Why does a biological underpinning to gender identity matter?

science

Biological essentialism vs social constructivism

Biological essentialism (or biological determinism), is the idea that behaviours, interests or abilities are biologically pre-determined, rather than shaped by society. In an essentialist interpretation, innate differences between men and women result in  ‘natural’ gender divisions  – with men inherently (innately) better at decision making and women better at nurturing.

Feminists, Freudians, and queer theorists have all challenged biological essentialism. Second wave feminists argued that gender-based inequalities and differences were not natural, and were instead socially constructed. Girls are not inherently worse than boys at physics (due to having pink and fluffy brains) but rather, are often denied the opportunities offered to boys. Social constructivists demonstrated the many ways in which observed gender differences between men and women are socially engineered. Some went a step further, arguing that gender is purely a learned behaviour or a performance.

Brains are complex, and social constructivists, like the popular science writer Cordelia Fine, have rightly debunked the simplified and shoddy science that underpins essentialist claims that men are from Mars with their manly brains, and women are from Venus, with feminine brains.

Gender identity and the neurology of ‘trans brains’

Where then does gender identity fit in?

Some scientists have conducted neurological imaging studies on trans people, exploring whether there are specific, sexually dimorphic areas of the brain in which trans people differ from their assigned sex (the sex they were presumed to have at birth).

Published research findings, often with low sample sizes, have been interpreted as indicating that trans women have a brain more similar to a cis (not trans) woman’s brain than to a cis man’s brain. Such findings have been publicised in newspaper headlines as proof of the existence of trans people.

Such scientific studies, and their shallow interpretation and presentation in the media, have received strong criticism from a wide number of transgender commentators. There are a range of extremely valid reasons for criticism:

  • The suggestion that one specific variable can define ‘transness’ is reductive and overlooks the ways in which society, culture and experience impact on every individual including on the structure of the brain.
  • The reliance on any study as legitimacy for human rights is extremely dangerous – if the study results are later rejected, what happens to these rights?
  • The idea that any brain can be easily classified as male or female is simplistic and overly binary.
  • The suggestion (made by inaccurate media representation of the studies) that one specific variable can be used as a diagnostic test for transness also fills people with fear that any such test could be used by gatekeepers to judge who is accepted as trans and who can be denied support and denied rights. Any such diagnostic test would be entirely at odds with autonomy, with respecting people’s lived experience, with self-identification and dignity.

These reasons for fearing how science will be politically used, or for criticising simplified interpretations of scientific data, make total sense and have historical antecedents – I understand the fear and upset.

Rejection of biology

However, such comments very often seem to take one step further, rejecting not only biological essentialism and the unhelpful simplified, ‘soundbite’ biology loved by the media, but also moving into a sweeping rejection of any mention of a link between biology and gender identity. A culture in which the very mention of biology is discouraged.

This is where as a cisgender (not trans) parent of a transgender child I feel uneasy. I’ll attempt here to explore this from my cis parent’s perspective.

Pathologisation of diversity

For many decades, psychologists and psychiatrists have been aware of trans children expressing distinct gender identities at an early age – 2 or 3 years old.

Across the twentieth century mainstream medical convention, with some exceptions, rejected out of hand any possibility of a biological underpinning to gender identity. The consensus then was that a trans gender identity was a delusion, a mental illness that could, and should, be ‘cured’.

For young trans children, misogynist male psychologists and psychiatrists, frequently working in the field of sexology, focused their attention on the mother.

Therapy and treatment for young trans children focused on presumed maternal abuse or maternal failings.

Does it even matter why trans adults are trans?

When I hear people say ‘does it even matter why people are trans’ – when I hear people dismiss as offensive and unnecessary any consideration of any biological influence on gender identity, I have an emotional response. I also see this reaction in some other parents of trans children (though certainly not in all).

The denial of any possibility of a ‘biological underpinning to gender identity’ is historically tied up with the denial of the existence of younger trans children. The erasure of the existence of younger trans children has caused untold suffering.

