“Is a six year old, or an eight year old, a ten year old or even a twelve year old really able to make informed decisions about a complete shift in their gender? Are we formed in our gender identities before puberty or by puberty?”
Tim Adams posed this question in his Observer report on an October 2016 conference at Mermaids, a support charity for parents whose children who identify as transgender. Adams acknowledges the notion of gender fluidity, and that choices are hard for children (and of course their parents) identifying as transgender. Huge amounts of support and relevant expertise are crucial in determining the best outcome and appropriate treatment.
Grandmother Liz Harris wrote to us with anecdotes and memories of her childhood, embracing vivid snapshots and perspectives which travel back and forth in time. I identify strongly with many of her memories, as do more than half of the women I know. Like Liz, I wonder what my life would be like now if I had changed gender in middle childhood. With today’s knowledge, would many of us ‘un-girly’ girls have been inclined to transition? Would we, as men, have thrived or would we now be looking back, questioning and perhaps regretting decisions made while were still developing?
It’s 1955, 1956, 1957 … I live in a rural village, with a loving family: two parents, two older brothers; comfortable but basic living conditions. Limited awareness of the wider world, and definitely no high pressure advertising focused on my appearance or choice of toys! The notions of Little Princesses or Super Heroes were certainly around in the form of myths and stories, but we as children did not have extreme gender roles thrust upon us (and our parents) by powerful multinationals uninterested in children’s development, whose motivation involves making as much profit as possible. Without the constant bombardment of image via screens large and small, we created our own scenarios … there were adventures involving exciting characters; some from stories, some from our own imaginations, which could last for days. Later, I remember imitative play involving cowboys after we got a TV. I fell in love with Champion the Wonder Horse and the Lone Ranger!
We had lots of freedom, life seemed full of certainties … My earliest memories are of playing outside with boys; not my brothers, who were considerably older. It sounds like a Swallows and Amazons childhood. Climbing trees, in and out of streams, catching minnows and tadpoles; so often wet and muddy; looking for birds’ nests and seemingly endless, wonderful imaginary adventures in between reluctantly helping with household stuff. We played Cowboys and Indians, complete with cap guns and holsters, and fought real ‘wars’ with the gang from the other end of the village; we threw stones and mud pies, brandished mock swords made from sticks, used dustbin lid shields and were gripped by excited fear. There was sometimes real blood too, which more than once halted our games.
I felt different from girls. I badly wanted to be a boy.
I didn’t want dolls, pretty dresses, curly girlie hair or any kind of frilliness. My perception of boyhood encompassed all the activities and attributes I valued. Strength, toughness, wildness … I had no interest in things domestic. What I loved meant being a boy or, second best in my mind, a tomboy: a word I’d heard used to describe me. I wonder what I’d already absorbed about so-called male superiority at such a young age? I don’t remember specific comments made at home.
Looking back, I feel that my parents were unalarmed by my apparent boyishness. I remember rather reluctantly wearing party dresses and fluffy boleros to occasional parties, but being so much more at home in trousers and shorts, going barefoot whenever weather and circumstance permitted. A particularly vivid memory involves going to the bank with my Dad in our local market town. As I recall, I was wearing khaki shorts and a dark green blazer; I had very short, curly hair. When a friend of my father asked him how old his little boy was, I was thrilled! The fact that my father corrected him didn’t seem to matter – he’d believed from my appearance that I was a boy.
A year or so later I was delighted when, on the annual Christmas shopping trip to our local city, the department store Santa gave me a parcel from the boys’ sack. It contained coloured plastic aeroplanes, and once more I was contented to be thought of as a boy. One Christmas my parents gave me a cowboy hat and silver revolver with caps, belt and holster.
Jumping forwards to eleven year old me, a new village on the other side of the country and secondary school, there is another occasion when I was mistaken for a boy … again at Christmas! My father’s boss came to visit with gifts for the family. When I unwrapped mine on Christmas Day, there were some beautiful Dinky toy cars … but back to a much younger me, aged four or five.
What I describe next is highly personal and will be laughable to some but, in the light of current debate, I take the plunge and share it. In the fifties and sixties, Freud’s theory of penis envy was popular currency: a misunderstood concept which enraged many women and was ridiculed too. But, as a little girl, I truly envied boys and wanted a penis of my own. The little boys who were my playmates used to say: “You had a willy when you were a baby, then a duck bit yours off!”
I remember feeling cross, envious and inferior; I envied the way they could pee up walls and really felt as if I was lacking. I tried to pee standing up.
I remember earnestly asking my mother whether I could have a “wee-wee pipe” made for me. She was wonderful, gently telling me it wouldn’t work even if we made one out of cardboard. What would she have said today, I wonder, when so much more is possible? She gave me an empty Jif lemon squeezer, which really helped. I knew I couldn’t be what I really wanted to be but Mum understood. Looking back, I love her so much for that. She could have teased me, even panicked, questioned or dismissed me but, instead, she responded to me exactly where I was and helped me. I believe she was truly wise. It may have been such a different outcome if I was a little girl in that situation today?
As I got older I strongly identified with George, the girl who wanted to be a boy, in Enid Blyton’s popular Famous Five stories. I know I wasn’t the only one and that George was something of an icon for many girls in that era. It says a lot about the stereotyping of gender attributes at that time, which I had already internalised. Being a boy meant strength, adventure, toughness and vigour. Anne, the other girl in the story, was the antithesis of George: characterised, even caricatured, as weak, soft and tearful, she was to be tolerated rather than properly engaged with. For a while, I wanted to be called George. My family indulged me to an extent and I don’t remember being teased … there are still cards my Mother kept, signed by George.
