Friday, May 13, 2016
Monday, April 25, 2016
Pat McCrory, Governor of North Carolina, has been voicing a complaint of late. He is extremely annoyed at the "outside influences" that are protesting his signing of HB2, a law banning trans people from using bathrooms that match the genders in which we are lving, and banning local governments from passing protections for LGBT+ people.
The word he keeps using is "Orwellian." He claims that LGBT+ public interest groups are Big Brother, watching everyone and policing their speech for political correctness. Orwellian! He warns that apparently independent groups protesting the new law are actually being coordinated by a powerful entity, the Human Rights Campaign. Orwellian! The HRC and its minions are intimidating ordinary people and quashing dissent while claiming to be protecting freedom. Orwellian!
You know what's really Orwellian? Presenting trans people's use of bathrooms that match our gender identities--something we've been doing for decades--as something that didn't exist until a couple of weeks ago when Charlotte passed a civil rights bill protecting LGBT people. (As Orwell wrote, those who control the present control the past.) Presenting trans people using bathrooms that match our genders as a new attack on our "basic bathroom norms" that the state was "forced" to reverse is a move right out of the Ministry of Peace. Presenting the real victims of violence--trans women--as predators endangering cis women is a move right out of the Ministry of Truth.
Pat McCrory and the North Carolina legislature have empowered the entire populace of the state to engage in gender policing trans people's bodies. Big Brother is gender policing you--now that's Orwellian.
Thursday, January 14, 2016
I've actually been encountering more forms on which I'm asked to identify my sex or gender using checkboxes labeled "male," "female" or "transgender." This is my response in image form:
"Wait. There are more than two religions--what if someone has a different religion, or no religion at all? And 'convert' isn't a religion, it means a person who has gone through a process that welcomes them into one."
"Wait. There are more than two religions--what if someone has a different religion, or no religion at all? And 'convert' isn't a religion, it means a person who has gone through a process that welcomes them into one."
Sunday, January 3, 2016
Back in 2012, I wrote a post about the problems I regularly encountered as a trans person when going through TSA security screening at airports.
Since that time, we've been promised, much has changed. The TSA has formally stated that it will not discriminate on the basis of gender identity. Passengers are to be screened based upon their gender presentation. Any pat-downs are to be conducted by TSA agents whose gender matches the passenger's presented gender, no matter what gender marker is listed on the passenger's government ID. The agents on the floor operating the body scanner now just see a body outline icon marked with any areas of "anomaly" on their screen, instead of an actual image of the details of the passenger's anatomy, so privacy should be protected. The TSA has promised that the bad old days of trans people being harassed and humiliated by its agents are in the past, and we have reached the era of enlightenment.
That would be nice.
Unfortunately, what now happens in practice is another matter altogether. In my own experience, intrusive, frightening, and humiliating screenings continue unabated. To illustrate, I'll relate what happened to me when I flew from Milwaukee to New York a couple of weeks ago. The short version is this: I was detained for almost an hour and subjected to multiple, increasingly-invasive pat-downs, as a result of the equipment used by the TSA, along with the (lack of) training by agents in the TSA's stated trans policies. Eventually, as things escalated, even my daughter was taken aside for intensive screening, though she had set off no alarms--because an agent came to believe that she too was trans, and thus a suspicious traveler.
Let's look at how this could come to happen.
Today, body scanners are the normative screening method in U.S. airports. In the past, travelers had the right to request a physical pat-down instead of going through the scanner, but the TSA recently decided complying with such a request is at the discretion of the agent. Since simply requesting not to be scanned can be perceived as suspicious, most trans passengers will be body-scanned. So, let's look at an example of the icon image a TSA agent running a body scanner receives:
The TSA says it does not discriminate on the basis of gender identity, and that travelers will be treated with respect as members of whatever gender they present themselves as. But in fact, the "Automated Target Recognition" software used by body scanners is set up to police both binary sex and cisgender bodily expectations. Bodies that vary from these expectations set off alarms and are treated as potential terrorist threats.
