One thing family members like to accuse gender dysphoric people of is wanting attention. You wouldn’t believe the emails and messages I’ve gotten from parents of gender dysphoric, trans-identified kids, blazing with hostility at their kids. It would be a better world if we could acknowledge that a big part of parenthood is resenting your kid, just like a huge part of being a child is resenting your parent. Those feelings of resentment, anger, judgment, are moving parts of the whole. Feelings are never sins. Words and actions often are.
Attention is the currency relationships run on. Sometimes my well-meaning liberal friends ask me what it’s like to work with families who are dealing with so much shittiness that is structural- poverty, being targeted by cops, racism, etc. The implication is that family functioning can only do so much in the face of rampant inequality. We’ve got to fix our society before we can fix our families. But no, I don’t believe that anymore. Human history is a series of dark, hellish times. A child’s secure attachment to their parents is not dependent on the world being an ok place. It is dependent on the parents’ understanding that their kid needs their attention, that every kid has a very healthy drive to get that attention no matter what it takes, and that one needs a strategy for dispensing that attention.
For kids, attention means safety. Being a kiddo without your parents’ eyes on you is a bad situation. If there’s no way to get positive attention, kids will get very comfortable with negative attention. By even the age of 2 there are a lot of kids who have essentially been trained by their parents to be much more comfortable with negative attention than positive. Sometimes a difference in temperament will contribute to this- a baby who is quick to cry will wear out a parent, the relationship will accumulate all that resentment we like to ignore, a cycle of a parent withholding positive attention and the child finding all kinds of fun ways to get that negative attention will start. But from what I’ve experienced, the cycle often gets going even with very sweet kids. Parents have their own shit happening- being poor, being heartbroken, being in the middle of unacknowledged mental illness- and they straight up don’t have the spoons for parenthood. But you wake up to parenthood every day whether you have the spoons or not.
Growing up, attention was in very short supply in my family. Yes, my parents were in hard times and really didn’t have the spoons, but also my parents aren’t very interested in using their spoons on emotional needs. My parents are both driven to use those spoons to chip away at those big, structural issues we have to fix in our society, but pretty disdainful of the idea that family relationships should use those spoons. I went into family therapy in large part to figure out how being in a romantic relationship was supposed to work, and then have been confronted (often) by realizations that important stuff is off in my family relationships. Those are hard realizations to process. They take a long time to digest.
Gender dysphoric teens often get accused of being in it for attention. I get it- especially because it’s so easy to find trans over-sharing on the internet. (I am a veteran over-sharer and will always have a loyalty to my tribe.) The thing is attention is a valid need to have. It’s healthy to want our loved ones to be curious about our lives and our experiences. It’s normal to have our sense of safety connected to evidence of that curiosity. Before you could talk you needed to get your parents interested in you. Some kids get that need met very easily, a lot of us had to come up with some interesting strategies to get that need met.
What did you have to do to get your parents to look at you when you were little? What did you have to do to get praise? Was praise even on the menu in your home? Whatever worked for you as a kid as far as getting your parents’ eyes on you, I bet you’re still doing a version of that. Now, if that’s producing a life you like living, I’m not seeing a problem to work on. It’s just if it’s not producing a life you like to live that we have an issue.
Here’s an example: I used to have strong, persistent fantasies of what it would be like to be a male comedian. I pretty much wanted to be David Letterman. Being a lady comedian is fundamentally different than being a male one, in all kinds of complicated ways. Now the thing is being a trans guy comedian is still FOR SURE not at all the same thing as being a male comedian. Again, too complicated for me to get into here. (The tricky thing with being a female comedian, no matter your gender identity, is that your body is a source of anxiety for the audience. I will not put in work to convince you of this.)
But as far as where those fantasies came from, it’s probably important to know that some of my warmest childhood memories are staying up to watch David Letterman with my dad. And that my dad often gives off strong signals of being bored when his kids talk about their lives. My dad to this day is so engaged by and attentive to John Oliver, Stephen Colbert- he never gets bored with the endless Daily Show knockoffs that keep being produced.
Now, if being a comedian had produced a life I wanted to live, there would be no issue. But instead there was this conflict- an imagined, fantastical future life as a successful comedian that involved finally getting that loving attention vs. the reality of the lives people have to live to get paid for comedy. It took me a lot of years to finally give in and admit the reality of that work was always, inevitably, going to make me miserable.
I think a whole lot about the personality similarities between the standup comedy crowd and the trans crowd. There are some happy, peaceful people in both crowds. There are also so many miserable, mean people in both crowds. The amount and style of drama is pretty similar between the communities. The enabling of addictions and mental illness is similar too. Now, I know people who truly seem to be living their best, most joyful lives as standup comedians. Same way I know people who truly seem to be living their best, most joyful lives as trans people. But I have known lots of people on both paths who seemed to believe they would one day, in the future, be like those joyful people, once life stopped persecuting. (Hot tip: life never stops persecuting.)
I think it was glaringly obvious to a lot of people in my life when I was a standup it was never going to make me happy. I think it was glaringly obvious to a lot of people in my life when I was trans it was never going to make me happy. But is there a way to get through to someone chasing fantasies based on such deep childhood shit? I’m definitely a can’t-tell-me-nothing kind of person. Maybe these aren’t ledges you can’t talk someone off of.
One exceptionally powerful moment I had in the run-up to transitioning was being at the Philly Trans Health Conference and sitting in a large conference room for a presentation on “Non-binary transition.” I remember truly feeling like me and all those people in that room were vanguards of a revolution. These sad, strange feelings I’d had since before puberty suddenly were a basis for relationship, instead of a basis for isolation. The words “strange” and “special” seem to be two sides of a coin. The same emotions and bodily experiences that made me a lonely kid were, once I was trans, my entryway to being one of a chosen few.
So I’m inclined to think the answer is in relationships. I’m inclined to think the meaning we attach to these feelings depends on how these feelings are acknowledged between us and our loved ones. Who demonstrates curiosity about how our lives feel to us, and who can give us the experience of being both struggling and dignified.
There’s a deeper sweetness to life than being a special person. Special is a balm people put on very old wounds. But special can’t heal those. I suspect the experience of being beloved can. Having someone present in their curiosity, in their continued enthusiasm to track how we approach the world. The most content trans people I knew had relationships like that. But boy howdy that is the trick.