On Wednesday, a Minnesota mother named Anamarie Calagro held a press conference, reciting familiar lines about the flightiness of youth with a very specific agenda: to prevent her emancipated 17-year-old kid’s gender transition. “When we were teenagers we were all sorts of crazy confused,” she told a roomful of reporters.
In framing her kid’s transition along the lines of youth’s hormone-fueled idiocy, Calagro hopes to win a lawsuit against not only her child but the local school district, a public health official, and a handful of nonprofits. These agencies, a statement issued by her legal team suggests, cannot fully comprehend the “insecurities, strengths, weaknesses, fears, and dreams” of the person she gave birth to. It’s the kind of knowledge only a mother—in this case, a mother who didn’t report her child missing, who cut off contact and financial support years ago—could have. “We should have our side of it heard,” she said. And on her side, her daughter is just a slightly confused son.
It should come as little surprise that the case, which centers on the self-emancipated minor’s ability to seek medical care without parental notification, is backed by the anti-trans Minnesota Child Protection League and the Thomas More Society of Chicago. The latter, as NBCOut reported, also defended the man caught buying organs on the black market in hopes of framing Planned Parenthood. If the Calgaro team wins, it’s possible self-emancipated minors will have to notify their parents if they get an abortion, as well.
Most legislative attempts to lock down teenagers’ bodies focus on reproductive rights and ages of consent; that this one is about gender identity doesn’t change the basic anxiety behind it. During the press conference, Calagro pointed out that her kid could have decided to “become sterile” without her knowledge. Even within the legal rubric established to allow self-sufficient young people to escape the control of the people who created them, the idea that a teenager’s body belongs to them is terrifying from a conservative worldview.
Laws dictating family structures and adolescent agency have been altered countless times, but the primary assumption—that young people can’t be trusted to maintain their own innocence—remains the same. Even today, the easiest way to become legally separated from your parents is to marry. In most states, if you want to be emancipated, your parents have to draw up the paperwork and petition the court themselves.
The laws that dictate the lines between adulthood and childhood in the US have been redrawn countless times since consent laws (applied only to women, of course) were imported from the British colonies; they’ve been influenced more by property rights and the enforcement of female purity than any real benchmarks of maturity. In the early 19th century, as family law was restructured around distinctly Victorian sensibilities, the role of the pious and domestic wife–mother–property combo came into sharp focus, but so did the role of the child. As family historian Steve Mintz writes, the moment brought along with it “a new sentimental conception of children as vulnerable and malleable creates with special innocence,” at least for the dominant class. Ages of consent were as low as 10 or 12, unless the woman in question married, of course, in which case she became the property of another family.
By the early 1900s, narratives of female virtue and encroaching sexual danger took a more prominent role. Religious groups lobbied to raise “the age at which a girl could legally consent to her own ruin” to between 16 and 18, penalizing women's adolescent desire as if they were the children consent laws were originally written to protect.
As recounted by the historian Carolyn Cocca, Tennessee raised the age of consent to nearly 21, while other states mocked the raise—some local legislatures proposed the age of consent be upped to 81, or that all women be required to wear chastity belts. Yet such laws, intended to maintain the chastity of the young, white, and affluent, struck terror into the hearts of men seeing feminine wiles (and the invented trope of the hypersexualized women of color) as tools to be used against a man’s natural inclination. One representative from Kentucky wrote, “What a terrible weapon for evil, the elevating of the age of consent would be, when placed in the hands of a lecherous, sensual negro woman.” It would be several decades before ages of consent were applied to both men and women, and punishment reduced for young people who were around the same age.
The first and only time such statutes came to the Supreme Court, it was over the issue of gender, in 1981. The court ruled it constitutional to hold women and men to different standards when it came to criminalized sex, claiming a double standard was not “inherently suspect,” as the biological ability to carry children made sex riskier for women.
A number of measures still in effect today are similarly coded: the Clinton administration largely understood consent laws as part of social welfare programming. In further criminalizing teenaged sexuality, it hoped to lower the amount the state would spend assisting unwed mothers. Such reforms, rolling back to progressive push for more realistic consent laws during the 1970s, continued through the ‘90s. Whether the law actually prevents teenagers from sleeping together is up for debate. It certainly doesn’t keep them from sexting, as several recent instances in which consenting adolescents have been slammed with child pornography charges, have shown.
Ages of consent and the behaviors they end up criminalizing are simply the clearest examples of how the state wrests control of young people’s bodies using the rhetoric of health and safety. In most parts of America (Minnesota notwithstanding) unwed teenagers can’t control their medical records, their school paperwork, or their finances without their parents making a concerted effort to emancipate them. Many don’t have access to birth control, nevermind hormones. Just last week, a senator proposed a bill in Texas that might require schools to out LGBTQ kids to their parents.
It's something of a truism that young people tend to have more progressive values than their elders; in an America increasingly fractured along the lines of religion and identity, the chasm between generations will likely become more pressing. And, as is so often the case, the boundaries drawn by the state, touted by lawmakers as necessary protections, will be just as often used to patrol the values of the culture at large.