Why anti-trans parents’ testimonies are unreliable as evidence: a response to Jay Keck and the Kelsey Coalition

Zinnia JonesA recent opinion piece in USA TODAY by parent Jay Keck of the anti-trans Kelsey Coalition offers a disturbing picture of how trans-rejecting family members rationalize their refusal to recognize trans youth’s identities. Keck, whose trans son is already misgendered and invalidated in the headline as a “daughter” who merely “thinks she’s transgender”, rails against trans-supportive school policies and staff at length, and expresses his belief that their affirmation of his son as a trans boy “undermined my efforts to help her”.

This extremely personal rejection and delegitimization of his own child is an overtly hurtful and inexcusable act that should never have been given column inches in a major news outlet – I can hardly imagine how his son must feel about his own father being invited to misrepresent his life and identity to an audience of millions of strangers. And beyond just being a completely inappropriate personal attack that has no place in the pages of USA TODAY, Keck’s one-sided story is simply meaningless for one very basic reason: Every element of this narrative is still entirely consistent with a scenario where a person’s child is indeed genuinely trans and is helped by gender affirmation.

His story is not reliable evidence about the reality of who his son really is, and it’s not unique or even interesting – there are countless trans people with parents who spin highly similar tales to justify denying their child’s gender. And while Keck’s son may not have been given the opportunity to tell his story and speak to the truth of his own life, many more trans people have spoken about what it’s like to deal with these same rejecting attitudes from parents and family members.

Keck states that his son came out as trans at 14, and claims to have never noticed any indication of his son’s possible transness earlier than this:

Throughout my daughter’s childhood, there were no signs that she wanted to be a boy. She loved stuffed animals, Pocahontas and wearing colorful bathing suits. I can’t recall a single interest that seemed unusually masculine, or any evidence that she was uncomfortable as a girl.

Is Keck’s observation indicative that his son is in fact not a trans man at all – and, more broadly, does a parent’s statement that “there were no signs” say anything about the validity of a child’s transness? No. Very many trans people have reported being told almost exactly this by their parents, to the point that it’s become almost cliché:

“How do I respond to the “you never showed signs” line? My dad keeps saying this whenever I talk about my gender… as some sort of argument against me being trans.” (23 Dec 2015)

“I feel so fucking stuck no one in my family believes I’m trans they say that I have never shown signs that I was never shown that I was a feminine guy and think it’s impossible to go 18 years never showing any signs they are making me feel like shit I can’t do this anymore I don’t want to be stuck like this.” (10 Jun 2018)

“But there were no signs… Omfg, I keep hearing this and it keeps getting under my skin! Even being out to everyone in my life and several months on hormones, I hear that said.” (10 Dec 2017)

These trans people’s parents and family members asserted that they “never showed any signs” that they’re trans – and yet, they are still trans. (These parents should perhaps also consider that coming out as trans is itself a very significant “sign” of being trans and should be taken into account as such.)

Keck then attempts to draw a connection between his son’s autism, which he describes as “mental health challenges”, and his identification as transgender:

The only difficulty she had was forming and maintaining friendships. We later learned why: She was on the autism spectrum. She was very functional and did well in school, helped by her Individualized Education Program (IEP), a common practice for public school students who need special education. At her high school, my daughter was approached by a girl who had recently come out at school as transgender. Shortly after meeting her, my daughter declared that she, too, was a boy trapped in a girl’s body and picked out a new masculine name. She first came out as transgender to her school, and when she announced that she was a boy, the faculty and staff — who had full knowledge of her mental health challenges — affirmed her.

This, too, is not a unique line of argument. It’s not difficult at all to find trans people whose parents have doubted their transness by attempting to claim that their identity is instead due to being on the spectrum:

“A few days ago, I came out to my parents, and while I didn’t exactly expect their support, I didn’t expect this. When I first came out, they were mildly supportive. Today, they both came to talk to me about how they believe that autism is likely the cause and that I should see a therapist specializing in autism. While they may be correct to a degree about autism, I don’t think it is reason to doubt being transgender. They feigned support, but I could tell that they really want me to be wrong, and for this to all go away.” (28 Mar 2019)

