Equal rights for trans people is essential... but childhood is a time when young minds are in a state of change
There's no reason why boys shouldn't wear skirts if they so desire. But is a six-year-old capable of making a decision with life-changing and lifelong consequences, asks Fionola Meredith
Schoolboys have the right to wear skirts and girls have the right to wear trousers - and if you dare to voice anything other than complete approval for this, or any other transgender-enabling scheme, then you're a transphobic bigot who deserves to be howled down and forcibly silenced. Still, let's try, shall we?
Let me start by saying that I am not a transphobic bigot. Really not. I support any individual's right to do what they choose with their own body, and if that includes changing their gender, then that is absolutely okay with me. As an honorary member of the Belfast Butterfly Club - an accolade I was proud to receive from Northern Ireland's oldest trans support organisation - I am with them all the way.
And of course there's no reason at all, other than established gender conventions, why boys shouldn't wear skirts if they so desire, in school or elsewhere.
"Everybody has the right to be themselves": that's what Paula Weaver, the head teacher of Allens Croft school in Birmingham, the first state primary to adopt a gender-neutral uniform. Apparently, boys can wear a grey or black skirt or pinafore, while girls can wear grey or black trousers. Mix and match, pick and choose - it's all up for grabs.
The school says it aims "to promote each child's right to express their gender and personality in whichever way feels right for them".
Yes, everyone does have the right to be themselves, whoever that happens to be. But here's the difficulty. I don't think that a six (or eight, or 11) year old child is capable of making a definitive decision, with life-changing and life-long consequences, about who they really are.
Childhood is a time of experimental play, of almost daily changes and reversals. It's true, for a few individuals there is a sense of deep unease with the body they find themselves occupying, which has been with them for as long as they can remember. Such experiences must not be thwarted, pathologised, repressed or denied, and these children need all the informed support they can get.
I'm aware of several instances in Northern Ireland schools where teenagers with gender dysphoria - those experiencing a disconnect between their biological sex and their gender identity - have been allowed to wear the uniform of the gender they identify with. This is encouraging, though no doubt there are other children who have not been so fortunate.
For most youngsters, however, their gender simply isn't an issue. Do we really want them sitting agonising over whether they're a boy or a girl or somewhere in between, as though that is the primary, all-consuming question they must answer?
Their nascent personalities are so much more varied than sexual identity alone, yet the message they are hearing is that they must examine themselves, choose, and then stick with it forever.
The debate over trans rights for children is commonly - and lazily - characterised as a split between hung-up religious types and right-thinking liberals. But you don't have to be a hardline conservative Christian to have some serious misgivings. Writing in the Times educational supplement, Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, says that if gender is now simply a matter of personal choice, disassociated from the medical sphere, then there could be unforeseen consequences.
"Won't trumpeting loudly, 'You can be you', as a motto for schools only encourage pupils to believe that every aspect of school should be shaped around their identities?" she asks. "Would we accept a pupil saying, 'from now on I want to be respected as lazy; I am happier identifying as a non-homework completing slob'? If a pupil can 'self-declare' an identity as a trans male or trans female, why shouldn't he or she also self-declare as something else?"
I first became interested in the struggles of transgender people in Northern Ireland way back when Caitlyn Jenner, - aka She Who Must Not Be Blasphemed, Or Else - was just a glint in Bruce Jenner's eye. This was in the old days, when one's attitude to trans issues had not yet become the litmus test of one's worth as a human being. Today, I am dismayed at the hysteria, hostility and intolerance which so frequently obscures trans people's legitimate quest for equality and recognition.
If we can't even have a conversation about what children wear to school without open warfare breaking out, what hope is there for an enlightened, mutually respectful future?