In the debate about the wisdom of medicalised gender change for the young, there is a common refrain meant to expose the moral panic and ignorance of sceptics. No young person, we are told, gets any medical intervention before puberty. This may be true, but it obscures the more telling fact that very young children at school are exposed to influences that may put them on a one-way path to lifelong medicalisation.
In a Canadian primary school, a six-year-old girl was reportedly upset and puzzled after her teacher showed the class a YouTube video entitled He, She, and They?!?—Gender: Queer Kid Stuff #2. The video stated that “some people aren’t boys or girls.” Another day, the teacher asked the children to place themselves on a gender-spectrum diagram. The six-year-old put herself at the “girl” end of the spectrum, only to be told by the teacher that “girls are not real, and boys are not real.”
The girl’s family say school authorities refused to take any action over these lessons, which were given in 2018. Although the family moved the daughter to another school, they say the disorienting effect of having her foundational identity as a girl undermined has been “severe and long-lasting.” A human-rights complaint brought on the girl’s behalf finally reached a full tribunal hearing this month.
In England, a six-year-old boy reportedly came home confused because his school was allowing another boy to identify as female and wear a dress. The six-year-old’s parents say they were warned by school authorities that anyone who “could not believe” that boys identifying as girls were actually girls, or anyone who refused to use female pronouns, “would be viewed by the school as being transphobic.”
At a middle school in California, a sixth-grade girl called Jessica was allegedly influenced by teachers to join an Equality Club, where she was told she might be transgender and bisexual. Her mother’s lawyer says the teachers “told these kids, do not tell your parents, and specifically Jessica’s mom, do not tell them, they cannot be trusted.”
“They gave them reading materials about transgenderism,” the lawyer says. “They secretly changed the pronouns, but when in front of the parents, referred to their children by their birth pronouns. Behind the parents’ back, in the school, [they] used their new identity. All this was done secretly.”
In Australia, online resources provided by a federal government-hosted Student Wellbeing Hub instruct teachers in how to “support” a student who is coming out as trans. This is known as “social transition,” typically involving new names, clothes, and hair; a complete cross-sex identity. The guide for teachers says: “It may be possible [for the school] to consider a student a mature minor and able to make decisions [about social transition] without parental consent.” The legal concept of a mature minor allows children and adolescents under 18 to authorise their own medical treatment, if they appear to understand the nature and consequences of what the doctors propose.
But what will children comprehend about boys, girls, and their different bodies if teachers set them confusing lessons at odds with biological reality?
Social transition is typically presented as “just being kind”; allowing gender-questioning children to try on a trans identity to see if it fits, and discarding it without consequence if it doesn’t. But there is good reason to think that social transition before puberty makes lifelong medicalisation more likely. It may lock in the bodily distress of gender dysphoria, the condition cited to justify the three-step “Dutch protocol” of puberty blockers to halt normal development, followed by cross-sex hormone drugs and surgery, such as a mastectomy, to make the body an opposite-sex facsimile.
Before the recent enthusiasm for early social transition and the Dutch-protocol treatments, most patients diagnosed with gender dysphoria in early childhood grew out of it, many of them emerging as healthy, unmedicalised young people who identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
Canadian clinical psychologist Ken Zucker, a world authority on youth gender dysphoria and editor of the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, argues that early social transition is itself a psychosocial intervention that is likely to make dysphoria persist, rather than “desist” as it used to.
When adults in charge promptly “affirm” a young child’s trans declaration and enable social transition, it’s not surprising if a girl with a less than fully mature brain concludes that, yes, she will become a boy exactly like the other boys. Ahead of this girl is the potential shock of menarche, and she may be more likely to seek puberty-blocker drugs.
Meanwhile, trans influencers online spin a story of medicalised gender change as an uplifting panacea, and public figures mumble incoherent slogans when asked, “What is a woman?” Even if only a handful of children in a given school year declare a trans identity, it’s no surprise if many classmates struggle to grasp the distinction between biological sex and the supposedly universal sense of a “gender identity” that may—or may not—line up with their bodies.
