On Gender Stereotypes

Someone recently wrote in to this blog, saying, in essence, that they ‘would like to support trans children’s rights, but can’t get over a nagging fear that children who are simply non-conforming are being pushed into identifying as trans’. The writer remembers being a ‘tomboy’ who hated dresses, and fears that such traits in today’s society would lead to her ‘being pushed into being a trans boy’. She asks whether a ‘butch woman who identifies as a woman can still be a woman’.

This is the way that very many people who are ‘on the fence’ about supporting trans rights feel. It is not dissimilar to the way I myself once thought about trans people, back when I had never knowingly met a trans person, back before I knew my daughter, back when a lifetime of ignorant media portrayals had depicted trans people, almost always trans women, as clichés of femininity.

Anyone who finds themselves thinking this way, please take a minute to consider a few things.

First consider where are you getting your information from? Have you met trans people who you consider to be making their lives harder and facing enormous discrimination simply from ignorance that girls can climb trees and boys can like dolls? Or do you perhaps know very few or zero actual trans people, and you are basing your judgement on media portrayals? If the latter, consider whether such media tropes are written by, directed by and feature trans people, or whether they simply project non trans (cis) people’s interpretation.

Second, can you really scrutinise the first statement – that you would like to support a marginalised group’s rights, but only once you have been persuaded by them that they deserve your support. Only once you have been persuaded that they are not naively/stupidly enthralled to stereotypes.

Can you not hear how that sounds?

It is not dissimilar to someone saying ‘yes I’ll support Muslim rights, as soon as they persuade me they’re not all terrorists’, or ‘yes I’ll support the rights of people on benefits, as soon as they persuade me they’re not lazy’ or ‘yes I’ll support asylum seekers rights, as soon as they persuade me they’re not criminals’.

I’m all too aware that certain people on the far right in our society hold all of these prejudiced views.

There is a mainstream portion of our society who would never dream of stating or even thinking those statements. Who understand that these sentiments and generalisations are grounded in media misrepresentation, ignorance and hate. Who would not buy into media vitriol about other minorities, yet fall into the trap of believing that trans rights, and trans children’s rights, need to be earned, can be withheld, are in some way conditional upon those children (and their parents) proving that their specific trans child is not a stereotype, and is not in fact a non-conforming child ‘forced into a trans identity’.

The insinuation that trans children are just non-conforming children being led astray is pervasive, a scare story proactively spread by those who want to marginalise trans people.

This accusation is thrown at parents like myself daily:

Why couldn’t you just let your boy play with dolls? (…she doesn’t like dolls)

Why couldn’t you just let him do ballet and wear a princess dress (…she likes football and prefers witches)

Those accusing us of stereotypes are the ones seemingly obsessed with outdated notions of gender specific toys and interests.

They worry that parental narrow mindedness or ignorance leads us to presume a ‘tom boy’ must be a trans boy, that a feminine boy must be a trans girl.

Because of course us blinkered parents of trans kids are tied to stereotypes and couldn’t love a non-conforming child.

Because of course, in their mind, all trans girls love pink and dolls and sparkly tiaras, and all trans boys must be ‘tom girls’ who hate dolls and dresses.

Having met many score of trans children, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Trans children, and trans people in general are those who are tearing down the gender boundaries.

Of course we told my daughter that she could be whatever type of boy she wanted to be. This was totally misunderstanding the point and made our child deeply sad.

It is true that media depictions of trans children often focus on gender stereotypes, with pink = girl.

Every time I see any depiction of trans kids on TV I count the seconds until the trans girl pulls out a doll or the trans boy kicks a football. But guess what. I know scores of trans girls who had zero interest in dolls or dresses. I know trans boys who collect dolls.

Trans children are no more stereotypical than any other children.

The same for trans adults of course. Some trans women are extremely glamorous and feminine (just like I know some cis women who are always in dresses and makeup). Some trans women wear jeans and t-shirts and rarely if ever use makeup – just like me and tons of cis women. Gender expression is not the same as gender identity.

If you are ‘on the fence’ about whether to stand up for trans children, please question where you are getting your assumptions about transgender children from. If it is coming from a transphobic and ignorant media, or if it is coming from anti-trans children political groups, consider if the information you receive is biased, loaded or spun. Would you accept rhetoric about Muslims from Britain First?