“Reasons my parents think I shouldn’t transition at my age. Do you think these make sense? 1. You have autism, which mimicks gender dysphoria’s feeling of discomfort. 2. You’re too young to know and your mind might change. 3. This is just a result of obessision over transgender things. And my mom has recommended I start rethinking a repeat of “I’m not transgender, I’m autistic.” every time I have these thoughts.” (11 Jun 2016)

“Hi, my name’s Emma. I’m a girl. Dad said he was supportive of my decision at first, but now he refuses to acknowledge my real name until I do autism testing. He thinks I might have a hormone imbalance and won’t let me be me until we make sure.” (14 Jun 2018)

This objection rings especially hollow considering that rates of autistic spectrum conditions are actually elevated among trans people – rather than mutual exclusivity or one being an “alternative” to the other, gender dysphoria and autism can often co-occur. Being autistic isn’t a strike against a trans person’s validity; it is entirely consistent and compatible with transness.

Moreover, unaccepting parents have been known to blame a trans child’s friends or social groups for allegedly influencing or causing their child’s identification as trans:

“According to my mother, my transition is all my friends fault. In a twisted way she’s right — without my support network I probably wouldn’t have had the strength and confidence to transition.” (19 Feb 2019)

“I told her that “not all trans people are the same, i’ve been repressing it.” and she said “Suuuure you have.” She then preceded to blame it on my friend, Sara, and then said “Funny how you waited until your dad died to tell me this.” (11 Jul 2015)

“When I first came out they asked if my then girlfriend wanted to be a man and if that was the reason I was doing this. Then it was because I had known some trans people had caused me to be trans. Then it was you. Well not you the person reading this, but the people on the internet had gotten to me and told my naive little mind that I was a girl and I had foolishly believed y’all.” (12 Sep 2016)

Keck goes on to devote most of his article to describing how school faculty recognized and supported his son as a trans boy despite Keck’s repeated demands for staff to refer to him with a female name and pronouns. Consider a trans person’s experience of this in the context of the many accounts provided by trans people with rejecting parents: support and affirmation from other adults in positions of authority can be an extremely important oasis of validation in a sea of constant hostility from the people who are supposed to care for them. Keck, however, still appears convinced that his son’s gender identity is simply the result of external influences providing this support – as though his son would not be trans if he had just faced an even greater degree of rejection in every part of his life:

Now, thanks in large part to my daughter’s school, my daughter is more convinced than ever that she is a boy, and that testosterone may be necessary for her to become her authentic self.

But anti-trans hostility is not hard to come by in our society: if the refusal of large numbers of people to recognize or respect a trans person’s identity was sufficient to undo that identity entirely, there would be no trans people. Keck’s own attitudes have certainly proven inadequate to overwrite his son’s gender, and there is no reason to think that it would have made any more of a difference if school faculty had just acquiesced to the demand to mistreat his son in the same manner.

Keck finally reveals that his son, now an adult, has persistently identified as a man for more than three years – and expresses an alarming perspective on the medical autonomy of adult trans people:

She turned 18 in late June and life-altering, dangerous testosterone injections are just one “informed consent form” away. She can turn to any one of Illinois’s 17 Planned Parenthood clinics for cheap and easy access. No extensive mental health assessment will be required, and there will be nothing I can do to stop her.

His article ends there, with no examination of any of the serious questions raised by the supposed concern that “there will be nothing I can do to stop her [sic]” from accessing gender-affirming medical care as a legal adult. While that fact may be something Keck finds difficult to deal with, much as he evidently finds many other things difficult to deal with, that does not actually mean there is anything wrong with trans adults having the freedom to access gender-affirming care from medical providers.

Consider the reverse: Should we find it concerning that Keck, also a legal adult, is free to seek out medical treatments for himself, and there will be nothing his trans son can do to stop him? Such a suggestion would seem absurd, and it is. But having spent several paragraphs trying to chip away from numerous directions at his son’s very capacity to know his own self, Keck sees no problem with assuming that his son’s self-knowledge and decision-making will always be unsound so long as he continues to identify as a man.

This is the danger in this argument: a trans person’s expressed gender is, by its very existence at odds with their assigned sex, considered as itself being evidence of that person’s incompetence to know their own gender. Keck, a cisgender man, will never be faced with such an argument against his own medical autonomy and competence as a legal adult on the basis of his gender identification. Instead, he’s been given a platform to present his own perceptions, impressions, and misguided rationalizations as being the reality of a trans person’s life.

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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