As a parent of a trans child who is loving life, it makes me think of the trans children from decades past (and present in too many places in the world) who were traumatised and institutionally abused by medical systems designed to prevent or convert their gender identity. Neither the genitals = sex = gender approach of simplified biology, nor the feminist ‘gender is a social construct’ mantra, left any space for younger children to be trans. Trans children did not fit with either theory so therefore could not exist.

Impact of denial on families

Denial of the possibility of some young children being trans makes me think of the consequences of this denial. It makes me think of the mums who were coerced into distancing themselves from their trans daughters, based on some unsubstantiated theory that an overly close mother-‘son’ bond might lead to a child ‘misidentifying’ as female. How unbelievably cruel to do that to a family.

Shon Faye, whose work I greatly admire, recently wrote that she disagrees with anyone who suggests gender identity is innate and that it should not matter why people are trans. CN Lester, another writer whose work, and excellent book, I’ve learnt a lot from, critiqued the reporting of the research study under discussion  and recommended reading work by Cordelia Fine, author of ‘Delusions of Gender’.

This particular recommendation makes me want to cry.

Delusions of gender as a book has real merits in its debunking of simplified biology,  in its understanding that gender-based inequalities are not natural, and that men are not inherently better at parking. So far so commendable.

However, Cordelia Fine replaces the simplified biology of biological essentialism not with nuanced and complex biology, but a nod to social constructivism. Her work is routinely used by those who argue that gender is merely a ‘performance’ and that trans identities do not exist, except perhaps as a non-conforming person’s misguided response to gender norms.

The view that gender is purely a construct and therefore not ‘real’ is pervasive and extremely dangerous. Adherents of this view may well tolerate trans adults – with a patronising assumption that trans adults made a ‘choice’ to ‘change gender’ as a response to their non-conformity. But whilst adherents of social constructivism may begrudgingly  tolerate the existence of trans adults to some degree, they allow no such tolerance for younger trans children.

The gender as purely a social construct contingent see social influence and gender stereotyping as the only reason for trans identities. They see no valid reason for the existence of young trans children.

Some of the more fringe, actively transphobic, elements of this group, throw their hate and bile at parents of trans children, accusing us of child abuse, demanding that the state take our children away, demanding that children be protected from ‘transing’.

The recommendation to read Cordelia Fine hit a particular nerve as ‘Delusions of Gender’ had a direct impact on my family. We had a family friend who was unable ‘ideologically’ to accept the possibility of the existence of a trans child. They rejected our child and through that rejection, our family entirely. In a parting gesture, they pleaded for us to read ‘Delusions of Gender’. This very book had been the germ of our now former friend’s belief that any trans identity is a delusion, and that pandering to childhood delusion is parental abuse.

Through my shock and upset, I was struck at the time by the unbelievable arrogance. The recommendation that instead of loving my daughter, I should ‘read up on Fine’ and learn that gender isn’t real. This was not to be the first such recommendation.

Fine’s work is populist and best selling, and over the years I’ve had countless similar comments from ‘well meaning’ individuals. It is not that I am ignorant or closed minded, far from it, I’d hazard I know more of Fine’s exploration of gender than those dabblers. I have read, considered, understood the theoretical position being proffered. The same cannot however be said of the Fine pushers. Their position is based on an assumption (from those who have no first hand experience of trans children) that trans children do not, indeed cannot, exist.

The recommendation to read Cordelia Fine is also, depressingly, front and centre in the advice that the UK Children’s Gender Service’s website provides for parents of trans kids. No space here for a clear and much needed message that ‘some kids are trans – get over it, try to be kind’. Instead they present a false dichotomy between simplified biological essentialism reduced to mention of “a boy’s brain in a girl’s body” and “academic psychologist Dr Cordelia Fine” and “gender as a social construct”, with differences based on experiences rather than biology. Parents wondering whether to accept and love their trans child are instead advised to read about the delusion of gender.

When parents and their children reach the children’s gender service in the UK, if they are allocated one of several apparently deeply transphobic clinicians (clinicians who hold so much power over trans children and families), they may then endure literally years of probing and questioning on parental views on gender, as the clinicians probe for the ‘root cause’ of gender diversity.