Once a TSA agent sees ares of red and yellow on the screen before them, the passenger must receive additional screening until the possible threat is deemed "cleared." The first step is that a public pat-down is performed right outside the scanner by a TSA agent. (That agent is supposed to be of the same gender as the traveler, but one should note that binary gender is presumed by the TSA, and there is no official TSA policy about how to handle passengers with nonbinary gender identities.)
If the initial pat-down doesn't "clear" the issue, the passenger is taken to a screening room for a more invasive investigation. This makes the initial pat-down pivotal in determining how unpleasant the process of passing through security will be for a trans traveler.
The factor that determines what will happen to trans travelers after we are marked as "anomalous" by body scanners is largely a matter of the training and attitude of the TSA agent called over for the public pat-down that follows. If that agent understands that the alarm has been set off by our trans anatomy, and that the TSA is supposed to treat trans bodies with respect, we get a quick pat-down and are cleared to move on. The trans passenger will experience a brief flash of adrenaline when their body sets off an alarm, and anxiety as their body is publicly palpated in an area likely to be one they do not wish scrutinized, but the interval of apprehension is brief, and travel is not disrupted.
The problem is, many TSA agents have little understanding of trans people or our bodies, although they supposedly should have received appropriate training. They view our "anomalous" body scan results as suspicious, as weird, and as marking a potentially serious threat. So when their physical inspection confirms there is indeed Something There where the scanner image shows glaring red and yellow, they send us off for further, more intrusive screening.
In my personal experience, my chances of being detained for additional screening after the brief public pat-down are about 2 in 3 when flying out of my home airport in Milwaukee, but significantly lower when flying out of airports in large coastal American cities. My body and my binding practices are the same when flying away and flying home, so it's clear that local culture plays a substantial role in trans experiences with TSA screening. Levels of trans awareness and transphobia vary. And this impacts not only whether we will face additional screening, but what that screening will be like.
(This is not to say that TSA agents in large coastal cities are trans-aware paragons. When my wife was flying out of San Francisco in 2014, the TSA agents did grant that since her response to the question "are you presenting as male or female" was that she a trans woman, the TSA agent who patted her down should also be a woman. But that agent spent an inordinate amount of time patting and feeling over her chest with an expression of confused suspicion. Finally, she asked my spouse what she had in there. My wife responded, "Erm, those are my breasts." The response of the agent? "How can you have breasts if you aren't wearing a bra?" My spouse stared at the agent for a bit, openmouthed, before replying, "You're a woman--you tell me." The TSA agents conferred for a while, before deciding that while they were uncomfortable my wife's clearly trans body, the mounds on her chest were indeed breasts, and going braless does not constitute a terrorist threat. So they allowed her to proceed. But it was hardly a smooth encounter that left my wife feeling respected or validated.)
In December 2015, while flying from Milwaukee to New York with my daughter, my body scan results showed my "anomalous" chest highlighted in red and yellow as usual, and the operator of the scanner called a TSA agent over to give me a pat-down. When patting me down, the agent palpated my binder, and asked me what I was wearing under my shirt, following standard TSA procedure. I stated that it was a chest binder. This is the critical juncture--perhaps a third of the time, in Milwaukee, the agent will ask no more questions, simply complete patting down my body, and send me on my way. But more often, I'll be interrogated as to why I wear the binder, as was the case this time. My initial reply is always the simple statement that I wear it to compress my chest, but the agent usually finds this reply incomprehensible, and asks why I would need to do that. Once I explain that I do so because I am a trans man, I'm inevitably separated from my belongings and my travel companion and taken to a small room with two TSA agents for additional screening.
In 2012 I wrote about the highly uncomfortable experiences I have when I am locked in a screening room with two or more TSA agents for inspection at the Milwaukee airport. Since then, I have been assured that the agents have received additional training. They are supposed to be aware that the TSA considers a chest binder to be a prosthetic device, and that trans passengers should not be asked to display or remove prostheses such as binders, breast forms, or packers. I have been told that agents would no longer make me open or remove my shirt when being subjected to the additional screening procedure.
But that's just not true. Every time I am taken into the screening room for additional scrutiny, in every city where this has happened, I am asked to open, lift, or remove my shirt so that my binder can be inspected and swabbed for explosives. And every single time this happens, I get to watch the agents' faces go from puzzled confusion to uncomfortable or disgusted recognition that I have breasts under there, and that they are covered with chest hair. This never changes.
