The latest nonsense that young trans people and the adults supporting them are having to deal with, in what’s been a relentless cascade of scary articles and interviews in UK media about trans awareness and gender therapy for under-18s, comes courtesy of the Sunday Times, and the fight it’s decided to pick with a pleasant young teddy bear named Tilly.
Tilly, the hero of Jessica Walton and Dougal MacPherson’s picture book Introducing Teddy: a Story about Being Yourself, has something important she needs to tell her human, Errol: she isn’t the boy teddy called Thomas he always thought she was.
Also in the sights of the Sunday Times‘s article on ‘fears’ that books which ‘focus on characters that believe they are the wrong gender… may be damaging’ are Sarah Savage and Fox Fisher’s book Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl?, about a child called Tiny who doesn’t want to say whether they’re either, and the organisation Educate and Celebrate, which helps UK primary schools teach age-appropriate activities about gender identity.
This isn’t just a worrying example of attacks on trans awareness for young people framed as concerns for children’s welfare, though it is that too; it’s missing the point about what books about trans themes and characters do for the children who read them, whether they’re trans or not.
Fisher describes Are You A Boy or Are You a Girl? as ‘a book I wish I had existed when I was growing up’, and they wouldn’t be the only one to think so.
What the Sunday Times misunderstands – and what other people worried about trans education in schools choose to misunderstand or have never had the opportunity to understand otherwise – is that reading about a trans character, and finding out trans people exist, won’t turn a child trans unless something in their experience already makes them think they might be. Children don’t suddenly reinterpret their entire lives just because a teddy in a picture book tells them to.
But if a child has already felt like that character, yet literally never had the words to say so, trans-themed books for young children give them that. (And why would they have those words, if they’re just beginning the process of learning language and concepts from the adults around them, and their adults don’t even recognise the kinds of experiences they need to talk about?)
Why should a child have to be able to express ‘Mum, everything you and the doctor ever said about me being a boy is wrong,’ before her family and school will listen to or believe her, when books like these can let her say, ‘Mum, I think I might be like Tilly?’
Even as a teenager – or as an adult – the only way for years that I could articulate most of my nuances of queerness was to point to characters and celebrities that might have expressed something like me (the little queer ideograms this blog is named after); today, queer and trans writers and artists have finally been able to grasp the tiniest platform to put identification points like that in front of people when they’re three or four years old.
While for the children who have never felt like that, but are wondering why someone they used to call Uncle Thomas is now Auntie Tilly (or why Mum’s sibling Tiny doesn’t like it when you call them an auntie or an uncle at all), these books help them understand that not everyone’s sense of being a boy or a girl is as straightforward as theirs.
Introducing Teddy leaves Tilly and Errol at the point of acceptance, with Errol reassuring her that it doesn’t matter whether she’s a boy teddy or a girl teddy, ‘you’re my friend’: I’d like to see him giving an even more confident affirmation of her gender, maybe, but we close the book trusting that Errol – and a reader who identifies with him – will treat her as the girl she is. (Which every Errol needs to learn, even the majority who are never going to need to say they’re really Elsa.)
Trans-themed picture books show children, of all genders and all relationships towards gender, that transness as a way of being in the world is natural. Of course, that’s what the people trying to kick trans books (and trans kids, if they can help it) out of schools don’t want.
Two of the things that make it so upsetting and isolating to be a queer or trans young person, and especially one who doesn’t fit into the categories of queerness that cis straight people most readily understand (by the time I was a teenager, they’d just about grasped that sometimes a more masculine woman and a more feminine woman would somehow fall in love) are: firstly, to think you’re the only person that this disjuncture between the gender you’re meant to have, how you’re meant to express it and who you’re meant to desire because of it has ever happened to; secondly, not to have the right words to even be able to tell someone else what that disjuncture, for you, actually is.
Queer British people just a few years older than I am remember the media climate in the run-up to Thatcher’s government padding the Local Government Act 1988 with its infamous ‘Section 28′, as opposed to just remembering the insidious effect it had on schools’ ability to support queer children and teens.
How to reassure the public that preventing schools from teaching that homosexuality was a normal family relationship was necessary, rather than controversial? (Although decades of media homophobia had already persuaded many straight people at the time that homosexuals and all the other queers were a threat to children.)
Panic about children’s books – as the blogger Lisa Severn wrote on Twitter, recalling the furore over Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin, a translated Danish children’s book swooped on by the British press and Secretary of State for Education after the Inner London Education Authority made it available to teachers in very limited circumstances in 1986.
