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I remember watching an Oprah show many moons ago - back when I watched TV, or even had one in my home - during which she featured adult guests who had transitioned into the opposite gender. As they recalled their journey, they described their childhood and shared how they'd felt this deep unease about being the gender they were born into, refusing to wear clothes that had been assigned to them when they were still in kindergarden. They opened up about the suffering they'd endured as they suppressed these feelings, sensing that they would not be received in their reality, quietly and desperately forcing themselves to accept their biological fate.
It had moved me quite a bit. It was, quite frankly, a reality I couldn't even conceive of. I'd joked many times that I had to have been a male in a previous life because I didn't fit so many typically female stereotypes, but it had never occurred to me I may have been born into the wrong gender. If they felt it this strongly, I could understand their need to make the eventual transition in order to sync up their inner and outer identities. Not being able to live authentically seemed like a cruel fate.
Until then, I'd spent most of my life leaning left. So far left on the political-compass spectrum, in fact, that I almost fell off the graph. Pro-choice, anti-gun, in favour of every possible human right, no matter how insignificant, on board the save-the-environment train, fully behind medicare for all - you name it, I backed it. I railed against conservatives whom I perceived as just that - conservative, stuffy, selfish, narrow-minded and stuck in the past. And so I steadfastly supported anyone who felt that transitioning was their path to fulfilment for years.
Fast-forward to today.
It seems impossible to have a rational conversation about the subject of gender identity, which, like so many topics, has become so very polarised. Evidently, there are no gray areas between "It's biology, stupid" and "I am whatever I say I am, even if I can't define what it is, and you must accept and buy into my perception of self".
So - can we talk? If you were cheering me on while reading my first two paragraphs, would you allow me some latitude to express my concerns? Or do you already feel yourself defensively recoiling, ready to pounce at the first sign of me diverging from my original idealistic stance?
Alright, well, you're still with me. So let's try, all the while keeping in mind that we need to make two critical distinctions - one that differentiates between the world of adults and that of children, and the other between reasonable narratives and hypothetical ideals that are either disconnected from reality, or run afoul of other ideals. Because if you staunchly and indiscriminately support, endorse and encourage gender identity, then you're going to have to go all the way.
When is appropriation OK?
We currently live in a world where appropriation is taboo. Even Halloween, the sacred day of people being allowed to impersonate anyone and anything, is fraught with a litany of dont's. We no longer accept kids dressing up as Indians or Geishas, and you would be lynched for changing the tone of your skin. Cowboys can't have guns, and sexy nurses are an insult to those who were hailed as heroes over the last three years. That said, lines are still being drawn, of course. If I dress up as Mr Peanut, is it OK to wear a monocle and use a cane, or is that considered an insult to people with vision impairment or walking handicaps? If I wanted to be Smurfette, could I make my skin blue?
Even on the one day we can be anything just for shits and giggles, we are expected to tread very carefully.
And I hear you - gender identity is not shits and giggles. So if your argument is that Halloween can descend into disrespect and mockery, then the same applies to presenting oneself as the opposite gender, with no knowledge or experience of what life in those shoes truly feels like. If, on the other hand, you insist that changing one's identity to that of the opposite gender is a reflection of one's desire to express oneself through a different vessel - one we are drawn to and that speaks to us - then you can't negate a person's, and especially a child's, wish to embody a different persona one day out of the year. You will need to come down on one side.
What about other appropriations?
Let's take race identity. If gender is suddenly no longer a matter of biology, could a Caucasian identify as African-american? If they managed to take a pill that would darken their skin and grow them an afro, would we support it, as a society? Would they be allowed to take advantage of programs that give an edge to non-whites? Some companies are making a concerted effort to give priority to potential employees from disadvantaged groups - women, of course, but also non-Caucasians, the indigenous, gays and lesbians. Would it be enough to tamper with one's physical traits, and to simply assert that we are no longer what our biology made us? Should we have "black queen hour" to celebrate someone having rejected their natural genetics? Encourage children to be of any ethnic background of their choosing?
As absurd as it may seem at the moment, what if it doesn't stop there? Can I be an animal? Can I be a thing? Can I be a different age and retire today because I identify as 65? Where, exactly, do we draw the line between our being who we are and who we would like to be? And, more importantly, to what degree, if any, are people truly expected to buy into the self-perception of another? Is it okay to refuse to do so if it goes against the essence of one's own being?
When does it become self-delusion?
Let's take a different kind of body image issue. There's been a welcome shift towards not shaming anyone for their weight (although I balk at the idea of encouraging people to embrace their extra pounds and putting a healthy spin on it). Imagine then, if you will, schools trotting out obese people in swimwear, showing off their love handles and layers of fat, prancing and strutting their stuff in front of impressionable children. Would that sit well with you? Knowing your child is, for all intents and purposes, tacitly being given permission to pack on the pounds? Is it not planting a seed that may have otherwise never been? And do kids even need to know about body-image issues in the first place? Can they not just be encouraged to be active and eat well, and not judge others on personal appearance?
All this, and obese people are not even identifying as overweight, they just are. So let's take it a step further: What if someone was not overweight, but instead simply identified as being so? You could arguably say that this can be measured and assessed such as via the body mass index. Well, tell that to the one who is afflicted with anorexia nervosa. The 85-pounder who insists they are fat. And we know they believe this. Do we support them in their body image? Do we encourage them in their self-delusion? Would this not be enabling them in their very denial of what they clearly are? Complicit in their self-destruction? When does it become harmful to buy into someone else's self-image? Or is it instead ok to say "Dude, you're not overweight. On the contrary. You need help." You could argue that anorexia is destructive while gender identity is affirmative - but is it? Is it not also a negation of the reality of one's existence?