“Gender-affirming” activists are quick to suggest that any wish for young people to re-embrace their birth sex, and learn to accept their bodies, flirts with unethical “conversion therapy.” But what if that result, bringing an end to the distress of gender dysphoria, is rightly regarded as a successful outcome of ethical, exploratory therapy? From this perspective, early social transition looks like an iatrogenic phenomenon (i.e., whereby a well-meant intervention actually does harm) to such extent as it helps perpetuate gender dysphoria.
A child who socially transitions before puberty, with a cross-sex identity celebrated as an immutable soul, may find it immensely difficult to undo this often very public transformation. If she shelters within a trans subculture and has her puberty chemically blocked, does she lose future possibilities and options left open to contemporaries who cycle through the normal stages and phases of adolescent identity development?
Are gender-promoting teachers, however well-intentioned, usurping a quasi-clinical role for which they have no qualifications? Will education authorities be held liable if young people who transition at school go on to regret it as a harmful mistake, and take legal action? This doesn’t seem a remote risk. It’s not hard to find anonymous teachers on social media well aware of the emerging group of young adult “detransitioners,” many of them belatedly embracing lesbian identity—and with their health potentially damaged by testosterone and surgery. Off the record, when careers are not at risk, teachers have told me it’s simply absurd for activists to deny the role of social contagion as clusters of friends declare a trans or non-binary identity online.
But it’s still common to hear some teachers drawing a simple progressive parallel between gay liberation and the skyrocketing numbers of young people self-identifying as trans. They seem oblivious to today’s medicalisation and its potential side-effects, which include infertility and an inability to experience orgasm. What lives and relationships will be possible for these young people?
Many teachers will be alarmed at colleagues who enable covert gender change, regarding it as an unforgivable breach of trust with parents, and a failure of child safeguarding. The activists among them justify it by insinuating that the safety of the trans child requires protection against “unsupportive” parents. Without saying so explicitly, support is narrowly interpreted to mean going along with the “gender-affirming” approach. But is it “unsupportive” for parents to be prudent and sceptical about concretising a sudden trans identity or allowing a teenager to begin irreversible medical treatment with a weak evidence base?
Both social and medical transition often are justified and accelerated on the basis that doing otherwise may increase the risk of suicide. In the United States, UK, and Australia, we hear the claim that a staggering 40 to 50 percent of trans youth will attempt suicide. But how many teachers who are otherwise fond of the slogan “follow the science” take a close look at the nature of these constantly-invoked studies of suicide risk? They are sourced to anonymous, online surveys with no follow-up questions, based on non-representative “convenience samples” recruited via social media and activist groups.
Clinicians disturbed by this suicide hysteria say there is no good evidence that young people with gender dysphoria have a uniquely high suicide risk once other variables are accounted for. Yes, it’s thought to be a risk more elevated than that of the general youth population, but probably no higher than for other young people seen by psychiatric clinics. Many gender-clinic patients have multiple diagnoses such as depression, not gender dysphoria alone, and it’s unclear which condition drives the suicide risk. Dr. Zucker put it this way in 2019: “If you are depressed, your suicidality risk is going to be elevated, but you see that in kids who are depressed but don’t have gender dysphoria. The idea that adolescents with gender dysphoria are at a higher risk of suicide per se is dogma—and I think it’s wrong.”
There is scant data on actual suicides, although Oxford University sociologist Michael Biggs recently calculated the suicide rate for patients at the UK Tavistock youth gender clinic as 5.5 times higher than for the population of similar age and biological sex. This represented four patients known or thought to have died by suicide out of about 15,000 patients at the clinic from 2010 to 2020. Meanwhile, there is no high-quality data showing that medical transition reduces suicide. And some detransitioners say their mental health actually got worse with puberty blockers and hormones.
