Debbie Hayton

Sexism is alive and well in the transgender debate

Sexism is alive and well in the transgender debate
J K Rowling (Getty images)
Text settings
Comments

Parents! How do you support LGBT+ kids? As a parent, a teacher and as a trans person, I think the answer is simple: treat them just like any other child. They need space to explore what it means to be human, activities to learn about the world, and boundaries to keep them safe. When BBC Bitesize explored this question, they talked to drag artist Divina De Campo. Behind the flamboyant exterior – ‘camp as a row of tents,’ according to De Campo – there is a former teacher making some sensible points. ‘Everything is there forever,’ De Campo says of social media posts, ‘it doesn’t disappear because somebody’s screenshotted it.’ But unfortunately Bitesize wasn’t content with just offering plain, helpful advice.

As well as the recent addition of ‘Q’ to LGBTQ+ (it stands for queer), by the end of the podcast Bitesize had included two more categories: ‘I’ for intersex and ‘A’ for asexual were slotted in to make LGBTQIA+. But by adding more and more labels, it’s unclear whether we are helping children find themselves or imprisoning them in identities created by others.

Even the meaning of these identities is unclear. When asked to define queer, Tom Rasmussen – another drag artist consulted by the BBC – explained that it lives within the umbrella of LGBTQIA+, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Asexual and Plus. ‘It doesn’t mean you have to be those things, you might be many of those things at once or you may be none of them’. This is word salad and will confuse children.

Gone apparently is the freedom of children to express their personality for the sake of it; this is a movement that tells children that they need to get themselves an identity to find themselves. It corals individuals into communities: supposedly safe spaces where like-minded people can congregate. But the expectation to conform runs strong, and the penalty for dissent is severe – as I know from personal experience. This is not liberal, it is authoritarian.

At risk is the freedom for boys to grow their hair long and paint their nails, and for girls to climb trees and fix cars, and yet still be boys and girls, respectively. Rather than freeing children from sexist stereotypes, this philosophy imposes them even more strongly. Worse, by denying sex in favour of innate gender identity, we are in danger of also denying the sexism that drives those stereotypes.

But sexism does not go away when we ignore it. The hostility directed at JK Rowling, for example, is no longer confined to social media. This weekend an imprint in Edinburgh of the author's hands was vandalised with red paint following her row with trans activists. ‘Blood on her hands’, read the headline in the local newspaper.

This wild backlash is rather different to that faced by male commentators on the issue of gender. While Rowling had approached the debate with a sense of empathy and understanding towards transwomen, John Cleese burst in with a rather different tone: ‘Still trying to understand recent changes’, he announced, ‘If I decide to identify as a woman, does that mean that my wife would be in a same-sex marriage?’

When told that would be the case, unless his wife decided to become a man, Cleese quipped ‘That's an option we're considering, as I don't want to worry my in-laws.’

In Cleese’s case, the reaction was muted: as far as I can tell, there are no former colleagues lining up to denounce him and no angry petitions calling for his head. So what’s the difference between Rowling and Cleese?

Cleese, a man, was able to offer his opinion and that was the end of it: ‘I don't believe that the most touchy, most easily upset, most emotionally fragile folk should be setting the bar for all the rest of us’. Forty years after the Life of Brian where Cleese’s character described Lorretta’s desire to have babies as ‘his struggle against reality’, men can still make their point without generating a witch hunt. Yet for Rowling, the abuse and condemnation continues.

This is the reality that we need to prepare LGBTQIA+ kids for because this is the society we need to prepare all children for. We need to help them understand their emerging sexuality, and protect their right to break traditional gender norms without facing harassment or abuse. But these rights should be universal, not just afforded to those who have claimed some special identity.

Identity is key, Bitesize was right about that. But we should guard against locking our kids into new identities which hinders rather than helps them. And we should also prepare them to accept that some old prejudices such as sexism – as demonstrated clearly by the different reaction to Rowling and Cleese – are alive and well.