Why are we whispering?

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Words || Ashton Love

So, we have a new prime minister. Again. As much as there is a temptation to roll our eyes, leadership changes are one of the most precarious times for a lot of marginalised communities. What does our new leader think of us? How long will it take for him to let something slip that shows that he might not be on our side? It turns out that, for transgender Australians, it only took a week. After already announcing that he had no worries about gay conversion therapy, Scott Morrison tweeted: “We do not need ‘gender whisperers’ in our schools. Let kids be kids.”

The tweet was a response to an article published in the Daily Telegraph about the increase in the number of children being referred to medical clinics that help patients with gender dysphoria—the distress caused by an incongruence between experienced and assigned gender. The article cited 74 cases of hospitals referring children aged 6-16 to these clinics so far this year (hardly an epidemic), calling it a “sad, tragic and very dangerous fad”. It then took a focus on training being conducted in schools to help teachers support transgender children and used quotes from Western Sydney University’s Professor John Whitehall, who believes that children under the age of 18 shouldn’t even be allowed to wear clothes that are associated with the gender they experience.

The article has been subsequently taken out of context to protest the idea that teachers are being trained to “spot” transgender children. In reality, training for teachers focuses on how the school can help students who come out as transgender, not to try to find more transgender students. The Gender Centre—a Sydney-based organisation that provides services for transgender people and their families, friends, and associates—was directly named in the article as a provider of this service, but they describe their workshop for teachers as providing, “an understanding of transgender, the stages of physical, social and legal transition and best practice for whole school inclusivity, and how to enact best practice support for the young person in transition.” That is, they instruct teachers on how to best support transgender children who wish to transition at school.

Even if teachers were being trained to identify children who may be transgender, these children would not instantly be pumped full of hormones and rushed into surgery. Something that never fails to surprise me is how easy people seem to think it is to access medical transition. It can be hard enough for adults to go through the hundreds—if not thousands—of dollars of therapy required to receive permission to start hormone replacement therapy (HRT), let alone surgery, and that’s not even going into the cost of these treatments and the often tremendous waiting lists to obtain them. Besides, generally HRT can’t be accessed by anyone under 16, and surgery is typically unavailable until the age of 18; these are not things that people should be concerned about children being forced to undergo. Children may be permitted to access puberty blocking medications once their puberty has already begun, but these don’t do anything more than delay the progression of puberty until the child is either old enough for HRT or concludes that HRT is not something that they need.

This is just the latest incident in what seems to be a current trend of opposition to transgender children and adolescents. This time last year, during the marriage equality plebiscite, the ‘No’ campaign’s primary argument was that marriage equality would lead to acceptance of transgender children. But when people who were in favour of marriage equality tried to speak against this argument, it was to say that a ‘Yes’ vote would not lead to transgender acceptance, rather than saying that this outcome would actually be a good thing. If any “fad” is “sad, tragic, and very dangerous” it is withholding support from a vulnerable group of children who typically suffer from very high levels of depression, anxiety, and suicidality due to peer ostracism and rejection.

One of the most significant current controversies is the idea of ‘rapid-onset gender dysphoria’ (ROGD), which is supposedly a sudden onset of gender dysphoria in adolescents who have previously never shown any signs of it. The term has been thrown around a lot recently amongst groups of parents who don’t support their children being transgender. These parents would rather classify their children as having a condition that essentially calls them an attention seeker than actually have a transgender child. In August, a supporter of this idea released a study that she conducted by asking a sample of these parents to fill out a survey about the observed behaviour and assumed thoughts of their children. While all studies have some flaws, the sheer level of methodological limitations and biased interpretations of the results make it concerning that the study was published in the first place.

Surveying parents who were sourced solely from websites that were dedicated to discussing why their children aren’t actually transgender is clearly going to lead to biased results. With these views, how do these parents expect their children to tell them about how they feel when the parents clearly won’t believe them? I’ve gotta say, I feel for these parents somewhat because it’s not entirely their fault for getting roped into these ideas. When I initially came out to my parents, they commented on the fact that I had shown no prior signs of gender dysphoria, and if this ROGD panic had happened a few years ago they could easily have fallen into it. But I don’t think there’s a person alive who didn’t suppress some of their behaviours around their parents during adolescence, nor can parents know what their children are thinking, and this is especially true when a child fears that their parents won’t believe and support them. What this report really shows is that, when they finally feel as though they have enough external support to come out to their parents, it seems that often their fears were justified. It can be hard to argue with prejudice when it’s disguised as concern.

And that’s what the argument against transgender children always comes down to: concern. There is always concern when children express a will to be someone who society may consider “deviant”, and, while a lot of it comes from a basic misunderstanding of transgender people, fear of the unknown, and personal gender-related insecurities, deep down a large element of it is rooted in the knowledge that society will make these children suffer. However, it’s important to realise that, in most cases, they will suffer a lot more if they are forced to hide who they are. It’s widely acknowledged by scientific bodies that transgender people achieve the best life outcomes when they can access the medical treatments that they need, and there are already plenty of barriers in place that stop this from being a fast and easy process. We don’t need even more barriers in the form of “well-meaning” parents and politicians convincing these children that they shouldn’t be allowed to have a voice or access support.

In a way, I agree with our PM. We do not need ‘gender whisperers’ in our schools, because we shouldn’t be whispering about this. It’s astonishing that we have a leader who can just shrug off one of the most vulnerable populations in our country under the guise of “protecting children,” when this mindset actively harms children who are already at risk. Children deserve a school environment that is safe, and for transgender children, this is best achieved by teachers being educated on how to support them. Transgender people don’t want to be a political issue. We just want to live in peace; to keep our heads down and live our lives like everyone else. But, of all of us, it is the children who are least equipped to deal with public denigration, yet they are facing the brunt of it, despite just trying to be themselves. Morrison and those that agree with him should take his advice and just let kids be kids.