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Over dinner a younger friend said he thought I was “gender fluid”. I was taken aback. He was, I suspect, half-joking. But his inference was clear. I’m quite a “strapping” build, I rarely wear heels, I’m stroppy, opinionated, I hate shopping and like muddy boot camps. So, by modern definitions, I can’t be wholly female, rather somewhere along a spectrum between female and male.
I’d never thought about my gender identity before. It hadn’t occurred to me that not being a “girly” girl meant I wasn’t 100 per cent woman. The point, I’ve always believed, is to expand the categories “man” and “woman”, to tear down pink and blue prisons. So a little girl can like trucks, spacemen, getting dirty and still be a girl; a boy can put on nail polish, play with dolls and be no less a boy.
But it is not so simple now. I was speaking to a student I’ve known since she was 11: quirky, funny, inventive, always making mayhem with my son. Later she found the flicky-haired, make-up mad teen-girl scene cloying and repressive. She read Caitlin Moran’s book, found feminism and herself. “But if I was 13 now,” she says, “I’d be reading online trans forums and thinking that maybe I wasn’t really a girl.”
This is where we are now. On Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday we heard from 16-year-old Colin, who transitioned into a male two years ago. A tomboy who wore boys’ clothes when a little girl, at 14 he “identified with people I saw on the internet” and now straps down his breasts with painful binders. We heard a nine-year-old trans girl called Poppy who as an “effeminate” boy was bullied “so I changed to a girl and they liked me more”.
As the head of the Tavistock clinic reported, her patients were once a very few, distressed young people, suffering from gender dysphoria, a psychological condition in which they had an overwhelming belief that they were born in the wrong body. Now a new, larger wave of patients, like Colin and Poppy, were emerging whose desire to transition may be stimulated by external ideas. Some are heading towards surgery and/or heavy, lifelong hormones that render them infertile.
A letter from Brighton and Hove city council recently asked parents to help their reception class four-year-olds choose the gender “they most identify with”. How stressful for parents. What if my son is too keen on the dressing-up box? If my little girl says “I hate pink, I must be a boy”, do you reply “pink sucks, wear what you like” or, as trans campaigners advise, honour your child’s “true” gender?
I knew a four-year-old who swore he was a dog, yet children that age are now encouraged to change their names and gender pronouns. The plasticity of infant identity, the ever-evolving personalities of the very young, are seen as set; even though 80 per cent of children who identify as opposite gender grow out of it, the majority turning out to be lesbian or gay.
Desire to transition is being stimulated by external ideas
The trans cause is hailed as the latest liberation struggle. And we should defend trans men and women from discrimination and the hideous violence many have endured. But this should not stop us opposing a view of gender, spun off the trans movement, that is as conservative as the Mad Men 1950s. Until recently Eddie Izzard was a transvestite, wearing skirts and make-up: “These aren’t women’s clothes,” he’d say, “they’re my clothes.” Like Bowie, Prince and Grayson Perry, he made the category of man bigger, brighter, less confined. Now Izzard says he has “boy genetics and girl genetics”. Filmed rushing into a manicurist, he gushed: “Being a transgender guy, I do like my nails.”
Men, I’ve found, can’t understand why this enrages women. Why are feminist ladies so mean to Eddie? Well, because he’s no longer saying “I’m a bloke who likes pretty nails”. He has declared: “Because I like pretty nails I am female.” He is reducing being a woman down to make-up and sparkly shoes. By which definition, he’s more woman than “gender fluid” ol’ me.
In America a debate is raging about access to bathrooms by transgender students. In North Carolina and Mississippi, state legislatures have passed laws saying that students must only use toilets of their born gender, causing fears that trans girls in particular will be humiliated and attacked in boys’ lavatories. Barack Obama this week threatened to withdraw federal funding from these states unless they desist.
Instead of addressing fears, activists just scream transphobia
Such ugly, hateful laws have grown from bigotry and disgust. But also from the ever-expanding mission of the trans movement itself, which demands that anyone who identifies as female — even born men who’ve never had surgery or hormones and who still have beards — be allowed into women’s changing rooms. I don’t care if a transitioned woman changes beside me. No doubt plenty have and I never noticed. But the idea that any man who just “feels” female can barge in unchallenged has caused understandable unease. Instead of addressing fears, activists scream transphobia, and from the ensuing polarised debate come bathroom laws.
The challenge now is how to support genuine, heartfelt young trans people, while addressing an internet culture that lures teenagers, amid the maelstrom of adolescence, towards ever greater confusion. At heart the trans lobby upholds the same nonsense that underpins porn and men’s mags and the Tea Party right: that men are muscly hunks and women are passive pink fem-bots. To feel you are neither doesn’t make you gender fluid — or any of the other 72 crazy gender categories on Facebook — it just makes you human.