“Maddie knew she was different from a very young age. By the time she was 2, she was already enamored by her Sunday school teacher’s high-heeled shoes, which she regularly asked to try on. She strutted around the house wearing her sister’s princess costumes, and all her friends were girls.”
And with that, Maddie’s mother decided that she had a transgender child. This story, featured in The Washington Post earlier this week, takes a quite predictable walk through the usual scenarios. Refusal to leave the house dressed as a boy, at age four, led inexorably to traditional girly outfits. There was hardship at school and worries over the rights of “trans kids” to play sport, not that the child was “much of an athlete.” Now aged 14, the child is on medication to prevent normal development during puberty. According to reports, a hormone blocker was implanted in 2019.
I read these stories with a mixture of sadness and outrage. Sadness for children who have been propelled onto a conveyor belt of social and medical transition; children who will never experience the puberty that their bodies were designed for; children whose chance of becoming parents themselves one day is possibly extinguished before they know what it means to be an adult. I am outraged by doctors who facilitate such treatment, and legislators who allow them to do it.
But the central character in this report isn’t the child but the mother. Katie Jenifer describes herself as, “a mama bear and will advocate fiercely for my kid, and for all the trans and LGBTQ kiddos out there as if I was their mama bear, too.” She means it. Not only has she joined two boards of directors for LGBTQ associations, she went to law school where she focussed on LGBTQ rights. Earlier this year Jenifer stood before North Carolina’s state legislature to testify against a proposed bill that would bar transgender students from competing on school sports teams that correspond with their gender identities.
That bill was supposed to protect the right of boys and girls to compete against their own sex – a particular concern for girls who are being beaten by boys who claim to identify as girls, whatever that means. But the bill was set aside following the hearing in which Jenifer testified. It seems that, in North Carolina, girls must give way to avoid hurting the feelings of boys.
This is clearly an adult on a mission, “I just want to be a resource and somebody who is affirming and supportive,” she said, adding that she also wants to help people who transition later in life.
As someone who did transition in later life, I suppose that I am supposed to be grateful to Jenifer and the other “Mama Bears” that become so proactive in a campaign that has taken over their lives. But I am not. Rather, I am deeply concerned by what I see.
Unlike Jenifer, I do know what it means to be transsexual and how it feels to transition. I have been through it and come out the other side. It is not a game, and it is certainly not for children. Sometimes youngsters need protecting from themselves, but here, I fear, they need protecting from their parents. My own struggle with gender, and the expectations placed on me because of my sex, started very early. However, children struggle with lots of things. Indeed, nobody promised that growing up would be easy, and without trouble. Just because I wanted to be a girl did not mean I was a girl. I also wanted to be an astronaut, and I wasn’t that either.
At the very time in life that children should be exploring what it means to be human in the one body we are all given, decisions are being made for them. I fear that these are often the wrong decisions. Previously, watchful waiting was adopted – allowing children to grow up with psychological support but without physical interventions, and many later desisted. A study from 2008 by Wallien and Cohen-Kettenis attempted to follow the experience of 77 children aged between five and 12 who had been referred to a specialist clinic because of gender dysphoria. When they were followed up around 10 years later, only 27% were still gender dysphoric. Meanwhile, 43% had desisted and the other 30% were untraceable. The authors concluded that most children with gender dysphoria will not remain gender dysphoric after puberty.
In England, gender dysphoric children are referred to The Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) run by the Tavistock and Portman NHS trust. Its website lists several more studies that corroborate the conclusion made by Wallien and Cohen-Kettenis. According to GIDS, “In the majority of cases these feelings [of gender dysphoria] seem to discontinue either before, or early in, puberty.” They put their own figure on it, “Across all studies approximately 16% continue with their gender identification.”
That means five in six desist, and that brings us back to the plight of gender dysphoric children in 2021, though how a two year-old can possibly be diagnosed with gender dysphoria is beyond my comprehension. Young children do engage in cross-gender behaviour, though other families may have recognised it for what it was: children playing dress-up. Engaging in fantasy play is a normal part of child development; it hardly means a child is destined to be transsexual. At the same time, all their friends were girls. Maybe that was because their play mates were chosen for them? But it seems the die was cast, though becoming a “trans kid” does not seem to have brought much in the way of peace and contentment. Jenifer reported the consequences: exclusion from activities and “transphobic incidents.” Why would anyone put their child through any of that?
The Washington Post shed more than a little light on that question. Their report finished with Jenifer’s reaction to the setting aside of the North Carolina Bill, “That’s exactly why I wanted to become a lawyer,” Jenifer said. “That’s my whole motivation – to protect people.”
Protecting which people, is maybe the first question we should be asking. The girls who are now losing out to boys in sport are hardly being protected. But, while it sounds noble to want to protect others, even more important questions arise over motivation and outcome. Why does Jenifer want to protect people and what does she hope to achieve by being an LGBTQ champion? Speaking about her own child, she said, “She will probably need legal support throughout her life unless things drastically change in this country. … she’s going to need somebody to fight for her on those legal fronts, and who better to fight for her than her own mom?”
Is all this to benefit the child, or is it to satisfy Jenifer’s own needs? That, in my view, is the crucial question that we should be asking.
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