Let Trans People Speak for Themselves: An Indirect Exploration of ROGD and an Analysis of Whether Cis People Should Speak on Our Behalf

Sylvia Rivera

My best friend from childhood and I have some shared values, but his tend to skew more conservative. He is a journalist, hates Black Lives Matters, and thinks Maps of Meaning is good. Whereas I can understand the necessity of BLM (intersectionally as a trans person), and I think that liking Jordan Peterson is a symptom of white male anxiety. My friend isn’t a bad person; in fact, he’s one of the smartest people I know. We both value critical thinking and skepticism — the pre-YouTube alt-right kind. (Why are people who misrepresent other people’s arguments online all “skeptics?” Skeptical of good argumentation?) Where we often differ in our views is in his desire to view all other positions and subjectivities outside of his own racial socioeconomic position with suspicion. As a journalist, he seems to take it as fact that anyone can understand any issue with total objectivity. Had we both been white cis dudes with similar levels of education, I might agree with him. We are both white and have similar levels of education, but as a trans femme, I don’t share his point of view on this matter. I think experiences and reality are much more subjective. There are certain aspects of social reality that require experience to understand. Cue negative comments from positivist “skeptics.”

Said friend and I recently had a kind of WhatsApp spat over the topic of journalists and their entitlement to discuss trans people. I indicated that perhaps cis people shouldn’t be given the role of speaker for trans experiences. This issue arose from a recent article we had both read and discussed. I first encountered the offending article this past summer via trans Twitter outcry: Jesse Signal’s piece in The Atlantic. People like Dan Savage and the Blabber Mouth podcast team admonished trans people for trying to shut down “science” with their loud objections. I begrudgingly gave the article a read and on first pass the article seemed not so bad, but it left me a bit uneasy. It called for guidelines to ensure children progressed slowly through gender dysphoria treatments. What a “skeptic” I just read on Twitter called “the medicalization of children’s gender” (see, I engage with the other side!). What (some) cis people don’t get, is far from there being a transgenda to convert children into transsexuals and queers, these medical and psychiatric processes take years, filtering out children and adults who are not trans. Signal’s article had a veneer of trans support, but it was really something more sinister couched in a disingenuous concern for children

It has since surfaced that Signal is a supporter of the idea of Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD). Though to be honest, a closer reading of the article makes that clear. ROGD, which I won’t get into in detail describing (see Julia Serano on Medium), comes from three anti-trans organisations and has no basis in medical science or psychology. So, the premise that journalists can objectively access the epistemic positionality and subjectivity of people they don’t share common experiences with seems specious, in this case. You see, ROGD might seem plausible to a non-trans person, the idea that some kids experience a new phenomenon of rapid development of gender dysphoric symptoms. To cis people, children and adults may seem to suddenly become trans. However, this is an error of perspective, they don’t see the internal process of the trans person coming out. Some groups, instead of engaging with these trans people’s experiences in earnest, find it easier to blame their seemingly sudden transness on social groups and social media (contagion) — which are both good tools for figuring out your identity. Almost logically, people look around at transitioning children/teens, not understanding the internal process which this entails, and conclude something fishy is up — they must have caught it from their new friend Suzy, or maybe Tumblr. Throw in some conservative views and you have a LGBTQ conspiracy on your hands. Of course, honest engagement with trans perspectives would disabuse these people of their false assumptions. But let’s be honest, they don’t want to engage with us. It’s unthinkable that other people might experience the world fundamentally different from ourselves.

Of course ROGD isn’t an innocent misunderstanding, at least not for its designers. On one hand, the organisations that support ROGD are using it as a shield to cover their transphobic agendas, ones that often rely on radical feminist positions — TERFS are just transphobes disguising their hate in radical feminism (radical feminism is not itself transphobic). On the other hand, I can see how ROGD appeals to some cis people who are perturbed by trans people, simply because we don’t fit into the normative order and they meet us with skepticism. ROGD and bad interpretations of feminism give people tools to remain ignorant, to easily discard our experiences. Of course, giving trans people a platform to discuss their points of view would be a good starting point to remedy this, but instead, publications like The Atlantic give voice to cis opinions. Why wasn’t Zinnia Jones or Julia Serano asked to write this piece or a response article?

Any trans person could have explained why ROGD is a load of bull. And here I think we see that some perspectives can’t easily be accessed from afar. Let’s use autoethnography to explore why trans people intuitively know ROGD is not a valid interpretation of trans experiences. When I came out at 30 many people were taken aback by me being trans. To them, despite my having been somewhat effeminate and often read as gay, this was a “startling” announcement out of the blue. Nothing could be further from the truth. I fist felt like I wanted to be a girl around the age of five. I’d like to say that I knew this was intuitively taboo on a social level, but in truth it was probably my hyper-masculine father that reinforced that idea (he is a total poo). Whatever the cause, my early OCD latched on to my femme aspirations and made them something I was chronically averse to — which in hindsight may have sent mixed signals. I began crossdressing as soon as I was left alone. I suspect this was around ten as I remember being left with an older friend as I was not yet the legal age of 12 when you can officially be left alone in Ontario. Regardless, these desires always felt perverse to me. This is not surprising based on the context I encountered examples of trans people in. I first saw a person aligning to what we would describe as trans sometime around the mid 90s. It was on a day time talk show and the crowd looked stunned and horrified by a trans woman’s admission that she wore women’s clothing and presented female all the time. I internalised the crowd’s revulsion. The multiple episodes of The Jerry Spring Show I saw over the ensuing years only deepened this feeling: you know the ones where men found out, to their utter disgust, that their partners “use to be men,” Chairs would fly, and my heart would sink just a little more.

