Wednesday, March 20, 2019

If you thought Brexit was a mess.....

A British journalist is being interviewed by the police for 'misgendering' the child of a high profile transgender activist (update: the case also involves tweets labelling the treatment given to the child - not presently offered legally in the UK - as 'mutilation' and 'child abuse.'). The activist, Susie Green, runs Mermaids, a charity which supports young people who think they may be experiencing gender dysphoria, and also runs national campaigns and advocacy programmes. Mermaids recently received a £500k grant from the National Lottery which is now under review. Meanwhile the Tavistock Centre, the one specialist youth gender clinic in the UK, was subject to a critical report earlier this year, and questions have been raised about the quality of care for young people who are prescribed puberty blockers.

This is a deeply personal and potentially very distressing area. Research suggests that a significant percentage - possibly a majority - of teenagers who consider themselves to be born in the wrong body, no longer hold that view in adulthood. That still leaves a significant percentage for whom it is a settled reality that persists into adult life. At what stage is medical intervention wise, or justified? If adulthood may not fully kick in until you're 30, how long should people wait, or be made to wait? (Susie Green flew her child out to Thailand at age 16 for medical procedures not available in the UK, and for which Thailand has since raised the minimum age to 18). Are the other issues experienced by children with gender dysphoria related to it, or are they exacerbated by the isolation, bullying etc. which can go with being 'different'?

Unfortunately, like Brexit, this debate has taken on all the appearances of two pit bull terriers fighting over a rabbit. With a rapid rise in the number of referrals for childhood/adolescent gender dysphoria, and increased public profile (and debate - see the current issue in athletics over what categories trans athletes can compete in, or what prayers vicars are allowed to say with people who have transitioned), this is something which needs careful, evidence-based, serious discussion, not flame wars on social media and the police being called in on people who disagree with you.

Fewer of us are in, or grew up in, stable family relationships than previous generations. There is a higher level of sexual confusion, mental distress, and risky sexual behaviour than we have seen for generations. It's no longer possible to advocate a 'normal' or 'ideal' vision of sexuality, relationships and human thriving without being labelled as psychologically unbalanced (or 'phobic' to use the shorthand). Everything goes, and tolerance is the prime virtue. At one level, the flux gives us a chance to discuss previously taboo areas, at another the level of confusion makes it highly possible that we will botch things. Where mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing are at stake, we  - and especially those wrestling with questions about their gender identity - are not served by hysteria, prejudice and trench warfare, on either side of the discussion.

update: major piece in the Times about the Tavistock clinic (paywalled)


  1. Hi David, had posted a comment yesterday but Blogger probably ate it and I'm still curious so I'll ask again.

    Why do you think that some visions of sexuality are 'normal' or even 'ideal'. It's not something that I understand as long as everyone involved are happy and no-one is being harmed. It sounds like you think some kinds of sexuality are abnormal or bad so could you explain the comment?

    I don't want this to be trench warfare, I'm seeking to understand your thought processes because they seem very different to mine.

  2. Hi Andy, good question. One problem in this area is that we can conflate 'abnormal' with 'subnormal', and assume that having an idea of what is 'normal' is a value judgement on everything that isn't. There has been a clear move in the field of ethics over recent decades to move away from ethical givens/norms to something more based in rights and freedoms. The language of 'normal' is seen as oppressive and something which impinges on my right to do as I like so long as everyone consents and nobody gets hurt.

    That's fine as far as it goes, but if, for example, some styles of parenting are found to be better than others (e.g. in 'delivering' children who are securely attached, confident, happy and able to make good relationships), how do we commend 'good' parenting without a lot of parents feeling judged and criticised? What happens if you apply the same logic to parents living arrangements - e.g. that children born to cohabiting parents are more than twice as likely to see their parents split up before they get to secondary school, compared to children born to married parents. So can we say that marriage is 'better', or is the free choice of the parents over their living arrangements the only ethical factor in play?

