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Artillery Row

Stop telling children the world hates them

It is not kind or truthful to scare children into loyalty

When I was at primary school I had a sort-of friend called Pamela. I write “sort-of” because much of our friendship seemed to be based on her telling me I wasn’t fat, “despite what everyone says”. She’d discussed me with her mum, apparently, and “she says people like you are just big-boned”. Naturally, what I concluded from all this was not that I wasn’t fat, but that everyone thought I was. Everyone, that is, except Pamela and her mum. 

I’ve never really worked out what Pamela’s motivation was. We both watched Grange Hill and there were times when I wondered if she saw me as a female Roland Browning, offering her the chance to be a real-life Janet St Clair. I’d also occasionally think “but I’m not actually that much bigger than you”. Then I’d stop myself from thinking it. Pamela was nice to me; everyone else clearly thought I was grotesque, even if they weren’t saying it to my face. 

There is something quite controlling about people who, even if they start with the best of intentions, become fixated on telling you how little other people think of you. They might couch it in terms of how wrong these other people are, but rather than build your self-confidence, it can end up eroding it. The more you’re told you’re not actually fat, ugly, stupid, unloved — that other people might say that, but these people are full of hate! — the more hostile the world starts to feel. Every slight or minor sign of disapproval becomes proof that the one person who seems to care must be right about all the others. Don’t go trusting anyone else!

Witnessing the response to the government’s draft guidance for schools supporting gender-questioning children, I found myself recalling this dynamic. It doesn’t surprise me that some people consider the guidance to be wrong, if not actively transphobic. It’s a mark of how far things have been permitted to drift as long as “nice” people have valued not being called names more highly than kindness or honesty. It is neither kind nor truthful to tell children that they might have been born in the wrong body, or that it is possible to change sex. It is neither kind nor truthful to treat social transition as a neutral act, or to expect girls to accommodate male-bodied people in their sports and toilets. It should not come as a shock to anyone that this would one day be pointed out, but to adults who have thrown their lot in with trans activism — even for what felt like the best of reasons — this is intolerable. 

I am not unsympathetic to their situation, especially if they are responsible for children directly affected by the new guidance. I can understand that they may even experience it as a personal attack on choices they have made in extremely difficult circumstances. Yet even if you believe the guidance to be wrong, or impractical, or unclear, it would be hard to pitch it as motivated by hatred for gender questioning children. It would be hard to pitch it as driven by a desire to enforce strict gender norms. It would be hard to pitch it as putting young people who feel deep distress in relation to their sexed bodies at greater risk of violence

Yet there are adults who have claimed it does all of these things and, what is more, that it does so intentionally. They have done so knowing that children who are already feeling extremely anxious are watching and listening. They have then had the nerve to blame the guidance itself for making young people “feel unsafe”. It’s okay, though — even if the rest of the world is out to get you, they tell these vulnerable children, we’re not! You’re safe with us!

Responding to Kemi Badenoch’s announcement of the guidance, the actress and producer Georgia Tennant tweeted a typical example of this “reassurance”:

These are the death throes. Hang in there please. Most people are kind and inclusive and progressive. These people want you to believe that’s not the case but do not believe them. Carry on with your heads high and your hearts open; they’ll be gone soon x

Tennant conjures up a vague “them” who “want you to believe” you’re hated – because of course “they” hate you – but never fear! “They’ll be gone soon!” If you were a child who hadn’t read the guidance (and why would you? It’s apparently full of bile directed straight at you!), you might reasonably conclude that these people are very evil indeed. 

You wouldn’t think “there is a disagreement about the best course of action in a very difficult situation, one which has been made all the more difficult by years of politicians burying their heads in the sand”. Nor would you think “adults who have invested a lot in defending social transition and the use of puberty blockers might have a deep, personal need not to believe they have been complicit in anything harmful”. You wouldn’t think any of this because you’re a child, but also because you’re being encouraged to see anyone who doesn’t support the views of Mermaids and Stonewall as brimming with hatred for you. 

There is something very wrong with choosing to tweet #youareloved at children — with an unspoken “but not by everyone” — rather than actually reassure them that neither they nor their political opponents want them dead. For years now, there are people who have considered it entirely acceptable to suggest that JK Rowling hates trans children, or that books such as Rachel Rooney’s My Body Is Me is filled with disgust for them. This is not the behaviour of people who want children to feel happy, safe and secure. It’s the behaviour of people who are — quite possibly — anxious about their own political position, and are certainly not prioritising the emotional well-being of kids. The overall message is not “you are loved”. It is “you are hated. But don’t worry! I love you!”

I don’t expect this situation to be resolved any time soon. What ought to be possible is for adults — even those who disagree with one another — to behave responsibly when it comes to telling children what the world thinks of them. If your only argument against guidance you do not like is to insist it comes from hate, perhaps you have no argument at all. If not, perhaps it would be preferable to share it rather than to scare young people into believing only people like you see them as worthwhile human beings. 

It’s one thing to scare other children into loyalty when you are at primary school. Grown adults have no such excuse. 

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