Sajid Javid spoke some sense earlier this week when he said that the word ‘woman’ should not be removed from NHS ovarian cancer guidance. The Health Secretary was responding to the revelations that the NHS website had been stripping the word ‘woman’ from its advice pages. But fine words are only a start. The Health Secretary needs to get a grip on an NHS website that seems in thrall to magical thinking on sex and gender.
The problem is wider than he might realise. Quite apart from the row over the advice to women seeking advice on cervical cancer and ovarian cancer, the NHS is currently hosting a page entitled, ‘Think your child might be trans or non-binary?’ The page contains very worrying guidance for parents concerned that their children might be ‘confused about their gender’.
The page rapidly heads off into fantasy land. Reading more like an activist blog than official NHS guidance, the website declares that:
‘We now believe that gender identity is on a spectrum that includes male, female and a diversity of gender identities such as non-binary and agender (no gender).’NHS Website
If one of my pupils had written something like that, my first question would be: who is ‘we?’ It certainly doesn’t include me – I don’t believe in gender identity – and I do not understand why the NHS should be citing anyone’s beliefs. Medicine should be informed by facts, not faith.
The rest of the sentence gets no better. If the Secretary of State thinks that biological sex is ‘incredibly important’, maybe he could explain to the NHS that male and female are labels we apply to the two sex categories. They are not two seemingly random points on some ill-defined spectrum that also happens to include non-binary and agender.
But what does it mean for a child to be confused about their gender in any case? And how might parents know? The webpage discusses clothes or toys ‘that society tells us are associated with a different gender.’ Is the NHS really suggesting that pink is for girls and blue is for boys? It’s not clear to me what the NHS might think, but it seems at odds with DfE guidance to schools that states:
‘You should not reinforce harmful stereotypes, for instance by suggesting that children might be a different gender based on their personality and interests or the clothes they prefer to wear.’Department for Education guidance for schools
Let’s be clear, the NHS webpage will be read by parents worried that because their children are ‘identifying with a different gender’, that there might be something wrong with them that needs fixing. The solutions mentioned on the page include a referral to a gender clinic and the administration of puberty blockers. What does that say to those parents? Almost as an afterthought the NHS adds, ‘This is in addition to psychological support’.
Apprehension about adolescence – probably something as old as humanity – now takes on new meaning, and it is terrifying. According to the NHS:
‘You may seek support for your child before puberty starts, which can begin as young as age 9 or 10. The physical changes that occur at puberty, such as the development of breasts or facial hair, can increase a young person’s feelings of unhappiness about their body or gender.’NHS Website
The truth is that there are two sexes, we belong to one or the other, and we can like it or lump it – we can’t change it. But that does not mean that there cannot be a range of personalities and behaviours within each sex. A boy who likes wearing dresses is just that: a boy who prefers to wear clothes that are usually marketed at girls. If that makes his parents anxious, then maybe it’s their prejudices that need fixing?
Instead, those parents are directed to ‘charities listed on the TranzWiki page’. The organisations listed are an eclectic mix, to say the least. I would not direct the uninitiated there without more guidance. They are certainly not all charities, and some have dubious reputations.
Third in the unfiltered list of UK wide groups, for example, is ‘Action for Trans Health’. This might seem appropriate for a parent worried about the health of a child they think might be trans. But how many newcomers might realise that the Edinburgh branch of this organisation calls for nothing less than ‘the total abolition of the clinic, of psychiatry, and of the medical-industrial complex’? In another Tweet, it adds, ‘We demand an end to capitalist and colonialist “medicine”.’
After suggesting that gender non-conforming children might be ‘exploring different gender identities’, why is the NHS directing unsuspecting parents in this direction? It beggars belief. Savid Javid has spoken out about the erasure of the word woman, but this is surely far more serious. If he cares about children, he needs to take action.
Debbie Hayton is a teacher and journalist.
The NHS web page, Think your child might be trans or non-binary? was archived on 12 June 2022.