It’s 6am on a Saturday morning as I write this. I’ve been awake for hours, worried about the latest impact of a targeted campaign of hate directed at my child and those like her. Thinking about whether I can do anything to stem the tide.
I don’t have long.
Soon the kids will be tearing down the stairs, asking for TV, porridge, a game.
When the interruption comes, I’ll be glad of it.
I’ve been asked by Susie Green, CEO of Mermaids, to take a look at a document that has been put out by “Transgender Trend”, an organisation which claims to support parents who are questioning a ‘trend’ of children ‘identifying as transgender’.
This isn’t the first time I am left with my stomach in knots as I read lies and distortions about my child and our family. The idea that people spend so much time and energy making my daughter’s life harder, chipping away at the limited acceptance and support that she has, is frightening – I need to respond, I need to help her, she’s already faced so much.
The document, a Resource Pack for schools, is predictably awful in many ways. Outright lies, misinformation, fake news wrapped in a glossy veneer – the latest weapon of a long campaign aimed at making the lives of trans children impossible – painting them as mentally disturbed, as deluded, as a threat. It is so flawed it is hard to know where to begin. I’ve made a start, but having got to page five with pages of critique, the approach isn’t sustainable. Time is short.
How did I get here?
I’ve known Susie for years now. She was the volunteer who picked up the phone when I first contacted Mermaids looking for support.
I’d registered with Mermaids weeks before, and tried phoning several times, but, understaffed, and relying upon a small group of trained volunteers, the charity had taken a month to reach my application and phone to guide through their assurance process. Those weeks had been tough, my wife and I were at breaking point, worried, isolated, without support. The call from Susie was a life-line, reaching out through the dark. “Is now a good time, she asked?”.
It was evening, Susie had been working the late shift, and had pulled into a service station on her drive home to call. It wasn’t her usual time on the Mermaids rota, but after hearing several answer phone messages, and recognising a family in crisis, Susie had sacrificed her evening to come to our aid.
Over the next hour, glass of wine as crutch, my words rushed out. How our child, who we had presumed a boy, had been stating for years that they were a girl. How their happiness had disappeared, the joy gone from their eyes, how we had a deeply upset and depressed child who cried every night and was losing out on their carefree childhood. How we’d spoken to a psychologist, our GP, school staff – how we’d read every book and article we could find. We had found stories of other parents with children like ours, but had never spoken to anyone who understood what we were going through. We felt utterly alone. Searching online for support we’d come across medical definitions of gender dysphoria on the NHS website including links to Mermaids.
I told Susie how our child had been growing increasingly miserable in recent months and had told us that the one thing they wanted in the world was for us to call them a girl. How we had continued to reject her night after night, saying we loved her but we couldn’t take that step. Yet our child was fading before us. We had finally made the earth shattering decision (for us as parents) to say yes, we can call you girl.
The words fell over each other as I talked to Susie, trying to keep my voice steady whilst emotions churned inside. I spoke about how no one else understood what we were going through, how we faced judgement and disapproval, how we’d lost close friends who wouldn’t understand. Susie listened.
“It’s ok”, she said, as I struggled to maintain composure, the tears silently streaming down, “I know”.
Susie told me about her experience, and her child, Jackie, who she had thought was a boy but who fought the world to be seen as a girl. Jackie and Susie had conquered prejudice, bullies, violence and the ultra-conservative UK medical system. It had been tough, but Jackie had come through, stronger and confident in her identity as a young woman.
“How is your child now,” Susie asked?
I took a gulp of wine, before speaking again,
I told Susie how since we had accepted our child as a girl, since we had stopped our nightly cycle of rejection and denial, the joy had come back into her life. How she had started talking about books and toys and animals again. How she had started to laugh and smile. How she had grown in confidence. How the stress and weight of the world on her shoulders had lifted. How a simple shift in pronoun had transformed our sad depressed child into one with the happiness of a child who has finally been seen by their parents.
We’ve had our share of challenges, all related to how the world treats children like my daughter. We’ve been on a huge learning curve, and our friends, family and school have learnt alongside us. Support at school was critical. Great leadership from the head teacher and a proactive zero tolerance approach to bullying, including misgendering, meant that the school adapted quickly, accepting our daughter completely. Our child is now loving school, learning, growing and enjoying spending time with her friends – who love and accept her as a girl, and as trans.