On Media Tropes of trans children

I’ve identified three key factors why the vast majority of media does not present a true picture of trans children:

  1. Media stereotyping
  2. Societal expectations
  3. Personal narratives (of children and families)

1. Gender stereotypes are pervasive in media coverage of trans children. There are many reasons for this:

Media stereotyping: TV shows regularly confuse gender identity with behaviour, toys or interests. Some media pieces seem to do this maliciously, to undermine the validity of trans children, to suggest to unaware viewers that non-conforming children are being made trans. In other media pieces the stereotyping may be unconscious. This is particularly the case when transgender people (directors, producers, narrators) are not involved. Many (but not all) trans adults and parents of trans children are acutely aware of the distinction between trans and gender non-conforming – and of the difference between gender expression and gender identity

Simple soundbites: Documentary producers often seek to tell a simple story, and select and edit soundbites to fit their narrative. This usually reinforces a ‘traditional’ and expected depiction wherein gender expression (eg clothing) and toy preferences (boys = trucks, girls = dolls) are highlighted as synonymous with gender identity. The public as a whole is still poorly informed – many people don’t know what the term gender identity means, many have never heard the term cisgender, or assigned gender, and some are unsure whether a trans girl is someone who was assigned male or female at birth. Documentaries need to ‘hold the hands’ of an ill-informed general public, taking small bite size steps into the world of gender identity. In this context, it is hard for a brief media piece to quickly convey complex and nuanced information on identity. It is much easier to revert to old clichés to help tell the story, looking for soundbites like ‘I adored dolls when I was little’ or ‘I was born in the wrong body’. I’m not denying that some trans people do say these things, and for some trans people this is their truth. But this is not the heart of the story for very many trans people, yet these same clichéd and simplified stories are the ones we see in the media time and again. Reporting on adult trans people seems to be moving towards more complex and nuanced stories about identity – not yet so for trans kids.

Simplified Visuals: Documentary makers like to use imagery to tell their story. A gender identity is not something that can be photographed or visually depicted. Trans kids, like all kids, will have items of clothing of a variety of colours. But it is the photo of a trans girl wearing pink that will make the documentary, that will be selected for the front cover. Trans girls, like most cis girls, will sometimes wear pink. Indeed it is hard to avoid pink in the girls section of most stores. Media images of trans girls almost always show them in pink – this does not mean trans girls wear pink any more often than cis girls. My trans daughter actively dislikes pink.

Participant selection: Some trans girls like football and trousers and climbing trees. Some trans girls like dolls and princesses and pink. Documentaries will give greater emphasis to the latter over the former (I hardly ever see the former shown, despite knowing plenty of trans girls who would rather climb a tree or play a computer game than dress as a princess). Many trans girls will like a wide range of toys, both dolls and cars and will gladly play with both. Which footage will make it into the documentary though? Of course, it will be the clichéd footage of the trans girl with the doll. This is very similar to the clichéd media portrayal of trans women always being introduced showing them putting on make-up. This is part of the truth for some people, but it is manipulative – emphasising stereotypical and clichéd aspects of lives that are rich, nuanced and complex.

2. Gender stereotyped expression may also be more prevalent in trans children, at some stages of their life due to external pressures

Medical gatekeeping: Adult gender identity services, for a very long time, insisted that trans women adhere to restrictive (and often outdated) gender stereotypes as a condition of acceptance for treatment. Trans women who might out of preference dress in a less stereotypically feminine manner were forced to conform to outdated stereotypes in terms of dress and hair style, or be denied support. This type of regressive gatekeeping is still experienced in children’s services, with reports of trans teenagers being told they need to ‘dress in a more stereotypically feminine manner’ or ‘need to sit in a more masculine posture’, or wear certain clothes, or style their hair in certain ways.

Securing support from other children: Trans kids want to gain the support of their peers. Adhering to a very stereotypical gender presentation is a way of signalling their gender identity to other children. When my child was trying to persuade her peers to address her as a girl she took to wearing sparkly hair clips as a visual queue of her identity. One day in the car en route to a party she lost her hair clips. She descended into uncontrollable sobs. When questioned she explained:

‘If I don’t have hair clips in, they will call me a boy’.

Since being accepted as a girl by all her peers, she soon stopped wearing hair clips. It was never about the hair-clip – it was about wanting to be seen by others and respected as a girl.