How the screening proceeds from there, however, does vary. Sometimes it is very tense. Last year, a TSA agent at a New York airport ordered me to remove my binder so it could be sent through the x-ray machine. I had to insist that a supervisor be called to confirm that I could not be required to remove my binder, and at one point during this confrontation there were four big men in the tiny room with me, which is an intimidating situation.
At least during my most recent screening, nobody asked me to take the binder off--I was only directed to untuck and lift my shirt so that the agent could reach under the shirt and swab the binder for hazardous substances. Still, things went far from smoothly, because for some reason, when tested, the swab that the agent used to swipe over my binder and clothing set off an alarm as positive for some unspecified "substance".
That's when the atmosphere got a lot more serious. Another agent was called. All my carry-on belongings had to be removed from my backpack and medical equipment bag and swabbed for "substances". I had to have a more intensive triple pat-down of my entire body, including my "sensitive areas" (TSA-speak for groin, buttocks and chest). Multiple parts of my body were swabbed, including all of the outside surfaces of my binder, which I had to reveal in its entirety by lifting my shirt. And when this round of swabs was analyzed, two of them again tested as positive for suspicious substances (apparently two different substances, though the agents wouldn't tell me what they might be).
At this point, supervisors were called, as well as an agency office in Madison. My ID was confiscated, and my name, address, license number and phone number taken for entry into some database. There were now three men in the room with me, and a supervising woman standing outside the door. I was given a very intensive pat-down. When conversation turned once again to my binder and how to "clear" it, I had to remind the agents that as a prosthetic device, I could not be asked to remove it. So an agent proceeded to wedge his hands under the binder and grope my chest--to disprove, I suppose, his hypothesis that my bound breasts might somehow be bombs--a deeply uncomfortable experience, physically and psychologically.
At this point I was worried that I wouldn't be allowed to board my plane at all. I really, really wanted to know what the agents thought my binder was contaminated with.
Here's the thing I didn't know at the time, that my daughter, waiting nearby, told me afterwards: it was obvious that something was wrong with the equipment that analyzes the screening swabs. It was oversensitive or faulty. The device was setting off an alarm to report detecting suspicious substances every time a swab was inserted for every person being tested, including a little old lady in a wheelchair. The agents outside the screening room in which I were detained were complaining to one another about the equipment, and asking that it be recalibrated or replaced, as the next day was a busy one for holiday travel, and they were worried that the machine was going to cause a disaster in delays as it gave off false alarm after false alarm.
This situation in which I found myself reveals transphobia in action, because the alarms that were being taken very seriously in my case were not being taken seriously at all in the case of the other travelers my daughter observed setting off swab alarms. The agents must have felt that a bunch of middle-aged or older white cisgender travelers posed no real risk, and those travelers were quickly sent on their way. But I and my binder were treated as a credible threat. This is how privilege and marginalization work, along so many dimensions of identity: by determining what is deemed innocuous and what is considered suspicious. When I first entered the screening area, I was treated with friendly professional camaraderie, enjoying white male privilege--not pulled aside, for example, for the "random" additional screening that so often amounts to the screening of brown people at the Milwaukee airport. But once my trans status was revealed, the friendly TSA treatment I was experiencing quickly switched to intensive surveillance. Thus, alarms that were not taken seriously in the case of other passengers were treated with stony suspicion in my case.
Now, when I am detained for additional security screening, I always try to keep things light. I stay calm and make friendly conversation, in an attempt to present myself as nonthreatening, and as a human being making human connections. This time, two of the four agents who wound up inspecting and questioning me maintained an unsmiling stare despite my efforts to be friendly, but two responded by adopting a casual, chatting tone. Unfortunately, that proved as hurtful as it was helpful.
I think it was helpful, in that although I was detained for over three quarters of an hour, eventually I was released and allowed to board my plane, despite setting off TSA alarms several times. But it was hurtful in that it led to a further delay and additional screening--of my daughter.
