Our curator Karen Pollock explores the sudden media fascination with trans kids, and trans masculine identities, and asks what it tells us about societies attitudes to gender diversity.
A day doesn’t seem to pass now without a media outlet producing alarmist pieces about the very existence of trans people. Over the past few months there have been two changes from the usual “man in a dress” headlines. The media have become aware of a couple of facts which basic common sense should have informed them about. Firstly that trans adults were all once trans kids, and therefore there are children who question their assumed at birth gender. Secondly, and this may come as a shock, there has been a discovery of the existence of trans masculine people.
These two “revelations” are of course nothing of the sort, but they have caused transphobes to have to come up with new lines of attack. Due to the power of transmisogny, (a specific prejudice against trans feminine people), in our society it has always been reasonably easy to create distrust and hatred of trans women. There are a number of reasons for this. Our society is prejudiced against the feminine (misogyny). Women are seen to be lesser, are treated as lesser, although of course women are not a monolith and how well or badly an individual woman is treated depends on things like race, class, age, disability, migrant status and so forth. So an aspect of trans misogyny is misogyny, which the OED defines as;
dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women.
Given the attitudes towards women in our society, I believe another aspect of transmisogyny comes from the distrust, or disbelief that anyone would give up the privilege of being male, to be female. This of course is a misunderstanding of what gender identity, or gender dysphoria, is but underlies many of the attacks on trans women. Unable to accept their explanation for transition, (to align their external indicators of gender with their internal sense of gender), transphobes instead have invented a narrative of sexual predators who pretend to be women in order to access women’s spaces. This can perhaps be traced back to Raymond’s claim that trans women in the act of gender affirmative surgery are ‘raping’ the bodies of cis women.
This sexual predator myth is one which the media loves. No one would choose to be a woman ergo these people must be men, who must have an ulterior motive, who must be sexual predators trying to find a way to abuse women. It is worth noting that, particularly in the US, those on the right making these claims are turning out to be sexually predatory men. Projection may be an over used term, but sometimes it is the right one.
trans adults were all once trans kids, and therefore there are children who question their assumed at birth gender.
This narrative, of men pretending to be women in order to harm “real” women, (which is also at the heart of many radical feminist objections), is frankly, bunk. However it has remained largely unchallenged, as very few people ever meet a trans person, or are forced to reflect on their own internalized misogyny, transphobia and transmisogyny. The current discovery of the existence of trans/gender variant children, and trans masculine people challenges the transmisogynistic narrative and therefore new arguments are being brought into play. I would like to take some time to look at these arguments, even whilst reminding the reader that the basic reason for these arguments, a deep-seated transphobia and transmisogyny, means they are not being offered in good faith.
Despite the desire of many to insist that children have neither a gender or a sexuality or any idea of how they individually interact with ideas of gender or sexuality, the fact is children have both. A basic knowledge of child development tells us that between the ages of 3 and 5 children discover that they have a gendered body. A classic example would be a child asking a parent why they did, or did not have a penis. Parents with children who have siblings often discover this is an age of incessant questions about bodies, as the child tries to categorise genitals/gender and gender roles. To use an example from my own life, I shall never forget a toddler asking me in the supermarket if they could see the hole the baby comes out of. Mortifying in Asda, but perfectly normal and age appropriate behaviour.
No one would choose to be a woman ergo these people must be men,
Many trans people report 3 to 5 yrs as the age at which they first experienced gender dysphoria, as they discovered that the category of gender they were told they belonged to, and which their genitals supposedly matched, did not fit with their own gender identity. Many LGB people also report that their feelings around sexuality also started to form at this age. As a society we accept this about cis-het children, (or children we assume to be cis-het), talking of 5 yr olds who play together as having girlfriends and boyfriends, performing mock weddings, and gendering toys, and other objects as suitable for one or another gender. It is important to note that not having gender dysphoria from an early age in no way invalidates someones gender identity, any more than being in a relationship with a heterosexual person before coming out invalidates someones gay or lesbian identity. The road to self actualisation and authenticity is unique to each one of us, and often takes many winding turns.
