Tuesday, May 28, 2002
Trust the New York Times to conflate issues of honesty and privacy. In this intriguing but bizarre account of a 13-year-old girl living as a boy (referred to as M. in the article), and aided in that deception by a California public school, the Times (and the student's school) give short shrift to concerns that other students may be harmed by the failure to reveal the truth about the teenager's sex. In perhaps the only paragraph that comes close to touching on the possible ramifications to other students, the Times states:
"Helping M. live as a boy may seem compassionate, but there are some people -- even some sympathetic to M.'s predicament -- who think the school should be handling M.'s situation differently. Ken Zucker, head of the Child and Adolescent Gender Identity Clinic in Toronto, says that M.'s well-meaning teachers are bordering on unethical conduct. ''They're perpetuating a deception,'' Zucker says after I explain M.'s situation to him. ''What if [M.] starts dating a girl at school, and she finds out and is traumatized? The school is potentially liable, because they have actively perpetuated a deception. I would advocate that this youngster be encouraged to 'come out' as a transgender youth, so that everyone knows the score. But whatever decision is made, this kid needs to be evaluated by a local expert in gender identity -- not by a well-meaning teacher.''
In fact, this hypothetical situation is entirely real. M. does have a girlfriend, a fellow eighth grader who knows nothing about his true sexual identity. Though the Times frequently compares M's situation to the film Boys Don't Cry, in which the girlfriend of a girl-passing-as-a-boy learns to love and accept "him" for who "he" is (and is also beaten and raped by angry men), it's hard to imagine any adolescent not being seriously disturbed upon finding out that her boyfriend is really her girlfriend. Additionally, by deceiving the student body about M's true gender, the school is putting him at risk for serious harm if anyone does find out the truth.
The Times article cites the danger to transgendered teenagers as a reason for M. to conceal his true sex. It states:
The teacher insists he is only doing what is necessary to keep M. safe, and other transgender youth experts say that having M. 'come out' as transgender could be dangerous. ''The consequences of being an 'out' transgender youth are too great,'' says Gerald Mallon, an associate professor at the Hunter College School of Social Work and editor of the book ''Social Services With Transgendered Youth.'' ''If [M.] gets found out at school as having a vagina, he will probably be beaten or raped.''
Still, any troubles that M. might have experienced if he was honest about his identity from the start are likely small potatoes compared to what this "popular" teenager stands to lose if the truth is inadvertantly discovered by his classmates. By helping him to lie, M's school may very well have put him at greater risk.
The school's actions are based on the premise that M.'s sex doesn't matter--only his perception of it does. If he thinks he's a boy, then he must be one, and all authority figures in his life ought to ignore objective reality in favor of subjective feeling. Unfortunately for them, society isn’t so kind or understanding, and the “gender binary” implicit in our culture is not a mirage. Whether one is male or female matters a great deal. Our lives, families and relationships are intrinsically affected by our sex. M’s sex assuredly matters to his classmates, and is of immense importance to M. himself. His school, perhaps, should be commended for their caring, but in this case they have clearly made the wrong choice. They have ignored the question of honesty, perhaps even failing to see M’s case as a question of honesty in a society where reality is determined by sentiment. But the school is wrong. Truth exists, and in this case that means that M. is a girl. She may be transgendered, and she may want to be a boy, but her wishes can’t change reality. By going to great lengths to disguise that fact, M’s school is putting her life, and the wellbeing of her classmates, in danger.