Saturday, September 19, 2009

Media stirs up Transphobic responses to children dealing with gender change

The Sun - Boy, 12, turns into girl

Daily Mail - Boy, 12, turns up for school as a girl after sex swap during the summer holidays

Daily Telegraph - Boy, 12, turns into girl

The Sun - Now boy, 9, is a girl

I have not posted here for a while but the events of the past few days have demanded a comment – and possibly even more action. I think it must have been difficult for anyone to miss the press comment over the past few days about “sex change” children.

As an expert in the field of gender diversity I have been appalled at the manner in which newspapers like the Sun and the Daily Mail have misrepresented the stories in a manner designed to stir up huge levels of transphobic and homophobic hatred. Their coverage of the issue will inevitably cause damage not only to the children in question and their friends and families, but to other children struggling to cope with gender identity and sexuality issues.

In case you have not read any of the news, the story that broke on Friday concerns a 12 year old who has started secondary school as a girl. There is actually only a limited amount of information available because the details are at least being kept anonymous for the child’s protection, which has led to lots of misinformation that I will try to correct in this article.

It appears that the child has always expressed herself in female terms (both the Sun and the Mail refused to refer to this trans girl as female), which is a common characteristic of this condition, however the head master at the child’s previous primary school refused to allow her be addressed as a girl. This is an issue we have had in at least one school in Hull and have had to involve the police to get the school to see reason.

On moving to secondary school her parents and the school have agreed to allow her to start the school as a girl, but it seems that some of her previous school friends recognised her and the bullying started. The school head intervened and held an emergency assembly to explain what had happened and made it clear that the child was to be treated as a girl and that no bullying would be tolerated.

That is such a good message because we know how many schools are not as supportive – however that was not the main thrust of the newpaper articles. It is not clear exactly what happened next but reading three accounts I have surmised that some children told their parents who have objected because their children are “confused”. These parents say they should have been informed first and at some stage homophobic parents have contacted the Sun and the Mail and other papers have picked up on the story – giving it a “Boy 12 has sex change” theme.

The only balanced story was that in the Daily Telegraph, although even that still made misleading and inaccurate comments. The articles have attracted vitriolic homophobic and transphobic comments about how wrong it is to allow a child of this age to have a sex change, including many very negative comments on social network sites some of which could result in criminal prosecutions.

Because of the reaction by homophobic and transphobic parents, the child has had to be withdrawn from school and the family given police protection. And today the Sun has “uncovered” a second story of a 9 year old child who has returned to school as a girl and, fuelled by yesterdays comments, this has now also stirred up a similar homophobic and transphobic response.

So what is the truth:

First – Gender Identity disorder in childhood is a well known and surprisingly common condition. Girls expressing masculinity tends to be less of a story because society accepts “tomboy” behaviour, but effeminate behaviour in boys is far less accepted and we also know that typical gender expression in both boys and girls is the single biggest cause of bullying in and out of schools. Unfortunately whilst a child may simply be expressing gender in a way that is not typical of their sex, society seems to always sexualise it. It is possible that such children will later reveal same sex attraction, most at this early age are not sexually active, just confused by a world that will not accept them as they wish to express themselves.

Second - A child of 12 cannot have gender reassignment surgery. That cannot take place until 18. In the UK even hormone treatment is withheld until after puberty, despite very successful experiences in Europe and the USA in blocking puberty until sufficient psychiatric assessment to determine whether gender reassignment is the best course of action. What can and is done in the UK is to support the child in developing socially in the way that is most comfortable to them. I wish the schools and my parents were as enlightened when I was young. Instead I had to keep this as a deep dark secret living in fear most of my life.

Trying to force a child to live in a gender they are uncomfortable with has been proved to cause considerable psychological damage. However there is very little professional support for children, especially outside of London. The most important part of any treatment is to support a child in living in their acquired gender role. This enables the child to experience life in that new gender and thereby as they grow older enable them to determine if they want to make a permanent and irreversible decision. Very few trans people ever undergo gender reassignment surgery and then change their minds and the assessment process is designed to reduce or eliminate that risk.

Third – Most schools do not seem to want to deal with this issue. The schools in the news this week are to be congratulated for attempting to tackle this difficult issue, but need to be criticised for not including gender identity, and sexual orientation in the school curriculum earlier which would have made the process less of a problem. Children need to understand gender diversity. They will have school friends expressing atypical gender, or with lesbian, gay or trans parents. Until we educate children there will always be bullying. And allowing parents to interfere with this education is not acceptable – that simply perpetuates the homophobia instilled into them through the school system. Making sexuality and gender identity a forbidden topic (which we know to be the case in a large number of faith schools who have a “Blue Book” specifying what can and cannot be discussed) encourages phobic responses. This refusal to address the issues or to stop bullying as a result of atypical gender expression or behaviour sends out a message that homosexuality and transsexuality are wrong, effectively giving permission to the bullies to target "gay" pupils.

BBC Leads on Anti Bullying story

It is interesting that with two days of debate on children changing gender in the papers, one of the lead stories on the BBC news today has been on the lack of effective management of bullying in schools. I hope that the traumatic experiences these trans children and their parents are having to face as a result of the media circus being stirred up will finally lead to the issue of atypical gender bullying being properly addressed. Then perhaps their experiences will have not been for nothing.