The social constructivist view also makes me think of the school teachers and class parents and wider community who argue that a child is too young to make a ‘choice’ to be trans and should wait until adolescence or adulthood. Who don’t see the harm of denying a child a happy childhood.

It makes me think of the people who look at us with suspicion, hostility, scrutiny, when I mention I have a trans child. Of the parents who steer their child away from ours, in case being trans is socially contagious.

It makes me think of the people who are no longer in our family’s life, who are unable to see a trans child as anything other than ‘social conditioning gone wrong’.

It makes me think of the people online and in person who target parents of trans children and accuse them of child abuse for loving their child. It makes me think of the haters who want trans children erased from our schools and communities. Who want trans children to be marginalised, made invisible, kept apart from other children.

The existence of trans children poses a challenge both to the simplified biology of biological essentialism and to social constructivism (the idea that gender is merely a performance).

Who cares whether or not biology has any role?

Many people argue that it should not matter whether being trans is partly influenced by biology or fully shaped by culture, society and upbringing. They argue that acceptance will not come through identifying a ‘cause’ for transness, but through people getting to know trans people.

I imagine and hope that acceptance will gradually emerge for trans adults. I think things are slowly moving forward.

What about trans children though? How do we ensure that gains in acceptance and visibility and legislative rights do not leave out trans children, the most vulnerable, those without a voice.

Too many advocates for the rights of trans adults are silent on the topic of young trans children. Many have no understanding or awareness that trans children exist. Others, consider trans children too controversial, too divisive to stick up for.

Trans children are nearly completely invisible. And whilst there remains a default assumption that gender identity is shaped not at all by biology but purely by culture and upbringing, then there will remain a reluctance to support younger transgender children.

Those who believe that gender is purely a performance, who believe that trans identities are socially constructed, do not believe in the existence of young trans children.

The erasure of trans children allows haters to paint themselves as crusaders saving children from being socially influenced or indoctrinated into being trans.

With no openness to the possibility of a trans child being part of natural diversity, they look for a reason. With young children it is blame the parents. With older children it is social contagion. In the first scenario they advocate removing children from abusive parents. With the second scenario they ask that trans identities never be mentioned, embraced or supported at school. For parents who are afraid and unsure how to react to a trans child, they advise conversion therapy.

Another way

Yet, as soon as people open their minds to the idea that there might be a (complex, messy, unattributable) biological underpinning to trans identities, that trans children exist, and have in fact, always existed, the whole deck of cards upon which the transphobes build their hate comes crashing down.

This opening of minds is possible. This opening of minds and shifting of world view happened to me.

Growing up as a gender non-conforming feminist, tired of sexist societal restrictions and expectations, I was instinctively drawn to a social constructivist view point. I had never met a trans person, but had subconscious, lazy, uneducated assumptions about trans people being enthralled to gender stereotypes. I have former friends who are still tied to this world view.

My world view was shaken when I had the good fortune to have a child who opened my eyes. An assigned male child who was insistent, consistent and persistent that she was a girl from the youngest age.

Learning to reset my assumptions

At first, I really struggled to accept my child as a girl. I told her she was wrong. Mistaken.

I did not believe it was possible for a young child to be trans.

I was certain that this child was too young to understand or reject gender norms or sexism or heteronormativity. I knew they were not making a choice, and certainly weren’t being influenced to be trans (she had never come across any representation of a trans person and I was unconsciously transphobic). She wasn’t even gender non-conforming in her interests. A suggestion I sometimes hear (from people who have barely met a trans person) that she was repressing internalised homophobia in infancy is absurd.

She had a persistent, consistent, insistent knowledge that she was a girl that withstood all forms of persuasion.

Like hundreds of parents all around the world who have experienced the same, I had to learn to reset my assumptions about gender identity. I learnt to love and accept my child for who she is. I have never looked back. She is happy and thriving.

I see how people who emphasise ‘gender as a social construct’ utilise that simplistic maxim to make my daughter’s life impossible. How they use it to argue against her rights. How they use it to accuse parents of abuse.

I see how people who claim genitals = sex = gender similarly use simplified biological essentialism to argue that my child is defined and invalidated by parts of her anatomy.

Neither the simplified biology of essentialism, nor simplistic social constructivism, leaves space for my daughter to exist.