The panic over Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin didn’t cause Parliament to vote for Section 28, but contributed to a climate – at the height of the AIDS crisis – where schools and teachers knew how easily they could be accused, in a homophobic, biphobic and transphobic society, of trying to turn children queer.
Articles like today’s piece in the Sunday Times, in conjunction with the constant alarmism about gender therapy for young people on BBC Radio 4 and Newsnight current affairs programming, are exactly the kind of groundwork that a campaign for an anti-trans Section 28 would need to lay.
And that campaign would have allies from, if not even backers from, around the world – from Poland to Brazil, movements against ‘gender ideology’ have mobilised against feminism and any movements representing queer, trans and intersex rights for ‘indoctrinating’ children into ‘wanting to change gender.’
(Judith Butler, the philosopher most associated with detaching individuals’ gender identity from the gender that their genitals seem to biologically determine, was recently burned in effigy by Brazilian ‘anti-gender’ protestors while visiting Brazil for a conference she’d co-organised about democracy.)
The difference in Britain, maybe, is that most other countries don’t have such widely-disseminated feminist voices taking the side of the ‘concerned’ anti-trans lobby against trans youth – to an extent that bemuses feminists abroad. But every different country’s movement has its specificities.
But here’s where people who worry about trans-themed books being in schools and libraries deliberately, or sometimes genuinely, misunderstand what it means to be trans or queer. Reading about Tilly and Tiny isn’t going to make children change their gender, just like reading about Eric and Martin wouldn’t have made a boy who was always only going to be attracted to girls decide it would be fun to shack up with another man.
Trans people aren’t suddenly changing the gender they are – they’re changing the assumptions everyone else has made about their gender since a doctor scribbled ‘male’ or ‘female’ down on their medical notes after a quick look at their body. For many people, that newborn assumption is accurate enough; for some people, it isn’t.
(And some of them will know from childhood that other people aren’t recognising them as the gender they ought to, while others will take much longer to understand their not-fitting-in-ness as a gender thing; neither of those two sets of people are more or less trans than the other.)
Banning children from finding out about trans people and identities at school – as we have to assume, with the Leave.eu benefactor Arron Banks stating that children don’t need to be persuaded homosexuality is ‘a great lifestyle choice’, and the UK Independence Party’s equalities spokesperson arguing that trans ‘political correctness’ in the UK has gone ‘way way too far’, some influential lobbies would like to see – won’t stop children and young people being trans, if that’s what they were going to be.
It might stop them knowing for years longer that there is such a thing as being trans, if their parents, their schools and the government lock down their access to the digital spaces where they could find that out. But it won’t stop them actually being it.
Instead, the main thing you’ll get if you prevent children from finding out about being trans while they’re still children? Trans people with much worse mental health to deal with when they do come out – all the more so since puberty will have exerted changes on their bodies that they could have held back if they were allowed the hormone treatment that would have given them thinking space (current UK practice does allow ‘partially reversible’ hormones to be prescribed for people ‘around 16’ with a gender dysphoria diagnosis).
(The latest evidence shows that only 4% of young people diagnosed with gender dysphoria, not the higher figures that opponents of gender therapy for teens often refer to, will ‘desist’ from deciding that they’re trans; and no support the UK health care system would offer someone aged under 18 is irreversible, if they did decide as they were growing up they’d interpreted their identity the wrong way.)
One of the arguments often thrown at trans children is: kids like saying that they’re dinosaurs or astronauts and then grow out of it, how do we know trans kids aren’t the same?
Well: even that spark of identification with that dinosaur or astronaut might be the beginning of what makes them the next great astrophysicist or palaeontologist. Unless you encourage them, you’ll never know.
Also: we still need way more great trans astrophysicists and palaeontologists up in here.
But most of all: trans books for kids aren’t the same as books that make kids want to dress up as astronauts. They’re more like books that show kids there are astronauts, and hey, that bulky white thing with a helmet you’re wearing? That’s a space suit. They’re more like books that show you those bright lights above your head belong to space.
In my own childhood, part of what I needed to get to know my own gendered self already came through children’s literature (‘I guess I’m sort of like Nan Pilgrim in Witch Week, but maybe if she wanted to be more like Chrestomanci…?). But what would it have been like to meet characters that made me want to point a book out to someone and say, ‘I think I’m like that too?’
When we didn’t have the books we needed when we were growing up, we write them: but what more could we be creating if the books had already been there to help us realise earlier all the things we were?
In our own ways, Fisher and Walton and I all want to put that right, for the younger audience they write for and the older ones I’m going to be addressing: both for the readers who are going to be trans or genderqueer and for the readers who are going to stand by their friends who are.