Picture of a Lost Child
Stock photos are selling the whole story in anti-trans “journalism”
By T. Bloom
Above is a stock photo used as a header image for a recent Breitbart article about a US state’s victory in banning trans healthcare for kids.
It hardly matters which article, or even which state ban. There’s a new one of each practically every day. And since I only read Breitbart for purposes of opposition research, I’m more interested in their overall packaging of these issues than in the specific viewpoints they share, which are numbingly repetitive and rarely surprising. I’ve always been the “know your enemy” type who looks at all the Bad Stuff. I certainly don’t expect anyone else to share my capacity for this daily torment, but hopefully I can at least impart a little perspective from my time spent scuba-diving in web sewage.
Firstly, it’s doubtful their “readers” are even reading these articles — all folks’ appetites really require is a headline, an image, and a comment section. So the use of imagery by the far right can be much more substantive than anything below the fold, allowing viewers to feel like they put together the story in their own head, forming their own views… which they are literally doing, in the absence of real information.
So what do these images say, without saying a word?
This first one — go look again! — is meant to remind us about how vulnerable kids can be in the adult world, how scared they are of being alone, how dependent they are on us for help. The hospital robe conjures anxieties related to inpatient care — which gender-affirming medicine for young kids basically never is.
Any parent of a young child knows that medical stuff involving children is all about presence, communication. Kids are almost never alone with strangers if it can be helped. Gender-affirming care for minors tends to be a community effort involving a small circle of trusted individuals. It involves teachers and counselors, meetings with mental health specialists, medical appointments with parents and doctors present. This care is not always offered with kindness or understanding, but it is far from impersonal.
There’s generally a long road to medical interventions such as puberty-blockers (which are routinely assigned to cis children who enter puberty too early or have other hormonal complications). Most of the prescribed care for young children revolves around social transition and mental health checkups, giving them the longest possible runway for exploring gender in non-permanent ways before the challenges related to puberty begin to arrive. And sometimes this care involves prescription drugs that delay puberty, to extend this window of adjustment.
That’s it! That’s the reality awaiting the extremely small number of US families that explore medical care for gender-nonconforming kids.
Personally I'd consider the figure pictured above to have no clear gender markers at all, but the editors definitely want us to see a young girl here, to solicit the strongest emotional reaction. Or are we meant to see a boy who is already lost in the process of transitioning? This slight ambiguity is convenient, activating any unease the viewer feels in the face of gender confusion.
Either way, the stuffed bear's presence suggests a strong need for comfort and consolation. Meanwhile, the photographer’s voyeuristic perspective suggests the powerlessness or ambivalence of the onlooker, watching from the other side of the curtain, either unable or unwilling to help.
Who will help her? Who will intervene on her behalf?
Here’s another example. Again, a young white girl; again clutching a stuffed animal; again, faceless and "alone" despite being almost close enough for the viewer to reach out to.
This child appears to be participating in some kind of LGBTQ Pride event, or a protest rally. The subtext of this image couldn't be clearer, warning against indoctrination, against involving children in issues which are beyond their understanding. There seem to be no other kids in the frame, only some nearby grownups standing in the sunlight who are so involved in the event, they seem oblivious to the child’s presence, her isolation in the shadowy foreground. There’s a clear “us” and “them” presented: through the photographer’s lens, the viewer is meant to feel they see and understand this child better than those others do, sensing a close alignment with someone lingering at the threshold of a clear ideological split.
For reference, this image accompanied a story about Wichita, KS public school officials urging correct pronoun usage, citing statistics that show a higher rate of suicide and self-harm among young trans folks who receive no community support.
The viewer of this image will instinctively sense that at-risk children need more tangible forms of "support"than a pronoun or hairstyle change. Which is true, but in an inverse way than the editors intend; this picture was chosen to strengthen the viewer's confidence in believing they know the child's needs better, are much closer to her somehow, than the excited mass of blurred-out activists in the distance.
What's being debated in Breitbart’s story is the school's right to "undermine parental authority" by listening to kids and supporting their gender-related needs while on campus, regardless of how the child may be presenting at home. The school's priorities are being aligned with the activists rallying over yonder, but who understands the needs of this child better? Who's closer?
Not just parents, according to the photo, but literally any fretful onlooker who is susceptible to this POV.
Alright, just one more. As you probably already noticed, this one is quite different. I’ll let the headline explain why:
CDC: Heterosexual Children Healthier, Happier than ‘LGBQ+’ Peers
These children shy away from no one, joyously and ebulliently facing the viewer. Their gender presentation is blithe and scrappy, nothing to be overly self-conscious about. A boy and two girls, all with long hair? It barely matters, because the headline has already reassured us that these are heterosexual children — they have a strong sense of identification in those roles even at a young age, which Brietbart’s audience assumes is healthy and natural. (A consistent minority of children do not, and must be kept from learning about other options at all costs.)
Compared to the other kids, these three appear to be free from the threat of outside intrusions and dangerous unknowns. They aren’t alone, they have each other — and they seem to appeal directly to the viewer, including us in their effortless enjoyment of life. And in case it’s not obvious, the blondeness of all these children is also part of the story. Little blonde white girls will always serve as the Example Child in terms of who conservatives insist they’re trying to protect, eliciting the most convenient gut-level emotional appeal, regardless of the gender of the viewer.