Is there an alternative paradigm?

Holistic views of gender

I recently had a short email exchange with Julia Serano and she kindly shared a chapter she wrote on this topic back in 2013 (Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive – chapter 13: Homogenizing Versus Holistic Views of Gender and Sexuality). What follows is what I took away from her chapter, adapted into my own words – I recommend reading her chapter first hand.

In this chapter, Julia critiques the failings of both simplified biology, (gender determinism) and social constructivism, which she terms gender artifactualism.

She outlines how biological essentialists and biological determinists, (often genital obsessed religious conservatist non-scientists), misrepresent and misunderstand biology and science. They present a simplistic last century school child’s version of human biology, assuming that a simple gene or hormone or chromosome works unilaterally triggering a domino rally of binary outcomes.

She also outlines the failings in social constructivism. For decades children’s gender services were dominated by social constructivists who believed that children could not really be trans and that such children could be engineered into accepting their assigned gender. Yet these efforts failed. Medical consensus is now absolutely clear that conversion therapy is unethical and ineffective – conversion therapy did not change a person’s gender identity, merely produced shame, self-hate and depression. Julia notes that gender identities are often ‘profound, deeply felt and resistant to change’. She notes that some people have a fluid gender identity, and that some people do experience a shift in their identity over time, but that such shifts do not result from external pressure and are ‘almost always inexplicable, unexpected’.

She advocates rejection of both simplified biology (biological determinism) and social constructivism (gender artifactualism). In its place she presents a holistic model of gender.

This holistic model of gender acknowledges that biology is complicated. Human biology is not the simplistic yes/no on/off approach that non-scientists and biological essentialists like to pretend. Real biology is complex, multi-faceted, interactive. Just because some people misuse (simplified) biology, does not mean biology itself is essentialist, deterministic, reductionist or sexist.

Julia notes that ‘the human genome has 20,000-25,000 genes. Any given gene or hormone is affected by countless different interacting factors. Because genes and other biological factors act within intricate networks, any given factor will push a system in a particular direction, but will not single-handedly determine a particular outcome’.

Julia argues that ‘while our brains are shaped by learning and socialisation, they are not infinitely plastic ie they are not blank slates. Some traits have a strong intrinsic component’. She notes that though ‘socialisation has a significant impact on brains and behaviours’ it ‘cannot fully override certain intrinsic inclinations’.

She makes a comparison with left-handedness, which is observed in utero before any socialisation. Even with societal pressure to conform to right-handedness some individuals maintain a preference for using their left-hand.

A holistic model of gender allows space for a biological underpinning to gender identity. A holistic model of gender considers the complex interactions between biology, society, experience.

Biological underpinning to gender identity

A wide number of scientific studies have concluded that there is a durable biological underpinning to gender identity.

This supports what other parents with experience like mine have been saying for decades from their lived experience. This backs up what some trans adults remember from their earliest childhood memories.

There is increasing evidence of trans children who have clear gender identities at a very young age. This evidence of young trans children is present in diverse countries and cultures across the world.

The growing scientific consensus of a biological underpinning to gender identity led to the global endocrine society publishing a position statement last year:

“The medical consensus in the late 20th century was that transgender and gender incongruent individuals suffered a mental health disorder termed “gender identity disorder.” Gender identity was considered malleable and subject to external influences. Today, however, this attitude is no longer considered valid. Considerable scientific evidence has emerged demonstrating a durable biological element underlying gender identity. Individuals may make choices due to other factors in their lives, but there do not seem to be external forces that genuinely cause individuals to change gender identity.”

(for the full position statement and more on the studies see here)

I welcome this consensus. I view it with hope that it will help open eyes and minds and hearts to the existence of trans children like my daughter.

I would happily share this scientific consensus on a biological underpinning to gender identity with a wider audience – I see in it hope of greater acceptance and support for trans children.

However I note that since the publication of this evidence based position statement from the medical establishment, I cannot recall having seen this printed in the media or even referenced in the few articles commissioned by trans authors. Indeed quite the opposite – more often there is a strong resistance to any mention of biology.

Do we have to reject biology?

