What follows is the fifth instalment of When Sons Become Daughters, a multi-part Quillette series that explores how parents react when a son announces he wants to be a girl—and explains why so many of these mothers and fathers believe they can’t discuss their fears and concerns with their own children, therapists, doctors, friends, and relatives. To find out more about how the author collected and reported information, please refer to his introductory essay in this series.
The first four instalments in this series already have covered many disparate topics, each of which merits a fuller discussion than one writer can present. But younger readers with knowledge of trans Internet culture may have noticed that, until now, I’ve failed to cover one of its most prominent aesthetic motifs. I am referring to the Japanese art form known as anime.
Parents of trans-identified boys mention anime repeatedly. The animation style seems to loom large in the lives of many—at least half—of the young men whose stories I’m telling. Many of these boys have anime alter-egos, which function as a sort of stand-in for their real-life trans personae. Two of the boys whose parents I’ve met have even named themselves after the same anime character. What, if anything, explains this Japanese connection?
To take the most obvious explanation first: No, Japan is not a hotbed of trans-identification. Japanese laws regarding gender recognition are more traditionally stringent than those of the United States or Canada. In fact, Japanese citizens wishing to change their identity must first undergo sex-change surgery. As a result, only about 7,000 Japanese citizens are classified as transgender—just 0.006 percent of the country’s total population. (The figure often used in the United States, 0.7 percent, is more than 100 times higher.) And while Japanese anime characters and plot lines often subvert gender norms, this typically isn’t specifically connected to the idea of sex transition as we understand it, as many anime shows feature supernatural themes, undead characters, and shape-shifting more generally.
Some anime purists assert that true anime can be created only in Japan, and that anime-style cartoons and comics produced outside of that country should be referred to as “anime-influenced animation.” But notwithstanding such debates about nomenclature, the anime style has become a global phenomenon, having begun taking over TV screens in the UK and other nations in the 1990s. And today, a lot of amateur anime is drawn by enthusiasts in the English-speaking West.
Anime offers vividly coloured worlds, in which giant-eyed kids and anthropomorphized animals conduct heroic journeys against beautifully detailed backdrops. In some cases, the overlapping visual references are overtly pornographic. Hentai, the umbrella term for anime porn, has all sorts of variants—including yaoi, which depicts male-on-male sex, and its lesbian counterpart, yuri—which has a surprisingly strong fan base among trans-identifying American youth.
To help me understand what trans-identifying boys get out of anime, my friend Leigh called me as she drove to a local McDonald’s. Leigh is a female detransitioner—a woman who once identified as a transgender man, but now has reverted to an identity that accords with her biological sex. While she’s concerned by the recent surge in transgender-identified youth, she’s also careful not to stigmatize the young people who’ve been caught up in it, which is why I’m keen to get her take.
“So is this anime culture sexual?” I ask. “Oh yeah,” she says. “For sure.” Specifically, Leigh sees anime, and yuri in particular, as popular among that subcategory of trans-identified biological men and boys who become sexually aroused by the idea of themselves as female. (It’s a condition that some sexologists refer to as autogynephilia, though the very mention of that word is controversial in many trans-activist circles, as it is seen as reducing the issue of gender identity to the status of sexual fetish.)
“These are the guys who call themselves lesbians,” she says. “It’s actually fascinating, but kinda heart-breaking. A lot of these guys are just lonely.”
As we talk, it becomes clear that the boundary between porn and non-porn can be somewhat blurry when it comes to anime. Cartoons featuring “catgirls”—girls with feline ears and tails—can be quite explicit, especially the ones created and posted by older men. But for young members of online trans communities, catgirl characters may be little more than a cute-ironic profile pic. “Could I get from a totally non-sexual anime game to yuri porn in two clicks?” I ask. “Probably,” Leigh tells me.
Even after speaking with Leigh, it’s still not clear to me why anime has become such a big part of trans culture. So Carrie and Ron, whose 17-year-old son Charlie identifies as a girl, provided me with a detailed case study. Charlie arrived at his gender identity in part through anime, and in part through his interest in a massively popular collectible and digital card game known as Magic: The Gathering. In MTG (as many call it), players use cards depicting fictional sword-and-sorcery figures, pitting them against one another according to a complex system of rules. Beasts transmogrify in front of a player’s eyes, “levelling up” into more impressive forms. Think of it as exponential Pokémon.
The transformative theme in MTG extends to gender: The game features characters who are non-binary and transgender. In fact, the game’s developers have seemed keen to stress this progressive aspect as a way to make the gaming world more hospitable to non-gender-conforming individuals. The fan culture sometimes features “crossplay”—a form of sex-swap cosplay—with gamers dressing up as their favourite cross-sex characters. On Reddit feeds where gamers congregate to swap tips and observations, this kind of playful fluidity tends to get a lot of positive attention, thereby bumping up a contributor’s algorithmically assigned visibility level within Reddit threads. And so over time, a sense of gender playfulness gets hard-wired into these young gamers’ minds. For some, it can become a viable strategy for dealing with pubescent feelings of awkwardness and placelessness.
