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Sex-role stereotyping and transgender's new friends

By Tony Sullivan - posted Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Girlhood should have room for dirty knees, awkward poses, yelling and wrestling – as well as thick waists and big noses. Just as boyhood should have room for dainty physiques, gentle collaborations, teary moments and reading with Mum. Sex role stereotyping closes down that space, from childhood into adult life. Individuality comes second; the foot must fit the shoe. Females take the brunt of stereotyping, but males also suffer.

Despite their cultural origins, stereotypical ideas often seem to come from the innermost psyche, as Cordelia Fine points out in her greatly acclaimed Delusions of Gender. So, while "millions of marketing dollars" are "spent promoting a pink, frilly world to girls", and this permeates girls' peer culture, it might still come as a shock to politically correct parents when their daughter demands pink frills; they begin to worry that their efforts to resist stereotypes in her upbringing were just holding back their daughter's true self (p 226).

While people usually come to accept stereotypes, they may still yearn at times for the privileges available on the other side of the sexual divide, and worry about meeting the expectations put on their own sex.


The transgender rights campaign presents a particular approach to this issue. Transgender people obviously challenge traditional ideas of what it means to be male or female – risking hostility, attack and even murder in doing so. The right to assert a transgender sexual identity has long been supported by the majority of lesbians and gay males, and on the Left. It has however brought transgender advocates into collision with some feminists, who point out that male-to-female transgender people lack not only female biology but the lifetime experience of being female, the memories of which shape current experiences of discrimination. These feminists also see the presence of male-to-female transgender people in women-only spaces as invasive, insulting, and sometimes dangerous. In Britain, transgender campaigners have at times prevented these feminists from speaking and organising, labelling them as "haters".

Bitter though that debate is, both sides contain many long term opponents of sex-role stereotyping.

Recently there has been a phenomenal expansion of support for transgender people. Most striking has been the endorsement of transgender rights by prominent politicians and by the conservative mass media, particularly evident around the transition of Bruce-to-Caitlyn Jenner, which was celebrated in Vanity Fair and admired by President Obama.

The Economist notes that this new support for transgender people has extended to sections of the US Republican Party. Presidential contender Rick Santorum, for example, "once compared same-sex marriage to the union of a man and a dog", but he supports Jenner. These Republicans are not being "bullied by cultural liberals", but rather have found room for transgender rights within conservative ideology. And while not all conservatives have kept pace with those like Santorum, "the outcome is not in doubt. The social forces that brought us to the Caitlyn Jenner moment are irreversibly ascendant".

This new conservative backing creates a sense of near-unanimity at the level of public commentary; support for transgender people now seems to cover all bases. Mainstream news reports regularly affirm transgender rights (see eg ABC News report 22.6.2015), and highlight services such as the Le Femme finishing school for aspirant ladies. Public challenge is rare. Actress Alice Eve wrote that Jenner was "playing at being a 'woman'", but quickly recanted after a social media backlash.

While welcome at one level, conservative endorsement for transgender rights has been combined with a zest for sex role stereotyping. As Elinor Burkett has written, Vanity Fair "offered us a glimpse into Caitlyn Jenner's idea of a woman: a cleavage-boosting corset, sultry poses, thick mascara and the prospect of regular 'girls' nights' of banter about hair and makeup". Burkett also notes Jenner's gender-essentialist idea of having a brain "much more female than it is male". Much of Burkett's concern lies in the use of transgender advocacy as a Trojan horse: when sex role stereotypes are advanced by proponents of transgender rights, they face little or no challenge, thus helping to "undermine almost a century of hard-fought arguments that the very definition of female is a social construct that has subordinated us. And they undercut our efforts to change the circumstances we grew up with."


Another disturbing trend is the presentation of transgender as the definitive or only frame for discussing discontent with male or female identity. This appears, for example, in a range of recent news articles about transgender clinics in Australian hospitals. The articles describe a growing interest in these services, while also implying that bodily change and acquiescence to conventional sex roles are the only options available.

A recent article on has suggestedthat more than one per cent of Australian school children are likely to have gender dysphoria. In Victoria, the head of Royal Children's Hospital Gender Dysphoria Service has urged earlier access to cross-hormone treatment. In Western Australia, an average of one child a fortnight is being referred to the state's clinic for transgender young people; irreversible hormone replacement therapy is available from age 16. "About one in five children continue to identify as transgender into adolescence, with the rest 'coming to terms with their gender'".

Brisbane's Royal Children's Hospital "has seen more than 20 children with GID [gender identity disorder] in the last four years, including some as young as four," according to an article in the Courier Mail. The hospital's Director of Child and Youth Mental Health Services research says "research shows that about 50 per cent of children with significant transgender behaviour will desist, or grow out of it, by the time they reach puberty". Transgender behaviour continues, or they "grow out of it" – seemingly these are the only ways to think about the acceptance or rejection of gender identity.

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About the Author

Tony Sullivan is a freelance writer living in Melbourne. Email

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