I understand the scepticism around how biology can be misused, but surely that does not mean this should be rejected outright?

Whilst supporters of trans rights shy away from biology and science, it allows transphobic groups to present themselves as champions of science and rationality. Claims that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Transphobes focus on gender as performance, as fake, as a delusion. Whilst a huge part of what we call gender is socially constructed, my child’s gender identity is not a choice, is not a delusion, is not a product of societal or parental persuasion.

Transphobic groups like to focus on what they simplistically call biological sex. They describe biological sex as a simple binary reality, with gender identity operating on some parallel dimension outside of biology. My daughter is 100% biological. She does not have a magic gender identity spirit disconnected to her biological body. Her biology is no less real or valid than the biology of cis girls. It is not essentialist to claim that her identity is an integral aspect of her biological reality. The true essentialists are those trying to present a simplified and fraudulent version of biological science, utilising distorted, cherry picked and biased pseudo-science to support a transphobic position.

Acknowledging biology without essentialism

The argument that we should avoid science in case it is essentialist or in case it is used against trans rights is a false logic.

  • It is possible to acknowledge the biological underpinnings of gender identity whilst acknowledging that a person’s felt and expressed gender identity is a complex interplay of biology, culture, socialisation and experience.
  • It is possible to acknowledge the biological underpinnings of gender identity whilst simultaneously recognising that identity is neither fixed, nor binary.
  • It is possible to acknowledge the biological underpinnings of gender identity whilst arguing very strongly against diagnostic testing for ‘transness’ or biological gate-keeping and identity policing.
  • It is possible to acknowledge the biological underpinnings of gender identity whilst maintaining that the only way to know someone’s gender identity is to ask them, and that a right to self-identification is a basic part of dignity

My daughter is real and valid and deserving of rights, equality, respect and dignity regardless of our current understanding of science.

But science already has plenty of evidence that trans children exist and that there is a biological underpinning to gender identity and I see no reason not to talk about this. Having a trans child (or being a trans child) does not mean rejecting science.

We should embrace science

My daughter is growing up with a love of science. A thirst for knowledge. I’ll teach her all the science I know, on microbiology, on chemical reactions, on photosynthesis, on plate tectonics. On neurology, on genes, on hormones and gender identity. On sample sizes, on causality, on peer review, on rigour, on interpretation and data manipulation.

Biology is rich and complex and we have so much still to learn. If she carries on with a love of science she will learn things far beyond my knowledge. Science (high quality science) is full of wonder and excitement and discovery.

We should not be afraid of saying loud and proud that we support science. We should be clear that those attempting to attack or dismiss transgender children and adults not only lack empathy and kindness, they also lack sophisticated understanding of science, of biology, of complexity.

Trans children exist.

They know it.

Parents know it.

Science knows (a bit about) it.

Stand up for trans children

 

 

I am (and always will be) learning. Friendly feedback is welcomed.

 

 

Girl Guides: How to radicalise hate against trans children in 10 easy steps

supporting trans members

Tomorrow, following a short but successful propaganda campaign, a UK Newspaper will publish an open letter asking Girl Guiding UK to suspend their policy of inclusion for All Girls, including those who are transgender.  Guides has always, quietly, been inclusive of trans children. While there was a small amount of sensationalist and transphobic media reporting in 2015 when the current policy was formally adopted, until six weeks ago, there has been no organised attack on the organisation which my daughter is a part of. Why now? What has changed to make Girl Guides, Brownies and Rainbows a target of action from transphobic groups? This is not a random act, but follows concerted attempts by trans exclusionary groups to influence thinking within the UK Labour party on whether trans women should be included on All Women Shortlists.

It is part of the wider context of a small but vocal and increasingly organised loose coalition of groups made up of Evangelical lobbyists such as Christian Concern, radical feminist academics, misogynistic Men’s Rights Activists, reactionary conservative voices, and a growing grass roots anti transgender rights movement which has formed around the parenting forum ‘Mumsnet’. There, with few restrictions on content, under a banner of free speech, these groups have found one another, have radicalised and organised without challenge or moderation, united behind a single purpose – preventing advances to the rights of transgender people in the UK.