Our focus has shifted – trying to help build a society that is ready for our daughter. A world that will love and accept her as we do – a world where she doesn’t face prejudice, discrimination and hate. A world where she can read a newspaper without seeing trans people mocked, feared, treated as lesser.
My daughter is still my daughter. She is happy. Thriving. Her being transgender is the least interesting thing about her. She’s just a girl.
I’d like to say more but the children are awake, my time is up. I’ve been called to judge a Lego-making competition. The weekend awaits.
Transgender trend ‘School resource pack’ – A teacher’s perspective –
The writer has more than 12 years experience in teaching, including head of year in secondary and within a SEND setting.
As a teacher my first question is who has written this?
Who are the authors?
Usually on resources you see a whole load of signatories, accreditation and endorsing organisations. Here there’s nothing.
How am I meant to use it?
It is not a resource pack (it contains no specific resources) and I can see no practical application for it.
Looking at the linked website, ‘about us section’, the organisation claims to be founded by a group of parents who have created a website and twitter account but have no other stated organisation purpose or role which gives them legitimacy.
The website ‘founder’s’ primary previous job experience is being an ‘accredited communication skills trainer’ (read bullshitter?).
She mentions she founded a school and worked in various roles in the classroom and playground. This implies she is unqualified (if she was a trained teacher or head, or worked as governor, she would surely have mentioned that).
Reading more of her blurb it quickly links to a website full of naff stock photos and seems to be motivated to sell a book, which seems to be self-published.
Doing a cursory nose around the website’s FAQ section, the first FAQ they have chosen to address is very telling:
Aren’t you just transphobic?
No, we believe that transgender people deserve the same civil and human rights as all of us and should not face discrimination. As the term ‘phobic’ literally means ‘irrational fear’ we want to make it very clear that we are not afraid of, or prejudiced against, transgender people in any way.
Given the amount of prejudice content they are pedalling this answer is an immediate red flag.
It’s a bit like a organisation’s website (which is full of material that advocates racism) including a headline FAQ of : “Aren’t you racist?” Happily responding with – ‘No I’m not racist because racism actually means this’.
On to the publication in question
Despite being formatted like an official guidance document, the prejudice and agenda which came through from a brief look of the website are easy to spot.
The document starts by stating that it was developed in partnership with teachers and child welfare staff, again this is tellingly unspecific.
In these days of academies and free schools employing staff without specialised training to teach, the term ‘teacher’ has lost some of its protected status, and anybody who works in a school during the day from cleaners to ICT technicians has to attend child protection training about prioritising welfare. So you can see how they might have stretched some meagre credentials. Critically, it doesn’t state ‘welfare professional’ or name any specific roles such as ‘Head of Year’ or ‘Safeguarding Lead’
The introduction sets out its goal to “Manage the (se) issues” of official transgender schools guidelines.
The following content on Page 5 titled “why is it needed” is clearly anti-transgender rights and is scaremongering.
It is full of sensationalist soundbites equating gender non-conformity with sexual orientation, highlighting increases in referrals to gender clinics, and even implying that the internet is not to be trusted as it causes something they name ‘rapid onset gender dysphoria’ (thank goodness for Net Neutrality eh).
I almost give up at this point, I am not going to be reading their list of fallacies or ‘case studies’.
Both the title and details of the section ‘Transgender, gay, lesbian, ASD or troubled teenager?’is very offensive not least to children who have suffered abuse or who have ASD.
As schools we have been tasked by the DfE to promote fundamental British Values of:
The rule of law.
Mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.
I don’t see how this document can fit within these modern values.
I see no way that schools would touch this publication with a barge-pole.
Schools are time and money poor, therefore no one will have the time to read it, or the money to print it.
The priority of school leaders is the safety of young people and ensuring that they make progress.
For teachers this means reporting concerns on to the correct person and spending hours preparing lessons, marking and reporting data.
This document includes bad, unsupported, advice coming from a website with a clear agenda of prejudice against the children it claims to support. Reading it is a waste of teacher’s time.
This got me thinking of the erasure of trans children.
All too often trans children are completely erased from discussions.
Without visibility this most vulnerable group of children continue to have their basic rights denied. All too often, trans allies and advocates avoid any reference at all to trans children – it’s too political, too controversial, or too outside of their personal knowledge. Trans children can just wait until they are 18 for fair treatment right? Maybe we can wait until the following generation, after trans adults achieve equality, and then consider trans children. Maybe your trans great grandchildren will be treated well.