In many cases, the conversations that take place on gaming threads serve as onward pointers to other Reddit feeds, where teenagers burrow further into existential questions of mind and body, but now with the fantasy gaming elements stripped away. One such feed is r/egg_irl—where irl abbreviates “in real life,” and “egg” indicates the symbolic shell out of which a young transgender person must supposedly break. The egg_irl feed encourages users to adopt new trans identities, relentlessly applauding them for every step they take.
When Charlie expressed dysphoric feelings about his testicles, one user suggested that he should ignore his parents, and “go BUCKWILD” in the process of “customizing” his body. The tone of the described exchange suggests this user wasn’t a fellow teenager, but rather a full-grown male adult.
Even for parents who make a point of monitoring their children’s online activity, sites such as egg_irl present a challenge, because the discussions often are embedded within complex, cascading threads that are suffused with obscure and self-referential memes. To an outsider, a lot of it will seem like gibberish. But for a child who spends much of his life internalizing the ideas and idioms contained in these fora, the worldview that emerges can seem coherent and persuasive: Teenagers are encouraged to view transition as the central focus of their lives—and to regard anyone who stands in the way of it as an enemy.
Ron told me he sees this process as what big retailers might refer to as “customer acquisition.” From egg_irl, Charlie was lured into other, more explicitly sexual environments, which further strengthened the association between his stunted sexual development and his emerging female identity. In these worlds, parents and other sceptical authority figures are routinely vilified. It’s presumed that the discussion that takes place among anonymous strangers online is sincere and authoritative, while good-faith communication within one’s household is impossible.
Another Japanese term is useful here: hikikomori. This word (literally, “pulling inward”) describes a sort of adult hermit, typically male, often living with his parents, and always having little to no meaningful contact with the wider world beyond his four walls. Many are school refuseniks who wile away their time on videogames, anime, and/or porn. Most have other developmental problems that act as comorbidities. And while the “failure-to-launch” stereotype is sometimes played for laughs in many Western countries, the phenomenon has become a real and longstanding concern in Japan. These men are a drag on the country’s economy and, in most cases, a reproductive dead end in a country where the fertility rate is already below 1.42 births per woman.
Many of the parents I’ve spoken to describe their trans-identified sons as exhibiting hikikomori-type qualities. But some also acknowledge that these boys’ interests—anime, in particular—can be a positive creative outlet. This includes Rosalee, whose trans-identified son Alex based his female name (Lola) on an anime character. Alex is more than just a fan: He’s also a skilled animator who conceives, draws, and voices his own characters—male and female alike—for his web comic. In the process, he’s connected with other talented and imaginative artists, and has learned how to interact with others in creating collective projects.
But Lola isn’t just an on-screen avatar. Alex wants to take cross-sex hormones, which, he hopes, will help him develop perfect breasts (a subject of obsession). “Only straight men talk about breasts the way he talks about breasts,” Rosalee tells me. She sees her son’s alter ego as a means to bridge the gap between flesh-and-blood reality and sexually inspired fantasy. Alex’s therapist, on the other hand, sees Lola as a dissociative means of overcoming self-hatred. But Alex is adamant and uninterested in hearing about any option besides transition.
And so Rosalee is conflicted about Alex’s artistic interests. On the one hand, she sees the moment when Lola took over her son’s on-screen life as marking an existential break in the way he viewed himself. On the other hand, drawing provides her son with an essential form of emotional release. And there’s a real chance he could make money from it someday. She celebrates her son’s creativity, expresses pride in his achievements and his hearty work ethic, and hopes Alex’s work will find an approving audience. What she can’t accept is his body becoming another kind of artistic canvas.
Alex is unusually skilled as an artist. But as readers of the previous articles in this series will know, the fact that he’s gifted more generally hardly marks him as an outlier: It’s a universal quality among young men who have trans identities yet displayed no signs of dysphoria in their very early years (and often betrayed no particular form of gender-atypicality). Sometimes, they’re history buffs; more often they excel in science. All are good at maths, and read at a level that’s well beyond their years.
Like his mum, Alex developed Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder early on in life. He couldn’t focus at school. Though he passed any standardized test he sat with flying colours, he’d fail his exams because he refused to show his work (reasoning that he didn’t need to because he’d already gotten to the right answer). At the age of three, he was asking his mother how to pronounce three-syllable Scandinavian brand names written on the side of ducts, yet he never had the patience to finish a book. His ability to read everything in front of him, at an adult level, should have made his teachers happy; but they were more concerned by the fact he couldn’t sit still.
