Can we talk about gender as celebrating difference?
We seem to be having some kind of war on gender. This week a family removed their six-year-old son from a school because another boy was allowed to come to school in a dress. The event has led to much debate on the radio this week. Alongside this, leading department stores have announced that they will not brand clothes specifically for boys or girls but just for “kids”. A few weeks ago BBC2 transmitted a programme “No more boys and girls – can our kids go gender free?”
I wonder whether, in all this coverage, we are not losing sight of simple biology and common sense? After all, way before marketing or advertising came on the scene, men and women in tribes throughout the world have dressed differently and taken on different roles . In the animal world – and we are descended from apes after all – males and females look and act differently. They have not been to primary school, nor been bombarded with pink or blue clothes or stereotypical toys but nonetheless behave differently. Can we not celebrate our differences while at the same time supporting those in doubt?
Of course transgender children need compassion and if they are questioning their gender identity they need expert counselling. A child of six can have no understanding of the adult world and how it works, has not reached puberty, and is vulnerable to the ideas of their parents and teachers. It is one thing for a young boy to dress up in girls’ clothes, quite another to assume that this means he wants to go through all the biological restructuring and social upheaval that is implied in the transgender process. Clothes are only an outer wrapping. How can a child this young truly understand the lifelong implications of changing gender?
It seems to me that small children are becoming pawns within current ideological trends and the agendas of lobbying groups. It is very young children that are being discussed here – six or seven years old. In today’s world they are having thoroughly adult facts presented to them not only about transgender but also all the LGBT themes. Children are unlikely to have any real knowledge of heterosexual relationships but are now learning about all the complexities of human gender and sexuality at an extraordinarily young age. Call me old-fashioned but I believe this can be confusing. Is it helpful to expose all children to these questions at such a young age when we are actually talking about a small minority of people affected?
I feel we also need to take account of those families who may, for their own psychological or cultural reasons, put their children under pressure to change gender. I suspect many of us know those whose parents wanted a girl and treated a boy like a daughter or wanted a son and treated a daughter like a boy. Likewise there are many cultures where a boy is valued more greatly than a girl. Might making the transgender process too easy lead to family pressure?
Chatting to some teenagers recently I learnt from a thirteen year old that several of her friends decided that they were bisexual, only to change their minds a week or so later. She told us that it could be seen as cool and being heterosexual as dull. They spoke articulately of their disapproval of President Trump preventing transgenders from serving in the armed forces yet seemed unsure what being transgender really involved. There was tolerance but even in teenage years there was also confusion.
I think we are in danger of muddling up stereotypical beliefs about roles with biology. Of course we don’t want to treat girls as sissy princesses or tell boys they mustn’t cry but this is different from encouraging them to question their own gender. There are physical and hormonal differences. Males have XY chromosomes and females XX. Hormones such as testosterone and oestrogen impact both brain and body as well as behaviour. All this is discussed in detail by Professor Simon Baron Cohen of Cambridge University in his book The Essential Difference where he describes a spectrum.
The programme “No More Boys and Girls – can Our Kids go Gender Free?” made me question why we might want to have “no more boys or girls”? Humans procreate through males and females – do we really want to finish off the human race?
The programme made some valuable points about the shaping of expectations due to social norms – parents and teachers expecting girls to play with dolls and soft toys and boys to play with cars and guns etc. This was the same old stuff many of my generation attempted back in the 70s and 80s, mainly, I have to say, without success as even if we didn’t give our sons a toy gun they crafted them out of pieces of wood. Having unisex school uniforms with trousers might be practical but I do question the wisdom of having unisex school toilets, which I understand is the current plan.
We are different. We have different bodies that we have to learn to manage. Boys don’t experience periods, girls don’t experience teenage erections. There is biology that affects our lives. I personally would not have wanted teenage boys sharing toilets when I was a teenager managing periods for the first time. Even today as an adult I am quite glad of the respite of a female-only loo where I can take a breath and brush my hair without any interruptions.
Growing up is confusing. We can accept and celebrate all the LGBT differences but I believe we need to be careful not to overstate the likelihood of the experience when teenagers, especially, are notorious for copying their friends just for the sake of it. I recently heard of a 16 year old boy who transitioned to being a girl as he had felt unhappy with life and yet, having gone through major and unpleasant treatment, was just as unhappy afterwards. Another troubled young man became a woman and was equally troubled afterwards. Could their discontent have been with life in general rather than gender? Perhaps they were going through the usual teenage angst and depression that many of us go through? But they now have to live with the consequences of their decisions for the rest of their life.
Aren’t we possibly overemphasizing the media coverage on these topics? It is excellent that there is more knowledge and understanding of gender and sexuality than there was in my childhood but are we in danger of planting seeds of doubt that might not need to be there? There has to be a balance in how we express these issues.
Each gender contributes a different quality of behaviour, emotion and energy to our endlessly complex and wonderful world. I would feel sad if future generations felt unable to celebrate the differences they bring. Wouldn’t it also be rather dull? But, as I say, perhaps my ideas are out-dated. I do sometimes feel I am living in some kind of sci-fi new world where we are turning out robots who look the same and think the same! In the name of liberal ‘tolerance’ we seem in danger of creating automatons intolerant of the majority norms of nature.