So here's how that transpired. During the screening, I had chatted with one of the agents about my travel plans--visiting relatives with my daughter--so the agents in the room with me knew that my travel companion was my college-aged child. But after my 45-minute screening was finished and I was just waiting for paperwork to be completed so I could be released, the door was opened, and the woman who was the supervisor, who was standing outside it, began chatting with me. She wanted me to know it would be a few more minutes until the paperwork was finished, and inquired about when my flight departed. I replied that I still had sufficient time to make my plane, as my wife and I had learned, both being transgender, that we needed to budget extra time for frequent additional screening.
The supervisor told me that that was very wise, and complained how so many people who ought to know better don't budget the full two hours one is supposed to set aside to go through ticketing and security, and then get upset when they miss their planes. She then asked me a few questions about what I meant exactly when I stated that my spouse and I were transgender. I explained that I was assigned female at birth, while my wife was assigned male, but we had both legally gender transitioned. She responded in a manner both friendly and uncomfortable, saying,"I get you, even if lots of people are against that. You have to be yourself, even if people don't understand it. You're very lucky that you found a wife who understands." (She also asked me, "How did they give you that beard?," so I explained testosterone therapy.)
The supervisor then walked off, saying that they should have me released soon, but that now they would need to "screen my travel companion and her carry on items." And she got another woman TSA agent, and took my daughter off to the "female" screening room.
I was puzzled by this, as was my kid, since she had been sitting nearby ever since I was detained after being scanned while she was not. She had been waiting for most of an hour without anyone implying she needed additional screening. But she complied, went off to be isolated in the screening room, watched while all her things were taken out of her backpack and examined, and submitted to a full-body pat-down. The supervisor chatted with her while doing this in a friendly manner, but was very thorough and intensive in the screening she was conducting. Then, at some point, the agent said something to my daughter about what "your husband explained." My kid cut in to yelp, "Ack, that's not my husband, that's my DAD!" And suddenly the whole atmosphere changed, and the agent told my daughter she was free to go after three quick seconds of additional halfhearted patting.
It was immediately obvious that my daughter, who had set off no alarms and been considered no threat for 45 minutes, had suddenly transformed into a security risk in the mind of the TSA when an agent came to believe she was my transgender wife rather than my cisgender daughter. When this was revealed as a misunderstanding, the perception of my daughter as posing some sort of threat immediately evaporated. The TSA's formal policy that passengers will be treated equally, regardless of gender identity, is belied by actions like this.
A few months ago, Shadi Petosky, a trans woman and television comedy producer, had an experience similar to mine with the TSA. A body scanner registered an "anomaly" in the area of her groin, she was patted down and questioned about what that anomaly was, and when she responded that she was a trans woman and that it was part of her anatomy, she was taken aside for additional screening. A swab of her clothing for some reason set off an alarm for some potentially explosive substance. She was interrogated, treated with trans ignorance, subjected to stares and sniggers, and detained for a substantial period of time. Since she didn't set aside the recommended two hours white cis people almost never set aside for screening, she missed her plane. She found the experience of her trans body being treated as a dangerous "anomaly" humiliating--and she live-tweeted what was happening to her until her phone was taken away.
Petosky's case got a fair bit of media attention due to her experience being live-tweeted and shared. Afterwards, the TSA declared that they had listened carefully to Petosky's complaints, and all would now be well, as the TSA was releasing a new policy. That policy was that the TSA would replace the word "anomaly" with "alarm".
In fact, I know that this promised change in terminology has not actually been implemented at the level of practice. During my last TSA encounter, I referred to the body scanner's response to my bound chest as "an alarm," and was told by the supervisor that I was using terminology incorrectly: the swab setting off the analyzer was "an alarm," while the body scanner had reacted to "an anomaly."
But I really don't care about whether the TSA calls my body "anomalous" or "alarming." Under either term, trans bodies are treated as security threats. The supposed new TSA policy of saying "alarm" instead of "anomaly" does nothing more than put a gloss of sensitivity over an actual practice that frames trans bodies as strange, wrong, and dangerous.
Binary sex and gender policing are foundational to how body scanners are currently set up to function. Each passenger must be designated blue-for-boy or pink-for-girl in order to start the scan, and men are not "allowed" to have breasts, nor women to have a penis, according to the scanner's software. As long as that is how body scans are conducted, trans bodies will inevitably be policed as security threats.