Like the other two photos, the appeal of this one is based on sympathetic longing. This is the fantasy of childhood with no confusion, no isolation, no sexual scariness creeping in from the wider world. Just kids being kids, as conservatives insist they should be allowed to do… and actually do still manage to do, even upon discovering the existence of homo-romanticism and gender variance.
Oh, and I neglected to mention: the article accompanying this image is about poll results related to high school students. Unsurprisingly, those receiving social affirmation related to their gender and sexual orientation (cisgender, heterosexual) are reporting fewer mental health problems. Those receiving less social affirmation due to being gay, bisexual, trans, and/or non-binary are self-reporting a much unhappier and unhealthier experience.
Conservatives will chalk this up to differences in “interpreting data”, which sounds like something smart people do in response to scientific research, but a majority of doctors and scientists have already spent decades interpreting data like this and making the same recommendations — all of which revolve around acceptance, social transition and (if it becomes necessary) medical support.
It’s worth pointing out that while the first two images elicit strong sympathetic emotions, they’re still depersonalizing, removing identity in a way that will likely be justified as protective — but that’s still a paternalistic gesture afforded to those dealing with something shameful. Only the “heterosexual” children are presented as fully-realized human beings.
Shame is deeply embedded in anti-trans rhetoric, because the forms of control which have been used to enforce gender conformity in the past have entirely depended on shame, and they have finally begun to fail. Pressure from peers and adults is supposed to gradually translate into self-motivated conformity, and even violence against children can be excused in service to this greater good.
The fact that openly LGBTQ+ people see nothing shameful about existing as themselves, and have been so successful in finding community among each other and building broader public acceptance, constitutes a worst-case scenario for anyone whose ideal world is predominantly white, heterosexual, patriarchal, and capitalist. Hence the resort to scare-tactics related to pedophilia — the most shameful thing they can imagine, and thus an irresistible erotic fascination that runs rampant through conservative/religious culture, a consequence of the kind of sexual repression that’s been documented for over a century and taught in Psychology 101.
Okay, I lied, here’s one more:
And the accompanying headline:
Kentucky House Passes Bill Banning Child Sex Change Attempts
Obviously, there’s no such thing as a “child sex change,” unless you count operations performed on intersex infants to force them into a binary gender assignation. And obviously, the actual child pictured here was never at risk of having their sex changed — that’s the magic of stock photography, you can just search sites by keywords like “child, medical” and pick through the hundreds of results for examples that will strengthen your narrative.
The legislation in question would, in fact, specifically ban “child sex change” surgeries (which aren’t happening) but its actual target is puberty blockers, a tool used to temporarily slow down the urgency of any further decisions related to transition.
This image/headline combo is less emotionally manipulative than my previous examples, but it’s factually dishonest in a way that illustrates my main point: conservatives are either gullible enough to mistake this for truth, because they want it to be true, their beliefs depend on it being true… or they’re cynical enough to know that it’s not, but recognize that hyperbole serves their greater good.
When challenged with facts, many of the former folks will quickly default to the latter stance. This is why pointing out hypocrisy continues to fail as a liberal media tactic against transphobia: this isn’t about logic, or science, or a close reading of a religious person’s professed beliefs. It all truly boils down to fear and hatred, and the canny (and extremely profitable) manipulation thereof. To someone who’s both ignorant and dishonest, literally any inconsistency is excusable.
With leading papers like the New York Times refusing to report on the reality experienced by most trans kids and their families, the void in reporting is being filled with images like these. Stock photos, candid photos from drag and/or Pride events, anything that highlights the vulnerability of children. And yet, the definition of "minor" is being edged up to age 25 out of pretend concern for those who are viewed as still too vulnerable and “lost” to know what they’re doing to themselves; images of small children are being used to help advance laws affecting completely grown adults, but including pictures of these latter patients — and there are tons of them, thanks to trans folks online sharing details about their medical journey — simply wouldn’t produce the desired effect.
So in the absence of public interest in the lives of real people, the discussion is being ruled by these phantom children: confused, scared, blonde kids who could probably be guided back to a little "normal" life with a little TLC (and a little discipline) from the right people. Ironically, Tennessee House Majority Leader William Lamberth emphasized that such kids "need mental health treatment," even though all the established mental health protocols would recommend not passing the bill in question.
So, as haunted as I am by the real life developments in TN, KY, and a dozen other states, something about the photos accompanying these news stories is especially ominous. They’re a perfect distillation of what's being sold to voters across the country, who are being rallied (whether they realize it or not) to help save and comfort faceless, mythical white children, even if it means vaporizing life-saving and life-enhancing options for a small number of very real children and adults — many of whom have already had their lives drastically improved by access to this care, and are now facing impossible choices as it's stripped away week by week, state by state.
It’s time to recognize that reason, compassion, and words alone will never be enough counter this gut-level appeal to eradicate transgender people; if they were, we would never have ended up here in the first place.
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