Whilst trans advocates and allies pretend trans children don’t exist, the people who are left talking incessantly about children are those opposed to trans equality. Transphobes and trans-antagonists, railing ‘just think of the (cisgender) children’, ‘save them from the trans menace’!
Aside from a couple of notable exceptions (including Paris Lees) who exactly is speaking up for my child? Who cares about trans children?
For each submission I searched for the use of the term ‘child’ (a search which will also find any references to children, childhood etc).
My results were pretty interesting. More detail is at the bottom of the post, but I’ll summarise the key findings here:
Over half of the submissions (58%) gave zero references to children (trans or cis). This included the vast majority of submissions from transgender adults, the submissions from nearly all government departments, from MPs, from Police forces, from the Royal College of GPs, from Action for Trans Health, from the Albert Kennedy Trust.
A further 16% only used the term children in reference to the (presumed cis) children of trans adults, to intersex children, or in a phrase like ‘looked after children’. This included the British Association of Gender Identity Specialists and the General Medical Council.
Three quarters (74%) of submissions contained zero references to the existence of transgender children
15% had only one or two very brief references to transgender children, some of which avoid acknowledging the existence of trans children. Both NHS England and Stonewall only mention children in reference to the existence of a “Children’s Gender service“. The Equality and Human Rights Commission manages only two references to “gender variant children” or “children whose gender identity is less well-developed or understood than that of an adult”.
89% of submissions to the 2015 Women and Equalities Commissions Transgender Equality Inquiry either didn’t mention children at all, or barely mentioned them.
The remaining 11% of submissions is where I now turn my attention:
Submissions that referred to children more than twice:
Only 23 submissions (11%) referred to children more than twice.
These can be roughly divided into three categories:
a) 7 submissions (3%) were from anonymous parents of transgender children/transgender children – This included 6 parents of transgender children, and one trans young adult who had been treated in children’s services. These submissions contained credible and relevant real life information on transgender children (but there were only 7 submissions from the families affected). These submissions were all anonymous – a great indication of how voiceless these children are.
b) 7 submissions (3%) were from people or organisations whose submission is supportive or neutral towards trans people, these included:
FOCUS: The Identity Trust provides 3 references to transgender children and 2 to gender-variant children
GIRES provides 4 references to transgender children, but doesn’t use the term ‘transgender’, simply calling them children (though in the context the references are to trans or gender variant children)
Lancashire LGBT provides 16 references to trans children,
Mermaids provides 21 references to trans children, children referred to gender services or children with gender dysphoria
Peter Dunne provides 5 references to transgender children
Polly Carmichael from the Children’s Gender Identity Service provides 21 references to trans or gender variant children, yet fails to use the term transgender children even once, instead referring to a variety of terms including ‘children experiencing difficulties in their gender development’ ‘unconventional children’ ‘children with GID’ ‘Children with gender dysphoria’ ‘children with gender incongruence’
The British Psychological Society is rather a mixed bag with one reference to “rare cases it has been thought that the person is seeking better access to females and young children through presenting in an apparently female way”, with 1 reference to transgender children and 1 reference to children with gender dysphoria.
c) 9 submissions (4%) were from people or organisations whose submission is negative or antagonistic to trans people:
A specific person, SJ, refers to children in terms of the threat posed by adults “luring children into women’s toilets in order to assault them”
A specific person, AF, provides 16 references about protecting children from psychologically disturbed individuals and gender ideology
Evangelical Alliance provides 7 references to the need to protect children
Lesbian Rights Group provides 14 references to children including outlining the ‘pressures on young people and small children to transgender’ and highlighting the ‘transgendering of children – a matter of concern’.
A specific person, MY, includes 7 references to protecting children including ‘from possible parental or other abuse’ and recommends ‘treating the parents’.
The group ‘Parents Campaigning for Sex Equality for Children and Young People’ contains 65 references to children focusing predominantly on gender expression / toy stereotypes as well as on the need to protect against ‘transgendering children’
‘Scottish Women against Pornography’ has 17 references that confuse gender identity with gender stereotypes
A specific person, SDA, provides 11 references to children focusing on gender expression/toy stereotypes and arguing the need to stop the ‘powerful trans activist lobby from pathologising normal childhood’ and arguing against ‘trans theory’
‘Women and Girls Equality Network (WAGEN)’, by Dr Julia Long, contains 13 references to children focusing on stereotypical gender expression/roles and arguing against ‘transgendering of children’.
