March 28, 2018

On why some trans people do not come out until after puberty

The main reason for why some transgender people do not seek help until after puberty is found in social repression and stigmatization.
According to conservative gate keepers real
transgender people come out before puberty.
Photo: Wave Break Media

In my article on Anne Wæhre og Kim Alexander Tønseth and the transphobic attitudes found at The National Treatment Unit for Transsexualism (NBTS) at The University Hospital of Oslo, I have argued that there is no mystery why some transgender people do not come out, and seek help, before after puberty has had some effect.

Here are some alternative explanations:

The identity-defence model

Dr. Jaimie Veale and Dr. Terri C. Lomax have suggested that this is about personality profiles. The late bloomers are people pleasers who have desperately tried to live up to the expectations of family and friends, unlike the more extrovert and uninhibited trans kids who refuse to adapt.

Their "identity-defence model" looks at the degree of gender-variant identity developed, and whether defense mechanisms are used to repress this identity.

They put it this way:
We believe that an introverted child is likely to have less confidence to express this gender-variant identity, and it is also possible that children with greater impulse control, agreeableness, or conformity are more likely to cognitively avoid their gender variance. 
They suggest that as far as transgender people goes, the outgoing personality types are more likely to become attracted to people of the opposite sex (male to female loving men and female to male loving women), while the shy and introvert transgender people – those who repress their true gender – are more likely to find members of their target gender "exotic" and therefore "erotic".

Internalized homophobia

A variant of this argument would be to say that late onset transgender people may be suffering from internalized homophobia which stops them from consciously feeling  attraction to people of the same  gender as the one they have been assigned.

This would explain why so many male to female transgender people who originally were sexually oriented towards women, may experience a sexual interest in men post-transitioning. Now that they live as women it is more socially acceptable for them to do so.

Fear of never finding love

Veale and Lomax' argument is based on the idea that sexual orientation is fluid and adaptable. However, even if you think of sexual orientation as inborn, you may easily explain why some transgender people come out later than others.

If sexual orientation is hard-wired, you should expect that it has an effect even before puberty (which is the case in Blanchard's model too). Male to female transgender people who are attracted to women will according to this scenario face a conundrum at an early age. As children they will learn that women like men, and preferably "manly" men.

Even if they have lesbian role models (which is rare), they will soon grasp the difference between cisgender lesbians and themselves presenting as boys.

In other words: Their only realistic hope of finding love and acceptance as a gendered being, is to continue presenting as men and suppressing whatever gender variation they may feel.

Moreover, since they have not defended their right to visibly express their identity as kids – or they have been severely punished for doing so – it makes sense that trans men with this background may appear less "masculine" and trans women less "feminine". They have not had the social training needed to present in a traditional manner.

As Felix Conrad has pointed out, trans girls who are sexually oriented towards men may get an affirmation of their gender in their sexual orientation:
Think about it… the transgender kid identifies as female.. plus they like boys… just as mum does and their sisters and most of society… this might help to consolidate the identification and ensure that despite the contradicting voice of parents and teachers – they deny socialization and enter immediately into total identification.
Subconscious sex
Trans activist and philosopher Julia Serano talks about ‘subconscious
sex’ ,  the inherent feeling of belonging to a certain gender
(or being non-binary) that is not related to your physical sex
or how other people see you.
Photo: Pax Ahimsa Gethen

I would strongly recommend that Wæhre and Tønseth read up on Julia Serano's Whipping Girl and her analysis of "subconscious sex". She was herself once a "late onset transsexual".

She writes:
The main reason I make this distinction between gender identity and subconscious sex is that it best explains my own personal experiences.  
I did not have the quintessential trans experience of always feeling that I should have been female. For me, this recognition came about more gradually. The first memories I have of being trans took place early in my elementary school years, when I was around five or six. By this time, I was already consciously aware of the fact that I was physically male and that other people thought of me as a boy. During this time, I experienced numerous manifestations of my female subconscious sex: I had dreams in which adults would tell me I was a girl; I would draw pictures of little boys with needles going into their penises, imagining that the medicine in the syringe would make that organ disappear; I had an unexplainable feeling that I was doing something wrong every time I walked into the boys’ restroom at school; and whenever our class split into groups of boys and girls, I always had a sneaking suspicion that at any moment someone might tap me on the shoulder and say, “Hey, what are you doing here? You’re not a boy.”
Her experience is typical for a lot of transgender people, male, female or non-binary (and for myself, I might add).

