Picture this. It’s 2020 and you’re told that a woman you know has become a mother. ‘Great,’ you comment. ‘What did she have?’ That’s when you’re met with a look of withering disapproval. ‘A baby.’ The tone is softly admonishing, challenging you to push further irrelevant inquiry of an old-school binary nature.
Every other day, it seems, there is some new story about matters pertaining to transgender. Last week there was the one about a major retailer ceasing to market clothing for youngsters under the offensive and exclusionary labelling ‘Boys’ Clothes’ and ‘Girls’ Clothes’. This week kicked off with a story about how Nigel and Sally Rowe have withdrawn their six-year-old son from a Church of England school on the Isle of Wight because he has become confused about a classmate who appears some days dressed as a girl and others as a boy. Those revolutionaries in the guerilla warfare of gender identity politics may not like it, but it remains a fact that this is very much the kind of thing that would confuse and disorientate most six-year-olds. And nine-year-olds. And thirteen-year-olds.
On BBC Radio 4’s Today, Sarah Montague conducted what on the face of it was a gentle, sensitively probing interview with the Rowes, Christian parents who felt that it was not in their young son’s interests for him to be confused about his classmate’s oscillation between identity as a girl and as a boy. Montague’s interview technique made one thing clear, though: that the parents were very much the ones who needed to explain themselves and justify a position that was at best inexplicable and at worst downright cruel towards a transgender six-year-old (assuming that young children can be labelled ‘transgender’). The subtext was inescapable. It was that all decent, right-thinking, civilised people (listeners to Today, presumably) would be aghast, shaking their heads at parents in thrall to such non-accepting, non-inclusive, non-progressive, reactionary and unreconstructed binary thinking.
In just a few years (two, three, four maybe?) transgender has gone viral: marginal to mainstream. It feels as if we all now know, or know someone who knows, someone who is ‘transitioning’. On one level, of course, this is a good thing. For many years (always?), transgender people have been forced to live in the shadows, and one can only feel sympathy and compassion for the kind of gender dysphoria that most people would regard as misfortune. Even as I type that word ‘misfortune’, though, I sense the approaching rumble of outrage. That is to say, indignation that one would patronise with sympathy, rather than seek to enhance and celebrate gender identity diversity that goes beyond the current, plainly wrong binary. That is how it all is now in the brave new world where gender identity has nothing to do with objective biological fact and everything to do with how individuals wish to identify.
In a sense, many parents would have few problems if shops were to ditch signs pointing to ‘Boys’ Clothes’ or ‘Girls’ Clothes’. When it comes to attire for babies and toddlers, many of us are entirely comfortable with moving away from old-fashioned notions of pink for girls and blue for boys. And let’s face it, we’ve all pretty much moved on colour-wise across the age range. But on the horizon is a creeping disapproval of parents who may want to dress their daughter so that she is not mistaken for a boy or their son so that he is not mistaken for a girl. Is this ok? Or is this now a kind of archaic thinking that is simply to be discouraged? Is it tantamount to imposing a gender upon one’s children by dint of the child’s assigned biology? Of course, modern retailers who want to be seen to be in step with all the revised thinking on gender won’t have to be explicit about this. They’ll just put up new signs. Presumably ones that read ‘skirts’, ‘trousers’, ‘T-shirts’, banishing the offending words ‘boy’ or ‘girl’. It’s probable that this will drive a gender neutrality from designers and fashion houses willing to involve themselves in experimentation with social engineering. Which is what this is.
The irony is that at some point they’ll have to bring back that overtly ‘girly’ line with its cringe-making wording on pink clothing such as ‘Little Cutie’ or ‘make the world a prettier place’. Why? Because, inconveniently, you can’t have a sense of gender fluidity without a sense of gender construct. Maybe retailers should now just have signs in store that say ‘As You Like It’. Such homage to the Bard’s most compellingly gender-bending work could be accompanied by other quotes such as ‘tigers, not daughters’ and ‘Disguise . . . thou art a wickedness/Wherein the pregnant enemy does much’. Who knows, it might even lead people into lives that are more about reading things really worth reading than lives distracted about what to wear. That really would be radical.