There are a lot of things I remember about middle school, one of the most miserable periods in my life; I suspect the same could be said about at least some of you as well. There’s a peculiar cruelty about many middle school-aged children paired with raging changes in your own body that you’re sometimes utterly unprepared for that collide in this perfect storm of bullying and self-loathing. For me, it culminated with basically being truant for most of seventh and eighth grades, and then my body started to betray me.
All my female friends were so excited when their breasts started budding, comparing their tiny cleavage with each other and proudly sporting training bras. I wanted ace bandages or compression sports bras to make them as small as possible, to make them go away. Or I wanted to turn back time, to a time when I could wake up in the morning and see a flat chest. I was cursed, though, with relentlessly large breasts that refused to disappear no matter how fervently I dreamed of it.
I can’t tell you how many times I stood in front of the mirror staring balefully at them, picking up a pair of scissors and turning them over in my hands, thinking about doing something drastic. I wondered if I could time it right, just in time for my father to find me and rush me to the hospital before I died from blood loss.
“We’ll have to do a mastectomy,” I imagined the surgeon saying sadly while I smiled happily through a haze of blood loss and morphine.
I never actually did it, but I came close a few times. It was one of the first parts of my body where I cut myself deliberately, thinking that somehow the pain I inflicted on myself would cancel out the dysphoria I experienced, the hatred of these things that conflicted with my identity. That if I tried long and hard enough, my body would go back to normal.
Which is to say that I understand how Danann Tyler felt when she tried to cut her penis off at age four with a pair of craft scissors, the torment she must have experienced that led to that moment. She knew from age two that something was very wrong and her penis became the symbol of everything unwanted that she hated about herself. I can see why she tried it; and I’m glad she failed to follow through, because like me if I’d have succeeded, she could have killed or seriously injured herself. And she certainly would have made gender confirmation surgery in the future more difficult.
Her parents struggled with who she was, a common problem for a lot of parents of trans kids. Even in a society where there’s a growing awareness that trans people exist, and that some children are transgender, many people are aware of these things only as abstract concepts, or not at all. Danann’s father was uncomfortable with her girliness and wanted her to be more manly, and her mother just felt helpless. You never fully internalize these things until they happen to you.
As with a lot of trans kids, her unhappiness and frustration were pathologized by doctors who diagnosed her incorrectly with things like bipolar disorder and ADHD; and bipolar disorder is a serious thing to slap on a young child. Even with “treatment” for conditions she didn’t have, Danann was still miserable, and she kept trying to tell her parents what the problem was, but they didn’t hear her.
Oddly, many people seem to think that trans kids, particularly girls, are gay. It’s a carryover from old and gross stereotypes about homosexuality; obviously a child with a penis who likes to wear pink sparkly dresses and heels must be gay, because what else could be going on? Unsurprisingly, having a sexual orientation assigned didn’t make Danann any less miserable, because that wasn’t what was going on with her, and she was paraded through a series of clinics and offices to find what was “wrong.”
It wasn’t until age six that she finally landed with a health care professional who could correctly diagnose her and get her the care she needed; at age 10 she’ll be eligible to start taking hormone blockers to prevent the traumatizing onset of puberty, and her mother says she’s willing to support Danann if she wants gender confirmation surgery at age 15.
Some people think early medical treatment of trans kids is extreme; they argue that some might not actually be trans and could regret transitioning so early. This assumes that trans kids don't carefully weigh their options, meet with medical professionals, and have long conversations about the irreversible consequences of some aspects of transition. Yes, some kids absolutely do start taking puberty blockers, continue going to therapy and counseling, and learn that they are not trans. Then they go off blockers and return to their assigned genders. That's why there's a long ramp-up starting with easily stopped treatments, not a go directly to surgery, do not pass go approach.
In Danann’s case, as in that of many other children, the cost of not transitioning is the unacceptable one. She can’t afford to wait, and it’s amazing to see how her parents have shifted from not understanding trans children and feeling confused and alienated by their own child to supporting their daughter and preparing for the next phase of her life. They were fortunate to have resources to educate themselves as well as other members of their community, and minds open enough to accept their daughter for who she is, rather than who they want her to be.
So many trans kids aren’t that lucky. Danann is in the press as a success story; it may have taken a while to sort out her identity, but now her parents finally understand who she is and she’s on the path to becoming a beautiful, well-adjusted young woman with the whole world in front of her. Her life has turned around and while she will have struggles ahead, she has her family behind her.
Other trans youth end up homeless and estranged from their parents, unable to access transition care. Trans youth of color in particular can be at a high risk for ending up in the juvenile justice system as their desperate lives drive them to desperate measures; trans women, for example, may turn to sex work to pay for hormones and other treatments, and their very identities are criminalized. For every Danann living in a loving household with supportive parents ready to learn and evolve and change, there’s a Brandon Teena.
I see cases like this in the media and hope they lead to a broader understanding of gender dysphoria and how it works, that being trans is not a passing fancy or a fad but a serious identity conflict that must be resolved at the pain of very serious injury or death.
And I hope, too, that parents read these stories and take them to heart, that starting to understand the pain of gender dysphoria will help parents support their trans children and trans children in their communities better.