There’s a lot in the media at the moment about trans kids. They report that more kids are getting referred to gender clinics, at a younger age. Schools are talking to young kids about being trans. Some kids socially transition, or are offered puberty blockers (blockers are the only intervention ever offered to trans kids under 16 in the UK). And we also have handwringing about sex and relationship education: should it be compulsory? At what age? Do schools really have to include LGBTQ+ issues? The media usually suggests that these issues are problematic, or concerning. They aren’t. Talking to kids about being LGBTQ+ is a good thing, and it should happen as early as possible.
I was born in 1985. Section 28 (a piece of UK legislation which prevented discussing homosexuality in schools) was passed in 1988, when I was three. It was repealed in 2003, after I had left school at the age of 18. For most of my school career, I didn’t even know that there was a controversial law against talking about LGBT issues in schools. Not talking about these things was just how things were.
I had liberal, progressive parents. I had some sex education in school from the age of nine or ten onwards. I grew up knowing where babies came from, and pretty much how they got there. But the mechanics of anal sex between men was explained to me in the school courtyard by Jonathan Pritchard, when we were both eleven. I suppose nowadays, he would probably just have shown me a porno on his smartphone. As a parent or a teacher, you don’t get to decide that kids won’t learn about these things. What you get to decide is whether it’s you that explains it, or whether kids learn about it through rumours and porn, as something whispered and naughty and dirty.
I suppose even at that age, issues around my gender were going on in the back of my head. But I became consciously aware of them when I started secondary school, at the age of twelve. This was before there was any discussion of trans kids in the media. It was before YouTube. Before Facebook. I had no access to words about someone like me. No way of finding out about it. The closest concept I had was ‘lesbian’, since – thanks to the fact that my knowledge about lesbians was also picked up through playground rumour – I was under the impression that lesbians wanted to be men. The only problem was that I was absolutely sure I fancied men.
Slowly, I gained some access to information about trans people. The Jerry Springer Show was sometimes shown on daytime TV during school holidays. But the portrayal of trans people on that was scarcely something I could easily relate to or take much positive from, and anyway, they always showed trans women. I was hazy about whether there was an opposite concept. I went to the school library, which had a couple of medical textbooks. Looked up ‘transsexual’ in the list of disorders. That gave me a paragraph of information – but still no definite word on whether it was something someone assigned female at birth could be.
At this time, I was having counselling for my crippling depression. I had no friends at school. I struggled to relate to anyone my age. But I didn’t tell anyone about the fact that these problems were related to my gender identity. I was still trying to work out if that was even possible. I did tell my counsellor I was unhappy about the way I looked. She told me I should smile more, because I had a nice smile. I decided counselling wasn’t going to help me.
I didn’t tell my parents at this stage either. Not because I thought they’d disown me – I always knew they’d love me no matter what. But the scanty information available to me made me think that being trans was a weird and very rare sexual disorder, and one that I still wasn’t entirely sure a “girl” could have. That’s something that it’s pretty hard to explain, perhaps especially to people you love, who you know are going to be worried and upset for you.
The turning point for me was the Channel 4 documentary, ‘Make me a Man’. It featured four trans men, and one of them was gay (I’ve met him since, and thanked him, and ironically probably neither of us would call ourselves gay men any more). It’s hard to describe that overwhelming sense of relief, to find that people like me existed. Moreover, he and the other trans men in the video were people I could relate to. They had lives. Jobs. Families. From there, I found an online group for trans men, and a magazine you could get through the post (run by another hero of mine, who was also in the documentary).
I’ve already pointed out that there are a lot of attacks on trans kids in the media. We’re told kids are too young. That they’re being swayed by parents, or social media, or doctors. That it’s confusing for young kids to hear about these things. That it’s all gone too far, that tomboys are getting marched off to the gender clinic for liking dinosaurs. That there’s a possibility they might regret it, and wouldn’t be better if we just didn’t talk about any of this stuff until they were adults?
Quite aside from the fact that most of what’s written in the media about trans kids is utter rubbish, I’ve lived the “don’t talk about it, don’t let kids know it’s possible” option. It wasn’t even all that long ago. And yes, I survived it. I never self-harmed, and I didn’t attempt suicide, which are often invoked as the big risks. But I spent five or six years of my adolescence lonely and frightened, with no words to describe who I was, and feeling utterly unable to confide in anyone. I had no idea what my future could look like, and whether it would ever be possible for me to live a happy life. I worked out who I was through fragments of bad quality, sensationalist, pathologised information. I didn’t have friends throughout my teenage years. I didn’t date till I was nineteen. I think those experiences have probably had a lasting impact upon me, and the way I relate to others.
A word that often gets used for LGBTQ+ young people is “confused”. It’s a way of patronising and dismissing their experiences and – bizarrely – it’s often used as an argument for not giving young people information. Often young people aren’t confused at all – but where they are, lack of good quality information is part of the problem, not the solution. You don’t confuse kids by telling them that different types of people exist, and are valued, and that it’s okay for them to grow up to be any type of person. Telling them that makes them feel reassured, and secure, and loved. Hiding information, or treating it as embarrassing or shameful, that’s what hurts kids.