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Footballs and Fairy Costumes: Let's Leave Off The Labels

02/11/2015 11:01 GMT | Updated 31/10/2016 09:12 GMT

Last weekend, I went to the Feminism in London conference where I took part in a workshop run by Let Toys Be Toys, an organisation that campaigns to stop children's toys and books being marketed in a gendered way. In other words, they believe footballs and building blocks shouldn't be labelled as toys for boys, and fairy costumes and dolls shouldn't be labelled as toys for girls.

We were asked to discuss why this was important, and various ideas were put forward, which pretty much echoed the "Why it Matters" section of the Let Toys Be Toys website:

- Kids should decide for themselves what they think is fun. Why put these limits on play?

- Play matters. Children need a wide range of play to develop different skills.

- Marketing matters. Directing consumers in this way is restricting children's play.

- The real world has moved on. These gender stereotypes are tired and out of date.

While these are all sound reasons, I felt that one crucial point wasn't raised - and when I left the session, I berated myself for not raising it. The truth is, in light of the hounding of Suzanne Moore, the vilification and censoring of Julie Burchill and Julie Bindel, and the witch-hunting of Germaine Greer, I was hesitant to voice my opinion that there's a link between the gendering of toys and people identifying as transgender.

In virtually every interview I've read, the transgender person refers back to their childhood, saying they knew something was wrong, because they preferred toys that weren't "meant" for their gender. Author James Dawson* recently spoke to Buzzfeed about transitioning from male to female. Here's a clip from the piece:

'He collected dolls. "Around that time the adults around me started to worry about why I had those things," he says. "Eventually my dad took all my Barbies away." His father, a sales rep, attempted without success to entice Dawson into the worlds of football and fishing.'

It's clear that Dawson was made to feel there was something wrong with him for wanting to play with dolls, and not wanting to play football or go fishing. In fact, there's no inherent reason why dolls should be for girls, and football and fishing should be for boys. If these activities weren't arbitrarily divided according to gender, Dawson could have happily played with dolls as a boy and his dad would not have felt compelled to "entice" Dawson into playing football or going fishing. In short, Dawson would not have been made to feel like, "a sham, the worst specimen of manhood going."

The same story emerges repeatedly. The headline, "She always played with the dolls" is used by the Daily Mail to introduce a story about a transgender twin. The implication is that playing with dolls is a sign this child should have been born female. The piece continues: "Olly would kick a ball around and buy Thomas The Tank Engine magazines, but Joe, who is now called Lily, opted for pink outfits and books about fairies." If toys weren't gendered - if fairies and the colour pink weren't seen as being for girls - this child could play with them happily as a boy. Instead, appointments have been made to discuss the possibility of hormone blockers, to enable transitioning from male to female.

Under the heading, "10 Signs I was transgender even as a child," Lee Hurley who transitioned from female to male writes, "Getting me into a dress or any sort of girly clothing was a constant battle... I screamed blue murder to be allowed to put on shorts to go play football with the boys." Clothes are as arbitrarily gendered as toys - there's no reason why girls should wear dresses and boys shouldn't. As a result of clothes and activities being divided according to gender, Hurley felt unable to wear shorts and play football as a girl - and saw this as a sign of being born in the wrong body.

The ramifications of dividing up toys, activities, colours and clothing according to gender, is that if children don't like the things they're "supposed to," they're treated as if there's something wrong with them. Instead of accepting that children of either sex may like football or dolls, children who like the "wrong" things are increasingly labelled transgender, and set on the path to gender reassignment surgery. You don't need a penis to kick a football and you don't need a vagina to play with dolls - so instead of transitioning children, let's stop gendering toys.

*Please note that according to the Buzzfeed article, James Dawson has expressed a preference to continue being called James Dawson and referred to using the male pronoun, at this point in time.