When I was in Year 10 at my all-girls school in Essex circa 1996, there was a rumour circulating that one of the lads from the local boys' school was "pretending to be gay". He was doing this, we were told, so that girls would befriend him and "let their guard down" and then he could "get with them". I can neither confirm nor conclusively deny the truth of this rumour. However, I suspect, like much of the information I gleaned via the furtive whispers exchanged between students in the corridors of my school, it was a load of old arse.
I couldn’t help but recall this as I watched Andrew Marr interview Jeremy Corbyn on his weekly BBC One political TV show. Corbyn was forced to defend accusations from unidentified but allegedly numerous sources that the Labour Party’s progressive stance towards transgender women would encourage male MP candidates to "pretend" to be trans in order to gain a place on all-female shortlists. Considering the psychological turmoil and physical upheaval associated with transitioning, the continued existence of widespread social prejudice (a Stonewall study recently revealed that one in eight trans people has been physically attacked), not to mention how closely linked our gender and our sense of identity are for the majority of us, this seems to me a highly unlikely scenario.
Anti-trans voices broadly fall into two camps, the first being a kind of grunting incredulity and a refusal to accept transgenderism as a phenomenon, which tends to come from the political right wing. The second is TERFS (trans exclusionary radical feminists) who believe that the social acknowledgment of transgender women threatens the hard-won rights and status of people who were born women, and they tend to be on the left. Both weave elaborate webs in an attempt to disguise what is, in reality, simple transphobia. Yet, as Owen Jones recently pointed out in a piece for the Guardian, they are dusting off the exact same arguments that were used to protest against the abolishment of Section 28 back in 2003.
These include but are not limited to:
1. 'It’s a mental illness'
The same people who once claimed being gay was a "perversion" that needed to be "cured", rather than "encouraged", now say that those with "gender dysphoria" need "sympathy and therapeutic support", as opposed to being allowed to live their lives according to their true gender identity.
2. 'It’s a lifestyle choice'
The idea that you can "talk someone into" a sexuality or a gender is palpably nonsense. That doesn’t stop fearmongering about the abilities of society to "persuade" children that they are transgender, however. Which brings me to…
3. ‘This will confuse children’
Peppa Pig has a female mum and a male dad. Every Disney princess is straight and, for most of them, their "happy ending" involves becoming embroiled in a heterosexual relationship. Heterosexual romance is everywhere. For children who have two dads, or two mums or who have those feelings many gay and bisexual people say they felt long before puberty which indicated to them that they were "different", it’s right that they should have visible equivalents in the wallpaper of their world.
For some reason, any mention of LGBT+ people is inextricable from thoughts of sex for many commentators, which in turn leads to the widespread and hugely damaging belief that the LGBT+ community is "predatory". This isn’t about sex. It’s about life, representation, inclusion, community and belonging. If you thought anything else, it’s you who needs to get your head out of the gutter.
4. ‘This only affects a small proportion of the population. Why should we have to change?’
I’ll tell you why – because we are all responsible for creating the communities and society in which we live. Whether it’s the one in 10 young people affected by mental illness, the 10 per cent with learning difficulties or the approximately same proportion who are LGBT+, if there are small changes we can all make to ensure that their lives are happier, healthier and more fulfilled then it’s our responsibility to do so.
This doesn’t just impact people who are "other" – it benefits the so-called "mainstream". Learning that not everyone is the same and how to get along with people different from you should be a fundamental cornerstone of education, since it’s pretty much the key to success in life.
5. ‘They can’t take it back’
The "what if children wrongly think they’re gay and say it and try it and hate it?" brigade are now claiming that "children as young as 5 are being offered gender realignment surgery". I cannot say this loudly enough: there is absolutely no evidence for this. Psychologists and endocrinologists are generally reluctant to provide hormone therapy to anyone under the age of 16, and obtaining sex realignment surgery prior to the age of 18 is almost impossible in most countries throughout the world. Furthermore, transgender people, who know only too well the pain and distress associated with being in the wrong body, are the last people who would encourage gender realignment on a whim.
Clothes are a different thing altogether. It should be less of a big deal for children to wear garments traditionally associated with the opposite sex, if they feel like it. If – and this is a big "if" – there is a problem with children being "confused" about their gender, then it is transphobes who are driving it, not transgender people or their supporters.
I’m inclined to think, however, that all the bluster about confusing children is largely hokum. An endlessly curious five-year-old child of a friend, upon hearing that some children who look like boys are girls on the inside and vice versa, merely said, "Cool. Can we get ice cream on the way home?" It’s the most vocal critics, who have been systematically socialised into attaching their sense of the world to the notion that being straight and cisgender is the normal, natural/god-appointed way of things, who are in fact the ones who are frightened and confused by this.
We shouldn’t allow their fear to drive this vital conversation. After all, as the huge leaps that have been made in our understanding around sexuality since the relative dark ages of the 1990s have shown, history will not look kindly on them.
Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here