To those of us who were kids in the 80s, or earlier, the trans children phenomenon can feel a little unsettling.
Between the ages of 3 and 13, before puberty caught a hold of us and drove us temporarily mad, we worried our little heads about stuff like toys, and football, and who was friends with who, in that place we thought was the centre of the universe: the school playground.
Sure, we thought our ups and downs and fallouts with mates were tragedies and comedies of Shakespearean proportions. But of course, they weren’t. They were just the small-fry stuff in an average kid’s life.
Fast forward a few decades, and it seems kids now worry about a whole lot more. About ideas and words that would have been utterly alien to our infant ears. About things like gender and dysphoria and ‘spectrums’ that have male at one end, female at the other, and a whole galaxy of other genders in between.
This isn’t small-fry stuff. It’s the stuff of existence itself. It’s the question of whether one’s biology matches up with one’s feelings. When we were kids we fretted over whether the lunch hall would serve fish fingers (good) or stew (please, no). Now some kids are in turmoil over the fundamental issue of whether they’re male or female — or neither.
And if you think childhood should be a carefree zone, fenced off from the angst of adult life, this is strange and worrying.
In recent years, the issue of trans kids has exploded into the public consciousness. The BBC has made documentaries about very young boys who believe they’re girls, and teenage girls having hormonal treatment to prevent the development of breasts.
Schools are having to think hard about how to cope with trans kids. Gender-neutral toilets have been installed in some schools. But what about changing rooms? Sports teams? The idea of boys who identify as girls getting changed with girls makes some feel uncomfortable. And if a teenage lad full of hormones and newfound strength starts to identify as a girl and signs up to an all-girl running squad or tennis team, isn’t he likely to outperform them all on account of his biological clout? Is that fair to girls?
In what is thought to be the youngest trans-kids case in Britain, a six-year-old boy, Daniel, was allowed to return to school as Danni after the summer break.
Daniel’s parents took him to the doctor’s to find out why he loved playing with dolls and hated his penis. Daniel was ‘diagnosed with gender dysphoria’, and the doctor suggested letting him “live as a girl.” This is becoming a familiar story: boys of 6, 7, 8 or 9 who like Lady Gaga more than Ronaldo being told they might actually be female.
In some countries, kids are even allowed to take puberty-blocking drugs. So boys can prevent the dreaded breaking of their voice and growth of their testicles, and girls can stop breast development and even periods.
So is all of this healthy? Some have their doubts. One British feminist describes puberty-blocking drugs as “child abuse”, in that they deny kids the experience of developing alongside their peers.
Others worry there could be an element of homophobia in the rush to diagnose camp boys with gender dysphoria. Isn’t it possible these boys are simply discovering their gayness?
My worry is that we risk polluting kids’ minds with adult hang-ups. No six-year-old independently arrives at the idea that he’s suffering from gender dysphoria. It’s his parents, and then therapists and doctors, who medicate him.
There’s a danger we aren’t letting kids be kids. That where we should be saying “That’s nice, dear” to the boy who’s effeminate or the girl who’s a tomboy, we instead freak out and seek a medical explanation for their behaviour.
This is the tough balance we have to strike: how to ensure kids have the freedom to play around with their identity while also not filling their immature, innocent minds with heavy-tripping ideas about gender that just might not be appropriate in all cases.
Perhaps the boy who likes girl’s things isn’t a girl; maybe he’s just a boy who likes girl’s things. If adults accept this, we could help to make certain kids’ childhoods less fraught and more fun. And then leave them to make the really big decisions about identity when they’re older, wiser, and independent.