These 9 trans-antagonistic submissions listed above contain 151 references to children. This is nearly more references to children than the other 199 submissions combined.
One qualification to the above research summary: I only searched for use of the word ‘child’ (or ‘children’). It is possible that some submissions focused on children without using the word children. Some submissions may, for example, have used the term transgender youth or adolescent – a more in depth analysis could consider more search terms – but arguably a decision to utilise the word ‘youth’ and avoid the word ‘child’ in a submission is itself a value judgement on the existence or not of trans children and is itself part of a culture of erasure of trans children.
Transgender children are almost completely invisible in society. Trans children need allies speaking up for them.
Yet over three quarters of submissions to the Women and Equalities Commission 2015 Transgender Equality Inquiry contained no acknowledgement of the existence of trans children.
The submissions with the most references to children (cis or trans) are those written by individuals and groups opposed to trans rights. Inputs on transgender children are overwhelmingly written by those ideologically opposed to supporting transgender people. Transphobic individuals and groups are being allowed to set the conversation on children, meaning the actual issues of enormous importance to trans children aren’t even on the agenda. The debate is instead being framed as between (trans-antagonistic or trans sceptical) people who care about protecting children versus trans adults. To re-frame this debate, we need trans advocates to talk about trans children.
Stop the erasure of trans children!
There were over 40 submissions from individual trans adults (or adults with a trans history/adults of trans experience). Almost none of these submissions from trans adults mentioned trans children. Parents of trans children are unable to speak openly (all submissions from parents were anonymous). Cisgender parents of trans children are also sometimes unsure about our credibility speaking out on trans issues. Trans children cannot speak for themselves. Someone needs to speak up.
Hardly any trans-supportive organisations mentioned trans children in their submissions. If your organisation only listens to the voices of trans adults, you are excluding the most vulnerable trans group. Organisations like Stonewall (whose 2015 submission ignored trans children) have a trans advisory panel consisting of only trans adults. Yet it is very clear from this review that transgender adults can’t be assumed to speak up for the needs of current transgender children.
Organisations aiming to support trans equality need to either work with parents of trans children (most of whom are cis, some of whom are trans), or, at the very least, make sure that at least one trans adult is designated to represent trans youth (reaching out to older trans adolescents directly) and we need at least one trans adult designated to represent trans children (reaching out to parents supporting trans children, as the stakeholders who best understand the very many challenges facing trans children).
Without proactive effort to engage with parents and families of trans children, trans children will remain voiceless.
The erasure of trans children in the 2015 submissions to the Trans Equality consultation is shocking.
We must do better for trans children.
Let’s start with the current Scottish GRA consultation (open to submissions from anywhere in the world – and we know those opposed to rights and respect for trans children are submitted from all over the world).
Please complete the short questionnaire on a reformed Scottish Gender Recognition Act. At a minimum please include in your submission acknowledgement of the existence of trans children. Better still, refer to the issues and challenges that affect trans children. If you don’t know any trans children – then get in touch with families of trans children, or organisations like Mermaids.
Trans children exist and they desperately need support.
I looked at all 208 submissions to the Women’s and Equalities Committee’s Transgender Equality Inquiry.
For each submission I searched for the term ‘Child’ (a search which also found any reference to children, childhood etc).
Limitations of the research findings:
1) This research was carried out quickly to give an overview of the data. I looked at all 208 submissions, but quickly and without moderation of findings – some level of errors and oversights are likely.
2) The keyword used was ‘child’ (to include children). It is possible that some submissions focused on children without using the word children. Some may for example have used the term youth. Arguably the decision to utilise the word youth and not child is itself a value judgement on the existence or not of trans children and is part of a culture of erasure of trans children. The Gendered Intelligence submission uses the phrase ‘young trans people’ which refers to “people aged 25 and under”
Over half of the submissions (117 = 56%) gave zero references to children (trans or cis).
This included the vast majority of submissions from transgender adults, the submissions from nearly all government departments, from MPs, from Police forces, from the Royal College of GPs, from Action for Trans Health, from the Albert Kennedy Trust.
Another 16% (34), only used the word children when quoting the title of an NHS Department (eg Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAHMS); in reference to the children of transgender adults, in a generic reference to childhood, in reference to intersex children, and in brief references to children in the phrase ‘looked after children’ or ‘children’s homes’. This group included the British Association of Gender Identity Specialists, the General Medical Council and Gendered Intelligence.