The TSA may claim that trans people will be treated just like cis people by its agents, but its nondiscrimination policy conflicts with the actual practices of its agents and the functioning of the body scanners they deploy.
For these reasons, things have not gotten better for those of us who are traveling while trans. The only thing that has really changed, in my experience, is that the TSA now presents itself as enlightened, and is congratulated for that--including by some LGBTI organizations.
In a way, it's this that is for me the most frustrating and hurtful part of the whole situation. Trans people continue to be treated as wrongly and dangerously embodied. We continue to be pulled aside, isolated, groped, and our bodies stared at by TSA agents whose expressions often flash to that of a person smelling garbage. But we're told that everything's come up roses for us and we should dance for joy because we now live in the promised land of equality.
Better to just tell it like it is. The TSA's actual policy is that people with bodies that do not conform to binary, cisgender expectations can be treated as freakish security threats. If you have a body like that, budget an hour more of time at the airport than your friends with conforming bodies set aside, or you may miss your plane.
That's the real policy under which I operate whenever I fly.
Wednesday, October 7, 2015
I suppose it was only a matter of time. A transphobic bathroom gender-policing bill has hit my home state and its Republican-controlled legislature.
Republican state legislators have proposed a bill to require that Wisconsin schools:
1. "Designate all locker rooms and bathrooms for one gender exclusively;"
2. Only allow students to access facilities matching their "biological gender" as determined by chromosomes and anatomy at birth (a framing which incidentally puts intersex children in a terrible position, apparently banned from using any bathroom);
3. Allow transphobic parents to "file a written complaint if they feel their student’s privacy is being violated because of transgender students’ use of a school’s bathroom or locker room;"
4. If transphobic parents are not satisfied by the school's resolution of the complaint, allow them to "file a lawsuit against the district seeking money or other kinds of damages" (among which is mentioned in discussion by one of the bill's sponsors the expulsion of the trans child from the school); and
5. Require the state Department of Justice to defend school districts in lawsuits alleging the policy is discriminatory.
Now, mind you, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights has determined that Title IX guarantees trans students protection, including access to facilities that match their gender identity. The U.S. Department of Justice holds that forcing trans students to use a specially-designated separate bathroom instead of the regular gendered facilities violates that student's civil rights. So a lawsuit will follow, and I as a taxpayer will have to pay to have the state lawyers argue that people like me and my wife should be segregated and excluded and treated as a threat.
The legislators introducing this bill use the same-old, same-old tactic of disguising their hatred of trans people as a noble urge to Protect the Children. "What if a [cis] girl is followed into a restroom by someone and she can't tell if it is a trans gender student or a dangerous [cis] male up to no good?" Time after time, cities and towns and school districts voting on whether to protect trans people from discrimination have been faced with hysterical claims that (cis) women and girls would be attacked by a flood of predators if trans people's rights are respected. Time and again, it hasn't happened. You see, it is already illegal to assault people. (Which is not to say that girls and students of other genders aren't sexually assaulted with depressing frequency at high schools. But what is enabling this isn't that their assailants are pretending to be trans--it's that they are seen as very normatively masculine, their behavior is written off with a shrug as "boys will be boys," and it's the victims who get shamed. If Republicans really wanted to protect students from sexual assault, they'd attack rape culture, not trans students.)
I hope that Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, and Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, and their counterparts in the other cities and states who are introducing a rash of transphobic "bathroom bills," some day come to feel the full weight of shame their actions deserve. Bear in mind that 78% of trans K-12 students are harassed and assaulted at school. A large-scale study of college students found that a quarter of trans students were raped during their college career. And as a result of pervasive mistreatment and disrespect, 41% of trans people report having attempted suicide in their lives. The transmisogynist trope of "men in dresses" posing some pervasive social threat to cis women and girls conceals the reality: that trans children and adults are victimized and abused and murdered at terrible rates. And the actions of legislators like Kewaskum and Nass treat this state of affairs as all well and good--as in fact, a state that should be made worse.
