by Dr Jay Stewart, CEO Gendered Intelligence
Following the broadcast of Who knows best? documentary by John Conroy on BBC 2 last week, there has been a lot of rich discussion, debate and thoughtful insight online by members of our trans, queer and LGB communities and beyond.
Part of me feels there isn’t anything constructive that I can add, so much has been said. I’ve been reflecting and some time has passed. However, I’ve been thinking about the impact of this programme on our young members and their families, and wanted to address it.
The young people at Gendered Intelligence often tell me of their general sense of not being listened to and also of not being taken seriously. Sadly, that’s their norm. Sometimes what young people want isn’t deemed important, or they are told that it’s not ‘doable’ or even ‘sensible’.
Well intentioned teachers, parents, carers, nurses, GPs, social workers, youth workers, therapists and counsellors can feel nervous about the best thing to do when working with a young trans person. Sometimes they miss out the most important question: what does the young person want? I think professionals do this because they lack support and guidance from the institutions and services that they work for.
Mainstream programmes that purposely undermine what trans children and young people are saying about themselves, their feelings and what they would like to happen are a backwards step for everyone. It’s disappointing that the BBC posited the idea that it is not children and young people, but experts, who know best about their own gender-related feelings and emerging identities.
At Gendered Intelligence, we have critiqued the notion of the ‘expert’ or sought to problematise it. From our inaugural Sci:dentity Project in 2005 where we asked ‘What’s the science of sex and gender?’, we learnt quite quickly that in fact there is very little ‘science’ when it comes to sex/gender and what is out there is subjective, even partisan – arguably heteronormative and reinforcing of gender norms. What’s more, by the time any scientific findings reach us (the general public) via journalists and documentary makers, they have been so reduced and oversimplified, all nuance is lost and meanings twisted.
But, what if we gave young people more of a platform rather than less of one? I believe we would all gain. At Gendered Intelligence, we learn from our young members. That’s where we got our name – trans and gender diverse young people are very intelligent when it comes to gender and it is their insight and experience that should steer services, not vice versa.
The 400 young people who attend our groups each year come from a wide range of backgrounds and have very diverse experiences, senses of self and use different words to describe their identity and their expressions.
When we use the word trans we mean it in its very broadest sense and work hard to ensure that those who identify as, for instance, non-binary, agender or a person with a trans history are all included. It’s important to state that we also welcome young people who are questioning their gender at our groups. We can’t expect young people (or anyone really) to have it all worked out.
Some members might think, ‘It feels right for me to express my gender in ways that people don’t expect, but I’m not sure trans is the right word for me just now and might never be’. We value these diverse feelings, experiences, identities and expressions. If such diversity was more visible and valued in society, the world would be a better place.
The BBC documentary reiterated a common belief that any exploration of gender identity or expression during the childhood or adolescence of a person who turns out not to identify as trans in adulthood is inauthentic and even dangerous.
I want to make the argument that we shift through life, we can change and we can take on different words to describe our sense of selfhood as we go along. Some things stay the same, some things don’t. Who we are is not ever entirely fixed – there is a lot that’s fluid. I think there is a lot of pressure for trans people (and young trans people in particular) to prove to everyone around them that who they are is entirely fixed in order to be taken seriously.
Thomas Kuhn wrote a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). In it he tells us that what we know through science, comes to us through a paradigm shift. A new piece of scientific knowledge will look to prove the old one wrong – it’s a fundamental shift, a revolution, rather than a gentle evolution.
In 2015 I did a Ted talk, stating ‘We are on the cusp of a gender revolution‘. Today I picked up a copy of National Geographic and on the front features a photograph of 7 young people with different gender identities. In big letters it says: ‘Gender Revolution’.
It looks like that revolution has started.
The idea of two distinct categories of gender identity based on genitalia presented at birth is (or will be) no longer tenable. Gender is more complex, nuanced, political and interesting than that.
I’m reading a book at the moment called Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly by Judith Butler. In it she talks about the importance of coming together, to ‘call for justice’, to say ‘”we are not disposable”… “we are still here, persisting, demanding greater justice, a release from precarity, a possibility of a livable life”‘.
Now is the time to come together and get behind gender diversity, get behind the right to express ourselves, get behind Gendered Intelligence and other organisations like us because this affects lives.
‘The political aspiration is to… let the lives of gender and sexual minorities become more possible and more lovable, for bodies that are gender nonconforming as well as those that conform too well (and at a high cost) to be able to breathe and move more freely in public and private spaces…’
To breathe and to move more freely – that is what trans, gender diverse and gender questioning people need – to breathe, to expand our lungs, our bodies, our selves – let us feel what’s right, let us do what’s right – right now.