I have written before about how hysteria about gayness somehow being catching led to Section 28. It was also based on this idea that all children were by default cis and het, and the only reason a child would not be is because they had become “infected” by adult ideas. This belief system is overshadowed with the idea that queer adults are sexual predators, who in the recruitment of children are seeking to satisfy perverted desires. Sound familiar? It should because very similar arguments are being used about the rising numbers of gender variant children. The obvious fact is that unless someone has words to explain how they feel, they are unlikely to express their feelings. 10 years ago a child whose gender identity did not match the category of gender they were presumed to be would be unlikely to come across words like trans, non binary, or transgender. If we cannot name our pain, we cannot ask for help.
The current discovery of the existence of trans/gender variant children, and trans masculine people challenges the transmisogynistic narrative and therefore new arguments are being brought into play.
There is a parallel here with the experience of bi people. Many talk about the experience of feeling like they are a crap lesbian or gay person, and the relief it is to discover that in fact there is a word for how they feel. The naming of names is very powerful, to claim an identity not only gives you language, but a sense that you are not alone. All to often the experience of being queer is the experience of being the outsider, once you can name how you feel you discover there are others on the outside too. Many trans people have explained how that moment of recognition of others being like them was life saving, and having language to name your identity is a vital component of this recognition.
The number of children identifying as other than their assumed at birth gender is rising because the number of children identifying as other than their assumed at birth gender is rising. That is not a typo. If you cannot express the feelings you have, you will not do so. Or you will do so through methods such as self harm, eating disorders, suicide. Think back to when you were young, how many open LGBTQ+ people did you see? How many LGBTQ+ teachers, doctors, vicars, nurses, Prime Ministers, cleaners, and movie stars did you know about? It is easier to be your authentic self when you see people in society who look like you. This is a basis of all role model campaigns, it is why Sesame Street has a diverse range of actors, and why it matters that we have diverse books and TV shows. That diversity means more children will learn the language to name themselves. The more trans or gender non conforming people who are visible, the more children and young people will be able to express their feelings about their gender.
unless someone has words to explain how they feel, they are unlikely to express their feelings. 10 years ago a child whose gender identity did not match the category of gender they were presumed to be would be unlikely to come across words like trans, non binary, or transgender
At this point it is usual for transphobes to bring up the 80% figure. As in the claim that 80% of gender variant children detransition. I will explain why this is false in a moment, however firstly I would say, so what? If I may refer to another previous article; If your child expressed the desire to be an astronaut would you say “well you are thick as 2 short planks, it will never happen. Or would you support them, no matter how unlikely their ambition might be?
Even if 80% of children who explore a different gender expression did revert later to a more conventional gender expression for their category of gender why would we want to stop that initial exploration? I may be an idealistic child of the 70’s but I remember when the goal was to break down unnecessary gender distinctions, roles and stereotypes.
It is easier to be your authentic self when you see people in society who look like you.
How many of us remember this ad? Dungarees, a Lego set and an imagination, were seen to be all a child needed. Compare it to the Lego marketing of today;
Perhaps we should be celebrating those children who refuse to fit into the rigid categories we impose on them from even before birth as the clear-sighted warriors they are? The only harm comes from adults who want to impose ever stricter gender roles on others being unable to cope with the idea that someone might have spent a few years dressing differently, or being called by a different name. Which is not to say that children who explore their gender are simply cis children exploring, however we must as a society ask what is wrong with such exploration?
The 80% figure is not true of course. It was heavily promoted by Kenneth Zucker, a discredited believer in conversion therapy, who performed studies on the sexual attractiveness of 6 year olds (among other things). His clinic told parents to punish children who did not stick to conservative gender norms, for example punishing someone who was assumed to be male at birth for playing with dolls. He believed his job was to prevent children from transitioning. Previously he took a similar stance to LGB youth, believing they would be happier if they were straight.
when you were young, how many open LGBTQ+ people did you see?