Organisations that refer once or twice to the existence of trans children
26 organisations (13%) had only one or two very brief references to transgender children, copied in table below:
Some of these avoided the term transgender children, only referring to ‘children in the gender service’ for example the single reference to trans children by Stonewall states “The Tavistock and Portman is the only specialist clinic, providing early intervention treatment for children and young people.” NHS England similarly only describes the ‘Children’s clinic’.
Table: Organisations that refer once or twice to transgender children
Reference to transgender children
The Albert Kennedy Trust
“The right of the parent to support a child through their assignment is important.”
“Typically, 1 child per class will come out to me and another will say I know someone trans/non-binary and ask for help supporting them.
The Government Equalities Office has one reference to trans children, quoting Ofsted
“Ofsted’s Common Inspection Framework, which takes effect in September 2015 and covers standard inspections of early years, schools and further education and skills providers, requires inspectors to pay particular attention to the outcomes of a number of specific groups, including transgender children and learners.”
A young trans adult makes one reference
“I feel that children are discovering what trans means through the internet rather than in a classroom environment, and I fear that as a result, either children would grow up with a slight bias, or children who are trans would not realise this until many years later, when it is more difficult to transition. “
“Medical interventions for children and adolescents have been inadequate and do not meet international best practice standards”
LGBT Youth Scotland
“Further, transgender young people are aware of their gender identity and begin living in their acquired gender far earlier than the age of 16. We recommend implementing provision which would enable parents and carers to give consent for a child or young person to receive a GRC under the age of 16”
National LGB&T Partnership
Medical interventions for children and adolescents have been inadequate and do not meet international best practice standards
‘Fourthly there is no local support for children and adolescents with gender identity difficulties with the nearest (and only) gender clinic being the Tavistock and Portman Clinic in London
A volunteer with the Albert Kennedy Trust
“Early access to transitioning and being accepted from a young age is vital to the emotional and mental well being of a trans person and therefore families, social services and the NHS should work with all trans children and trans youths to be able them to decide their future and how they wish to live.”
“Most of the above issues all apply to young trans people, although more education of peer groups of trans children would help”
“Numbers presenting for treatment have grown at ~23% p.a. over the last couple of years. In the children and young people group, the growth is even faster.
inclusion of transgender people: adults, adolescents and children, in sport.”
Trans Media Watch
“Louis Theroux’s recent documentary on trans children for the BBC also received much acclaim
UK Trans Info
Provide a method for children and teenagers who are below the usual age requirement to obtain gender recognition with the consent of their parents or guardians, or without their consent through the courts where it is in their best interests.
“Ensure that those working in proximity with minors are aware how potentially transgender children can and should be helped.
Equalities Officer, on behalf of UNISON Bournemouth Higher & Further Education Branch
Ensure the implementation of compulsory, trans-inclusive PHSE curriculum in order that children are made aware of the issues facing trans persons, help trans children access support, and tackle transphobic behaviour before it begins.
Without access to educational information and resources on gender identity, trans children may be placed under undue stress, confusion, and harm. Through the provision of compulsory gender identity education within the PHSE curriculum, work can be done to make trans children aware that they’re not alone, that discriminatory behaviour they may face is not acceptable, and of the support available to them.
University of Leeds
Particularly vulnerable groups include intersex bodied people and trans children under 18
Scottish Transgender Alliance
With growing social acceptance, the annual number of children and adolescents coming out as transgender has increased five-fold over four years
There is a need for a more robust communication / awareness programme to help parents who believe their children may be gender dysphoric , and how they can help and cope
A close family friend has a trans child who, age 8, told his teachers that he wanted to be a boy and have ‘boy parts’. The school reported his parents to the social services, assuming that the child had been abused, based on no other evidence
Studies indicate that the majority of trans people know they are trans by the age of 7, and many experience distress throughout their childhood. A growing number of children are transitioning, and the lack of any legal recognition until a child is 18 is starting to cause problems, for example with names in school systems and examination certificates.
Inclusion of trans history as a compulsory element of the UK schools national curriculum, linking it to organisational support for trans children, adolescents, their families, and their friends
We need to be intervening sooner, so that trans-children grow up with a chance of fitting in to society and being truly inclusive, and non-trans children will grow up with understanding and tolerance, rather than behaving in a segregatory manner and ostracising trans-people
Someone recently wrote in to this blog, saying, in essence, that they ‘would like to support trans children’s rights, but can’t get over a nagging fear that children who are simply non-conforming are being pushed into identifying as trans’. The writer remembers being a ‘tomboy’ who hated dresses, and fears that such traits in today’s society would lead to her ‘being pushed into being a trans boy’. She asks whether a ‘butch woman who identifies as a woman can still be a woman’.
