Gender and the Square Peg

Jessie Mannisto / July 22, 2021

When a quirky kid goes online to ask whether she might be trans, the algorithms aren’t going to give her any alternatives to consider. That’s a problem that this magazine’s mission demands that we address.

All right, everyone, I’m gonna tell you why we’re doing what some see as waving a red flag at a bull.

This issue of Third Factor is all about gender dysphoria in uncommon people.  Virtually everyone agrees that there has been a steep increase over the past several years in transgender identification, especially among adolescents and young adults.  Many of these gender dysphoric people, moreover, are part of a group near and dear to our hearts here at Third Factor—those people sometimes described as gifted.  As Lisa Littman found in her 2018 study of members of the new cohort of gender dysphoric youth, 47.7% of these young people had been formally designated as academically gifted, with another 10.7% both gifted and learning disabled.  Though there is little additional research on this topic, others have observed this as well.

The over-representation of intellectually gifted people among those with gender dysphoria raises some questions directly relevant to what it means to be a gifted, overexcitable, or creative person.  This is a touchy subject, that’s for sure.  Some people are bound to get angry at us for talking about it in a way that doesn’t line up with their views. But at some point, as the editor in chief, I have to ask myself: if we shy away from this discussion at Third Factor, why does our magazine exist in the first place?

The Overarching Theme of This Issue

Therefore, to loop in people who might care but aren’t following the topic closely, we feature three distinct voices in this issue, to present an initial sketch of gender and how it manifests in the lives of gifted and creative people. The subject is obviously much broader and more nuanced than we can do justice in even a single issue, but I hope this is a good start.

First, we have an interview with Mars, a transgender man who is very much a Third Factor sort of person: he’s a bright, independent-minded, imaginative guy who initially struggled to fit in but managed to carve out his own place in the world.  I actually reached out to him before deciding to do a gender-themed issue; my initial reason to feature him was that he strikes me as an example of positive adjustment as keeping with Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration.  He doesn’t require others to validate anything about him; he is clear-eyed and content with who he is.  This is a life skill we should all aspire to develop, gender questions aside, and I’m always looking to feature stories with this theme.

That life skill is especially relevant here, though, because discussion of gender can raise sensitive personal questions.  After all, people tend to research gender identity because they’re struggling with something. It usually touches on issues of belonging and self-acceptance.  If they’re intellectually and emotionally overexcitable (and they do tend to be), then watch out. It’s going to be a bumpy ride for all concerned.

The problem, as our next piece makes clear, is that there are many reasons someone might struggle with gendered boxes.  But one explanation drowns out all the others when kids go looking on the Internet for answers: “That means you’re trans.”

The Need to Consider Many Narratives

To see what I’m talking about, try Googling “how do I know if I’m trans.”  If your results are the same as mine, you’ll see a lot of vague comments about a felt “gender identity.”  The commentators typically offer mirroring of the experience of feeling different, but it’s nebulous. Rarely do they offer useful data for their audience to consider, like what is and isn’t typical of people who transition and are helped by it, what’s actually normal, or what could be better addressed in some other way.  There is generally no alternative interpretation offered for the listener to consider.  And without saying that gender identity discourse is necessarily wrong for any given kid, I hope we can all agree that kids who go searching for explanations of their struggles on the Internet (especially from strangers who don’t know them!) would do well to find multiple narratives to consider.

There is, after all, a lot of useful experience out there that isn’t reaching these kids when they need it. Think, for instance, of the people who didn’t fit the stereotyped role people tried to force on them because of their sex as adolescents, but who went through a positive disintegration and became stronger and more secure in their bodies and personalities than ever. Think of all the men and women who felt profoundly uncomfortable at puberty (which you probably saw listed in your Google results as a sign that you are trans) but found their own unique paths to living more or less comfortably in their bodies.  (Think also how few people who are wholly comfortable in their bodies.) Think, too, of the experience of recognition and reassurance so often reported by those reading about overexcitability and the theory of positive disintegration for the first time. It’s probably got something in common with the feeling of relief that some people feel upon deciding they’re trans. The recognition people feel in Dabrowski’s therory, unfortunately, doesn’t come with much of a supportive community—and certainly not one for teenagers. But it also doesn’t lead to medical intervention, which has to be a plus.

Yes, there are alternative explanations for the anguish that manifests as gender dysphoria. Given the way the Internet works, however, these alternatives are far less likely to reach the young people who ask Google whether they’re trans.
And as this detransitioner’s tweet says, maybe it’s not just “uncommon” kids who are getting this kind of stuff.

Katherine Burnham, an intellectually gifted lesbian and detransitioner, followed such a path, and she tells her story in this issue.  She did not know anything about the experiences of other intellectually-inclined women, let alone homosexual ones.  She just thought there was just something wrong with her. The zeitgeist, and the algorithms, pointed her to gender transition, and the online social dynamic made it hard to see any other path.