When do we consider the potential harm?
Because there IS potential harm, taking it back to the gender issue, especially pre-adulthood. The jury is still out on puberty blockers (although there are increasing reports of the harm they do, and cross-gender medication is often the next logical step), while any actual physical intervention involving permanent changes is irreversible. The severity cannot be understated, and allowing teens to proceed on any such level is reckless. There is a reason why many laws, rules and regulations require one to be 18, or even 21, to engage in society. Drinking, cannabis, driving a car, going to war, even betting on sports. No parent in their right mind would allow their child to make these critical choices.
The stats show that those who have, ultimately, gone all the way, are glad they did. But those are mostly people who did so later in life, after fighting all the obstacles along the way. If they were this determined, one can safely assume there was not an inkling of a doubt, even if we still need to leave room for sunken cost fallacy. It's also interesting to look at the numbers - 0.5% of adults identify as the opposite gender, while almost three times more - 1.4% - of adolescents and young adults do. Clearly, many change their mind along the way. If the mind-shift happens post-intervention, the damage could be significant, and this should be of alarming concern to all of us.
The threat to equality
A friend of mine said "If truth is the first casualty of war, then feminism is the first casualty of wokism".
I'm not a feminist by any stretch of the imagination. But there appears to be an evident infringement on women's rights, not to mention their safety. Take the man who was on trial for rape and who, upon appearing in court, decided to identify as female and was subsequently sent to serve his time in a woman's prison. A rapist. Just because he decided he was no longer a man.
And sports, of course, with men who have been unable to make it in their discipline only to break all records after identifying and competing as females.
Even beauty pageants, for what they are worth, with a platform almost exclusively reserved for women, are suddenly being won by males. It strikes me as the ultimate insult that among the dozens and dozens of females participating, the top prize would be given to the one person who was a biological male.
Women have fought long and hard for their place, for the safe-guarding of that little plot of land that, until now, belonged exclusively to them. And here they are, being sent to the back of the line once again.
The left is going to have to come down on where it stands regarding equality and make some tough decisions. Because here too, one can't have it both ways.
What is it really about?
The conversation that needs to be had, especially with children and teens, is about what, exactly, has led them to they believe they were born into the wrong gender.
If there was ever a time in our lives that had us questioning who we were and how we fit in, it's clearly the teen-to-young-adulthood years. There exists no time period that is more confusing, and none that weighs more heavily, when it comes to those questions. These are awkward years, where acceptance by our peers takes an exorbitant amount of space. "Is this / am I normal?" is probably the recurring theme during those times, and because today's youth is looking for the quick and easy answer through a lens that has been exacerbated by social media, where image says one thing and reality another, they may be encouraged to conclude that gender is the problem. In the absence of proper checks and balances, the process begins.
I'm told that these conversations do take place - within the families themselves, and with medical professionals. But the overwhelming sense I get is that these people go at the conversation from an "Are you sure?" perspective, with a simple binary Yes/No option as an answer, rather than from a leaving-no-stone-unturned position, with really tough questions being asked. It's like making your 14-year-old son or daughter pass a kindergarden test when it would in fact require a college admission exam.
My son was about that age - 14 - when he said he wanted to get rid of the two beauty marks on his face - a larger one on his cheek, the other, smaller, right above his lip. We had endless discussions about it. I grilled him, mercilessly. About his body image. Why they bothered him so much. What was really at the root of the discomfort. His sense of self-acceptance and worth. What it would change, or fix, if anything. Why he might regret it. If he was doing this for the wrong reasons, and we covered the gamut of what those reasons might be. I asked him to convince me that this invasion into his face was truly preferable to at least waiting it out. I counter-argued every point he brought up, to his (and my own) exhaustion. I literally put him through the wringer. For two beauty marks. I can't even imagine the depths of endless questioning had he instead wanted to become a whole other gender.
Once I got a good sense of how firmly he stood on getting rid of these perceived eyesores, we agreed to the removal of the larger one and said we would re-assess the other 6 months later. Had he wanted to become a female, I would have taken my chances on letting him suffer until the age of 18 rather than seeing him regret a decision he had made while his brain wasn't even done forming itself.
What's the rush?
There are many things I wanted as a teen, and I cursed my parents for not giving in. In retrospect, I'm grateful that they stood their ground on some issues. On others they could have given me more latitude, but I came to understand. For all I know, I may well have found great joy in shocking my parents by declaring I was a boy, had this been on the table back then. But for those things that mattered the most, I just played the waiting game until I began living my independent life, when I could embrace them and give them the full expression they deserved.
And that's the thing. There is no urgency. There is no need to give the transgender issue so much space in society, especially for something that affects so unbelievably few. We don't see the acceptance of handicapped kids making the headlines or the talk show rounds. We don't see a media push for disenfranchised children to be included on equal level. There are no publicity-driven initiatives to shine a light on child abuse and neglect. And all of them would be equally deserving, not to mention drastically outnumber the true cases of children born into the wrong body.
So let's scale it back and find some middle ground. Let parents handle these situations privately. With all the resources necessary, of course, but without the hype, the promotion, and all the PR. There's nothing wrong with explaining to children, in an age-appropriate way, that while most people are in sync with their gender, some are not, in the same way that we can (and should) explain that while most children come from loving homes, are not lacking anything important and don't have any handicaps, the reality is different for some. No more, no less. We can make them aware and still shield them from the full brunt of the impact.
And then, we can just let them be children. God knows they will have enough on their plates as adults.
Sandra is a blogger, life coach and activist.