Sometimes, a single story can put things into perspective – provide insight – in a way that reams of pseudo-intellectual debate fails to.
So it was with a piece that appeared in the UK’s Mirror last Sunday, under the somewhat misleading banner: “Children of 12 to be allowed gender drugs to prepare for sex change”. Er, not quite. A very few children in this age group are to be allowed access to treatment that will effectively put puberty on pause whilst they make their minds up about whether they are or are not trans. End of.
Although to read some comments, you’d think this was the beginning of some mass Frankenstein experiment designed to regender vast swathes of the barely adolescent.
A radical difference of opinion
The next day, on my Facebook, two comments appeared almost simultaneously. Katrina Fox, editor of the respected and always interesting Scavenger Magazine wrote:, simply: “Good News for trans kids in the UK”. Julie Bindel wrote just as sweetly: “This is child abuse”.
Various threads followed, from those in favour, those against, with some of the views expressed by the latter revealing a crass vindictiveness that, if I am charitable, I can only ascribe to stupidity but which, I fear, is more inspired by malice.
The nature of childhood
But let’s dig a bit deeper. The start point is how childhood gets treated in the UK. You are – and remain – legally a child until 18. However, the years immediately preceding that age are a grey area, with some rights specifically written into statute, others ceded through the legal framework.
So, you may have sex at 16: may also take pics of yourself doing so; although anyone found in possession of those pics (other than you or your partner) is likely to be charged under the same laws used to protect children from paedophile abuse. Whether or not its sensible to criminalize possession of pictures of a legal act is another debate entirely. But its there.
The big principle that entered UK law in the last couple of decades is what is often referred to as “Gillick competence” – an odd way to describe something brought about by the failure of one Mrs Gillick to block access by her children under the age of 16 to confidential medical advice about issues such as contraception. Its not an absolute right: must be judged, in each case, on its merits. However, what it says, broadly, is that parental responsibility remains absolute but that insofar as a child is competent to assume for themselves aspects of that responsibility, they may do so.
Children in the UK may therefore access contraceptive services in confidence. They have also, a range of rights to autonomy over things such as their personal data from as young as 12. In family disputes, children’s interests are “paramount” – but not over-riding. Again, this is legal-speak for saying that from around the age of 12, if a child is competent to take on responsibility for something, they may.
Am I filled with joy at this? Er, no. As a parent of a sometimes responsible 17-year-old, I know all too well the trials that such an approach brings. Do I trust my daughter in every respect to make the right decision for herself? No. Do I think she is making all the right life choices now? Absolutely not.
But like most parents, I also recognize this as part of the growing up and separating process. She is broadly competent and, for me to claim omniscience in respect of what is right for her…well, that would be silly, arrogant and yes: possibly abusive, too. So I grit my teeth, support her when I can, and am pleased that she doesn’t, yet, seem to have made any decisions that are egregiously disastrous.
OK: the nose piercing may come close…but its not permanent, and she may change her mind.
And that is at the core of the issue here. If my daughter suddenly announced she was trans, would I object? No. Of course not. Would I, though, encourage her in all manner of treatments. Maybe. Maybe not.
On the one hand, I have the experience of dozens of young trans persons I have spoken to. I have such respect for them, because in most cases they have gone through hell. They have known, very young, very early, who they were. But they have had to struggle every day with a system and with individuals – from parents to medics to psychs – who have not supported them: who have, instead, gone out of their way to belittle and pathologise them.
It’s a miracle that so many have survived. Not surprising that some don’t: that they have ended their lives in despair, rather than continue to battle what feels like an entire world against them.
Still, I am nervous. I don’t distrust my daughter: yet I am also old enough to understand about getting things wrong. About regrets. In the trans area, certainly, there are a small number of well-publicised cases of regret…but that’s not the point. Regret applies in almost every single sphere of life.
Pregnant? I’ve met many women who regretted an abortion, and some, too, who regretted not having done so. Ditto orientation. Ditto choice of career. Ditto pretty much every single aspect of life.