We really need to work to protect trans children in schools, not attack them. A fair number of school districts in Wisconsin have instituted policies to protect trans students, including the one in which I live and the districts of Menasha and Madison. Students here in Shorewood have been very supportive of the protection of trans students' rights to use the bathroom in peace. In Madison, any student who is possessed by an irrational fear of possibly encountering a trans person in a bathroom is directed to use a special single-stall nongendered facility. There have been no issues, no rash of cis boys suddenly telling everyone they are trans so that they can assault cis girls.
What Republican legislators here in Wisconsin and elsewhere who are introducing gender-policing bathroom bills want to do is reverse the modest degree of social progress trans people have made. They are standing on the side of hate, and their victims are the children, teens and adults who really need protection.
Friday, September 18, 2015
All around the world, people are being maltreated because they are born intersex, or they are trans, or they have a sexual orientation or identity that is in the minority. And LGBTI+ rights have become a battleground in international law. Representatives of nations including the influential Russia have been fighting at the U.N. against the idea that gender and sexual minorities should be protected, and continue to criminalize same-sex activity, gender transgression, and attempts to gender transition. It's important that the U.S. fight for the rights of sex, gender and sexual minorities.
So I was glad to hear today that the U.S. delegation to the U.N. is going to do this. Deputy U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Richard Erdman announced U.S."support for the rights and dignity of all individuals regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity," even where those rights have not been recognized in international law. (Bans on "sodomy" are now against international law, but international law doesn't protect gender identity, nor does it recognize a right to same-gender marriage.)
It's great that the U.S. delegation to the U.N. is taking some action. What's not great at all is the language that has been chosen. The "U.S. government says it will begin using the term 'sexual rights' in discussions of human rights and global development" to refer to the rights of sex, gender and sexually marginalized people, and to the right to protection of "sexual and reproductive health."
I have to say, as an intersex trans person, this is highly problematic. Being trans is not about sexuality. (Neither is being intersex; unfortunately the U.S. government hasn't gotten around to considering the idea that intersex people have a right to physical autonomy.)
I'm all for sexual and reproductive health. Sexual orientation should be protected. These issues can certainly be linked together under the banner of sexual rights. But sticking trans people in there as a sort of afterthought actually does us damage. It winds up further entrenching damaging beliefs about us: that people gender transition due to some sort of sexual kink, and that how we have sex and thus the status of our genitalia is what defines who we "really are."
We've been explaining for years that gender identity is not a sexuality, but even people who are trying to act as allies seem only to half-hear us. It's good to hear our U.N. deputy ambassador use the phrase "sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity". . . but then that gets collapsed into "sexual rights," which is not good to hear at all.
One more time, people: gender identity and sexuality are different things.
Wednesday, August 26, 2015
(Dr. Richard A. Friedman is a psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of depression with drugs. He has a side gig writing pop psychology opinion pieces for the New York Times, and on August 22nd, the Times published an op-ed of his on trans people. Friedman has no special knowledge or expertise on trans issues or gender transition. In fact, he cites ridiculously outdated forty-year-old research on the "sissy boy syndrome" (which basically held that boys who wish to and are permitted to play with dolls grow up to be "homosexuals"). But Friedman uses his social authority as a professor of medicine to frame his personal negative opinions about gender transition and trans experience as The Truth. And his opinion piece immediately became one of the Times' most emailed and read items. This blog post is a parody of Friedman's piece, following his line of arguments but replacing sexuality and gender with career paths.)
How Changeable Are Career Interests?
By Richard A. Friedman, MBA
Professor of Finance, Burberry Business School
Space exploration has been much in the news recently, with the New Horizons spacecraft providing dramatic images of Pluto's "heart," and astronauts on the International Space Station shown munching on lettuce grown in orbit. While astronauts make up a tiny percentage of the employed population, they have been getting a lot of media attention.
Certainly we should allow people to have whatever careers they wish, including atypical ones like becoming an astronaut. Society once looked down at "computer geeks," but today developers of software and applications run successful businesses and are embraced by many. We now know that therapies aimed at curing nerdiness by withholding computers and forcing individuals to play sports or take ballet classes are not effective. Is something similar true for those who profess a desire to pursue a career as an astronaut?
