Let Children Be Children - Without Jamming Them Into Gender Roles

08/04/2015 20:18 | Updated 08 June 2015

As a tween, I was self-conscious about developing. Even now, the word makes me wince. I stopped going swimming at around the age of 11. I didn't like it, I said. I pulled out of Brownie camp, insisting, "I just don't want to go." The truth was, I'd heard you had to wash in a big bin, in front of each other. I was excruciatingly self-conscious about my body, about my breasts. And if you're imagining I had anything to stop traffic, the answer is no. I was around a bra size 30A.

I wanted to slice off my breasts with a bacon slicer. I didn't know what a bacon slicer was, but I imagined it would slice off breasts pretty well. Fortunately, I made it through puberty with my breasts intact, but had my parents been less no-nonsense, had they heard of transgender children and had we been living in America today, I might have been given a mastectomy.

Sound far fetched? In Louis Theroux's documentary, Transgender Kids shown at the weekend, we actually see the mastectomy scars on a teenager. "There's a little bit of redness," says Theroux, diplomatically, as we look at the glaring, red scars across the child's chest. Amaya's "top only dysphoria" became an issue around the age of 11 or 12 when developing caused, "a little bit of an anxiety issue... in terms of going out in public... the way other people were perceiving me." This sounds like a normal reaction to developing. You don't fix awkwardness with an operation.

We meet other children on the programme. Camille, born Sebastian, is a five-year-old who repeatedly uses the word transgender. I wondered - along with many others on Twitter - how a five-year-old had come to use this word. We see Camille in a tiara, applying lipstick and wearing a dress to school. Theroux asks dad Eduardo if perhaps, rather than needing to transition, Camille is still exploring. Eduardo says no, "I don't think there's any more exploring."

We're introduced to Catch, a 36-year-old female to male transgender, at an appointment to discuss phalloplasty. Catch talks about being at primary school and wanting to wee standing up. We meet Cole, sometimes Crystal, whose friends know what to call him depending on, "what clothes I'm wearing that day, like if I want to wear these kind of clothes I'm a girl, if I wear those kind of clothes I'm a boy." He says that as Cole, he does: "more things a boy can do."

As a feminist with a background in gender studies, I believe that gender is culturally constructed - that we need to break down gender stereotypes, rather than reinforce them. This means we need to stop segregating activities, clothes, toys and colours according to gender. Instead of dressing girls in pink and boys in blue, we need to throw away the rule book and, "rid the world of gender rules and regulations."

There is no inherent reason why lipstick is for girls - if a boy wants to wear lipstick, he's still boy: he doesn't need his gender reassigned. There's no innate reason for dresses to be deemed girls' clothing - that's just an (outdated) idea in our society, a cultural construction. If a boy wants to wear a dress, it doesn't mean he needs his gender reassigned.

As a Madonna fan, in my own tween years, I'm pretty sure Madonna mentioned wanting to wee standing up. That doesn't mean she should have been born a man and nor is it a sign she needs surgery to reassign her gender. If Catch wanted to wee standing up, then why not allow him to do that as a girl? Trickier feats have been accomplished.

At the end of the programme, Theroux says the choice to transition is, "a chance to exercise the most fundamental right we have - the right to be ourselves." But the children are already being themselves - and we need to accept them as they are.

Instead of shoehorning children into prescribed gender roles, and "reassigning" them when they don't fit, we need to question our adherence to gender roles. Force feeding children puberty blockers and cross gender hormones and putting them on the path to gender reassignment surgery, when they fail to conform, is actually an infringement of children's rights to be themselves, as they are. As a society, we need to accept that sometimes boys like to wear dresses and sometimes girls like to wee standing up.