In an animated sequence of the 1974 TV special Free to Be You and Me, sung by Marlo Thomas as William and Alan Alda as his grandmother, the enlightened granny busts gender norms by giving the boy a doll and explaining to his dad that it will help his kid one day be an affectionate and capable father.
For a gay kid like me, the taunting refrain, “A dah-ahl, a dah-ahl, William wants a dah-ahl,” was immensely helpful, as it depicted the boys on the playground who called me a girl as the mean bullies they were.
I don’t believe the ultimate purpose of dolls for boys is to teach them how to be fathers—although getting men to take on traditionally maternal child-rearing duties was a critical aim of second wave feminism. My mother, a 1965 graduate of Connecticut College for Women, wouldn’t let my older sister have Barbies but we were happy with our stuffed animals, whose genders we switched at whim. We named our toy dog Sister Saltie and, in our games, she always came first in horse shows. Our soft toys weren’t our way to pretend to be parents. They were our outlet for social commentary.
My dad, like William’s, tried his best to butch me up. He made me take up wrestling at the age of five, but I resisted by collapsing to the floor the second the referee blew the whistle. Instead, after my sister convinced him to let me take riding lessons, I quickly became a Sister Saltie, superlative at braiding manes and tails. But being a skinny late bloomer and getting mistaken for a girl well past puberty compounded my feelings of self-loathing and my belief that I didn’t belong, although over time I formed a core of inner acceptance, thanks to the love of my family and my faith in God.
As a boy, I wanted to be like my mother—a radiant blonde who mastered nine languages—and my sister—a whip-smart nature lover—instead of my emotionally distant father. Almost all my friends were girls. Clued in though I was to the challenges girls faced, I envied them because they seemed to have greater freedom of expression. They weren’t expected to learn to “walk like a boy,” could like opera and ballet without being ridiculed and could play the more interesting roles in theatre. Gender dysphoria? Yeah, I had it. But then I got to be gay, and hallelujah for that.
I was in DC on the day of the Women’s March of 2017. The Mall was flooded with every possible symbol and slogan of empowerment—from Mother Earth and uteruses to Black Lives Matter. I was happy to be a man, so that I could stand alongside women. A year later, the pink pussy hats had been cancelled because they referred to biological anatomy and therefore excluded trans women.
Misinformation about gender identification ranges from unsubstantiated links between gender dysphoria and suicide to the science-denying idea that humans are not, like all mammals, sexually dimorphic.
Some have even culturally appropriated indigenous third-gender models to prove that the binary distinction between male and female is a colonialist corruption. But, as Helen Joyce writes in Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality (2021), such concepts are actually “testimony to the rigidity of [traditional societies’] sex roles: a way to prevent effeminate, same-sex-attracted males from sullying the class of men.”
Research on the causes of cross-sex feelings and the consequences of early transitioning has been extremely limited to date. Many of the studies that have been done suggest that most children outgrow their gender dysphoria once they reach puberty. A majority end up gay or lesbian, and happy with the biological sex they were born with.
Such studies have been lost in the fray of the wider debate over gender self-identification in adults, which has left a generation of gay activists at loggerheads with certain trans rights campaigners. For example, the LGBT charity Stonewall’s recent history of intolerance includes expelling founding member Simon Fanshawe for raising concerns over the implications of self-ID. Another co-founder, Matthew Parris, has resigned because Stonewall has “lost its way” on trans issues. Their current CEO, Nancy Kelley, has even likened gender critical views to antisemitism, claiming: “With all beliefs, including controversial beliefs, there is a right to express those beliefs publicly and where they’re harmful or damaging—whether it’s antisemitic beliefs, gender critical beliefs, beliefs about disability—we have legal systems that are put in place for people who are harmed by that.”
But when it comes to kids identifying as trans (or adults identifying them as such), we may be forgetting the timeless phenomenon that children sometimes go through phases. When parents are told that their six-year-old tomboy is likely to commit suicide if they do not accept her assertion that she is a boy, how can they protest?
