The BBC recently screened a documentary on the subject of transgender children and teens, entitled Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best? The programme met with a certain amount of criticism and some vitriol from the trans* community for addressing the issue that some professionals believe there’s evidence to suggest that kids who identify as transgender don’t always know their own mind and that, if left alone and/or exposed to toys, situations and clothing that’s more appropriate to their gender assigned at birth, some will ‘settle down’ and any dysphoria will disappear with the passing of time. Some who oppose this see it as a way of trying to ‘cure’ gender dysphoria.
My personal reaction to the documentary was that it wasn’t as anti-transgender as some had made it out to be. Admittedly, the programme did show a couple of examples of when the wrong decision had been taken – or narrowly avoided – to proceed with reassignment, but I took this as being in the interests of balance rather than any told you so kind of way. Professional opinion is always going to vary, and contrary to some views expressed in the documentary, I didn’t get the impression any of the clinicians expounding a more laissez-faire approach believed they were trying to ‘cure’ gender dysphoria (as some were suggesting) – merely allowing children the space to be absolutely certain of their identity before they – or their parents – took any irreversible decisions.
That said,there’s no question in my mind that a child knows whether or not they ‘fit’ in to the gender roles and environment that parents and society in general confer upon them based on their gender-assigned-at-birth – and also that, if not addressed, that sense of dissonance is invariably carried with them into adulthood. Regardless of whether that sense of discord turns out to be full-blown gender dysphoria or not, it needs to be acknowledged and explored.
I make no secret of the fact that I’m not exactly in the first flush of youth, and watching documentaries such as this, My Transsexual Summer, I Am Jazz etc. etc. have a bittersweet effect on me. The mere fact that such programmes are broadcast on mainstream media and that we can have public discussions about gender identity in young people, shows the progress society has made since my own youth. I think it’s fantastic that children are encouraged and given the opportunity to explore their gender identity at an early age, though I’m certain that for those involved it’s far from easy to instigate the conversation – but still a darn sight easier than it was 40-odd years ago.
We didn’t even have the language. The word transgender didn’t enter my vocabulary until many years after I experienced those first feelings that something about my life and what the world expected of me just didn’t feel right. I spent my childhood and teenage years trying to be someone I could never be, and not understanding why.
I wonder how many of us can, with the wisdom of hindsight, look back now and see the signs? In my case some of my earliest memories are of my mother letting me play with her cosmetics, and clip-clopping about the house in her shoes while carrying her handbag. I remember wanting to be like her, soft and feminine, and actually feeling repulsion at the masculine characteristics and behaviours of my father and older brothers. I remember hating some of the clothes I had to wear, and once at primary school felt absolutely bereft that I couldn’t join in the girls’ games and be friends with them, rather than the boys. But at that age and in that era, the only thought possible was the wish that I’d been born a girl, and to have expressed it out loud would have been social suicide even at those tender years, and would have simply drawn the comment of “Don’t be silly!” if I’d attempted to articulate the same feelings to my parents. Child psychologists existed at that time, but were only for what were termed ‘problem kids’ – those who were disruptive or who had special needs. Special needs is a relatively recent descriptor – the derogatory terms used in those days, which I won’t repeat, said what you needed to know about how such kids were regarded. Few, if any, in 1960s Bradford would have even known what gender identity was.
The relevant memories of my teenage years at single-sex school are still too painful to share. It’s enough to say that thoughts that were already deep had to be buried even deeper to survive. Like many I suspect from that era, manifestations of gender dysphoria became secretive and something to be ashamed of, compounded by the fact that society conflated gender identity with sexual orientation at a time when homosexuality had only recently been legalised in the UK. No wonder so many of us grew up repressed and slightly damaged.
I’d already started work before I first saw anything in the media about gender dysphoria. Some of a certain age may remember a BBC documentary called – sensitively – A Change of Sex. I was still living at home at the time, and it was a miracle my parents didn’t turn the television over to another channel. While they busied themselves with other things, I sat on the sofa and took in every word and frame of that programme. I recall the overwhelming feeling of ‘I wish that were me’, feeling envious at how someone could have such certainty and self-confidence, and wondering in those pre-internet days how on earth anyone found a route in to that kind of world. That was probably the first time in my life everything clicked together and began to make sense, although the downside was that I still couldn’t talk to anyone about it, let alone do anything. It would be many, many years before that became possible.
Which brings me back to the present-day documentaries. The openness of the conversation means that young people of today grow up with a far greater awareness and insight of identity issues beyond the binary, and without the stigma that once existed. And that’s wonderful. What comes across is that if there are any issues in society, then on the whole it tends to be the older generation that have the problems coping with the more open attitudes that exist in society – something that manifested itself in certain other political arenas in 2016 on both sides of the Atlantic. More on that subject I shall not say.
The bittersweet referred to earlier is that inevitably when I watch such documentaries and see such comparative openness in the younger generation, I can’t help but wonder what might have been had such attitudes prevailed and support been available in my own formative years. It’s all ifs, buts and maybes but especially in my tortured teenage years I can’t help but wonder if life might have turned out differently even by just having someone to talk to who understood how I was feeling, and could have helped me make sense of my gender dysphoria.
But to paraphrase Wordsworth, the child is mother of the woman and whatever is suppressed in youth has a habit of coming out in later life. We should celebrate the fact that the younger generation is generally more knowledgeable, accepting and tolerant of difference than the baby-boomer generation, and thus far better equipped to deal with identity issues either in themselves or others. Being transgender is no big deal to them, and paradoxically they’re the ones that have ended up supporting our journeys, one way or another.
To those in the trans* community who were critical of the messages in Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best?, I say this: Whatever the rights or wrongs of the specific ways in which gender dysphoria is treated in children, simply being able to have a public debate about the topic on primetime TV is progress in itself, and that in itself shouldn’t be taken for granted. Far better to discuss the relative merits of prescribing hormone blockers than allow the less-enlightened in society to try and sweep gender dysphoria under the carpet again.