Salman Rushdie’s new novel apparently touches on gender identity. That’s all very well. But it’s a shame that when asked for his views on the subject he takes aim at a scenario that is, to all intents and purposes, imaginary. “I have quite strong views about the over-insistence on these issues,” he says, “particularly when you get down to very young people. If there’s a boy who likes playing with dolls and wearing pink shirts it shouldn’t necessarily mean that he has to have gender reassignment surgery.”
Anyone who has conducted a modicum of research into the issues trans people face will know it is already tough to access gender reassignment surgery even as an adult. Money helps, of course. Figures on the number of very young people having gender reassignment surgery each year are also easy to uncover.
The number is zero.
No young people underwent gender reassignment surgery in the UK this year. Or last year. Or the year before that. The worldwide figure – as far as is known – is none at all. The youngest known person to have undergone gender reassignment surgery is the UK’s Jackie Green. She did so at 16 but had to travel abroad for the operation.
That does not mean that the UK does not carry out genital surgery on very young children. Supposedly “corrective” and irreversible procedures are performed on infants with intersex conditions so that they can conform to society’s expectations. That form of surgery is one that is rarely if ever criticised by celebrities.
Perhaps a better focus for the novelists and commentators would be the crisis in young trans people’s safety and mental health. Stonewall’s decision to become trans-inclusive in 2015 was very welcome, and research it has undertaken has quantified the seriousness of the situation. Although figures in its 2017 School Report showing that one in 10 trans pupils received death threats are no surprise to those working in the area, they still make sobering reading. But even Stonewall’s resources, huge though they are in comparison with the meagre pickings previously available to trans support services, are too precious to waste. No one wants to see them used up in fighting a rearguard action, as Stonewall so often has to do, against misleading portrayal of trans issues in the media. How about supporting, rather than doing down, trans youth services?
We still need more helplines for young trans people. We need more gender identity clinics, as the only one currently in operation – the Tavistock and Portman, based in London – reported in 2016 that first appointments were taking 36 weeks, despite an 18-week NHS limit on waiting lists.
These things are achievable if people are willing to speak up for, rather than against, trans people’s needs.
The gay community is noted for a colourful and uplifting pride parade each year, a far cry from the Stonewall riots of 1969. In contrast, trans people are still stuck in those dark days. Our most prominent calendar date, 20 November, is a day of remembrance. Our community is drawn together more by shared grief than by celebration.
The young often bear the brunt. Luana Biersack was 14 when, in Brazil, she was sexually assaulted and drowned. Kandicee Johnson, 16 and from Iowa, shot. Joseph Sanchez, Belize, stabbed at the age of 18.
These are just a few recent names from the hundreds memorialised each year during TransgenderDay of Remembrance.
The most significant dangers to trans youth are not mythical gangs of doctors lurking outside primary schools, snatching unsuspecting children. That is an imaginary threat concocted to create a moral panic in an age in which homophobia is no longer acceptable in polite society.
The most significant dangers are ignorance, hate and a lack of vital support.