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Would you let your child change their gender?

Get ready for the new culture war: the question of how old children should be before they're allowed to change gender.

When do children really know who they are? It’s a question that has been at the front of my mind over the past week. I’ve been reading Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree, a richly reported study of children with identities that their parents struggle to understand. In contrast to “vertical identities” (such as race or first language), which are usually shared by the whole family, children who are gay or deaf, or have Down’s syndrome or schizophrenia, often don’t share those attributes with their parents. Solomon calls these “horizontal identities”. Consequently, these children need to find their communities outside the family unit, which can be a distressing experience for both them and their parents. The parents love them, but they can’t ever truly understand what it’s like to be them. They live in a world that their families cannot enter.

I’m glad that writers as sensitive as Solomon have sketched out this terrain, because an almighty storm is brewing over trans­gender children. There is an element of a new culture war starting up, now that gay marriage is legal in the UK and US. But it’s also about the increase in the numbers involved: what was once a niche subject, with debate largely limited to specialists in the field, has started to make its way on to newspaper front pages. (There were two cases in one recent weekend.) Every year since 2010, the specialist Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust in London has recorded 50 per cent rises in the number of children with gender issues. In the past year alone, referrals doubled from 697 to 1,398. The majority of patients, 913, were biologically female – in contrast to the adult population, in which trans women (who were assigned male at birth) outnumber trans men.

The idea that a small but significant number of children don’t want to live in the gender assigned to them will take some getting used to. I have been asking around schools, and more and more of them are dealing with the question of how best to support pupils who want to transition socially by changing their name and presentation. Many teachers feel ill-equipped to deal with the challenge and there is a postcode lottery because of the lack of consensus about what rights such children should have. Some schools will let anyone wear a skirt; others insist that it’s for girls only. Communal changing rooms and segregated toilets present a similar challenge. Many parents would not want their teenage daughter to share a locker room with a classmate with a penis; trans activists point out that it’s hard enough to deal with puberty without being singled out and made to feel like a freak, too. Support is patchy. Currently, there is a huge gulf between what a child can expect at, say, a state secondary school in laid-back Brighton and at a faith school in a religious area.

Yet there is a bigger question, and it is one that progressives have been dancing around for years. Are all of these children really transgender? Or are some of them channelling other issues (depression, autism, realising that they are gay) into a self-diagnosis with something they have read about on the internet, or heard from celebrities or older pupils? One worker in the sector, who didn’t want to be named, said that her caseload is now dominated by children with gender issues. One of her relatives is a teenager who is talking about transitioning. “She has this identity that gets her attention and a feeling of ‘this is my tribe’,” the worker said. “But she says she doesn’t want bottom surgery, she wants children. Yet it’s more acceptable to be a trans man than a butch lesbian.”

I can’t overstate how sensitive the matter is. You have, on the one hand, a group of people who felt profound pain through their adolescence and want to spare anyone else going through that. There are high rates of suicide and self-harm among transgender people, so many trans activists argue that more acceptance is a matter of life and death. On the other hand, you have parents who have seen their children go through phases before and wonder if this is just another – except this one might lead to lifelong medication and surgery. They talk of the year their toddler spent insisting she was a horse; or how they, too, were convinced that they were a boy at the age of four, despite being assigned female at birth. Is this different?

Trans activists find this offensive, drawing a distinction between their deeply held beliefs about their identity and such flippant examples. The most ardent of them condemn any parents who don’t give unequivocal and immediate support to a child who wants to transition socially – comparing them to religious families that won’t accept their children are gay.

To counter this, the most dogmatic parents argue that the trans activists are peddling a lie that you can transform, swanlike, from one sex to another – and fear that any child who so much as likes pink (if they’re a boy) or pirates (if they’re a girl) could be frogmarched down a path that ends in having their breasts or testicles removed. They warn of regretful youngsters growing up to sue their parents and the doctors involved.

Unsurprisingly, given these views, each side accuses the other of perpetrating child abuse. Neither can intuitively understand the other, because no one has unmediated access to anyone else’s true self. And both arguments have merit. There are undoubtedly unhappy children suffering because they cannot express themselves the way they want. Equally, given that an estimated 80 per cent of gender-nonconforming children grow up to be non-trans adults (and many are gay or lesbian), we mustn’t railroad any vaguely nonconforming child into undergoing treatment that ends in lifelong hormone prescriptions and surgery.

When do children really know who they are? Until we have a better answer, we can’t avoid young people being harmed. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.