Writing by Levi Mitchell. Photo via Unsplash.
Over the course of 2020, Keira Bell and the mother of a trans child challenged the NHS Tavistock and Portman Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS, which is different from other Gender Clinics due to its specific work with younger people). The case was based on Bell’s assertions that the medical treatment she had received - puberty blockers, hormone replacement therapy, and top surgery - were wrongfully given and other children should be prevented from accessing the same; specifically puberty blockers. The case was directly focused on whether people under the age of 16 were able to consent to such treatment, rather than the efficacy of the treatment itself, although the media’s coverage has wrongfully called this into question. In an incredibly disappointing and life-threatening turn of events, the High Court ruled in favour of Bell and her fellow claimant.
In the early days, it seemed so unlikely that this case would get far - the Gillick Competency case of 1982 settled the argument regarding children’s ability to consent to medical treatment. The case found it possible for children to be able to make decisions for themselves so long as their practitioner found them to be understanding of the treatment and potential implications. It was specifically a great feminist triumph, as it has allowed young people the ability to access things like contraception and abortion without the need for parental consent - allowing children and teens bodily autonomy.
Despite this, puberty blockers have been warped by the British media into a strange, experimental treatment and countless fallacies have been allowed into print. Some of the harmful myths perpetuated by the media and anti-trans organisations include; puberty blockers wreck people’s bones and fertility, they aren’t reversible, and they’re untested and unsafe. This is all untrue, and yet I wouldn’t blame you for not knowing given the state of UK transphobia. For a more detailed breakdown of these myths, have a look at this article: https://www.gendergp.com/debunking-the-myths-surrounding-puberty-blockers-trans-kids/.
Why has there been such an intense outrage over what is so widely agreed upon by medical professionals? From what my poor eyes have seen across social media, in responses to articles and simple tweets from trans people, a great deal of objections to puberty blocker treatment seems to be centred on the illusion of permanency - “irreversible damage”. The idea of medical intervention in the life of a child has suddenly become strange and concerning, and the phantom of permanent alteration is too much to handle. But what permanent or long-term consequences are people genuinely concerned by?
Infertility is one of the biggest worries, and one I feel particularly vexed by. It may just be the result of being the child of someone who was adopted, but I was under the impression that one of the core tenets of feminism for the last 50 odd years was to move beyond the view of women being walking tits with a reproductive system attached, and to allow everyone the ability to control their own body, whether that be accessing abortions, or getting tubes tied. It is beyond frustrating to watch people be convinced by a group who claims trans people - although they often focus directly on trans women - are a detriment to feminism, despite their own disregard for actual feminist thought. Call me a radical transsexual, but I do believe there is more to life than striving for fertility, and whilst I do recognise there are numbers of trans people who are interested in having biological children, it is amusing to see this concern being waved around so much when really… the majority of us don’t have procreation at the top of our list of priorities. If you look at Gender GP addressing some of the myths around puberty blockers, they quote several trans teens who have taken blockers and explain that ultimately, whatever potential consequences lay in wait, none stood up in comparison to the very real and daily pain and frustration felt when faced with impending puberty.
It is also worth mentioning that if you rack up the hours scanning terfy twitter replies, it doesn’t take long to come across the sentiment that trans people should be required to be sterile/sterilised before they can be socially and legally recognised as their gender. Personally I suspect this is a sort of test tactic, to theoretically weed out any trans people who object to this as being somehow less committed to their transess - I’m basing this on the general averseness from terf types of ever giving trans people the right to easily change their gender markers and so on. I fear that people are being convinced by groups like LGB Alliance to fear for these ‘poor, deluded children’ who are being harmfully misguided into a treatment that leaves them infertile, when in actuality the true end goal of such groups is the extinction of trans people - our fertility is ultimately irrelevant.
I’d also like to explain for anyone who has been mildly concerned by the idea of permanent puberty blocker side-effects, that the concern in itself is transphobic. It values cis bodies over trans ones, and insists that being or looking somehow transgender is a terrible fate. Trans big brain Julia Serano has well articulated this subtle hostility. She notes the concern as being demonstrative of an underlying assumption that all of the children who seek transition are actually cis and just need a stern talking to; there is zero recognition of the potential that some of these kids are genuinely trans, and that pushing them away from blockers will have catastrophic results, both physically and mentally. Serano notes the insulting hypocrisy in these fears:
“... consider a cisgender girl who has always been happy with her assigned gender. Then suddenly, at the age of nine or ten (as she is entering puberty), her body shows signs of masculinization, and doctors confirm that this is due to her body producing testosterone (for the record, this is not a hypothetical situation for some intersex children). If this child was horrified about these potential unwanted changes, and asked for hormonal intervention (which the doctor confirmed would be safe and effective), would you respect her decision and allow her to proceed with it? Or would you dismiss her wishes on account of her lack of maturity, and insist that she just deal with the testosterone until she is eighteen and capable of making an adult decision?”
