Two recent, apparently unrelated, news stories have troubled me for similar reasons. The first concerns the Church of England’s new guidance on tackling bullying in its schools. The Archbishop of Canterbury writes that everyone should be free to explore their identity without being labelled or bullied, including allowing boys to wear tutus and tiaras to wear superhero costumes.
This all sounds very laudable: let’s not label anyone simply by their appearance. However, the context of the report (countering a reported rise in transgender bullying) risks automatically labelling any boy to exercises his new found freedom as “transgender” when he may simply want to see how the other half live. And by implicitly labelling such boys, they are more likely to be exposed to the very form of bullying the measure is designed to defeat. (Ironically, no one has mentioned the more obvious and statistically more common label of “transvestite”)
The observant among you will have noticed I keep referring to “boys”; should we not also be concerned about the welfare of transgender girls? Indeed we should. But when so much of modern high street fashion is based on historically male clothing, who will comment on a girl wearing boys’ clothes?
The second problem with labels is that by definition they define people. If a boy takes the Archbishop’s advice and tries on a tutu, he may be labelled “transgender”, and thereafter consider himself as such. He may then fell under pressure to conform to other transgender behaviours. If this seems a little far-fetched, read the story of deaf singer Mandy Harvey, who has received death threats from some deaf people for “promoting oralism” – the idea that deaf people should lip-read rather than use sign language. These people do not see the irony of this accusation when Harvey band members are learning American Sign Language to better communicate with her. Nor do they recognise that she is demonstrating an amazing capability to “hear” music through touch that many fully hearing people cannot accomplish.
We certainly do need to fight the tendency to bully those who are different, whether because of their gender expression, disability or unusual dress sense. But if we do this by assigning them to a labelled community, we are in danger of reinforcing the very bullying we seek to oppose.