The campaign against inclusion of transgender women on Labour Party All Women Shortlists was the first active campaign to find an audience outside niche anti transgender corners of social media. This anti-trans equality campaign included a crowdfunding initiative calling for legal challenge to Labour Party policy, petitions to the Government, multiple linked websites promoting (mis)information, national public speaking tours by trans exclusionary activists. It provided easy media pieces for an already transphobic UK media, satisfying the UK Public’s seemingly unquenchable interest in stories written about (but not by) transgender people.

Girl Guiding are the next and latest focus of this anti trans rights coalition. Strategically, Girl Guides are seen as a soft target. Transgender children have little support, are regularly maligned by the mainstream press and importantly have no voice or right of reply.

The campaign built against Girl Guiding has been so rapid, so honed, that without knowledge of the context and the anti-trans equality groups involved, it could be misinterpreted as representing the concerns of the guiding movement. Instead of what it actually represents, the latest target of existing transphobic political lobbying by a small but active group of dedicated anti trans equality activists.

Here I present a 10 step guide to ‘how this campaign against trans girls and Girl Guides has played out’. And in response, rather than engage with their hate, I’ve simply listed 10 more productive activities that our daughter, a trans member of girl guiding, and the target of this campaign, has been engaged in during the same period.

Ten Steps to Raising Hate against Trans Children

Step 1: Take a committed transphobe with multiple anti-transgender websites.

Step 2: Get invited onto The BBC Victoria Derbyshire show (05/03/18) to discuss reform of the 2004 Gender Recognition Act (Spoiler, this act and therefore this discussion has no relevance to trans children –  trans inclusivity is already covered by the 2010 Equality Act).

Step 3. Veer off topic with a hypothetical story about a predatory 14 year old boy pretending to be a girl to assault 11 year old girls at guide camp. Use this to publicly criticise Girl Guides for having a long standing approach welcoming All Girls, including those, who happen to be transgender.

Step 4: Create a thread on Mumsnet (home of transphobic discussion) to stir up hate and radicalise a wider population against a vulnerable minority (trans girls).

Step 5: Set into action existing anti-trans children websites and social media platforms, spreading fear and hate.

Step 6: Launch new anti-trans-children Facebook groups specifically to campaign against trans girls being accepted in Girl Guiding.

Step 7: Reinforce inflammatory talking points to enable radicalisation of people against trans children: focus specific attention on ‘child on child sex abuse’

Step 8: Send Mumsnet thread to friendly transphobic Times journalist for yet another attack piece in a long running campaign against transgender children. Have anti-trans-children story picked up by multiple other national newspapers.

Step 9: Inundate Girl Guides HQ with letters and emails, in an attempt to pressure Guiding to change their trans inclusive approach, adding veiled threats of legal action.

Step 10: Get your friendly anti-trans newspaper to publish a letter demanding that Girl Guides review their Transgender Policy (This Sunday, according to Mumsnet, the oracle on all things transphobic).

How to respond?

How can a mum like me fight back against such organised hate? How can I keep my daughter safe?

I write an anonymous blog. I have no power, no influence. I can count upon a tiny handful of allies willing to stand up for trans girls like my daughter.

There is no ‘powerful transgender lobby’ to defend us. I wish there was. There are no trans newspaper editors, no trans judges, no trans MPs.

It is hard to deal with so much hate. It is hard not to feel afraid. To feel like my country is not a safe place for my child. But life carries on.

Girl Guiding has been strong in their refusal to bend before a building anti transgender media, and have reinforced their commitment to All Girls in public statements. I am confident they will not waver in their commitment despite the latest media onslaught.

While incessant transphobes devote days upon days to making my (transgender) daughter unsafe and unwelcome, she’s been getting on with her life. Whilst they spread lies, misinformation, and hate, let’s see what my trans daughter has been up to:

10 better ways to spend your time

1: Learning British Sign Language to be able to better communicate with a deaf friend: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VRYQayi9czM

2: Going to school, learning stuff, (same as every other child)

3: Enjoying a Guides celebration of Mardi Gras (dancing, eating, painting)

4: Practicing tent building skills (indoors as it was snowing!)