This is demonstrative of two things; the first, is that many cis people are steadfast in their belief that transness is something unnatural, perverse; inappropriate for children and something they cannot consent to pursuing. The second, is that trans bodies are not valued like cis bodies are, and are seen as something to be avoided like the plague lest you yourself become as ‘gross’ and ‘mutilated’ as other trans people. I do believe (although I’ll admit this maybe isn’t on the mind of the casual transphobe) that for many aligned to the likes of LGB Aliance, blockers could result in trans people passing more easily in the future, an idea likely loathed by terfs who rely on callous and misguided ideas of what traits cis women cannot posses and therefore indicate transness; a lot of these ideas, such as darker body hair, are also deeply racist and cast many cis women of colour outside the circle of acceptable women.
Whilst unequivocally the most virulent and cruel transphobia is often directed trans women, I do want to discuss trans men and our relationship with the misogyny espoused by terfs. Something you can see in the likes of JK Rowling’s essay is that trans mascs are still seen as girls (duh), and subsequently are seen as incapable of making their own decisions about their bodies and how they wish to be seen in the world. Rowling’s sheep-in-wolf's-clothing concern is that ‘young women’ who become aware of the misogynistic expectations placed on them are deciding to just avoid this entirely by instead pursuing manhood. Other concerns are that we - the Trans - are not letting girls on the butch side be just that. Neither of these concerns allow for the very real truth that trans people just exist, and that yes, many tomboyish ‘girls’ do just turn out to be cool trans mascs. We aren’t poor, innocent girls being brainwashed into thinking womanhood is a curse: if anything, becoming a better educated feminist in my early teen years is what allowed me to expand my understanding of sex and gender, and how I could adapt my own to suit my needs.
There exists amongst the anti-trans ‘feminists’ a strange determination to save as many ‘girls’ from becoming tainted and ugly. If you look at discussions around detransitioning and the effects of testosterone specifically you will come across quite visceral language describing blockers, hormones and top surgery - the same procedure I and thousands of others have been so desperately waiting for or have gotten - as mutilation. Mutilation! You can even get the sense of this lingering idea of ruining feminine beauty from the people working in Gender Clinics. They caution you against testosterone’s ‘less desirable’ and permanent effects, like clitoral growth or increased hairiness, almost patronisingly urging you to consider if you really, really want that to happen. I was even asked if I was aware of the fact that if I were to take testosterone, when I got to fifty years old I would look… like a fifty year old man. Honestly I was bemused and didn’t quite grasp what the person I was speaking to was trying to get at - I don’t think I’m off the mark in believing that most trans people are perfectly familiar with the concept of growing old. It would seem what she was trying to get at was that testosterone would leave me open to an ‘uglier’ side of myself that I couldn’t come back from; a receding hairline, a potbelly, and some shoulder hair are what we’re warned about. However, after actually getting on hormones and finally starting to see glimpses of yourself shine through, extra patches of hair hardly weigh you down. Young girls, even when they’re actually men, are being massively hindered by misogynistic and transphobic physical expectations hidden behind a veneer of reasonable concern.
The action points I would like anyone, particularly cis readers, to take away from this article are as follows; 1) some arguments cannot be won, and 2) cis allyship needs a real and rapid remodelling.
Like I mentioned before, if you spend enough time trawling through twitter, at a certain point a truth must be understood. No amount of deft maneuvering, respectability, or civil discussions on the part of trans people will ever be enough. A well-dressed, well-spoken trans figure can no doubt bring aboard the more open minded cis population. However, for the hardened terfs and conservatives, there is virtually no way to win an argument whilst defending trans people; irrespective of what’s being discussed, so much of the anti-trans rhetoric relies on misinformation and tactics of frustration. Think (and I’m sorry to make you do this) of the way the likes of Piers Morgan (again, twat) shouts down people brought on the show; his arguments follow little logic and are so unrelenting that so many trans people who have tried to speak out, have barely managed to get a word in edgeways. Trans people in any form are an obscenity in so many minds. We’re either ruining children’s chances at fertility, or we’re polluting the world by being fertile - read more here: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/apr/20/the-dad-who-gave-birth-pregnant-trans-freddy-mcconnell . If we take hormones we’re meddling with nature, if we don’t then we’re not trying hard enough to warrant cis respect. What a great deal of cis allyship is lacking is an awareness of how unbreakable terf arguments are - they are seldom based in fact. Simply tweeting “Trans women are women!” or, as Oreos so groundbreakingly noted, “Trans people exist”, is to an extent, useless. There comes a point where realistically, not every cis person will ever understand transness, the thought process behind it or how people make their decisions. That’s fine. It is not necessary for cis people to be able to fully understand the feelings of dysphoria, because they just will not! That’s okay, it’s a pretty specific experience! What we need instead is a vocal outpour of support for real material change; Gender Clinics that move with speed and actually employ trans people, HR departments that actually interview and hire trans people, landlords that don’t discriminate against trans people. Proclaiming that you ‘believe’ us and our identities doesn’t help so much when Stonewall found that one in eight trans employees (12 per cent) have been physically attacked by a colleague or customer in the last year. The Equality Act 2010 included ‘gender reassignment’ as a protected characteristic, however because the trans population in the UK is still so small, we lack the power to actually make use of our legal protections. So cis people, kick up a fuss! Write to your MPs and MSPs! Please, boost trans voices, listen to what they’re actually campaigning for, and give us real help.
The most recent update on the puberty blockers case in the UK: https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2021/06/23/puberty-blockers-appeal-nhs-tavistock-keira-bell/