Editors' Note: Clinically trained and accredited as a Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist with an MSc in counseling and psychotherapy and researched interests in transgender and adult ADHD, guest blogger Alex Drummond is the author of Queering the Tranny: New Perspectives on Male Transvestism & Transsexualism.
When David Beckham revealed that his wife Victoria was expecting a baby girl, he explained that they had already painted the room in pink and lilac in preparation and that Victoria was looking forward to buying lots of pretty clothes for her. The poor kid hadn't even been born but already was being socialised into 'appropriate' colours and setting out that her acceptability as a girl would be based on 'looking pretty.'
Who knows - maybe their daughter will want to play football, have short hair and wear dungarees. Maybe their daughter will someday want to transition and become a man. And just maybe this young child will be a person who loves shoes and handbags and will go girlie-shopping with her mum. Who's to say? If you winced when you read that last sentence, then think again - what is it that makes you feel uncomfortable with the idea that this child might develop a more male identity? It's a subtle but very evident social pressure parents feel to have 'normal' children - and that means 'proper boys' or 'proper girls.'
A recently released film, Tomboy explores this theme. The protagonist is a young person told to be female but who wishes to inhabit the world of the boy - to be treated as male. It's an endearing film, but it highlights the agonies a young person can experience when their inner self is constrained unfairly by social rules determined purely on the basis of apparent genital apparatus. Despite over 30 years of second wave feminism, we still reiterate and reinforce these rules and encourage children to see maleness as defined in opposition to femaleness and femaleness as lesser within that system.
But, imagine a world where children are born without genitals and you only got to find out the sex at puberty! How might we raise children then? At a very basic level, our expectations would be more equal and less gender-biased. The labels we reserve for socially favored gender behavior would become meaningless, and we'd finally end the inequality between sexes.
But these rigid binary gender rules do exist within our society, and this places uncomfortable pressures on children and their parents as the young person tries to work out how to be themselves in a society that places so many limitations of what they can do based on their nominal sex. Within schools there is a significant problem of homophobic bullying, but the reality is that it's the gender non-conformity that gets picked on; it has nothing to do with who they want sex with.
Recently we had a significant a brou-ha-ha over the supposed gender confusion of young Shiloh, child of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Shiloh is only four - the world is a fascinating and exciting place with so many potentials and here is a young person exploring the world and making sense of how to be in it. Shiloh has rather cleverly worked out that there was a fork in the road of the life journey and having inadvertently been sent down the route towards 'girl-world' and 'womanhood' has quickly realized that boyhood and masculinity would make a more appealing journey.
And yet people feel frightened by this. Newspapers, web-forums and blogs were awash with comments questioning the outcome of all of this. Parents and children alike are under close scrutiny to follow these strict gender rules - I mean, try buying a girl toy that isn't pink or purple at the moment: It's quite a challenge. The rules it seems are simple: Boys should be boys and like boy stuff, girls should be girls and be pretty and well-behaved, and surrounded by pink and purple sparkly things (and waiting for a prince to come for them).
The tomboy identity has of course always been seen as an endearing diversion as long as the girl went back to being a 'proper girl' by 'tweenage' or puberty at the latest. And of course, when it comes to boys wanting to express femininity or a girl-identity it is so taboo that it apparently affords licence to release the hounds of Hell on the parent who would even contemplate permitting that. Allowing or encouraging a child to be gender non-conforming can be remarkably uncomfortable for parents too as they face the open condemnation of others: Here in the case of Jolie & Pitt I commend their strength of character to handle the criticism and allow their child to find their own route in life. Shiloh, like any young person, needs the space and the freedom to define an identity that fits, a way of being in the world that feels congruent.
Our understanding of gender identity is still evolving, but what is increasingly evident is that there are structural brain differences between typically male and typically female brains, but the gender of the brain sits on a spectrum of maleness and femaleness. Evidence for this has been growing over the last decade, and a recent article in the New Scientist sheds further light on this. In a society with so many divisions and rules based on genital anatomy, its easy to see that for someone whose brain gender is very much at odds with their genitals, the option of transsexual surgery can be so necessary and valuable in these instances. Maybe there is space for more gender diversity: maybe not everyone has to be shoe-horned into a rigidly defined binary.
I admire the parent who allows their child to self define, to explore how to be themselves and affords that person acceptance. If the end result really is that more people end up as adults living openly as transgender, gay, lesbian or bisexual then what's the problem? Surely that has to be preferable to those same people living with chronic internal discomfort, trying to be something others expect of them that simply isn't who or what they are.
These are exciting times, and as more young people question the compulsory identities to which they were assigned at birth, we will no doubt start to become more accustomed to a broader bandwidth of gender and sexual identities. Imagine a prospective parent saying, "I'd like three children, maybe one of each!"