Book Review: Trans Teen Survival Guide by Fox Fisher & Owl
Young people are becoming increasingly more aware of the wide variety and fluidity of gender identities and sexual orientations out there and more vocal about the need for impartial, detailed advice and support to empower them to live their lives openly and proudly without fear of having to experience widespread discrimination and bullying. The situation in schools is changing with an increase in visible role models in the media and in the teaching profession but by no means is every educational setting found to be fostering a truly equitable and inclusive environment for students who have gender identities that do not align directly with their birth gender- i.e. gender dysphoria. The National LGBT Survey, the largest survey of its kind commissioned by the Department for Women and Equalities in 2017 found that of the 36% of respondents who had been in education in 2016/17, only 13% of respondents who had stated in their survey response that they had a “minority gender identity” reported that their teachers and staff had been very understanding or somewhat understanding, and 68% said they had been not very, or not at all, understanding (p.103). 50% of respondents aged 16-17 and 67% aged 18-24 also said that their teachers and other school staff had been not very, or not all, understanding of gender issues (p.103).
The findings of the Stonewall School Report 2017 are similar in nature. 64% of trans respondents reported they had been bullied at school, 77% of respondents said they had not learned about gender identity or about what trans meant at school, 46% of respondents stated they had heard transphobic language “frequently or often” at school and shockingly 9% of trans respondents said they had received death threats from someone at their school (p.6).
The effect of such transphobic bullying and lack of awareness about gender diversity is stark: 45% of trans young people who responded to the Stonewall School Report 2017 had attempted to take their own life and 84% admitted that they have self-harmed (p.7).
It's wrong that we still live in a society where young people who are exploring their gender identity and sexual orientation cannot be accepted for the amazing young people they are.
The above statistics demonstrate that there is a need for trans, gender-diverse and gender-questioning young people to have access to trustworthy information about the realities of social and medical transition. The Trans Teen Survival Guide, written by the truly awe-inspiring non-binary trans couple Owl and Fox Fisher is designed to provide such information in an accessible, non-judgemental manner and draws on the personal experiences of friends, acquaintances and young people they have met who are going through or have gone through their own transition journeys to detail the unique journey that each trans young person embarks on in order to improve their physical and/or emotional wellbeing.
The book format has been structured in a logical and coherent manner, with each chapter focusing on a topic that the authors believe that young people would feel they need advice and guidance on as they progress through their journey. The book begins by asking the rhetorical question “So You're Trans?” It's a question every young trans person will ask themselves, even if they have not heard the term trans before. I never knew what trans meant until I met a group of trans young people who were out and proud and who were actively choosing to raise awareness of gender diversity in the local community. Times have changed somewhat and the increasing use of social media channels by young people and an increasing presence of open trans young adults in society as well as more trans educational professionals choosing to talk about gender diversity means that awareness of the term has increased. Rather than focusing on dedicating long chapters of the book to trying to work out a definitive definition of specific terms such as gender identity, or exploring the philosophical debate around gender (i.e. Germaine Greer vs Judith Butler), the authors wisely choose to use clear, concise paragraphs to explain key terms without adopting a patronising or an overly arduous tone. I think the authors are quite right to assume that the primary reading audience will consist of young people who will probably have a basic understanding of the debate around what gender means in the modern world- i.e. they'll know it's a “complicated mess of so many different things” (p.11). I do like the nod towards confirming that there is a societal move towards interrogating and deconstructing traditional gender stereotypes and roles as well as raising awareness of how societal expectations of gender expression and presentation has shifted over time: not even my Dad knew that boys used to wear pink clothes rather than blue because it was “a watered down version of red-the colour of war”!
Understanding that discussions over the nature of gender are complex (philosophers have been debating gender roles for millennia) means that young people can feel more reassured that they do not need to feel as if they need to have all the answers to hand as to why their gender identity differs from their assigned birth sex in order to placate peers, parents or anyone else who chooses to bombard them with questions. In fact I rather agree with the authors that any person, philosopher or otherwise, who claims they are omniscient about all things gender-related are really “just as clueless as the rest of us” (p.16). Their words remind me the Dr Seuss quote: “Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind”. Trans, gender-diverse and gender-questioning young people deserve to focus on improving their own emotional wellbeing and having the space to be who they are, rather than facing constant and invasive critique by certain journalists within the media and gender critical feminists.
The Trans Teen Survival Guide is full of practical tips for trans, gender-diverse and gender-questioning young people to consider and work through as they progress along their journey towards self-acceptance. Changing names and pronouns does indeed take time and I've met young people who are using their new name and preferred pronouns openly with friends or youth workers but are afraid to still do so in the presence of their parents, relations or teachers because they feel their mother or father or vicar may not understand why they need to use different pronouns, especially if they are gender-neutral ones. They/Them/Theirs is now commonly used in academic discourse and as with anything language-related, people can adapt to a change in language use if they have an understanding of why that change matters and a willingness to adapt their language use. It should not be up to the young person to have to continually justify to every person they come into contact with why they have chosen a particular pronoun and if people are so uncomfortable with using gender-neutral pronouns, they just need to get in the habit of using the young person's name when referring to them with other people and avoid pronoun overuse. As the authors say: “words become words when we start using them and they gain meaning. That's literally how words are created” (p.43).
