Who are the most influential people in the lives of teenagers? Most of the potential answers to that question probably haven’t changed much across centuries and cultures: parents, siblings, wider family, friends and educators. But now, in the 21st century, we have to add to that list YouTubers and social media content creators.
It’s not for no reason that such people are often just referred to as ‘influencers’. They are a group who have an unprecedented opportunity to influence young people, being always just a few taps away on a device that almost all young people will have by their side at all times. Couple that with the fact that young people today often have a suspicion of authorities and experts and a belief that real-life experiences are the only reliable source of truth, and you have a group of people who wield amazing power to influence teenagers and young adults.
Influencers are a group who have an unprecedented opportunity to influence young people.
And this is certainly what we are seeing in relation to the topic of transgender. Teenagers are learning a very particular perspective on gender and trans experience from online influencers. Admittedly the online world isn’t the only place such learning is happening – friendship groups and even school classes are often also involved – but there’s no doubt that influencers are living up to their name when it comes to this topic. Rarely will you ever hear the story of a trans-identifying teen where the internet, usually YouTube or Reddit, doesn’t feature prominently.
What is it that young people are hearing about gender from these influencers? Well, you could spend hours trawling through a lot of videos or discussion pages to get an idea, or you could just read Juno Dawson’s What’s the T?. This book is Dawson’s guide for teenagers to all things trans and it perfectly articulates the trans narrative to which many young people are being exposed.
Here's a summary of a few key elements of the trans narrative illustrated in What’s the T?
It’s all about identity. In fact, the first part of the book is titled ‘All about identity’. Who you feel yourself to be is who you really are. Your body doesn’t dictate your identity, and neither does how others view you. No one else can tell you who you are; only you can decide that. And this is really important. Getting your identity right, living that out, being true to yourself – these are the things that are vital to a happy and healthy life. It’s down to you – who are you?
Anyone who doesn’t agree with this understanding of trans experience is, at best, uneducated, and, at worst, outright evil. They are to be ignored and cut out of our lives with no debate or discussion. This isn’t one perspective among many which can be explored and discussed in a respectful, mature way. This is the truth, and you either accept that or you’re out. As one chapter title puts it, ‘Other people are the problem’. Parents are often a particular problem. That won’t always be the case – some parents will recognise who you really are – but not all will. Sometimes you’ll want to keep all this secret from them for quite a while. You might need to find other people you can trust, maybe your friends at school or a trans community online.
Since this is the only correct and acceptable viewpoint, education is key. Dawson, like other similar influencers, is one of the enlightened who has learnt the mystical truths of gender and transgender. This book is an invitation to also be welcomed into that not-so-secret society. Those who don’t agree have not been suitably educated and need to take the time to get educated or else should not speak on the topic. And of course, the only people who can really be trusted are people with personal experience themselves. Don’t turn to traditional experts like doctors or academics (unless they are also trans), and don’t turn to those you know and have reason to trust (like parents or church leaders). Turn to the people who really know – trans people. You can find them easily enough online.
Trans rights are human rights. The freedom to self-identify is a right. The freedom to change your name, pronouns, clothing style and body is a right. The freedom to choose what single-sex spaces you will use is a right. This means that not only does no one have the freedom to question any of these things (that’s definitely not a right), everyone has a duty to fight for them to be recognised in society and enshrined in law.
A window into what young people are hearing
It’s not hard to see some of the problems and dangers in these perspectives. What’s the T? is at times a slightly infuriating read because of its harsh intolerance and incredible inconsistencies, but it is also a helpful read; it's a window into what young people are hearing.
Unsurprisingly, this perspective on trans experience resonates with young people who want to know who they are, who care about justice and fairness, who have seen good reasons to distrust traditional authorities, and who want a sense of belonging. This perspective connects so easily with young people because it meets them where they’re at. The question we therefore need to wrestle with is, how do we make the biblical perspective connect with where young people are at today? Come back on Thursday to hear some of my thoughts.
This post has been adapted from a blog originally posted on thinktheology.co.uk.
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