Social Theorist and Philosopher

The making of an illusion

The making of an illusion: Gendered intelligence and the “trans child”

The social and medical “transitioning” of children has been quietly normalised for almost a decade, but a backlash has finally begun. The “trans” children’s charity Mermaids is under investigation by the Charity Commission for breaches of safeguarding. The NHS Tavistock Hospital Trust’s Gender Identity Development Service for children is currently being dismantled and replaced with small regional medical centres that will no longer affirm the child’s chosen gender identity. Gendered Intelligence, a children’s charity and sister to Mermaids, is flying under the radar of public scrutiny, however, despite safeguarding breaches and the flouting of new NHS guidelines. This organisation should be put under a critical spotlight. For the sake of vulnerable children, such an examination is long overdue.

Gendered Intelligence claims to increase knowledge of “gender diversity” and improve the quality of life of “trans people”. Dr Jay Stewart, the CEO, describes the superior “intelligence” about gender which underpins the organisation. Influenced by queer theory, in particular the work of Judith Butler, Stewart posits that the body has no intrinsic meaning; rather, gender identity is a social phenomenon. Freedom lies in rejecting the heteronormative and gender-normative meanings attached to being female or male. A well-spring of possible gender identities then opens up for adoption by children, e.g., genderqueer, gender-fluid, agender, binary gender, etc. Stewart claims queer philosophy has brought about a new paradigm of thought about sex and gender, one tantamount to a scientific revolution as described by the philosopher Thomas Kuhn. Applying this revolutionary knowledge to children and young people helps us “to become more intelligent about gender in everyday settings and across wider society”. 

Stewart, who self-describes as “assigned female at birth and now identifies as a man”, has no psychological or medical background but holds a doctorate in the cultural representation of “trans people” in British TV Soap Opera. It is the experience of transitioning from a lesbian in her mid-twenties and knowledge of queer theory that allegedly qualified Stewart, in Tavistock’s hey-day, to advise clinical psychologists on best practice. Psychologists were advised by Stewart to “think about working with trans people … in relation to equalities and inclusion issues, not in terms of ‘gender dysphoria’”. “Gender dysphoria is a clinical term … a mental health condition”. The pathologisation of children’s “trans” identity is not only inaccurate because “trans” is not a mental ill-health issue, but also because it is restrictive of children’s freedom. Stewart told psychologists: “To emphatically instil a bodily reality (whether one is a girl or boy) into self-hood is to insist ‘this is who we are’ with no room for agency”. Freedom for children and young people lies in “dismantling the culturally ascribed power of the biological”.

Gendered Intelligence is proud to educate children that, in contrast to the ideas promulgated by traditional sex education which focuses on bodies, “identity is more important”: 

The fundamental thing … is that your identity is paramount. A woman is still a woman, even if she enjoys getting blow-jobs. A man is still a man, even if he likes getting penetrated vaginally 

The organisation offers detailed information on how to access multiple resources to empower “trans or gender questioning” children and young people “wherever they may be” on the “gender questioning journey”. Girls, for example, are given information about how and where to buy what are euphemistically called “chest binders” as well as genital packers for trousers so that girls can appear male. 

Stewart deems young people capable of deciding for themselves whether they should take the medical pathway so the “inside” and the “outside” match. Young people are told that “knowledge is power”. A sexual health booklet illustrates in cartoon form the changes to bodies made possible by cross-sex hormones and surgery: The cartoon “trans man” sports a beard, body hair, a flat chest after mastectomy and a vulva; the cartoon “trans woman” has breast implants, no body hair and a penis. However, “it is not necessary to have surgery, take hormones, or have any kind of medical intervention to be trans and happy, and doing so in no way makes you more trans than you would otherwise be”. 

In Stewart’s view, the possible loss of future fertility and sexual function is subsidiary to the alleged progressive capacity of young people to existentially transcend their embodied existence. Stewart tells psychologists: “It is important that children and young people … can experiment, change their mind, try out new styles, express themselves”. The “moral panic” about ‘irreversible decisions’ is driven by hetero-normative and gender-normative assumptions. “Many people change their bodies in irreversible ways”, for example, “tattoos” and “pregnancy”. The reason why some adults are exercised about the decisions children and adolescents make is that “there is an undercurrent in our societal thinking that trans is wrong”. Stewart recommends a reversal of the orthodox adult/child role or the doctor/patient role: “young people should be given more of a platform rather than less of one … and it is their insight and experience that should steer services, not vice versa”.