Rosalee can sympathize with this double-edged form of giftedness. “If I liked the teacher, I got an A,” she says of her own grade-school education. “If I didn’t, I got an F.” Her son’s school experience has been similar: from a young age, Alex took to withdrawing his participation when he thought the tasks set by teachers were pointless. If a particular exercise didn’t meet with his approval, he’d pull out a book and start reading. Rebellious reading evolved into rebellious drawing; and while Rosalee doesn’t describe her son as being consistently disruptive per se, she can see how his presence might have undermined classroom harmony.
When a floor map of the United States was laid out in class, one of his classmates goaded Alex by ostentatiously grinding his foot into the spot marking Seattle, which Alex had just mentioned as being his grandparents’ hometown. Alex lost it, and lunged at the boy—whose parents, it turned out, had given the local school board a generous endowment. Rosalee was politely asked to withdraw her son from the school.
Alex was adrift. He often misunderstood social cues, and his habit of talking like a college professor made him seem pedantic. His anime-enabled discovery of a new, trans self gave him a label for the resulting sense of detachment, while unlocking a vault of praise. At his new school, Alex was taken out of maths class at the behest of the school’s LGBT counsellor, so that he could spend the time learning about trans advocacy—the idea being that this information would help Alex defend himself from prejudice. But what he was really getting was positive reinforcement for his new gender identity.
Rosalee didn’t find out about this arrangement until six months after it had started—and even then, only by accident. She was understandably furious. As she saw it, her child’s exceptional talents and character had been co-opted by a school administrator looking to indulge her own ideological convictions.
Young men such as Alex tend to prize autonomy, be it intellectual, creative, or physical: they react badly to being reined in. In the digital space, Alex is free to be who he wants to be, letting his imagination run wild, with no real boundaries. In the short-term, that seems superficially liberating. But Rosalee believes the real long-term effect has been negative, since the people Alex meets have exposed him to a whole new gamut of hang-ups and dark thoughts. He suddenly started believing himself to be ugly, obsessing over his arms as the focus of his dysphoria. And he began talking about suicide. All this left Rosalee wondering how she might have channelled her son’s giftedness in a less risky way.
* * *
While the link between giftedness and transgenderism among boys is easy to observe, it’s difficult to explain. When I ask parents about it, it’s usually the school curriculum which gets first mention.
In schools with a progressive curriculum, children are taught that biological sex is distinct from gender identity; if you see a male in the mirror, that doesn’t prove you’re actually male. Most pupils learn this as nothing more than a fact about other people, to be filed alongside “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” or “Henry VIII had six wives: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.” Certainly, for jockish boys and the girls on the cheerleading squad, the purported gender/sex distinction isn’t of any particular interest. By contrast, many of the smart kids, gamers and hobbyists who spend a lot of time inside their own minds, may already be aware that they don’t quite fit in, and often being bored and underchallenged, have more time to spend on the abstract mental game of “What if?” As puberty takes hold, their social deficit transforms into a romantic and then sexual deficit, and the hypothetical trans version of themselves becomes worthy of examination. “Maybe I would be happier as a woman. Maybe I’d be more at ease with myself. Maybe I’m one of those special people I’ve been told so much about…”
Now add in the effect that coming out as trans will have on other students—including the aforementioned cheerleading types. Transphobia is a real phenomenon in the world, but it tends to be vanishingly rare in progressive scholastic environments, where many children and adults alike are eager to demonstrate their tolerant bona fides.
For a boy who announces that he’s a girl, a trip to a pretty girl’s home won’t yield a romantic fumble, but perhaps affectionately communicated tips on applying eyeliner and lip gloss. Add in, too, the positive attention from well-meaning teachers, school counsellors, therapists, and local LGBT boosters—not to mention strangers on social media, where the alternative, curated, focus-grouped version of the trans-identified boy first took shape.
Once the announcement is made, it’s hard to go back. These gifted young men have convinced themselves that life would be better as a female—and look, it really is starting to get better. Everyone around them is cheering them on. Only the parents are expressing concerns. Suddenly, they’re the real outliers.
* * *
There’s a useful word in the German language, fachidiot, that describes a particular kind of cleverness. The first syllable, fach, translates to “subject” or “field of study,” as well as “drawer,” implying a distinct category of knowledge. The second part means—well, it means “idiot.” Fachidioten are specialists who can describe in mesmerizing detail the many reasons for the collapse of Byzantium, or the mechanics of pasteurization, or the influence of African rhythms on the various musicological substrata of modern jazz. Yet while they hold forth on such arcana, a petty thief walking past might ask the Fachidiot for his phone, just so he can “make a quick call,” and the Fachidiot will cheerfully oblige. When the parents I spoke with impress upon me how gifted their children are, they are not suggesting to me that they are intellectually overbearing or arrogant. Just the opposite: Many of them are keen to stress that their boys couldn’t successfully make a doctor’s appointment, or catch the right bus. As Rosalee puts it, “He couldn’t even tie his laces.”