We also need to consider the effects of gender self-ID on women’s safety. Consider that half the transwomen in English and Welsh prisons in 2019 were sex offenders: “a share far higher,” writes Helen Joyce, “than that of the general male prison population, let alone the female one.” Since men are one hundred times more likely than women to perpetrate sexual crimes, it shows a gross lack of concern for women’s welfare to deny that admitting males who only self-ID as women into these spaces does not expose them to new risks.
Emma Powys Maurice of the LGBT paper Pink News has minimised concerns about detransitioners because the figures are so low (though not as low as the percentage of the adult population that identifies as trans (0.6%). However, a 2021 study by the Fenway Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital puts the detransition rate at 13.1%. This should lead us to question whether children are physically, sexually and mentally mature enough to make potentially life-changing decisions about their bodies—and whether parents are always being allowed to act as their protectors.
Gender-affirming healthcare is a misleading if savvy choice of words, since the alternative to affirmation is denial. The question is, what gender is being affirmed—the one that matches the child’s biological sex, or the sex she thinks she is at six, or the one she thought she was at six but now at seven says was just a game?
Trans rights are human rights. Adult trans men and women should be afforded equal education, housing, healthcare, employment and voting rights. However, society rightly puts children into the care of adults until they reach maturity. When a three-year-old says he is Superman, we do not accept this as proof that he is Superman.
Many gay men fear that gender-affirming healthcare could become another form of conversion therapy. This is a legitimate fear, given that gay men in Iran are being offered a choice between castration and execution. Besides, how can a society claim to be civil when it shames people for articulating the difference between identifying as the opposite sex and transitioning into it? And how can people call themselves compassionate or inclusive when they chastise lesbians for not wanting to have sex with people who still have penises?
I was enormously lucky to attend a liberal arts college teeming with outspoken women and gay men. Thirty years on, it stuns me to have to point out that it is OK to be gay, to be a William who wanted a doll. If I were a boy today, it wouldn’t just be the bullies calling me a girl. But not all boys who play with dolls end up gay or wanting to be girls. We have come a long way from the message of Free to Be You and Me that assured us that social constructs didn’t have to define us.
In the opening scene of the series, neither baby knows whether they’re a boy or a girl. The boy baby (voiced by Mel Brooks) relies on social assumptions. He is a girl, he thinks, because he has small feet, and the other baby (actually a girl) must be a boy because she is bald. In addition, the girl wants to be a fireman and the boy wants to be a cocktail waitress—choices that convince the boy that he is right about their sexes. But when the nurse comes to change their diapers, the truth is revealed.
Girl: Ya see there? I am a girl.
Boy: Whaddaya want? I’m just a baby.
As this scene shows, sex doesn’t have to determine what we do or how we see ourselves. We can’t control how others see us, but we can learn when our assumptions about them are wrong. We can even, when we grow up, change our own genders. We just can’t change science. Describing scientific facts as hate speech only minimizes the reality and severity of actual hate crimes against trans people. And hurling slurs at women who are concerned about their rights as a sex bears the stench of misogyny.
We should continue to ask the awkward questions and demand more research. We should listen to and support women. Parents should teach their children to love themselves for who they are and not what gender stereotypes tell them they are or must be. Everyone should treat trans people with kindness and respect. And media outlets should have the integrity to interrogate and represent all sides of the issue.
Journalists should refrain from reiterating the scaremongering falsehood that limiting medical treatments, such as puberty blockers, to people under sixteen or eighteen inevitably causes suicide. Nor is it fair and responsible journalism to write that keeping boys out of girls’ sports teams, changing rooms and toilets harms trans children’s health, without also considering the impact of unisex facilities on the safety of girls. We should respect those who are already on the path towards gender transition. But we must also hold paediatric health practitioners responsible if their treatments prove to be irreversible.
The elision of sex and gender identity could have serious consequences. It’s time to speak up on this issue honestly and courageously.