Getting the Word Out

So here is my stance, and it should not be controversial because it harms no one: we need to get the stories of uncommon men and women message out to people like Katherine, or like the detransitioners I interviewed in 2019, who wish that they had heard some other explanation for why they felt like such misfits before they took hormones and had surgeries.

While you can find thousands of articles and YouTube videos about being trans, you’ll find far fewer about what it means to be “gifted.” (Or, since that word is so off-putting and misleading, you could use a term I coined, “abstract-intense.”) You’ll find next to nothing about what it means to “live with intensity”; you’ll only find what is out there if you know what to look for.

We also need stories about how to forge your own path, a process that is terrifying and is sure to come with missteps.  And we need to reiterate that people can be unusual without being pathologized—and without having to alter their bodies. You may think people know this, but they do not.

I’m not sure how to get these in front of the people who need them. As editor in chief of this magazine, I’m trying to figure it out. But I know it needs to happen.

Unfortunately, the current media and institutional climate is no help whatsoever.  I have spoken to several relevant professionals who actively want to help get these alternative narratives out to gender-questioning young people, but the sad fact is that too many institutions consider this insufficiently “affirming.”  And so these professionals fear speaking up. To suggest alternative explanations, after all, means questioning someone’s asserted gender identity, even if only temporarily, as process of testing and exploring alternatives.  Maybe immediate affirmation is an ideal policy for one cohort, but it’s considerably less so for another.

Fortunately, the tide may be turning.  Our third voice in this issue is Angus Fox, a gay man who is yet another member of our tribe of abstract-intensive, uncommon people.  Angus is a member of the press team for Genspect, a new organization formed to be a voice for parents of gender-questioning young people, where giftedness and neurodivergence is the norm.  Genspect is designed for a more nuanced, less extreme discussion, and includes transgender and detransitioned people among its membership.  He sat down to talk to me about the organization’s mission—and to offer his own advice to gay kids, as well as anyone else who feels like an outlier.

Addressing Real, Complicated Pain

It is undeniable that people with gender dysphoria are experiencing real pain.  Questioning the narratives that unhappy kids are finding online does not minimize this.  On the contrary: experiences like theirs are behind much of what we publish in this magazine. They matter.

That’s precisely why they need more options to consider. Each person’s path is going to be different, though online social dynamics tend to channel them all in one direction, as Mars, Katherine, and Angus all independently observed.

Do not misunderstand me: it is true that some people, like Mars, might decide their lives are likely to be better on balance if they can be perceived as members of the sex opposite the one they were born into.  Nothing I say here should suggest that we prevent adults from following that path. They should, of course, know full well what they are getting into: it’s a difficult path, and it is not hard to find detransitioners out there talking about the pain they experience from treatments they underwent too hastily.  I’m also not saying that someone who is gifted or overexcitable or creative can’t ultimately be one of the people who benefits from a gender transition. What I am saying is that understanding traits and experiences common to uncommon people might help them chart their unique paths, and make sure any tradeoffs they make are truly right for them.

I felt like I had to do some intro article to explain why we’re doing a gender issue, but you know, I keep fiddling with this one because there is so much more to say; so many angles I didn’t address; so much more nuance; so much that would take so much more time to explain. But for an introduction to this topic, and to why Third Factor is taking it on, this will have to do for today.

I will end with this: if you care at all about positive disintegration, gifted education, or neurodiversity, you should care about getting this information to gender-questioning teens.  This does not mean disregarding transgender people; plenty of transgender people agree with what I am saying. Moreover, depressed people finding each other online is a bigger problem than just gender-questioning young people. We need to find better ways to connect youth who feel like misfits with mentors who figured out how to make their own square hole for their square peg, without letting the algorithm du jour funnel everyone in one depression-fueled direction. Today it’s gender; tomorrow it may well be something else. We’ve got to redouble our efforts to get information about the experiences of gifted, creative, and neurodivergent people into the hands of people who can use it.

In addition to articles in this issue, here are some resources we recommend:

Podcast – Gender: A Wider Lens – Hosts Sasha Ayad and Stella O’Malley are a pair of marvellous, insightful, sensitive, wise therapists focusing on gender-questioning adolescents, but you don’t need to be gender questioning to get a lot out of their conversations. I wish I had had someone like them to talk to around age twelve or so. Full disclosure: I’m the guest on Episode 33! Also especially great are the ones on stereotypes and the whole series on depth counseling.

For Me, Self Identification Was a Con – The excellent writer Mary Harrington of UnHerd tells her own story of walking the online gender path in the decade before it exploded. – A letter from five anonymous detransitioners for dysphoric young people.

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