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Let’s not be hasty when we “fix” transgender kids

December 26, 2015

I was raised in large part with the freedom to shape my own gender. With two older brothers, most of the toys in the house were “for boys”. Some, which were “for girls” were bought for me. I played with some of the boys toys, but not all; my brothers played with some of the girls toys, but not all. We liked a mixture, and the mixture was different to each other, but not at all easily gendered.

I liked to wear baseball caps and trousers, never dresses. I collected ants, played with wrestling figures and dinosaurs. These were my masculine traits. Of course, they weren’t masculine traits at all. Some of them were random; others of them must have been about reading other people. There was no gender reason for me to hate dresses. I may have simply hated them regardless of the fact that they were “for girls” – but I think at least part of me hated them because I did always see them on girls.

Children can spot patterns like that. If it was For Girls, I wanted no part of it. I only wanted what was for boys. Not everything that was for boys, but only things that were. I wouldn’t play much with cars, so I still had tastes within “for boys”. Yet, I never knew that my kitchen set was For Girls, nor my fluffy cats, nor my dress up box full of weird sequinned things from charity shops. I loved dressing up those cuddly toys in sequins, then making them a cake sandwich with lettuce. I never knew these as things that girls did.

So, in other words, the idea of being able to see gender by behaviour is a fib; but, one’s idea of one’s own gender regardless of arbitrary expressions of it, that is viscerally real. I didn’t want the girl’s things not because I wouldn’t have liked them, but because they were for girls. I didn’t want to be associated with them. It suggests to me that even children strongly desire a recognised difference in sex and gender. It is note purely an adult construction.

Yet, gender transition in children is a dodgy concept. I didn’t transition as a child. Apart from the fact that it Wasn’t Quite the Thing in the ’90s, I think the freedom to just do as I pleased without being lectured constantly about Being a Girl is the reason why no one caught my transgenderism earlier. That’s a mixed blessing. I endured several years of confusion, not knowing that transgenderism existed, that there were options out… I ended up suppressing my feelings about gender. I understood them less as I got older and became more detached from them.

I moved from wanting to be seen as a boy to wanting to have no physical body at all. At the time, it seemed like the only way to get out of the ineffable, irrepressible feeling that my physical presence was just wrong. It was because I was increasingly silenced by other children whenever I tentatively suggested anything about my true gender. I received, in no uncertain terms, instructions that I shouldn’t be doing that, because that is what boys do. I should be doing this instead. I’ve no idea where they got that idea from; their parents, perhaps. Observations. Observations caused by the behaviour of parents towards siblings and peers, quite oblivious of the fact that their decisions were bad news for me.

It became harder to explain as I became more articulate, not easier. Eventually, it was impossible. Like most children, I discussed my concerns with my peers, not my elders; I feared my elders. I litmus tested my peers, hated what I saw, and quailed from adults as a result. It never occurred to me that adults felt differently to children; no child I spoke to understood what I was saying, so adults would understand even less, I thought. I might even get in trouble.

For the other children, my feelings made no sense. Their gender was their sex, there was no mystery about it. For me it was impossible to explain that you didn’t Feel Like a Girl, because to children, being female and child is being a girl. This is why it’s hard for me to take seriously people who still believe that in adulthood, whatever the reason; it sounds like children talking.

I think it’s true that if left to do your own thing, as a child you don’t mediate on biological sex too much. I was happy to play with my ants uninterrupted, until the criticisms came. I had no built-in sense of the utter importance of one’s sex to oneself. But by God, I did by the time I was a teenager. It was too late; it was latent by then. Pressed down by years of knowing that to feel that way was wrong. Not in the moral sense; in the sense of simply being incorrect. You can’t feel that way. It’s impossible.

If that social pressure was gone, I’m sure it would only have properly occurred to me when I hit puberty, when sexuality became an integral part of my experience of the world. Biological sex and sexuality are bound together; how can you imagine sexuality of any kind, if you don’t know your own sex? And I didn’t know. I no longer understood what was clear to me as a child. It had been muddied completely; rare moments of enlightenment, when expressed, were as swiftly squashed as they had been when I was younger.

Yet, for all this, would my life have improved if, at the age of six, someone had understood that I was transgendered, and intervened in my life? A part of me doubts it. We talk about it being cruel to raise children to embrace transgenderism too early, practically starting the sex change process. That may be right. I was 18 before I properly understood and wanted to start transitioning. I had a long time living the other way without my life being impossible. There were dark bits, and they came from inside my own mind; my life was no worse than that of someone who has lived with abuse.

The bottom line I think is that we can live through a hell of a lot before we break, and we might be strengthened by it. By the same token, I think someone could live through a few awkward years misdiagnosed as transgendered when the problem is less extreme than that. It would be a crime to start interfering in that child’s biology, but sociologically you can try what you like and they’ll almost certainly be fine.

It’s really up to the discretion of the parents in response to the wishes of the child. It’s misguided to act, or avoid acting, out of crippling fear of making some kind of negative impact of your child’s life. You will anyway, but without outright abuse your overall effect is likely to be positive, better than if there was no parent. The idea that there is one way to raise a child seems odd to me. Where would we be without our weird parents and their idiosyncrasies? Cue recital of the poem: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.”

However, biological changes, most obviously surgery, are irreversible and should be undertaken with great caution. In fact, I suggest that nothing of that nature be done to anyone under 18, even if they are choosing it. One does not make one’s best choices, then. Within a supportive family and professionals in the field, a teenager could live with being transgendered – especially if they are allowed to identify that way without taking physical intervention.

We can be aware of gender and its intricacy, without putting it on children; they will likely simplify things and get the wrong impression. Wherever they make their own observations that men and women are different, we can simply allow it to develop, understanding that it will one day be key to their sexuality. By the age of 11 or 12, we should understand about sex and gender with as little prejudice as possible. That involves not being given exceptionally heady ideas about transgenderism when we’re knee high to a grasshopper. I don’t think the child brain is capable of that level of self-analysis.

They are not genderless, but they are not yet firmly gendered. There is room for change and growth; we know that a little boy with effeminate tendencies may sometimes be merely gay, not transgendered. Sometimes he is straight as a ruler, but camp as a row of tents. Sometimes he does not stay effeminate, gay, straight or anything in between. Without the understanding of the continuum, we might be encouraging rather than discouraging a culture among children to obsess over gender and sexuality before they have the life experience and terminology to think about it and discuss it. It’s an issue over which we should tread carefully.

If I have a child who I suspect to be transgendered, I will do very little. I will allow them to explore it in terms of behaviour, and talk to them about identity if they start the conversation. I won’t be sitting them down to discuss my life story, or reading them textbooks on the subject. By the same token, I will not be gendering their clothing and their toys or instructing them how to be better boys or girls. I will, expect, use ordinary pronouns and gendered terminology. Uncomfortable for him or her if they do not fit, but ultimately not dangerous. That’s all, I believe, anyone can do in order to be on the safe side of both possibilities.


From → Gender Politics

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