Asserting identity to parents: Trans kids desperately want to show their parents their identity. Clothing is an obvious route to asserting identity. When we were calling her a boy, my child refused to wear trousers (from a very young age). A very rigid and strident insistence on wearing dresses is for many trans girls a way to communicate their identity to their parents. Gender non-conforming boys like to wear dresses because they like the dress, maybe it sparkles, maybe it has a fun pony on it, maybe it is brighter than the dull colours in the boys section. But for transgender children, clothing is a means to an end, a useful way of trying to communicate and assert their identity. How do you know if it is a gender non-conforming boy or a trans girl? Listen to what the child is saying. Are they focused on liking dresses? Gender non-conforming child. Are they consistently, persistently and insistently saying ‘I am a girl’ and getting deeply upset and depressed when called a boy? That was our daughter. Once our daughter was accepted by us as a girl, her clothing choices gradually shifted to what is now a fairly neutral presentation for a girl – sometimes wearing dresses but most of the time preferring leggings or jeans.

3. Narratives of the child and their parents

Some parents of trans children like stereotypes and some parents like simple narratives that help explain their situation to a sceptical world: Parents of trans kids come from all walks of life. This is not an ideology that only parents with a certain world view sign up to. Trans kids appear in all kinds of families. These families are as varied as wider society, and the families of trans kids will mirror the views and prejudices of wider society.

Some parents of trans kids have very stereotyped and gendered expectations for their children. These parents, when recalling the childhoods of their transgender children, will remember and highlight examples of non-gender conforming behaviour. Such families may well say ‘It made sense that she was a trans girl, as she always liked dolls’. This does not mean that playing with dolls made the parent conclude their child was transgender, rather it meant that once she accepted her child as a girl, she recalled and emphasised examples of non-conforming behaviour that help her understand and accept her child.

Other parents do not have gendered or stereotyped views of children. These parents do not see any clear and simple correlation or causation between the clothes or toys that our children preferred, and their gender identity. Such parents present a more complex and less ‘packageable’ narrative. Such parents do not produce the short media friendly soundbites that documentaries rely on. This more complex parental narrative almost never appears in media depictions of trans children – instead media prefers the parents who say “my child loved dolls so I knew she was a girl”.

Some children need a simple answer: Our daughter has always known she is a girl. Like many children asked to explain her gender identity she cannot do so easily and simply. She quickly got tired of being asked “but why do you think you are a girl?” Gender identity is hard to explain, and adults would struggle to find an answer beyond ‘I just do’. When children assert an identity different to what was expected there is undoubtedly societal pressure to justify how they feel in some way. It would not be surprising to me for children to gravitate to emphasising examples of their own non-conforming behaviour or interests as extra justification for who they are. Especially when this is the depiction of trans children they see in the media. Especially when even the diagnostic criteria used by children’s gender identity services (in the UK and elsewhere) requires stereotypical ‘cross gender interests, behaviour, play preferences’ as credentials for being considered transgender (Gender Identity alone is not sufficient, children are expected to conform to stereotypes of behaviour, clothing or play preferences in order to be deemed gender dysphoric).

There is a popular children’s book written by a transgender girl called “I am Jazz” that seems to equate her liking ‘girls activities’ with being a trans girl. When I first read it with my trans daughter she noticed this and said “that’s silly, of course boys or girls can both like dancing/pink/ballet”. My trans daughter has a more nuanced understanding of the difference between identity and interests. And she shares my dislike of gender stereotyping.

It is possible to criticise some books and programmes about trans children as reinforcing stereotypes without jumping to a rejection of transgender children.

It is possible to dislike gender stereotypes and still want trans children to have happy and safe lives.

It is possible to want the best for gender non-conforming children and still want trans children to be treated with respect, dignity and acceptance.

Those of you on the fence about trans rights can carry on weighing up whether my daughter has proved her ‘not a stereotype’ credentials enough to be shown kindness, respect and acceptance.

I meanwhile will carry on raising a kind, confident, happy child.

I will carry on helping all my children to see beyond the stereotypes, limitations and restrictions society places on girls and boys (and non-binary people).

And I will teach them the importance of tolerance, kindness, and respect, especially for those who we don’t understand, especially for those who are different.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s