This is the way that very many people who are ‘on the fence’ about supporting trans rights feel. It is not dissimilar to the way I myself once thought about trans people, back when I had never knowingly met a trans person, back before I knew my daughter, back when a lifetime of ignorant media portrayals had depicted trans people, almost always trans women, as clichés of femininity.
Anyone who finds themselves thinking this way, please take a minute to consider a few things.
First consider where are you getting your information from? Have you met trans people who you consider to be making their lives harder and facing enormous discrimination simply from ignorance that girls can climb trees and boys can like dolls? Or do you perhaps know very few or zero actual trans people, and you are basing your judgement on media portrayals? If the latter, consider whether such media tropes are written by, directed by and feature trans people, or whether they simply project non trans (cis) people’s interpretation.
Second, can you really scrutinise the first statement – that you would like to support a marginalised group’s rights, but only once you have been persuaded by them that they deserve your support. Only once you have been persuaded that they are not naively/stupidly enthralled to stereotypes.
Can you not hear how that sounds?
It is not dissimilar to someone saying ‘yes I’ll support Muslim rights, as soon as they persuade me they’re not all terrorists’, or ‘yes I’ll support the rights of people on benefits, as soon as they persuade me they’re not lazy’ or ‘yes I’ll support asylum seekers rights, as soon as they persuade me they’re not criminals’.
I’m all too aware that certain people on the far right in our society hold all of these prejudiced views.
There is a mainstream portion of our society who would never dream of stating or even thinking those statements. Who understand that these sentiments and generalisations are grounded in media misrepresentation, ignorance and hate. Who would not buy into media vitriol about other minorities, yet fall into the trap of believing that trans rights, and trans children’s rights, need to be earned, can be withheld, are in some way conditional upon those children (and their parents) proving that their specific trans child is not a stereotype, and is not in fact a non-conforming child ‘forced into a trans identity’.
The insinuation that trans children are just non-conforming children being led astray is pervasive, a scare story proactively spread by those who want to marginalise trans people.
This accusation is thrown at parents like myself daily:
Why couldn’t you just let your boy play with dolls? (…she doesn’t like dolls)
Why couldn’t you just let him do ballet and wear a princess dress (…she likes football and prefers witches)
Those accusing us of stereotypes are the ones seemingly obsessed with outdated notions of gender specific toys and interests.
They worry that parental narrow mindedness or ignorance leads us to presume a ‘tom boy’ must be a trans boy, that a feminine boy must be a trans girl.
Because of course us blinkered parents of trans kids are tied to stereotypes and couldn’t love a non-conforming child.
Because of course, in their mind, all trans girls love pink and dolls and sparkly tiaras, and all trans boys must be ‘tom girls’ who hate dolls and dresses.
Having met many score of trans children, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Trans children, and trans people in general are those who are tearing down the gender boundaries.
Of course we told my daughter that she could be whatever type of boy she wanted to be. This was totally misunderstanding the point and made our child deeply sad.
It is true that media depictions of trans children often focus on gender stereotypes, with pink = girl.
Every time I see any depiction of trans kids on TV I count the seconds until the trans girl pulls out a doll or the trans boy kicks a football. But guess what. I know scores of trans girls who had zero interest in dolls or dresses. I know trans boys who collect dolls.
Trans children are no more stereotypical than any other children.
The same for trans adults of course. Some trans women are extremely glamorous and feminine (just like I know some cis women who are always in dresses and makeup). Some trans women wear jeans and t-shirts and rarely if ever use makeup – just like me and tons of cis women. Gender expression is not the same as gender identity.
If you are ‘on the fence’ about whether to stand up for trans children, please question where you are getting your assumptions about transgender children from. If it is coming from a transphobic and ignorant media, or if it is coming from anti-trans children political groups, consider if the information you receive is biased, loaded or spun. Would you accept rhetoric about Muslims from Britain First?
