Wednesday, 4 June 2008

What price a happy childhood?

OK, I admit it. I succumbed to the vanity-google.


I set this blog up, put up an introductory post and found a picture of myself I can deal with my readers seeing. Then I googled the title, and got this article.


The basic story is that two children, biologically male, and presenting strong signs of gender dysphoria, are undergoing radically different therapies. One is banned from any expression of identified gender, the other is having her identitied female gender recognised by her family. It's thought-provoking stuff. (There's a longer two-part article here and here).


It's tough to deal with the idea of gender-dysphoria, especially when you're talking about a child. As a culture we believe children don't have any such issues. Children, we like to assume, are asexual and innocent, and need to be protected from anything so sordidly adult as sexuality and gender-issues. There is also the problem that it's very easy to minimise a child's gender questioning, and rationalize that ze* will grow out of them. Faced with children's gender issues, it is surely easiest to ignore them and hope they go away.




A common concern for parents is that they may confuse their child by treating them as their identified gender. 'What if ze is wrong, or going through a phase? Surely treating zim as zir identified gender will have a catastrophic effect on zir later development?'


The repercussions of treating a child, who may or may not grow up to be trans, as zir identified gender, are unclear. Frankly I would still recommend it. Which is better, being rigidly treated as your birth-gender by your family while you go through what may or may not be a 'phase', or having a gender-confused upbringing from parents who have made it clear they are happy to accept and love you?


I know which one I'd go for.


I've been lucky, because growing up female and tomboyish is so much easier. People smile indulgently and tell you that any little girl with brothers is a tomboy, and you'll grow out of it when you find out about makeup and men. People buy you the Famous Five books, knowing that you will absolutely love George (and want to strangle Anne, but that's not encouraged so much). They let you get away with the odd bout of fighting, tree-climbing, and making a lot of noise.


And on the other side of the coin, feminine boys get given hell by parents and peers. If a small boy takes an interest in pink, Barbie, dressing up and makeup, he is greeted with a mixture of confusion and disgust. And this, in my view, is where feminism and gender-politics intersect.


We are taught early that it's OK for a girl to want to be a boy, and it's not OK for a boy to want to be a girl.


Being a woman is bad. And being a man is good. That's what children learn.


Our culture is desperate to defend the masculine. Men in social groups mock anyone who doesn't live up to the macho standard. Fathers pass on to their sons an impossible set of masculine values. And any man who wants to take on any aspect of the feminine receives a huge amount of social stigmatisation. Our society polices its men. Masculinity is a mask that must never be allowed to drop, even for an instant. Men who wear their hair long, look even slightly feminine, or otherwise do not present an unquestionable male facade, receive comments and threats from the self-appointed guardians of masculinity.


The homophobia with which gay men are met in many sections of society has an element of gender-enforcement; the stereotype of gay men as effeminate, well-dressed, perfumed queens is still going strong.


Transwomen receive a double whack of prejudice, first on account of transitioning from male to female, and second as women who are under huge pressure to conform with the equally impossible ideals of feminity.


This is misogyny is much as gender-policing. What boys Must Not Be is, in effect, even slightly female.


Which brings me back to the article.


'...[Bradley] returned home bleeding from the playground, having been attacked by two 10-year-old boys for playing with a Barbie doll.'


Gender policing happens in the playground. Clearly, while the wider society is happy to shout abuse, threaten, and hurt anyone who strays into the No-Man's-Lands between the genders, we cannot blame the children who have absorbed this thinking.


What is wrong is our concept of gender. Gender is variable, and it is fluid. It always has been, and it always will be.

Until we accept that, everyone is suffering. Men are under pressure to live up to an impossible masculine ideal. Women are hated and feared for their femininity, as are the people who adopt femininity, through choice or necessity. And therapy for six-year-olds involves rigid enforcement of gender roles.

It is time for gender to be radically reshaped, redefined as a spectrum, a constellation, anything other than the painful and complete separation of two impossible polarities. We need an equal respect for men, women, all points in-between and all points elsewhere.

The binary is broken. Deal with it.


*I intend to use ze, zim, zir as gender-neutral pronouns wherever appropiate in this blog. I am trying to introduce them into the language so I can use them to refer to myself, and also to make my life as an addicted Scrabble-player a little easier.

2 comments:

QueenMelian said...

I agree with you; few people like to think of children having gender identity issues. By the same token, where do these people think transmen and women come from? Not that all experiences are the same, but the journey to transition is a long one, and for some people, yes, it starts in childhood.

Also, I've read other articles about those two kids, and I kept imagining the journalists languishing trying to get all the pronouns and terminology correct.

Cruella said...

A woman I used to work with had a son who came home one day and said "when I grow up I want to be a girl like mummy", and put a cardigan on his head to be "hair". She was really upset but fortunately figured it would be a mistake to stop him. Then a week later he came home and said "I don't want to be a girl any more - I want to be a cat". And she was really pleased...? How strange that wanting to be a different gender was more concerning to her than wanting to be a different species. What is it with gender and our need to draw lines and panic when anyone pokes a toe across them?

Great blog, keep it up.