Photo by Peter Dazeley

In defence of non-conforming kids

Inclusivity is forcing children into boxes

Artillery Row

Is there a way to write about being the parent of a gender non-conforming child without sounding like a total wanker? Asking for myself. I’ve been trying for years and if anything, it’s only getting harder. 

Time was when you could write about having male children who played with dolls, wore dresses, imagined themselves as Elsa from Frozen, and no one would suspect this was a lead-in to you positioning your child as special and different, with you as the world’s most heroic parent, battling against a cruel, transphobic world. They’d just assume the obvious: that children are gender non-conforming because there are no clothes, objects, desires or feelings that are exclusive to boys or girls. As one campaign group — originating in 2012 on “hate site” Mumsnet — put it, we should just Let Toys Be Toys

These were the days before the rise of the “trans child” narrative and with it, a “progressive” resurgence of extreme gender stereotyping. Over the past decade, it has become more and more impossible to avoid the imposition of gender norms masquerading as liberation. 

Today, not only do children face the usual pink and blue nonsense, but they’re presented with diagrams seeking to “explain” gender, not as a repressive social hierarchy, but as the thing that defines who you are and whether or not your sex has been “correctly assigned”. It’s the same old sexism, but claims to be its opposite. 

Behold the Mermaids “Barbie to GI Joe” spectrum, which encourages young people to position themselves somewhere on a line between ultra masculine and ultra feminine (it’s okay though; you can be somewhere in the middle, just as long as you don’t view yourself as a girl or a boy any more). 

It’s your child’s body that might be wrong

Then there’s the Genderbread person, which valiantly attempts to suggest conflating femininity with femaleness and masculinity with maleness isn’t rank sexism if you separate out gender into identity, attraction, expression, sex and roles.

The straightforward, feminist idea that sex-role stereotypes are harmful is now deemed old-fashioned. The stereotypes are fine; it’s your child’s body that might be wrong. This self-styled liberating message is the mirror image of the conservative belief that a child should deny their personality to match their sex; now a child should deny their sex to match their personality. As for those of us who argue that children should have to deny neither? We’re the ultimate baddies, feminazis and terfs, hated by left and right alike.

Take this Metro article, shared approvingly by Stonewall with the claim that “research suggests that children as young as 2 recognise their trans identity”. In it, a parent complains that their gender non-conforming four-year-old (aka, their four-year-old) isn’t having their gender identity affirmed (aka, their biological sex denied) by nursery staff: “her teacher told her that she’s always a girl”. 

The parent conflates this statement of the obvious with her female child, who has previously described herself as a boy, being pushed to “affirm her femininity”: “She’ll talk about stereotypically girly things like princesses in a way that makes me feel like she’s parroting things she knows girls are ‘supposed’ to like … Sometimes she still broaches the topic of wanting to be a boy. She’s pointed to male characters in books and said she looks like them. We say teachers can’t tell her who she is, but she comes back with the same contradiction — if my teacher said this, it must be true.”

You’d think the loving, accepting response would be to tell your child that her teacher is right about her sex, but that girls aren’t all fluffy pink princesses and can have male role models. Alas, if you’re the kind of parent who’s already been messing with your child’s head by regularly asking “whether she felt like a boy or girl, or neither, to let her know we were listening and keeping tabs on any progression either way”, you’re unlikely to do that. If you’ve told your child she must force herself into a stereotype-shaped box, you can’t blame the rest of the world if she believes you. 

Then there’s a recent Girlguiding article in which the parents of a child whom they “assumed was a boy” describe their realisation that they in fact had a daughter: 

Jane and her husband Mike started noticing that Rainbow identified more with female characters, toys and books when she was 18 months old. “Some people suggested we just say no, encourage her to identify with the male characters, but how can you explain that to a young child? To what end? No to playing with toys she loved or characters she loved to pretend to be? It felt cruel to say no, to say the least.’

The idea that one might just let one’s son identify more with female characters, toys and books without suggesting he’s been mis-sexed appears to be beyond Mike and Jane. Whatever drives these parents to behave as they do, if Girlguiding’s commitment to inclusivity is serious, it should not be promoting their prejudice. 

I know this might sound harsh (albeit not as harsh as setting your child on a path towards lifelong medicalisation because they want to play with a Barbie). Many’s the time I’ve been told I just don’t get it. I might have gender non-conforming children, but they’re not special gender non-conforming children. Mine are bog-standard non-conforming. 

For my children, doing something which goes against expectations for their male sex is meaningless, whereas for another, more complex male child, it reveals something about their inner girl which can only be expressed with recourse to crass stereotypes (what is inner girlhood, if not a crass stereotype? Only an ignorant bigot would ask).

As ever, pointing out the Emperor is naked leads one to be accused of being a simpleton. The truth is this: organisations such as Stonewall, Mermaids and Girlguiding do not attack gender stereotypes when they share these parental narratives; they launder them.

The correct response to any child who believes the way they feel inside is incompatible with their sexed body, is to tell them it isn’t. Stonewall used to know this. I suspect they still do, but they’ve tied themselves to an ideology of which the concept of the “trans toddler” isn’t an absurd offshoot. It’s a necessary logical conclusion.

What angers me most, as one of those boring old mummies who doesn’t aspire to turn her children into frightened, dependent, over-medicalised unicorns, is the way in which the entire feminist challenge to gender normativity has been poisoned by these fake radicals. The lies and gaslighting of trans activists have made actual challenges to gender norms taboo. 

I refuse to see anything un-female about being unfeminine

Witness, for instance, the response to Rachel Rooney’s cheerful children’s book on body acceptance, My Body Is Me. Or how about this attack on the TV show Roseanne for featuring a gender non-conforming child who isn’t trans. The author of the piece sees this as a move “designed to appease feminists who hate transgender people” because the child “freely admits to being a boy in a dress. He’s fine with it. [ … ] He has no desire to use the girls’ bathroom”. Imagine that! According to trans activists, little boys who happily wear dresses are just making life harder for those who want dress-wearing to constitute a free pass into female-only spaces. 

In addition to this, I see feminists whom I generally respect compare children thinking they’re in the wrong body to children believing they’re elephants or goblins. This trivialises the feminist challenge to gendered socialisation. Saying you’re an elephant is fantasy; saying you’re the opposite sex is a rational response to messages you receive every single day about what girls and boys are allowed to be. Children aren’t “confused” about gender, or at least, they’re a lot less confused than Judith Butler. At least when your toddler argues for the primacy of stereotypes over material reality, they use plain English. 

It’s sometimes suggested that a gender non-conforming child will “grow out of it”. Why should they? What they need to grow out of is believing that their sexed bodies are incompatible with their desires and needs. In a world that continues to associate femaleness with passivity and subservience, and maleness with dominance and aggression, this is not easy. 

My own parents, strong adherents to conservative gender norms, used to say my brother and I were “the wrong way round”. When I had children, I would understand my proper, feminine place in the world. This, you might have noticed, has never happened, not because I “recognise my trans identity”, but because I refuse to see anything un-female about being unfeminine. 

Being gender non-conforming isn’t a phase or a symptom of childish confusion. It’s yet more evidence that gender itself is the problem. Let’s make sure the muddled arguments of Mermaids and Stonewall don’t stop the rest of us fighting for real acceptance and real change. 

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