A study by Steensma, which is often quoted, claimed 84% of gender variant children did not go onto transition. This study “lost” 45.3% of its participants, and assumed all of those were therefore not trans. It also lumped together children whose gender identity did not match their assumed at birth gender, and children whose play or other behaviour did not match the norms their parents approved off. A more recent study, which is rarely quoted, also by Steensma showed that children who expressed consistent and long term gender dysphoria by a huge majority remain in the gender they have expressed, rather than their assumed at birth gender. Combined with the research which shows that children who are supported by parents/caregivers have good mental health outcomes, the data is clear that affirmative attitudes lead to happier children, and do not somehow magically create trans kids.
So, what do we know?
- The 80% figure is plucked out of the air, with no scientific basis
- Supported children are happier children
- Conversion therapy, and it’s proponents produces unhappy children
- Exploring non conventional gender expression only harms people who are upset by non conventional gender expression (I can live with that)
Trans masculine people are not a new invention (even if those opposed to trans rights seem to believe they are). It is always problematic to apply modern concepts to people who had no access to those concepts, but we do know that there have been assumed to be female at birth people who have lived as men throughout history. The first trans man, that we know of, to have a phalloplasty, was Micheal Dillon, who was born in 1915. However the current obsession with gender diverse children and trans masculine people are intertwining in a way which is both creepy, and perhaps rooted in patriarchal notions of those assumed to be female at birth being akin to children (a situation which our laws have consistently reflected)
The rise in trans masculine people has been decried as a “stealing” or deprivation of the lesbian community as what I can only describe as ‘fresh blood’. It is akin to the objections to queer, which apparently is a term which only exists so as to deny lesbians new members of the community. Ruth Hunt addresses this claim and our own Annette has written in praise of butchness.
This idea that somehow young people and children should be denied the right to self expression becomes creepy when we consider that adult women are concerning themselves with the future sexuality of children. Imagine the outrage if a cis adult male said he did not believe girls should not be allowed to identify as lesbians, because it would mean he would be unable to fuck them when they were older? If that sounds appalling, it is exactly what those lesbians insisting that trans boys must be made to identify as lesbians are saying.
Some trans men and boys are straight, some are gay, some are bi, some are asexual, none of this should be determined by older adults concerned with whether these men and boys will be available for them to have sex with. There is perhaps space for another article which explores why many younger women choose to identify as queer, and whether the behaviour of some high-profile lesbians makes queer appear a more inclusive and welcoming label, but that really is for another time and place.
The rise in trans masculine people has been decried as a “stealing” or deprivation of the lesbian community as what I can only describe as fresh blood.
Since trans masculine children and young people don’t seem to be tarred with the brush of sexual predator in the way that trans feminine people are, transphobes are reaching for the traditional tools of patriarchy; claims of mental unwellness and being influenced by the evil outside world. The history of gender relations in this country is one where these two methods of control have been used. Women are portrayed as weak-willed, needing to be protected from their own impulses, prey to wandering wombs and hysteria. While the trans feminine transphobic narrative is a trans misgoynistic one, the trans masculine transphobic narrative is a (misplaced) misogynist one – these people are really women, women are weak-willed and easily influenced therefore these people cannot actually be trans men, but just “typical” confused women who need protection from their own impulses.
Sam Hope wrote of how anti trans narratives are unfeminist, I hope you can see how the narrative of trans masculine people draws on traditional misogyny and sexism. The “discovery” of trans children, and trans masculine people is not in fact a discovery, it is an attempt to camouflage the desire to prevent anyone from exploring genders other to those assumed at birth. It is common now for those with power and privilege to insist they are being silenced if they bring forward these arguments with false facts and inbuilt prejudicial assumptions. Conversations are important, discussions about how we best support those whose life narratives extend beyond the expected apply to more than trans people. Given that I have just written over 2500 words on the topic, it is most certainly not forbidden territory. However surely for any conversation to be productive it must be based on facts, and self-reflection by all involved.
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