    When it comes to sexuality, there are certain forms that are clearly more common - about 98% of the population are heterosexual, and an even higher percentage 'identify' with the sex of the body they were born into (though for most it isn't even a conscious decision to identify with it, that's just how they see themselves and it's never been a question). So certain forms of sexuality are certainly more common than others, and biologically we'd probably say were 'normal', in the same way that humans have a normal range of height, blood sugar level, age span and physical development. Diverging from these doesn't make people subnormal - i.e. of lesser value. But recognising a spectrum of difference isn't the same as saying there's no 'normal' at all - go too far down that road, and it becomes impossible to define the human species.

    I think some visions of 'ideal' sexuality probably stem from culture as much as from ethics - e.g. in a society where survival is of the essence, where there's no welfare state or provision for the elderly, the procreation of children will have a high value. They are the welfare state for the elderly, the workforce, the army, the future, so you can see how some sort of 'moral duty' on citizens to have children would emerge. China is now doing the opposite. In the UK we are having children below the replacement rate, hence the need for high levels of immigration to balance out the workforce, which takes us into a whole different ethical minefield!

    So I guess I'd say that to reduce sexual behaviour to doing what I want as long as nobody gets hurt isn't enough. Can we talk about what is in the 'normal range' without stigmatising those outside it?(possibly not!) If there are evidently 'better' ways of doing things in terms of outcomes, which will at times conflict with individual choices, how do we bring those things into the ethical discussion? How do we discern a cultural norm which pertained to a specific national or historical situation, from a more 'given' ethical norm (e.g 'do no harm')? And given that all of this inevitably reflects on individual lives and choices, is it possible to have any of those discussions at all in a culture which is quick to take offence and shoot the messenger.

    Sorry, longer answer than I'd planned, and some of it is thinking aloud, I'd be interested to hear what you think.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful response. I'm not sure I've got any answers as such because I don't think it's for me to judge what any other person/couple/group wants to do. That's part of what I wanted to know from you, why are you even interested in how other people live their lives?

    I think that we both agree that some kinds of relationships will be better parents. My construction 'no-one is harmed' included the children of those in the relationship. That being said, some kinds of relationships are not intended to turn into parenting. I'm sure you've conducted a marriage for two 80-somethings who met in a nursing home, just because their marriage is not going to produce children doesn't mean that their love and happiness cannot be celebrated. Some couples won't have any children despite many years of trying and failing. I don't think you want people in those relationships to feel not 'normal' or not 'ideal'. As a society we need children but that doesn't mean that any individual must unless you want to go full Gilead.

    Good parenting is not the same as your 'ideal' sexuality. Two married lesbian middle class professionals in their early 30s will likely provide a better home than two co-habiting heterosexual 18 year drug addicts. Does that mean that gay relationships are 'better' than heterosexual ones? I would say that's a silly statement and studies should control for issues like that. Cornell University did a meta-study* on the papers on the outcomes for children raised by same-sex parents and found that 75 papers showed no worse outcomes with 4 papers showing worse outcomes. Now that the vast majority of the research says that same-sex parenting is just as good as opposite-sex parenting will you support same-sex relationships?

    Personally I think that there is a spectrum. Ask me on a form and I'll tick the Straight box but I have been attracted to a few men in my life and don't rule out being in a gay relationship if it was with the right person. There's a continuum of human adult heights from barely over 2ft to over 8ft, hair colour, eye colour so why wouldn't there be a continuum or gender identity or sexuality? And again, does it matter if it does work like that?

    Likewise gender identity is a continuum, some people are labelling themselves gender non-binary, some times they might feel female, sometimes male, sometimes neither. I know people like that and it's genuine. Once we as a society get more used to that then it'll stop being a problem.

    And finally, going back to the tweet, I don't know what Caroline Farrow sent to Susie Green. Neither do you because Caroline deleted the tweet and what she says it said is different to what Susie says it said. That lack of knowledge has not stopped you saying that the police interviewed the journalist for 'misgendering' a child when that's just Caroline's side of the story. That's not being a messenger, that feels to me like being more of a partisan pretending not to be.