconforming, learn to see medicalization as the method for “solving” their “problem” vis-à-vis 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 gender norms, a rebellion that homophobia itself suppresses.

VII

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. Instead, conflating sex and gender ends up undermining challenges to masculinity for people observed male at birth and femininity for people observed female at birth. Also, this conflation essentializes social and cultural sex-based gender stereotypes as if interchangeable with biological and physiological sex traits. As Robertson likewise observes:  

“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, “gender identity” politics has only posited a reversal of the conservative notion that maleness signifies innate masculinity and femaleness signifies innate femininity. Instead, this queer homophobia 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 straightjackets 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. Nor does either ideological position—“fixing” the mind to match the body or “fixing” the body to match the mind—help 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 in attempts to alleviate gender dysphoria. It remains questionable deciding who exactly constitutes an ideal candidate. Yet, no evidence indicates that most gender-nonconforming children need social and medical transitioning in order to survive. In fact, as seen in the cases of desisters and detransitioners, social and medical transitioning can negatively affect both physical and mental health. Furthermore, the way in which suicide has been wielded as a weapon in such debates has violated standards regarding the reporting of suicide.

VIII

Above all, homosexual youth, most of whom are gender-nonconforming, need love from their guardians, their caregivers, and their peers. They need to feel comfortable in their own bodies, no matter what clothes they choose to wear or what activities they choose to do. 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. Few wish to consider it as a social problem produced by the prison of gender itself, where a sense of distress can come from social conditions. 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, sexual orientation, and “gender identity.” 

Oversimplification perpetuates our problems. We truly need to draw distinctions between what we mean by sex versus gender, since plenty of the problems in these debates come from a failure in definition. The biological and physiological should not be conflated with the sociological and psychological, although this confusion continues. 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 the development of children, adolescents, and adults. No longer should menacing silence possess the rightful place of meaningful dialogue. 

“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) 

1 Comment

  1. Brilliant piece. We are struggling with the same madness in Brasil. Many parents here are seeing as brave and progressive even when they´re clearly homophobic. And puberty blockers here in a public gender clinic in São Paulo are for free 🙁

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