If someone had offered me the opportunity to become a boy aged eight or nine, I believe I would have jumped at the chance. In today’s climate of openness, opportunity, and acceptance of the fact that gender is, for many, an unfixed concept, I may have been helped to embark upon a very different path … but I race ahead.
I could be physically rough at times, engaging in fist fights with boys, and proud of my strength. Fights were not uncommon … and usually out of the sight of adults. I remember being ashamed and sorry after I’d punched a boy hard who had accidentally tripped me up in the playground. When he suddenly burst into tears and didn’t fight back, I felt truly sorry for hurting him. But there was a sense that I couldn’t be as good as a boy. I felt trapped and imprisoned in a girl’s body, but of course I was also trapped by constricted perceptions of male & female attributes, strongly endorsed by contemporary culture.
In some ways, looking back to my six or seven year old self, I did feel to an extent that the boys in my age group accepted me as one of them, although I played with girls too. At school, some of the boys used to invite me to sit with them on the long form benches attached to our desks; I felt so good about it! However my pleasure quickly turned into hot humiliation when the teacher embarrassed me by making me go back to the girls’ side, commenting that “Liz thinks she’s one of the boys.”
Given a mercifully more open attitude to gender, greater acceptance and more opportunity for gender reassignment, how would I have fared today? Impossible, hypothetical now, but my situation and heartfelt wishes may have been explored; a different life pathway may have become an option! In my middle childhood I learned from peers and home about adult bodies. My reactions ranged from disinterest and revulsion to curiosity and amusement.
I have read articles from the USA, in particular the work of Diane Ehrensaft, who has thirty years’ experience in the pioneering field of gender reassignment. It is possible that I may be using outmoded language here, and state that no offence is intended. I am increasingly aware, too, of vital debates on how early children and young people should embark upon irreversible gender reassignment. This is where I feel passionate because of my own situation.
Moving into later childhood I remained boyish but moved beyond asking to be a boy. I knew it wasn’t an option but I reiterate, if it had been a real possibility and if I had been supported by family, medics and wider culture, I might now be living as a man. I spent a good deal of time in the summer wearing shorts, bare-chested and barefoot when possible. At the age of twelve, I remember my mother very gently saying that I was getting to an age where I needed to wear a tee shirt. I was just beginning to develop breast buds. I felt upset about having to cover up: it seemed an injustice that I could no longer have the freedom I had taken for granted. Once again I envied boys and their apparent bodily freedoms, but other things were changing within me. I did not resent my bodily changes other than to feel resistance at covering up. Growing towards adulthood signified a loss of freedom, although at twelve I could not articulate that.
Other changes arose in my body. I began to have a sense of wonder at what was happening and wished the process would hurry up. I identified more with girls and their changes and longed for my periods to start! It is at this point that I had a deep, but unexpressed, pride and excitement about my maturing female body.
Where was the little boy of not long ago? I didn’t suddenly become obsessed with feminine attributes or become ‘frilly’, but was emphatically where I wanted to be.
Now I’m a mother and grandmother (as well as lots of other things), it is frightening to think that I might have lost that undeveloped part of myself as a young girl, given different circumstances. I value my womanhood so much; the parts of my personality that I thought inextricably linked to the male gender are as alive and well as ever. They have little to do with being male or female, despite what toy and clothing manufacturers would have us believe.
I write this personal statement out of concern. I sincerely hope my concern is misplaced. Are children being encouraged to transgender too young, so being permanently robbed of some part of themselves: in particular, for girls to carry and bear children? I know that some people have retained their original reproductive organs and can carry or produce babies, but I wonder what confusion this creates. Is a burdensome weight of decision making being thrust upon children while their personalities and bodies are developing? I reiterate that I wanted to be a boy. I am so glad I didn’t have the opportunity to transgender because it wouldn’t have been appropriate for me.
It seems important to state here, because of the crucially sensitive nature of the debate, that two members of my family are transgender: one privately so, and one not. Nearly twenty years ago I actively supported someone to become gender reassigned, giving both emotional support as well as writing statements in support of the change, which has transformed their life wonderfully.
To conclude, I return to Tim Adam’s quote at the beginning of my writing and ask, please let children be themselves; support their play, their aspirations, their explorations, and their expressions of gender. But let us exercise huge caution with young children. They may not be as fixed in their feelings as may be believed and expressed. Give them time; don’t overly focus on their identities. Celebrate the diversity of their play and personal exploration, with all its colour and variety … Be led by them. Watch, observe and love.
I believe they will show you who they are; and this may change. We are so often not either/or beings, but complex and fluid.
Some people, like my family members above, went forward with gender reassignment and its spectrum of medical and surgical implications for complex reasons, but there is evidence that some may change again given the passage of time. My only plea is this: please do not initiate irreversible procedures too young. As a child I found the notion of giving birth completely alien and, in maturity, am a mother and grandmother. I ask that little girls should not have the opportunity to bear children taken away before they have matured and developed sufficiently to make an informed decision with support, knowledge, reason, sentience and wisdom. Anything less is, in these circumstances, unethical.