Gender ideology is well entrenched in schools of the Anglosphere partly because it’s packaged with the right buzzwords: anti-bullying, student safety, wellness, diversity, and inclusiveness. Much of this ideological infrastructure was being built as a new generation of emotionally and intellectually fragile teenagers was being reared on novel social-media platforms. In 2015, free-speech advocate Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote their famous Atlantic magazine article, The Coddling of the American Mind, in which they try to make sense of the trigger warnings, microaggressions, and allergic reactions to disagreement observed on university campuses. Lukianoff, who had found cognitive behaviour therapy useful against depression, was struck by the dysfunctional thinking of these young people—and its reinforcement by the administrators supposedly in charge. In their article, Lukianoff and Haidt wrote: “A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.”
Gender ideology looks very similar. It appears to bring into the classroom cognitive distortions that, if left unchecked, make for a miserable life. “Catastrophising,” for example, seems the right term for the reckless recycling of trans suicide hysteria and the notion that use of the “wrong” pronouns inflicts severe mental distress. For rigid “dichotomous thinking,” consider the belief that gender non-conforming traits are signs that the maternity ward made a mistake when “assigning sex at birth.” Then there is the constant “mind-reading” on display when any disagreement with gender ideology is taken as proof of transphobia.
Most politicians seem clueless about risky gender activism in the classroom, but parental pushback is growing. In the UK, the group Transgender Trend, a gender-clinic watchdog, has produced a suite of resources to try to get sensible, factual information in front of teachers and parents. This material, the group says, is
based on the ‘watchful waiting’ approach towards children and young people with gender dysphoria. This is the established clinical approach, which may include counselling, family therapy etc for children who are severely distressed. [By contrast] activists promote an ‘affirmation’ and social-transition approach which is experimental. It means that if a boy says he is a girl everyone must affirm him as a girl. This approach covers up any underlying problems that have led to a child’s identification as transgender and is therefore in our view a risky approach.
In 2020, the UK Department of Education responded to concern about gender activism in school with a new guidance document for teachers. It included the exhortation that
You should not reinforce harmful stereotypes, for instance by suggesting that children might be a different gender based on their personality and interests or the clothes they prefer to wear … Materials which suggest that non-conformity to gender stereotypes should be seen as synonymous with having a different gender identity should not be used, and you should not work with external agencies or organisations that produce such material.
Within the polarised American political sphere, conservative activist Chris Rufo, who made his name exposing the excesses of Critical Race Theory, has pinpointed gender ideology as a means by which activist teachers seek to frustrate the right of parents to know what their children are being taught. So far, CRT has been by far the more prominent issue. But Republicans are taking a closer look at self-declared gender as an issue on which Democrats might be vulnerable. GOP Senator Tom Cotton recently introduced a federal bill to prohibit public schools from enabling gender transition without parental consent. And Florida’s Ron DeSantis, a rising Republican star, has championed a new state law to shield the very young—those in kindergarten up to grade three—from premature exposure to material on sexual orientation and gender identity.
At an international level, Genspect, a new group campaigning for a wider range of treatment options for gender-questioning young people, offers a “parent advocacy service” to ensure that children are not socially transitioned at school without parental approval. “In one case—the Welsh district of Rhondda Cynon Taf—our intervention resulted in the entire local authority area revisiting its ‘Trans Toolkit,’ protecting potentially thousands of kids from social transition in the school setting,” the group says.
Often, contentious Queer Theory-scripted material makes its way into the education system courtesy of visiting LGBTQ groups or training courses for teachers. In this manner, activist groups get to advance their ideological cause while presenting as “experts,” and even profiting from a revenue stream. But anguished parents and teachers are now crowdsourcing their efforts so as to publicize the stories of children on the receiving end of this kind of gender indoctrination—including in my own country, Australia, where this project has been led by Moira Deeming, a teacher, researcher, and Melbourne councillor.
At a public school in the state of Victoria, one parent relates that a Queer Club newsletter included a link to a petition asking for gender-affirming surgery to be given taxpayer funding. Another parent wrote: “My child came home from school one day and said they would ‘like to try it.’ Being the opposite sex that is! TRY IT!”
“It’s enraging,” she added. “My child was eight, and had no understanding that sex is immutable or that once surgery is performed it cannot be reversed. Child abuse has many faces.”