The right to make mistakes
People make mistakes. We’d rather those close to us didn’t. But over time we have to understand how people have the right to make their own mistakes. It is not for me to tell some 16-year-old that they are “wrong” in their self-perception of themselves as trans, any more than it is for me to tell a woman the decision of whether to have an abortion is the responsibility of anyone other than herself. I can offer advice. Guidance. Support. I cannot take that decision away.
But that is exactly what happens to many trans children now. Because the decision not to intervene early is itself a choice. It is an absolute condemnation of them to bodily change: to growing into a body that they hate and detest.
Oh. But what if they’re wrong?
A sane approach to risk
And this is where another part of my upbringing comes into play. Wearing my sensible hat – as a consultant statistician – I have spent a lot of my life looking at issues of risk. I’ve built models, examined data. I’ve also been guided, wherever possible, by principles of game theory: where possible, minimise the harm that a decision can cause.
The decision to intervene early to change gender brings on two opposite risks: that doing it may result in major change being wrought on someone who is wrong, and will cause serious later life damage; and not doing it will result in major “natural” change, which will also cause serious later life damage.
What’s to be done? In some cases, there is no choice other than to choose. Termination? There is a narrow window within which a woman may or may not opt for that choice, after which the die is effectively cast.
But there are other instances – many in business – where it is possible to have your cake and eat it, for a while at least. And this, in most instances, is what I would advise. If you can follow a course that genuinely leaves options open, then go for it. How many people, I wonder, agonizing over a choice for which their heart leads them one way, whilst their head , driven by current life circumstances, pushes them the other, would wish to wave a magic wand and put that choice on hold until they were better able to make it?
Presence of Malice?
So it is with transition. The antis – the ones following Bindel in a series of faintly disturbing threads – are rife with claims (based mostly on anecdote) that trans is not real or that it is misdirected this or that or t’other (mostly, I gather, poorly channeled homosexuality).
I’ll pass, for now, on the appallingly conservative, normative nature of this analysis. I won’t even stop to wonder how they have the gall to take that route when they have fought tooth and nail whenever exactly the same normative arguments are applied over and over to other aspects of personal lifestyle, such as a woman’s right to choose or sexual orientation.
Oh: I can just hear the psychs now, mouthing vacuous anecdotes about how lesbianism is nothing more than misdirected heterosex, brought on by childhood abuse and how the kindest thing is to talk women out of this perversion…
For here is where the malice steps in. The proposal is that trans children be allowed the same sort of pause that many others would give their right arm for. A stop during which they can consider, without the pressure of the gathering hormonal storm, and decide for themselves where they wish to go. In the end, they may decide, as these armchair critics believe, that they were gay after all, and that they should reboot puberty. Or they may not.
Its THEIR choice.
Oh, but: this is not a risk free option. They’ll be the target for ridicule (as though they probably aren’t already, given the severity of presentation required for this step to be contemplated). There are co-morbidity effects, most notably on things like bone formation and the like.
Mmmm. I guess there are. There are almost no risk-free options. Ever. Some people die because they wore seatbelts. So if we follow the logic of these nay-sayers, we’d abandon seat belt legislation. Crash helmets, too. Because one risk of forcing people to wear such devices is that injury, when it happens, is often transferred from the relatively well protected head, down to the neck.
In fact, lets’ not do ANYTHING where there is any risk at all. No more smoking bans, because although that averts a lot of harm, there may be a smidgeon of good averted too. Let’s throw the rule book away : let’s not ever again charge anyoen with rape or murder, because there is the ever-present risk that an innocent person will have their life ruined in the pursuit of justice.
See what I mean? The argument is absolutely stupid. If, which we’re not, people were demanding the right to surgical intervention at 12, I’d be seriously concerned. But no-one is. All that is being demanded is that in a world where allowing natural development to continue there is a serious risk to a patient’s ongoing psychological health… we allow a pause.
Its not an argument about the eventual end: and unless there is some strong evidence that putting in a pause entails serious, serious risks, I am with the mother of one trans child who said in interview: “Better a live daughter than a dead son” .
This, at base, is about risk and choices and about humanity. The real abuse is what goes on when individuals for ideological reasons start to deny choice to others. When they deny choices that they would actually demand for themselves, I wonder if the word evil is not too strong to describe their point of view.