The medical community has not taken the "late onset"  female to male transgender people seriously, partly because they  have been caught up in the 19th century belief that women (and they do think of these men as women) are supposed to be chaste, demure, beings with a low libido. The sexually active, gay, transgender man has therefore been a meaningless concept to them.
Following the logic of Wæhre and Tønseth, the
founder of the American FTM movement
would have been denied treatment in
Norway today. He was a "late onset" gay
man and did not fit the traditionalist
profile of a proper transgender man.

Lou Sullivan and the gay trans men

For sure, gay trans men like the founder of the American FTM movement, Lou Sullivan, have tried hard to make them understand that he and others like him exist, but they have been mostly ignored in the medical community. The mindset of these "experts" does not allow for gay trans men to exist, so they do not exist.

I suspect that the lack of a large FTM crossdresser community has made it harder for FTM gay trans men to find themselves.

Like their MTF woman-loving sisters, they will probably also find it harder to fit into the gay/lesbian community than  woman-loving FTM trans people. Many heterosexual transgender people use the gay and lesbian communities to explore their identities.

Furthermore, it would be harder for FTM androphilic transgender people to come to terms with the sexual side of their transgender selves, given that they are judged by the much more restrictive sexual  rules of women. They have, after all, been raised as women.

I suggest Wæhre and Tønseth add the book Lou Sullivan: Daring To Be a Man Among Men by Dr. Brice D Smith to their reading list. They clearly lack the necessary knowledge about female to male transgender lives.

Childhood experiences

I should also add that the fact that  transgender people come to the clinic around the time of puberty  – or after  – does not mean that they haven't experienced their true gender at an earlier age. As Julia Searno has pointed out, they often have, but they have lacked the support system that could have helped them come to terms with this.

Dr. Laura Edwards‐Leeper and Dr. Norman P. Spack of Harvard Medical School describes such patients this way:
Most of these late-adolescent transgender patients indicate that they have always felt different or knew that something was not right, but were unable to identify it until puberty. Oftentimes these individuals report that they initially thought that their confusion was related to sexual orientation because they were unaware that transgenderism existed. Others report that they were aware of feeling like the other gender, but either thought that nothing could be done about it so they tried to ignore the feelings, or they feared how others would react if they expressed their gender dysphoria.
Edwards-Leeper and Spack add that some of them had informed their parents, but where quickly dismissed or rejected.

It could very well be that some of the differences between the two groups can be explained by the personalities and reactions of parents and peers. Tolerant and open minded parets make happy trans kids.

Moreover, many of the late-adolescent trans kids have actually consistently displayed gender variant behavior, throughout but not in the highly visible ways of the Jazz Jennings of the world.

FTM trans kids may, for instance, be socially dominant to the point of aggressive, like rough and tumble games, enjoy the company of boys etc. Since our societies are becoming increasingly tolerant of masculine behavior in girls, this is rarely interpreted as a sign of them being some shade of trans.

I have lost count of the number of MTF crossdreamers who report being the exact opposite (hating sports and rough and tumble play), but this behavior is not interpreted as them being feminine, and their friends and families do not think about them as transgender.

If they insist on dressing up as Elsa or Anna in Frozen, however, people immediately suspect that they are transgender, or at least gay. This is how gender stereotypes shape the lives of transgender people.

As Edwards-Leeper and Spack point out, though, when many of the late onset transgender teenagers do come out, their friends often report no surprise. They have realized that there was something special about them all along.

The mystery here is actually not why so many transgender children  suppress their identity. The real mystery is why kids like Jazz Jennings do not.

Update March 29: Added Conrad quote


  1. this is an unfortunate stereotype by people who do not suffer dysphoria that it must spring forth in early infancy but those of us who suppressed for the sake of others are no less important. The fact that we managed to get as far as we did without help should not minimize our struggle in the eyes of these so called "experts"

  2. You are right about this. Moreover, it is truly sad to think about all those lost opportunities and possibilities, all caused by the phobias and fears of those who cannot handle the fact that people can be – and should be allowed to be – different from themselves.


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