As a child of the 1970s, I can still recall the trauma of watching Elvis Costello jab his finger at me as he sang “Called careers information; have you got yourself an occupation?” My dreams of becoming an astronaut had already evaporated by then and I feared I needed to make a hasty decision before I was conscripted into Oliver’s Army — or worse.
A generation later, the stakes are far higher for our kids. Today the refrain might be Called social media; have you got yourself a gender identity?
It is remarkable that, although we spend so much time talking about gender identity these days nobody can define it without recourse to either circular reasoning or sexist stereotypes — and usually both. Even legislators are guilty; the State of Massachusetts, for example, defines it as “a person’s gender-related identity, appearance or behaviour, whether or not that gender-related identity or behaviour is different from that traditionally associated with the person’s physiology or assigned sex at birth”. Which doesn’t exactly sound very progressive.
Layla Moran, the Lib Dem MP, may have told Parliament that she could see souls during a debate about trans issues, but all we can actually see are bodies and they have a sex rather than a gender. Which leads us to the deeper question: why do we need a gender identity?
For generations we have known about sex: there is female and there is male and we need one of each to produce the next generation.
Society devised different restrictions and expectations according to our sex, and while most people complied, some of us found them so excruciating that they crushed our mental health. That used to be called “gender identity disorder”, an identity problem relating to gender. When people objected to being labelled as “disordered”, the language was changed to gender dysphoria, but from the original terminology grew the notion of gender identity.
In itself, that is not a problem. As a transsexual I’m happy to say that I prefer to identify with females, and hence I may be described as having a female gender identity. But I am also a science teacher and, after fathering three children, two of them boys, the evidence that I was male and I am still male is overwhelming. The fact is that we have a sex and we cannot change it.
Yet with neither proof nor evidence, language has changed the way we think and many now assume that gender identity is some prescriptive innate quality that drives our personality. At a time when opinions and feelings are in the ascendancy, evidence and facts are too easily jettisoned from the public consciousness as inconvenient truths. In many people’s minds, gender identity has replaced biological sex as a means of dividing humanity.
Of course nobody fits perfectly into the two gender roles. There are over seven billion personalities on the planet, all unique and all a curious combination of feminine and masculine. As the theory developed, non-binary identities were created and then subdivided. At one point, Facebook suggested there were 71 different gender identities to choose from. While they have now — probably wisely — allowed users to make up their own gender identities, society loves to create boxes and then force people to identify into them.
The impact on children is massive. Have you got yourself a gender identity? The implication is that if you haven’t, then you don’t know yourself. BBC Education recently produced a film to help teachers counsel their pupils; there are “over a hundred” gender identities, the primary school children were told. When I was a boy, it was traumatic enough choosing between the 92 teams in the Football League.
But unlike choosing a football team to support, or a genre of music to enjoy, the conflation of sex and gender identity places a different sort of burden on the shoulders of children, and especially those who might previously have been described as gender non-conforming: boys who like to play with dolls, or girls with more interest in football. Are they really the opposite sex? No, of course they are not. Science is clear: our sex is determined by out chromosomes, gonads and genitals. A boy who likes to wear dresses is a boy who likes to wear dresses.
But this is not the message they are hearing from society and — especially — from social media. Maybe you are transgender? Or non-binary? Or some other recently invented gender identity? With that imposed choice comes pressure, and for children approaching puberty that pressure is unlike anything previous generations had to face. Puberty is irreversible and the clock is ticking. Children know that but they also know about puberty blockers and the possibility of delaying the onset of puberty — supposedly to buy some time.
And puberty changes the mind as well as the body. I am a teacher and I see with my own eyes the development of abstract thought that occurs in children as they go through the teenage years: delay puberty and we may be delaying mental development.
Meanwhile, as their friends go through puberty, those ‘buying time’ are left behind. Nobody wants that, not least 14-year-old children seeing their friends developing into adults before their eyes.
The decision then has to be made: withdraw the puberty blockers and allow nature to take its course, or move to cross-sex hormones. At that stage, children still too young to be tattooed face sterilisation followed by a lifetime of medication. And the decision is theirs.
What are we thinking as a society? We do not allow 17-year-old boys to have vasectomies just because they want one. But we allow 13-year-old transgirls to elect to have treatment that leads to the same outcome: infertility before they have even reached the age of consent.
This is the context in which the polling conducted by UnHerd needs to be analysed. Few people know what is going on — they just want children to be happy in themselves. But at the same time, there is a mental health crisis among our young people, and no wonder, given the demands we place on them, including, now, the responsibility for making profound decisions about their bodies.
Life was simpler in the 1970s. If we got our profession wrong, we could re-train and have a second career; if they get their gender identity wrong the changes to their bodies may be permanent, and they cannot have a second body. Perhaps some of those children will need to transition eventually — as I did — but they need to make that decision as adults, and maybe after they have had had the opportunity to have children of their own.
We should not put children in the quandary of having to decide their gender identity. It is neither progressive nor kind. Rather we should allow them true freedom – the freedom to express their personality in the sexed bodies that nature gave them.
Debbie Hayton is a teacher and a transgender campaigner.