Scientific evidence does seem to show that while most people are intrinsically drawn either to jobs that pay well, or jobs that are stable and secure, career desires exist on a spectrum. Some people are, for whatever reason, committed to careers that are both insecure yet rarely make them wealthy, such as being in a band or venturing into space.
So, how should career counselors approach individuals who profess an interest in becoming a drummer or piloting a space craft, and state they cannot be happy unless they enter these careers?
Unfortunately, research shows that people who pursue these careers do not achieve the happiness they seek. Many aspirant rock stars find themselves playing small gigs in local bars, unable to support themselves, disappointing and angering their parents. The chances of those who wish to become astronauts ever being launched on a mission are low, and those who do go into space face mortal risks that destabilitze relationships with spouses and children. It seems that many would be much better off getting a job in middle management, and making Spotify playlists or building model spaceships as a hobby. And, in fact, this is what many people in the end choose to do. It seems that an interest in unstable careers is more malleable and is more of a choice than a fixed characteristic such as nerdiness.
Still, we are good libertarian individualists, and believe that people should be able to make whatever career choices they wish. If a grown man or woman believes that they could be the next Beyoncé or Neil Armstrong, despite all the eye-rolling they get from others, so be it.
But what about the children?
The issue of whether to encourage children who say they plan to be astronauts when they grow up is extremely controversial. In fact, most career counseling professionals I spoke with refused to discuss the issue on the record. I was warned that if I dared to write about the reasons why such encouragement is a bad idea, I would be attacked by the astronaut lobby.
But I must speak truth to power. And that truth is that children often have unrealistic fantasies about their future careers. Many children state that they want to dig up dinosaurs or be elected president or become a professional gymnast when they grow up. And studies show that of all the children who write a school essay about their intent to become an astronaut, as many as 80% may grow up to have typical corporate jobs in adulthood.
Now, when astronauts are interviewed, we do find that virtually every one of them first expressed interest in this career as a young child. But how can we possibly tell whether a child who says they want to go into space some day will be one of these "persisters," when most children lose interest in such an insecure career path? So if you are, say, the parent of an 8-year-old who says she is going to be an astronaut, we can see why you might tell the child, "No, you won't."
Some claim that there are many studies that show that supporting children in their atypical career interests increases their self-esteem, improves their mental health, and betters their future financial success. But these are all flawed, because the researchers do not randomly assign the children studied to have typical or atypical career interests! Instead, we should focus on a forty-year-old study that found that boys who were allowed to obsessively play space-themed video games like Asteroid were likely to grow up to be nerds--not astronauts. Clearly, this study is much more relevant, and shows that we should not take a childhood interest in space seriously.
What is troubling is that many parents are in fact not just tolerating their children's probably transitory interests in atypical careers, but encouraging them. If the children claim an interest in space piloting, they are decorating their children's rooms with posters of the solar system, enrolling them in science enrichment courses, helping them with science-fair projects about comets--even sending children as young as 7 to Space Camp. Children who say they want to be pop stars are purchased instruments and enrolled in music lessons, given dance classes, permitted to adopt extravagant hairstyles, and applauded while participating in talent shows and even karaoke.
These actions may be irreversible.
What a school career counselor should do, given the social and psychological realities, is to tell parents to do nothing to encourage a child who expresses an interest in an insecure career, but take a wait-and-see approach. The parents should not enroll the child in science or music camp, or purchase them a telescope or keyboard. They should ask teachers not to encourage their children's stated interests in an insecure career. Children should not be allowed to wear t-shirts picturing the International Space Station or Skrillex. Career counselors should emphasize that most children will outgrow their youthful fantasies and become ordinary and respectable business and professional employees--accountants and assistant managers and customer service representatives.
Activists such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson and advocacy organizations such as the American Federation of Musicians do urge parents to support children's interests in astronomy and music. They claim that children, even young ones, should be supported in any career interest they express, and that to refuse to do this is equivalent to the conversion therapy that was formerly practiced on computer nerds. Such a position is misguided. Career choices are malleable, and we must not take radical action based on cherished personal beliefs about valuing all careers equally.
We must be skeptical and demand more data, rather than damaging children by supporting their interests.