5: Going to the cinema, eating popcorn

6: Attending a talk by local police officer on women in policing

7: Building a fire in the garden – attempting to make smores – giant mess

8: Reading Harry Potter (again!)

9: Eating too many Easter eggs (trading white chocolate eggs with younger sibling)

10: Laughing, smiling, talking, sleeping, loving, dancing, dreaming, living.

 

It is easy to paint trans girls as a scary menace.

My child is not a risk. She is not a threat. She is not scary.

She loves camping with her friends, staying up late, eating marshmallows (& smores) and telling ghost stories.

Anyone who knows a trans child like my daughter, can see how ridiculous anti-trans girl fear-mongering is. She is just like any other girl.

Those inciting anti trans fear, prejudice and hate know that the public don’t know any trans people, much less trans girl guides, brownies, rainbows. They rely on this ignorance.

Inciting hate against trans girls is not balanced ‘debate’. This is hate against a defenceless and vulnerable group of children.

No wonder trans children are at breaking point and the UK has become a dangerous place to be transgender.

No wonder, according to Stonewall’s School Report, 84% of trans children in school have self-harmed.

Anyone reading this who is a parent or carer – how would you feel if a child you love was the target of a cruel hate campaign? If they were being targeted just for being different.

My child is not a risk. She is not a threat.

She loves painting, hiking in the country, climbing trees, camping with her friends. She loves dancing like no-one’s watching.

My daughter is wonderful, kind, sweet (brave, clever, strong, and funny) and she loves Guiding.

Girl Guiding’s motto is ‘For All Girls’. Girl Guides is inclusive of deaf girls, girls with disabilities, girls from different ethnic or religious groups, and yes, trans girls too. Diversity. Inclusion. Kindness.

That includes my daughter.

Update 15/04/2018:

This morning the letter was published in The Sunday Times. Of the 100,000 volunteers in Guiding a paltry 220 people signed the letter who claimed to have some involvement in Guiding of whom a meagre 12 are current leaders. This demonstrates just how fringe these anti trans rights views are within Guiding, the wider British public and the UK Media led by the Times.

This last month and the last year or so has been a truly frightening time to be parents of a child who happens to be trans living in the UK. A week ago we were near to coming to the difficult decision to withdraw our child from Guiding as we were concerned her presence might not continue to be welcome. This would have been giving in to the bullies something we have raised our daughter, supported by Guiding to stand against.

We want to thank all those who have sent messages of support by email, Facebook, twitter from all corners of the world. Girl Guiding truly is a global movement and we’ve been overwhelmed by the positivity and solidarity in the face of these bullies.  Thank you to Girl Guiding UK, Chief Guide Amanda Medler, and the UK media communications team. Thank you to the incredible leaders, both locally and throughout the UK who have helped us stand strong, either because they have a trans child, sibling or family member, have a trans child in their section, or who simply because they wanted to help spread the message that Guiding is for all girls.

Thank you,

thank you,

thank you.

 

#ForAllGirls

My Daughter is that ‘Scary Trans Kid’ the BBC warned you about.

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I am crying and sad and afraid – watching yet more hate and fear-mongering thrown at trans children, specifically at girls like my daughter.

The BBC Victoria Derbyshire show (05/03/18) want a discussion on the Gender Recognition Act. An act that at present only applies to adults and only relates to birth certificates. Not, as they are discussing, access to changing rooms or toilets.

An act that bears zero relevance to the Girl Guides having a progressive policy of welcoming trans  girls.

Yet the BBC gives air time to the worst type of bigotry – raising fear about the threat my young daughter poses if she goes on a camping trip with her friends. .

No wonder trans children are struggling in the UK RIGHT NOW

Take any other minority. Take Muslim children, or black children or Jewish children, or neuro diverse children.

Would the BBC give air time to a person saying that Jewish girls are a threat to other girls? Would they say that parents need to be made aware of any Muslim girls going on a camping trip?

Would they allow such hate to go unchallenged?

Why is it fine to throw my child under the bus time and time again?

And to have this dangerous, scary, legally and morally wrong rhetoric of trans children being a threat utterly unchallenged?

