Her voice is raised, and we attract some looks from others in the café as Kate, a care worker and mother of two passionately explains why she believes children should not be taught in school about gender identity. A self-declared ‘lefty, feminist remoaner’ with a deep suspicion of religion the reasons are not those one might expect:
“I don’t want to be ‘one of those parents.’ I think well-taught personal and relationship lessons can help kids grow into well-adjusted adults. But I do not want my ten-year-old daughter to be told that because she wears boys’ shoes and likes football she must really be a boy. I want her to know she can do anything.”
“Being transgender is always in the headlines and kids latch onto that. But what’s wrong with just being you without changing your body? If we didn’t have sexist marketing of toys and clothes I don’t think any of this nonsense would exist.”
Leading LGBT organisations in the UK are pushing for action to tackle ‘transphobic bullying’ and it seems likely that following a government consultation about Personal Social Health Education the theory of gender identity will be taught in schools.
Over recent years there has been an explosion in the rate of child and adolescent referrals to Gender Identity (GID) Clinics with the numbers quadrupling from 2012/3. As referrals have increased so has the disparity between girls and boys, with three natal girls seeking to transition for every one natal boy. This poses the question, why are increasing numbers of girls undertaking painful procedures, such as binding their breasts, in order to avoid growing into an adult female body?
Research suggests that children who are gender non-conforming are more likely to be lesbian, gay or bisexual as adults. There is a very real risk that by understanding gender non-conformity as evidence of being ‘born in the wrong body’ children who would otherwise grow up to be same sex attracted will be misdiagnosed as transgender. Whether this increase in referrals to GID clinics is due to greater understanding of transgender issues, or whether it is evidence of a social contagion remains a contentious point.
Numerous organisations have sprung up to fill the void in schools created by the rapid increase in children identifying as transgender. The Gender Identity Research Education Society (GIRES) offers lesson plans for three to six-year-old children and works extensively with statutory bodies. NHS guidance on how to care for ‘gender variant children and young people’ produced in partnership with GIRES and Mermaids confidently states ‘our brains have different male and female characteristics’ and that ‘Severe gender variance is now understood to be biologically triggered.’
But is this true? Neuroscientists such as Gina Rippon, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Aston University, contest the notion of brain sex, and academic psychologists such as Dr Cordelia Fine have long debunked the ‘neurosexism’ that underpins much research into brain sex difference. The concept of the ‘lady brain’ is one that surely belongs in the 1950s, not in modern British classrooms.
Kate is not alone in her concern about the impact of teaching the theory of gender identity in schools, an increasing number of parents and professionals are beginning to question the ‘born in the wrong body’ narrative. A guide produced by the organisation Transgender Trend, which describes itself as ‘a group of parents based in the UK, who are concerned about the current trend to diagnose ‘gender non-conforming’ children as transgender’ has been downloaded three and a half thousand times in the last week. The guide has been condemned by leading LGBT+ organisation Stonewall.
At the root of this issue is the definition of ‘gender’ itself. For old school feminists like me ‘gender’ is a term to describe sexist societal norms, but for many of those who identify as transgender it is a deeply held sense of self. Look through any of the plethora of online ‘trans coming out’ videos and you’ll find the narratives are strikingly similar; there are almost always descriptions of body hatred and a childhood preference for the toys and clothes socially associated with the opposite sex. How can we fight sexist stereotypes if they are also the foundations of some people’s identity? How can we teach children that they are free to play with dolls and dinosaurs irrespective of their sex, if such cues are recognised by the NHS as symptoms of gender dysphoria?
For every article like this that is published there will be hundreds of heart-wrenching pieces written by transgender adults or the parents of children who identify as transgender. We know they face battles in a hostile world, and it is important to support those who feel discomfort in their own bodies. However, when it comes to the best interests of all children we should not be swayed by the needs of adults- that some face transphobia does not mean we should not ask probing questions. We must be wary that in the rush to affirm the identities of transgender adults we do not trample the bodies of girls who have grown into a world where womanhood is so fraught.
As someone who was a gender non-conforming child it chills me to think that if I were a teen now my tomboyish appearance and interest in stereotypically masculine pursuits would be taken as evidence of being born in the wrong body. As an adult woman in a happy same-sex relationship, I fear that had I been born fifteen years later it is likely I would bear the scars of a double mastectomy and the lasting effects of taking synthetic testosterone. Children do not always know what is best for them, and as adults it is our job to make sure that they are protected.