Young people who are trans, gender-diverse or gender-questioning will undoubtedly have questions over how they will experience bodily changes during puberty. Biology and Relationships and Sex Education lessons at Key Stages 2, 3 and 4 have predominately focused on binary sex understandings of puberty, with language being used that reinforces this understanding – i.e. if you have been born with ovaries and a vagina then you will probably experience menstruation and need access to sanitary products to help cope with this and that means you must be a girl and referred to as a girl. The authors do not shy away from the subject of puberty but the language used is inclusive- divided into information for young people assigned male at birth (AMAB) and those assigned female at birth (AFAB). They also mention the potential for young people to use puberty blockers (which are taken at the start of puberty until a young person reaches the age of consent at 16 or until they are 18) but make it clear that the decision is very much made on an individual basis and recommending that the young person and their family members seek out further information on this. The authors are therefore not dictating to trans, gender-diverse and gender-questioning young people how their transitioning process should be like, they are acknowledging that each young person's journey will be different.
The chapters on hormone blockers and cross sex hormones and surgeries have also been written in an accessible way, with a focus on providing an overview of the types of hormone blockers, cross-sex hormones and surgeries that can help young trans people over the age of 16. The clear explanation of terminology, coupled with a short description of the hormone blocker/cross-sex hormone/surgery and means that readers can begin to prepare themselves to discuss options with their parents, their friends, their GP and clinicians as and when they feel ready to have those discussions. Questions over recovery times are equally addressed so that expectations can be managed. Again what is made clear here, as elsewhere in the book is that young people do not need to force themselves to go through medical treatments in order to be recognised to be trans or non-binary or agender: it must always be the young person making an informed decision after some consultation with people who they feel they can confide in and gain advice and guidance from. As the authors say cogently: “As always, it's important to remember that you should never feel pressured to take any interventions you don't want or are not sure about. Everyone's experience is different, there is no one way to be trans and you don't have to have any interventions to be more valid” (p.82).
Possibly one of the most important chapters of the Trans Teen Survival Guide is one entitled “Resources and Cool People”. When you're coming to terms with the feeling of questioning your gender identity and expression or trying to cope with bodily changes that you never felt prepared for (especially if you only started on the transitioning journey after the onset of puberty) it can feel like you're the only one going through such feelings, especially if you live a rural part of the UK. My experience of working with trans youth as part of my work with Think2Speak and talking to fellow adults who have lived with the trauma of going through assigned at birth sex based puberty without having someone to turn to is that emotional wellbeing can be severely affected, with avoidance of social occasions outside of school, direct and indirect discrimination and street harassment all common experiences.
The authors have included links to supportive trans organisations in the UK, Europe and around the world, including:
Mermaids, an organisation that specifically supports trans teens, their parents and family members and campaigns for gender dysphoria to be better recognised by professionals working with children and young people
Gendered Intelligence, an organisation run by trans people for trans young people under the age of 21 which puts on emotional wellbeing sessions and summer camps , runs youth clubs in London and Bristol and offers all-important continuing professional development training for professionals working with young trans people.
The authors also include links to a number of informative books that they feel young trans people should access. RSE and History lessons do not, as yet, tend to explore the fight for recognition and trans equality in the UK so I'd personally recommend the unparalleled anthology Trans Britain: Our Journey from the Shadows edited by Christine Burns to any young person who wants to study the history of LGBTQIA+ rights in the UK. There are also recommendations of books that explore personal transition journeys in-depth: Alex Bertie's Trans Mission: My Quest to a Beard has to be one of the most witty, open and frank accounts of transition by a young trans person that I have read and it is a book I've had no hesitation in recommending to friends and fellow professionals working in the Third sector and in educational settings (check out his YouTube channel where he answers questions from young trans people too!)
The chapter on “Dealing with the Media” in some respects did feel slightly out-of-place for a book that bills itself as a “Survival Guide”. I think that most trans, gender-diverse and gender-questioning young people do not actively seek out interactions with local and national media outlets and instead want to be able to live their lives with a degree of anonymity. Their parents, guardians and carers will certainly be cautious of putting their child in a situation where they may be asked uncomfortable and intrusive questions. The information provided is useful for those young people who want to participate in activism and campaigning (e.g. through creating a vlog/blog) but it's not essential to the integrity of the book. I am glad the authors encourage young people who agree to participating in an interview to contact organisations such as All About Trans so they and their families have the support they need to go through with the media engagement.
The Trans Teen Survival Guide is a book that I feel is aimed at trans, gender-diverse and gender-questioning young people with the level of information they need to feel empowered to make decisions relating to their transition (or not transition at all). I thoroughly recommend the book not only to young people but also to parents, guardians and carers, education and health professionals and anyone who wants to know more about the reality of social and medical transitions and the many opportunities and challenges faced by young people who are trans, gender-diverse or gender-questioning in the UK and beyond. It'd make a great addition to any Sexual Health Clinic Resource Library or School Library as will go some way to improving understanding of gender diversity. I think it'd be appropriate to close with another thoughtful quote: from the book “ We want a world where no one has to justify or explain their existence and where we can all express ourselves without stigma and prosecution” (p.178). It's a vision for the world that I can certainly buy into.