On my facebook feed the other night I saw a friend reporting that his two-year-old twins want to be an owl and a sheep respectively. Cue lols and hearts. I clicked on his page; they’d all just been on a half-term trip to a farm. There they were, beaming, with an owl and a sheep. ‘Lol’, I typed.
I then read an article a musician friend had shared, about the effect of musical training on the brain – tl:dr there were differences between the brains of those who’d done it and those who hadn’t – brains are plastic. They respond to experience, repetition and external stimuli. A link was suggested between playing an instrument and avoiding Alzheimer’s.
I turned on the radio and heard the end of a phone-in debate about whether to let kids playing football head the ball – their brains are not fully developed, and the worry is their development could be damaged or held up. One coach suggested using much lighter balls to learn the technique, then moving to standard footballs when they’re old enough. A compromise that would both keep children safe and allow them to develop.
It seems this is pretty mainstream, then; the idea that identity and brain development are not fixed in childhood, that in fact the processes continue well into adulthood and even old age. Just middle-of-the-road public knowledge.
But were we to follow that road, through the forest of ideas until we reach the Castle of Gender Identity, we would find that the drawbridge is up. The boiling oil is at the ready.
I’d just seen several different examples of mainstream acceptance of the idea of brain plasticity, of the idea that our selves are not separate from our experience, just by scrolling through facebook and listening to BBC radio for 30 minutes. I hadn’t been searching through learned science, medicine and psychology journals. I thought of other areas of human experience where brain plasticity might apply – language learning, fear of insects, favourite foods.
However, when it comes to gender identity, for some reason these ideas are non-transferable.
This far, but no further. Those who wish to enter the castle must tether the trusty steed of critical thinking at the gate. To get over this moat, you need the winged unicorn of unquestioning acceptance.
When it comes to gender identity in children, the role of the adult is to bin off all that plasticity stuff and ‘listen to the child’. (I’ll keep an eye out for my friend’s new sheep-pen in the back garden – he’ll be needing one for his ovine-identified daughter. Dunno what kind of owl the other one identified as, hopefully not a barn owl, where’s he going to put a barn)?
Even infants both have a gender identity and are capable of expressing it – at a recent conference in California, a developmental psychologist recounted the story of a one-year-old snapping open the fasteners of his onesie. (A full account of the conference is at the excellent 4thwavenow). This was ‘a non-verbal communication about gender’ – the baby, not yet able to walk or feed himself, not yet continent, was clearly making an improvised dress, which clearly meant that he was really a girl baby. (Everyone knows that it’s highly unusual for babies to ever wriggle out of their clothes/blankets/nappies – almost never happens right? Not the kind of thing babies get up to at all).
The child’s gender identity simply exists, has done since conception, and is completely unrelated to social norms the people around the child may subscribe to, or to any experiences a child may have. It cannot be altered, it’s hateful to even question it or to think about other things in the child’s life – just call the doctor! The one who knows who to read onesie semaphore! We worry about young children’s skulls getting bashed by footballs, but not about giving one of those football-playing children off-label chemotherapy and lining them up for future sterilisation should they happen to be a girl.
Even though doctors know that adolescence is a period of intense change and development and are thus reluctant to diagnose serious personality disorders until the patient is well into their twenties, even though we make laws about the age at which people can drive, drink alcohol or have sex, gender identity is the exception. Because – gender identity is the exception.
Recently, the NSPCC announced that it was holding a debate – the subject ‘Is society letting transgender children down?’
The tagline was ‘Dare to Debate’. The NSPCC didn’t, as it turned out. Transgender rights activists shut down the event, citing their extreme concern about one of the speakers. I could see where they were coming from – one of the speakers was to have been Kellie (formerly Frank) Maloney, a self-confessed perpetrator of domestic violence who has made on-the-record homophobic and racist statements. Not the sort of person one would want anywhere near a discussion of the best interests of children. Turns out that wasn’t the problem though – the objection was to the other speaker, Sarah Ditum, an intelligent, compassionate journalist who has written some wonderful, thoroughly researched articles on gender (like this one).
What were the activists scared of hearing? Is their castle built on sand?