Gendered Intelligence’s concept that “trans youth are real” has crept into the popular imagination where it enjoyed a tenacious hold for a decade. In the autumn of 2020, I sat nervously in the Royal Courts of Justice waiting for the conclusion of the Judicial Review of the Tavistock as to whether children can consent to puberty blockers. A high-profile feminist journalist sat next to me and asked the following question: “Do you really believe there is no such thing as a trans child”? I had written a scholarly article positing that “the trans child” is a social construct and that children are developmentally incapable of giving consent to the future consequences of medical intervention. Whilst she agreed the Tavistock should never have recommended puberty blockers for children with gender dysphoria, she was nevertheless anxious that, if the Review was successful, children and young people who are “truly transgender” might be left without essential medical care. The problem, as far as she could tell, was that Tavistock psychologists hadn’t distinguished between those children with gender dysphoria and “trans children”. 

Thankfully within two years, in some quarters at least, the question has now become: “How could the ideology of the ‘trans child’ have ever taken hold in the first place”? 

If we truly want to answer the above question, we could reflect on the extent to which defining sex and gender has fallen to Gendered Intelligence, along with other “trans” charities such as Stonewall and Mermaids. The organisation is a business that offers training to staff in schools, colleges, universities and youth services. Without any democratic mandate, governmental organisations have sought its advice to shape the law and social policy. In 2015 the CPS worked in partnership with Gendered Intelligence, Stonewall, the Ministry of Justice and several LGBT groups to develop an LGBT Hate Crime Resource Pack. In 2015, a government document, in consultation with Gendered Intelligence, provided what it describes as good practice guidance for service providers, for example, that changing rooms and lavatories should be “inclusive of transgender people as customers, clients, users or members”. In 2016, Gendered Intelligence gave alleged “independent oversight” as an external consultant to the Ministry of Justice in the care and management of “transgender prisoners”, “allowing transgender offenders to experience the system in the gender in which they identify”. 

I have argued elsewhere that it was a complete dereliction of the NHS’s moral duty to hitch the fortunes of vulnerable children and young people to a queer social justice model of health care. Thankfully, NHS England has performed a volte-face recently and produced interim service specifications for the new regional medical services for gender dysphoric children, which will replace the now discredited Tavistock. The specifications strongly discourage social transition in prepubescent children and clarify that in adolescents “it should only be pursued to alleviate or prevent clinically significant distress or significant impairment in social functioning”. In the future, puberty blockers will be confined to research settings.

Transgender Trend points out the new specifications move the service to where it belongs, within child and adolescent paediatric and mental health services and a holistic view of children and adolescents’ gender identity development. SEGM (The Society for Evidence-based Gender Medicine) highlights a crucial point of difference between the new and the old NHS guidance: The new guidance replaces the previous “gender-affirming” approach and replaces the concept of “trans children” with the term gender-dysphoric children. The guidance recognizes“social transition as a form of psychosocial intervention and not a neutral act”. 

In Stewart’s view, the NHS recommendations represent a re‐pathologisation of young people’s feelings and desires. There is “a perverse, completely needless pathologisation of social transition”:

Arbitrarily restricting personal choices like name and gender presentation isn’t just harmful and unenforceable in practice, it runs uncomfortably close to conversion practices. That this is even being considered by NHS England is dangerous.

Stewart sees the recommendations as a backlash against the child’s liberty and concludes:

it is clear from the service specification that NHS England still treats transness as a bad outcome, something to be avoided … we will not fix the problems in these systems until we start listening to the people who need them 

Gendered Intelligence, in my view, has faced insufficient scrutiny. First, Gendered Intelligence actively, not surreptitiously, promotes breast binders. Secondly, its safeguarding policy, although seemingly rigorous at first glance, misses a key safeguarding issue. Single-sex spaces for young people and for supervising adults at residentials, such as swim changing rooms, are not a requirement. Even if they were, single-sex spaces would effectively be mixed because, in the organisation’s view, a boy or man is a girl or woman if he self-declares as female, and vice-versa.

Lastly, a “rosy glow” promise is held out to vulnerable children encouraged by society to identify as “trans”: in being part of an affirmative ethos, they can escape material embodiment, and their personal, familial, psychological and social problems will be happily resolved by “transition”. 

I conclude that rather than being intelligent, Gendered Intelligence is extremely un-intelligent about sex and gender — about child development, about the social context of identity, and that biological sex matters. The sooner there is public scrutiny of this organisation, the quicker the alleged “real trans child” who is freed by queer theory will be seen for what this idea is — a dangerous illusion.

Article first appeared in The Critic

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More