At 15 I came out to a partner and my best friend. The friend didn’t react well, and the partner was supportive, but it still felt too wrong for me to process. At 19 I started to become familiar with what transgender was and for a few years I eagerly, but silently, observed any trans person I encountered, but never did anything about my gender identity, save the odd session of crossdressing which always felt urgent, but was never satisfying. I finally came out again at 25. I did more about my gender this time. Up until, then I’d admitted to myself that I was trans, but I’d struggled so much with mental illness that I didn’t feel like I could act on it, as if it would make things worse. I told my partner at the time, we moved to Asia, and it took me a major accident and five more years to finally start HRT and tell everyone else in my life.

As even the briefest summary of my own early experience took me two paragraphs of writing to cover — I left a lot out — you can see that this was a long process, incremental and slow. Thankfully, today the internet can help people identify earlier that being trans is not a bad thing. For me this process was very internal and usually a closely guarded secret. You can see then, that to my mother when I came out to her in June of 2016, she was surprised, to say the least. She didn’t know any of this had been going on. However, from my point of view, I’d felt gender non-conforming in some form for 25 years by that point. This surprised reaction to my coming out was repeated as I came out dozens of times that summer, well, as long as we’re talking about people who didn’t really know me post moving away from home for university. It’s always fascinating to me how people who haven’t known you since you were a child feel like they know your most inner workings: “Oh, but you had a water pistol last time I saw you in 96, you must be a boy!”

The thing is, to the cis observer, trans friends and family’s coming out as trans, often seem sudden. It doesn’t help that media, both cis and trans, traditionally espouse a certain narrative that trans feminine spectrum people always knew that they were little girls trapped in the wrong body just waiting for self-affirmation and transformation into little princesses. This is one reason why the wrong body narrative is so damaging. Trans people often don’t conform to this trope. My point is, what seems like rapid onset trans identification is probably not to said trans person. As Serano points out, both WPATH and the DSM V clearly state this. And besides, children should be allowed to experiment with their gender expression freely, if they’re not trans, they’re not going to choose to be, this isn’t a fad.

Going back to my friend, I seriously doubt his implied claim that cis people can understand us, especially without a genuine connection to our experiences. I know that ROGD is bull, it doesn’t match lived experience. I know this the same way I know autogynephilia is a stupid idea. And on this theory, there are good resources to debunk it. Both of these concepts, ROGD and autogynephilia, illustrate a problem. They’re created by cis observers, they don’t include trans perspectives. I’m not saying that cis people can’t write about us ever—maybe I am—but they often dominate non-academic media discussions about us. If The Atlantic had published a piece about ROGD from a trans author these ideas would have been addressed more critically. Instead, the article provided more fuel for the anti-trans bonfire everyone seems to be building in our collective town square. To be honest, most writing about trans people by cis people is crap. I wouldn’t want to read a book about queer phenomenology by a straight author, or black oppression by a white man. Sure, these accounts exist, but I doubt their claim to legitimacy. But that’s an entirely different debate.

I suspect Signal’s article wasn’t an innocent misunderstanding. However, I can see why some people would buy into its ideas ignorantly. Regardless of the intention, when cis people dictate and define trans issues it silences us. If we are to overcome the alienation of our alterity it is essential that we get to be at the head of the table when discussing trans issues. As it stands we’re often the victims of conservative morals and the subjects of bad and disingenuous research. As Julia Serano points out, gender dysphoria is experiential, meaning that it appears in myriad forms and it necessarily needs to be discussed by the people who are experiencing it. We don’t need another category of gender dysphoria and any trans person could have told you that.

Supplementary:

I can imagine that some people might object to my dismissal of Signal because his article appears to be closely researched and it contains interviews with trans people. First of all, it contains interviews with trans masculine and other AFAB people. These are the target demographic for ROGD anxiety. The people in the article perhaps weren’t really trans. The main subject of the article, a young teen decides she isn’t trans. Fine. But this article, below its surface, fans the flames of fear that without intervention from rational het/cis parents and doctors, certain trans clinics and online communities will push children through “irreversible” transitions. This is shit and untrue. Unless people are DYI transitioning, medical care standards actually make this a difficult and long process. Most of the medical interventions are reversible throughout the process. And the ones that aren’t are behind high gates. The article also provides an interview with a detransitioner. But here the interviewee seems to be more a victim of false promises and a hostile social environment, than genuinely not trans. Either way, the article didn’t provide a voice to the legion of successful and happily transitioned trans masculine people. But instead imperils their position in society over largely irrational concern for other children who are largely not imperilled.

I also admit that Signal doesn’t overtly dismiss the validity and existence of trans children. But I think that this is a smoke screen to deny a transphobic agenda — which is certainly what the originators of ROGD have in mind. Or, he is simply falling into this trap of cis people misrepresenting trans experiences, which brings me full circle back to my original point. Either way, if you are interested in ROGD then go to Medium and read Julia Serano’s two pieces on ROGD or Gender Analysis to read the work Zinnia Jones has done on the topic — they are both much smarter than me, and they go through the data more scientifically and specifically respond to it.

Finally, to some trans people, especially older ones, their trans identities do seem to come as a sudden epiphany. However, I have yet to talk to a person in this position who didn’t experience this revelation as something that brought clarity to a lifetime of experience that seemingly always went without explanation: I have always felt out of place, or disassociated, depressed, or like I just didn’t fit in, that kind of stuff. This phenomenon clearly doesn’t fit into ROGD. I just don’t want to make it seem that all trans people struggle with acknowledge gender non-conformity all of their lives on the conscious level that I did, that is not the case — though it is common.

I’m trans, a PhD candidate in Gender Studies, and a researcher.

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