Thirty-five years ago, I convinced another girl to eat a cow pie.
It’s hard to admit this – it’s actually awful, really. The short story is that it was a counselor-approved camp “initiation” ceremony (aka “hazing”), and that I actually stopped her before she did it. But there was a minute or two where I looked this girl in the eye and told her everyone else had done it and it wasn’t a big deal and she believed me. She believed me. And here’s the worst part: despite it all, I blamed her for being so gullible. I was thirteen, and I believed someone that stupid and easily pressured didn’t deserve my respect. To subdue any shame in my own brain, I convinced myself it was her fault.
But it wasn’t her fault. And over the next few years the memory of that moment and her trust in me slowly ate away at me. I couldn’t believe I had done it, that she had believed me, that the other girls (and counselor) had just let me make this outrageous demand. That I had briefly believed that because I had stopped her from doing this horrible thing that I was somehow excused from the guilt of starting it in the first place. Worst of all was realizing that I had that power, and that I could so easily abuse it. Which meant that other people could do that sort of thing, too. It was horrifying and humbling.
A few years later, in the first month of my freshman year at college, a nerdy boy latched on to the two “alternative” girls on the hall. The first one wore heavy eyeliner and made her own artsy clothes. The second one listened to grunge music, had a nose ring, and stashed a clandestine goldfish in her room. They were wicked cool. Anyone could see that.
The boy was a classic music geek. Thick glasses, horrible bowl haircut, collared shirts buttoned up to his neck. He was super intelligent and sweet, but had the street smarts of a ten-year-old. A few weeks into the school year, the two cool girls announced they were going to give him a fashion make-over. To my horror, he was thrilled at this idea. I tried to articulate my concerns, but I was dismissed as a stick-in-the-mud. They tromped down to the local second-hand clothing store and returned later with his new-and-approved wardrobe. This being the nineties, it was a lot of flannel shirts.
For a few weeks, he was blessed with their attention and a spot with them at lunch. By Thanksgiving, the girls had moved on to dating upper classman and ignoring him, and music boy was spending hours in the practice rooms of the music building. In the end, he came through alright, but my respect for the cool girls was gone. Whatever their intentions, whatever his willingness, they had dared to assume that they knew what suited him better than he did.
Last summer, four months into Covid, my son’s mild depression kicked up into something more serious. Isolated and lonely, he spent hours online on reddit and discord connecting with friends and strangers. The one school friend he kept in touch with was a girl we’d known for a while, slightly funky, but generally pretty cool. As he began to sink lower, it was clear she was becoming more important to him. When I asked if he might have a crush on her, he’d responded that she was a lesbian. My response: “Every high school boy should have a lesbian friend.” I thought he was in good hands.
Forty-eight hours after my son announced to us that he thought he might be trans, this teen girl sent me a text congratulating me on having a trans son, saying I must be so proud, and offering to help educate me if I had any questions. You might be surprised to hear that I did not take a teenage girl up on her offer of advice on the psychosocial and sexual development of my son.
Her gall continued. It was clear she had found a new venue for her deep desire to venge justice upon the world. Clearly, this was a wounded and neglected trans boy whose parents just didn’t understand him. Despite her busy schedule of therapy to deal with her anorexia, cutting, and suicide attempt, she found time to provide him clothing and test out nail polish on him.
Over the next few months, we scrambled to find a good therapist, add in an anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medicine, and try to expand our son’s world. By January, he was pulling out of his depression, desisting from his trans identity, engaged and happy, and doing well in school.
In late winter, he invited a few friends over (socially distanced – relax!), including the now “non-binary” girl. As a gift, she snuck him some more girl’s clothes.
Which he has not worn.
Every few days, I surreptitiously check the pile of girl’s clothing to see if they’ve been worn. For weeks, they’ve been gathering dust. He’s moved on, but I fear she has not. When will she inquire? It’s the unwanted gift from the lesbian ex-crush girl friend who thinks she’s being helpful. Where’s the Hallmark Card for that one? “Sorry I Confused You and Everyone but It Was a Super Weird Teenage Stage and Can We All Just Pretend That Didn’t Happen?”
And how do we get these teenage girls to back off? They’ve been inundated with conflicting messages that warn them that #MeToo status is threatening them around every corner, or “Girls Can Do Anything” platitudes bejeweled on backpacks. They think they are both more powerful and more fragile than they really are. How can we get them to realize their role is to find that deep sacred truth inside themselves and protect it, while also honoring the dignity of the people around them?
Listen up teenage girls – and for any adults in the wings, this is for you, too. If someone tells you they think they might be trans, your job is not to fix them. If they seem anxious, depressed, or have low self-esteem, being supportive does not mean blind affirmation nor any affirmation at all. This person is fragile, yes. This person needs friendship and support. But the best thing you can say is “I really like you just as you are. Right now.” Anything else, any slight tipping of the scale, or gentle breath on their sail reflects deep narcissism on your part. You are not God. This is not your call to make nor your battle to wage. Back off.
The hubris of the teenage mind is not a new thing. What is new is this sudden cultural amnesia that forgets that adolescence is marked by these painful periods of self-doubt, cruel acts of bullying, and humiliating errors in self-perception. Grown-ups know this. We think we’re being so kind and so thoughtful by “following the child’s lead” when it comes to gender identity, but if we’re letting kids lead, we’re just acting like children. Let kids be kids. Let teenagers be teenagers. But it’s time for us adults to act like grown-ups.