These descriptions shouldn’t be interpreted as derogatory. Our laboratories and hospitals are full of Fachidioten who split atoms or perform brain surgery by day. When this quality manifests in children, parents typically learn to navigate their kids’ neuro-divergence by acquiring new means of communication, as though becoming bilingual.
I learned more about this through Asher, a 16-year-old Philadelphia boy who once described himself as transgender. Neuro-divergence is an important part of Asher’s evolving identity, and something he’s evidently spent a lot of time contemplating. His father, Otis, has spoken to other parents about how he’d come to understand the unique way in which Asher views the world; and how this skill helped him steer Asher away from medicalization and toward a more open-minded exploration of gender.
Otis and Asher don’t agree about everything. But they do agree that Asher is a strongly categorical thinker. As a toddler, he burst into tears in a diner because the ceiling fan wasn’t turned on. Ceiling fans are machines; machines should work; and the fact that it was just sitting there doing nothing indicated that the world had somehow fallen ever so slightly into disrepair. As he got older, the categories of the gendered world (stereotypes, as some might call them) loomed large in Asher’s internal landscape. Like many neuro-atypical young men, he didn’t conform to the standard template of manhood. Most of his friendships were with girls, because he found boys frightening and violent.
As puberty descended upon Asher and his peers, however, this penchant for preferring the company of girls became more problematic. At 14, his close friend, Sinéad, came out as a lesbian—but then expressed an interest in Asher that seemed definitely heterosexual. She made a pass at him at a party; and Asher, although physically mature, was emotionally unready for intimacy. With her advances spurned, Sinéad moved to isolate Asher from his friendship group, painting him as a male aggressor, and fragmenting the social categories of in and out that he’d established. This cluster of factors—his different and fragile sense of self, his way of thinking, and the social trauma he was now suffering—caused Asher to spiral into a real breakdown. He hadn’t yet been diagnosed as autistic. And re-imagining himself as a woman presented itself as a strategy—the only one he could see at the time—to re-establish the natural order of things.
Otis was determined to protect his son from medicalization, but initially found it impossible to reason with him. In Asher’s hyper-systematized worldview, the decision had been made; he was on the highway to womanhood, and there were no off-ramps. As an idiosyncratic kind of guy himself (readers will note that many of the traits I am describing often run in the family), Otis never fully appreciated quite how different his son was from the average kid. For men of Otis’ generation, “transsexuals” (as they were called at the time—and, in some dissident trans subcultures, still are) were middle-aged guys with unusual kinks. Otis started to realize that this was a new era, and that trans identification had become a widespread trend among young people who embraced new ideologies. But even so, he decided to keep the psychiatrists and paediatricians at arm’s length for the time being: he’d already heard too many stories of children being quickly “affirmed” into hormones and surgery.
Father and son had difficulty talking to each other for a while, but the ice broke when Asher showed his dad a YouTube video asking the simple question, “How many genders are there?” Otis pushed for an answer, and an answer in numerical format. Logically, it had to be more than two. Otherwise, “sex” would suffice as a descriptor. But it also had to be fewer than 7.6 billion, the Earth’s population. Otherwise you could just make do with “personality” or “character.” The difficulty in nailing down a number caused Asher to doubt some of his premises. Over the course of the next months, he began to realize that things were not as black and white as he’d thought.
Today, father and son have regained the ability to converse deeply and sincerely with each other, though the process certainly isn’t finished. It probably won’t ever finish, and I get the sense that neither of them truly wants it to. Each has a means of thinking that serves to prod the other into re-examining his assumptions and honing his arguments. While they are yet to see eye-to-eye on whether it’s reasonable for a person to go by “they,” both agree that the financial interests of pharmaceutical firms may be one factor that’s driving the gender industry. (The most profitable drugs, after all, are the ones that people take for their entire lives—not the ones that you pop for a week or two.) They also both believe that the tone of the conversation about transgenderism has become too negative. “We need to use our empathy,” Asher says, even as he acknowledges the irony at play. “I’m saying this—and I’m autistic, for crying out loud!”
Otis and Asher’s story is a positive one, and shows how different styles of thinking can complement one another in this area. Not only did Otis realize that numbers matter to Asher; he worked out how he could use mathematics to describe his critique of Asher’s approach. Such constructive dialogues might even help us begin to understand the evident, if poorly understood, link between intellectual precocity and non-conforming forms of sexual self-conception.
With thanks to Leigh, Carrie, Ron, Rosalee, Asher, and Otis for taking the time to speak to me.
Angus Fox (a pseudonym) is an academic working in an unrelated field of study. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The remaining installments in his ongoing series, When Sons Become Daughters, will be published later this month.