With two trans panellists who were clearly out of their comfort zone on the topic of trans girls like my daughter.

One trans panellist even seemed to agree, focusing on the importance of careful ‘trans’ risk assessments before camping trips for children.

My child is not a risk. She is not a threat. She does not need a risk assessment. She is not to be feared.

She would love to go camping with her friends. She is a child.

She’d love to stay up late and eat marshmallows and tell ghost stories and play and laugh

How dare the BBC present trans girls in girl guides as a safety concern?

How am I meant to keep my child safe when even the lovely Victoria Derbyshire gives space to this outrageous hate and fear-mongering?

How dare the panel nod and agree that this scare-mongering against vulnerable children is balanced?

I don’t blame Rebecca Root or Clara Barker both incredible women.

They did a better job than I could of at staying calm in the face of such prejudice.

They were brought on to talk about the Gender Recognition Act not to talk about trans children.

But wake up people! We know that those opposed to trans rights are targeting trans children.

We know they quickly turn discussions to focus on children.

This is their standard approach. One of the panellists was even the public face of a website which explicitly states trans children are a ‘trend’ simultaneously denying their existence.

They do this because focusing on children is an easy win for those opposed to trans equality. They are defenceless.

They know that, like today, trans adults are often hesitant about speaking up for trans kids, possibly as the experience of socially transitioned trans kids today is outside of their direct experience.

They know that the UK public are totally ignorant about wonderful trans children like my daughter.

It is hard to stir up fear about trans women when sat opposite kind intelligent articulate trans women.

But without any young trans children on the show it is easy to spread fear about an unknown.

It’s easy to paint trans girls as a scary shadow.

The people who know trans children like my daughter see how preposterous this fear-mongering is.

She is just like any other girl.

But those raising anti-trans fear know that the public don’t know any trans girl guides.

They rely on this ignorance. They don’t care about the impact of this fear-mongering on my child.

Can you imagine being a 10 year old girl, happy to be moving up from Brownies to Girl Guides, excited to be going camping.

And watching the BBC describe you as a threat to your friends.

No wonder trans children are at breaking point in the UK.

The UK is not a safe place for my child and with every ‘debate’ which allows lies and misinformation to go unchallenged it becomes more dangerous.

How am I meant to tell my wonderful kind sweet (brave, clever, strong, funny) girl that everything is going to be alright when I just don’t have hope?

This country is a scary place to be a trans girl.

I am scared and I have had more than I can bear.

This is not balanced debate.

This is hate.

This is intent to incite fear and prejudice against a defenceless and vulnerable group of children and the BBC has once again provided the platform.

This is not ok.

This is never ok.

World. Be Better.

 

P.S. The photo is not my daughter. But is a wonderful trans girl (Rebekah) who deserves all the care and kindness and happiness the world can send. That girl’s mum (Jamie) blogs here

Transgender trend ‘School resource pack’ – A teacher’s perspective

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.

 

teacher head in hands

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.
  • Individual liberty.
  • 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.

 

 

If you are interested on how the Transgendertrend document fits within a long history of  anti LGBT hate campaigns you should check out this brilliant review on The Queerness   By Teacher Annette Pryce and Psychotherapist Karen Pollock:

https://thequeerness.com/2018/02/18/transgender-trend-follow-in-the-footsteps-of-other-anti-lgbtq-organisations/

 

On Gender Stereotypes

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:

  1. Media stereotyping
  2. Societal expectations
  3. 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.”

 

Trans power

Young brunette woman promoting marriage equality.

We were pleased to be recognised on Metro’s trans power list (@DadTrans)

Trans Power List: Top Activists and Influencers

But with the greatest love and respect to all the wonderful advocates on that list (and to the far greater number of amazing advocates who were not on that list) that has got to be the Worst Power list ever!

Where are the trans MPs?

Where are the trans judges?

Trans newspaper editors?

Trans media barons?

Trans billionaires?

The fact that a UK trans power list includes cis parents who blog and tweet anonymously is a great indication of where the power currently lies.

Unless we just haven’t yet been initiated into the ‘all powerful trans lobby’……

(hint hint can we join the secret lobby already?)