On Media Tropes of trans children
I’ve identified three key factors why the vast majority of media does not present a true picture of trans children:
Personal narratives (of children and families)
1. Gender stereotypes are pervasive in media coverage of trans children. There are many reasons for this:
Media stereotyping: TV shows regularly confuse gender identity with behaviour, toys or interests. Some media pieces seem to do this maliciously, to undermine the validity of trans children, to suggest to unaware viewers that non-conforming children are being made trans. In other media pieces the stereotyping may be unconscious. This is particularly the case when transgender people (directors, producers, narrators) are not involved. Many (but not all) trans adults and parents of trans children are acutely aware of the distinction between trans and gender non-conforming – and of the difference between gender expression and gender identity
Simple soundbites: Documentary producers often seek to tell a simple story, and select and edit soundbites to fit their narrative. This usually reinforces a ‘traditional’ and expected depiction wherein gender expression (eg clothing) and toy preferences (boys = trucks, girls = dolls) are highlighted as synonymous with gender identity. The public as a whole is still poorly informed – many people don’t know what the term gender identity means, many have never heard the term cisgender, or assigned gender, and some are unsure whether a trans girl is someone who was assigned male or female at birth. Documentaries need to ‘hold the hands’ of an ill-informed general public, taking small bite size steps into the world of gender identity. In this context, it is hard for a brief media piece to quickly convey complex and nuanced information on identity. It is much easier to revert to old clichés to help tell the story, looking for soundbites like ‘I adored dolls when I was little’ or ‘I was born in the wrong body’. I’m not denying that some trans people do say these things, and for some trans people this is their truth. But this is not the heart of the story for very many trans people, yet these same clichéd and simplified stories are the ones we see in the media time and again. Reporting on adult trans people seems to be moving towards more complex and nuanced stories about identity – not yet so for trans kids.
Simplified Visuals: Documentary makers like to use imagery to tell their story. A gender identity is not something that can be photographed or visually depicted. Trans kids, like all kids, will have items of clothing of a variety of colours. But it is the photo of a trans girl wearing pink that will make the documentary, that will be selected for the front cover. Trans girls, like most cis girls, will sometimes wear pink. Indeed it is hard to avoid pink in the girls section of most stores. Media images of trans girls almost always show them in pink – this does not mean trans girls wear pink any more often than cis girls. My trans daughter actively dislikes pink.
Participant selection: Some trans girls like football and trousers and climbing trees. Some trans girls like dolls and princesses and pink. Documentaries will give greater emphasis to the latter over the former (I hardly ever see the former shown, despite knowing plenty of trans girls who would rather climb a tree or play a computer game than dress as a princess). Many trans girls will like a wide range of toys, both dolls and cars and will gladly play with both. Which footage will make it into the documentary though? Of course, it will be the clichéd footage of the trans girl with the doll. This is very similar to the clichéd media portrayal of trans women always being introduced showing them putting on make-up. This is part of the truth for some people, but it is manipulative – emphasising stereotypical and clichéd aspects of lives that are rich, nuanced and complex.
2. Gender stereotyped expression may also be more prevalent in trans children, at some stages of their life due to external pressures
Medical gatekeeping: Adult gender identity services, for a very long time, insisted that trans women adhere to restrictive (and often outdated) gender stereotypes as a condition of acceptance for treatment. Trans women who might out of preference dress in a less stereotypically feminine manner were forced to conform to outdated stereotypes in terms of dress and hair style, or be denied support. This type of regressive gatekeeping is still experienced in children’s services, with reports of trans teenagers being told they need to ‘dress in a more stereotypically feminine manner’ or ‘need to sit in a more masculine posture’, or wear certain clothes, or style their hair in certain ways.
Securing support from other children: Trans kids want to gain the support of their peers. Adhering to a very stereotypical gender presentation is a way of signalling their gender identity to other children. When my child was trying to persuade her peers to address her as a girl she took to wearing sparkly hair clips as a visual queue of her identity. One day in the car en route to a party she lost her hair clips. She descended into uncontrollable sobs. When questioned she explained:
‘If I don’t have hair clips in, they will call me a boy’.
Since being accepted as a girl by all her peers, she soon stopped wearing hair clips. It was never about the hair-clip – it was about wanting to be seen by others and respected as a girl.
Asserting identity to parents: Trans kids desperately want to show their parents their identity. Clothing is an obvious route to asserting identity. When we were calling her a boy, my child refused to wear trousers (from a very young age). A very rigid and strident insistence on wearing dresses is for many trans girls a way to communicate their identity to their parents. Gender non-conforming boys like to wear dresses because they like the dress, maybe it sparkles, maybe it has a fun pony on it, maybe it is brighter than the dull colours in the boys section. But for transgender children, clothing is a means to an end, a useful way of trying to communicate and assert their identity. How do you know if it is a gender non-conforming boy or a trans girl? Listen to what the child is saying. Are they focused on liking dresses? Gender non-conforming child. Are they consistently, persistently and insistently saying ‘I am a girl’ and getting deeply upset and depressed when called a boy? That was our daughter. Once our daughter was accepted by us as a girl, her clothing choices gradually shifted to what is now a fairly neutral presentation for a girl – sometimes wearing dresses but most of the time preferring leggings or jeans.
3. Narratives of the child and their parents
Some parents of trans children like stereotypes and some parents like simple narratives that help explain their situation to a sceptical world: Parents of trans kids come from all walks of life. This is not an ideology that only parents with a certain world view sign up to. Trans kids appear in all kinds of families. These families are as varied as wider society, and the families of trans kids will mirror the views and prejudices of wider society.
Some parents of trans kids have very stereotyped and gendered expectations for their children. These parents, when recalling the childhoods of their transgender children, will remember and highlight examples of non-gender conforming behaviour. Such families may well say ‘It made sense that she was a trans girl, as she always liked dolls’. This does not mean that playing with dolls made the parent conclude their child was transgender, rather it meant that once she accepted her child as a girl, she recalled and emphasised examples of non-conforming behaviour that help her understand and accept her child.
Other parents do not have gendered or stereotyped views of children. These parents do not see any clear and simple correlation or causation between the clothes or toys that our children preferred, and their gender identity. Such parents present a more complex and less ‘packageable’ narrative. Such parents do not produce the short media friendly soundbites that documentaries rely on. This more complex parental narrative almost never appears in media depictions of trans children – instead media prefers the parents who say “my child loved dolls so I knew she was a girl”.
Some children need a simple answer: Our daughter has always known she is a girl. Like many children asked to explain her gender identity she cannot do so easily and simply. She quickly got tired of being asked “but why do you think you are a girl?” Gender identity is hard to explain, and adults would struggle to find an answer beyond ‘I just do’. When children assert an identity different to what was expected there is undoubtedly societal pressure to justify how they feel in some way. It would not be surprising to me for children to gravitate to emphasising examples of their own non-conforming behaviour or interests as extra justification for who they are. Especially when this is the depiction of trans children they see in the media. Especially when even the diagnostic criteria used by children’s gender identity services (in the UK and elsewhere) requires stereotypical ‘cross gender interests, behaviour, play preferences’ as credentials for being considered transgender (Gender Identity alone is not sufficient, children are expected to conform to stereotypes of behaviour, clothing or play preferences in order to be deemed gender dysphoric).
There is a popular children’s book written by a transgender girl called “I am Jazz” that seems to equate her liking ‘girls activities’ with being a trans girl. When I first read it with my trans daughter she noticed this and said “that’s silly, of course boys or girls can both like dancing/pink/ballet”. My trans daughter has a more nuanced understanding of the difference between identity and interests. And she shares my dislike of gender stereotyping.
It is possible to criticise some books and programmes about trans children as reinforcing stereotypes without jumping to a rejection of transgender children.
It is possible to dislike gender stereotypes and still want trans children to have happy and safe lives.
It is possible to want the best for gender non-conforming children and still want trans children to be treated with respect, dignity and acceptance.
Those of you on the fence about trans rights can carry on weighing up whether my daughter has proved her ‘not a stereotype’ credentials enough to be shown kindness, respect and acceptance.
I meanwhile will carry on raising a kind, confident, happy child.
I will carry on helping all my children to see beyond the stereotypes, limitations and restrictions society places on girls and boys (and non-binary people).
And I will teach them the importance of tolerance, kindness, and respect, especially for those who we don’t understand, especially for those who are different.
Research update: 12/04/2018
Research evidence is emerging which appears to confirm our experience of parenting a socially transitioned child:
Olson & Enright (2017) in the first ever study of socially transitioned children and stereotyping found that “transgender children and the siblings of transgender children endorse gender stereotypes less than the control group. Further, transgender children see violations of gender stereotypes as more acceptable, and they are more willing to indicate a desire to befriend and attend school with someone who violates gender stereotypes than the control participants. These results held after statistically controlling for demographic differences between families with and without transgender children.”