Instead of endless debate about what sex you are, we should see such classifications as irrelevant
At the age of 19 I had a medal for courage. At the age of 19 my shorn hair turned grey. At the age of 19 I bit off the smashed arm of a wounded soldier to save his life. At the age of 19 in my last battle I was shot through both lungs, the bullet went in between two vertebrae. My legs were paralysed, they thought I was dead . At the age of 19 . . . My granddaughter is this age now. I look at her in disbelief. Such a child.”
Last week the Belarusian Nobel prize winner for literature, Svetlana Alexievich, published for the first time in English her uncensored book, The Unwomanly Face of War, about the young Soviet girls who went to fight in the Great Patriotic War. They had to cut off their plaits, wear size-nine boots, uniforms with no bras, men’s underwear, drape themselves in bandages for wedding dresses, and continued to fight when they were pregnant. One woman even drowned her newborn child so that the baby’s cries did not disclose the location of her troop to the Germans. In the end, as a sergeant explained, the only fear that remained was being seen as ugly or undignified after death, with their body disfigured by bullet or bomb.
These women more than proved that physically and mentally they were as robust as the men. Only when they returned were they treated differently. Then they were seen as “ruined” and “sluts”. The comrades of both sexes fought alongside each other but the men didn’t want to marry “not quite women”. The female soldiers had to shut up about their experiences, to stay “silent as fish”, as one of them put it, while the men were treated as returning heroes.
Another book, Hitler’s Girls by Tim Heath, was published this week telling the similar story of German women in wartime, she-wolves who fought to defend their cities as snipers and tank drivers.
In the middle of the last century, out of necessity or desperation during the Second World War, men and women were often treated similarly. If they were not fighting they might be given demanding physical jobs as firefighters or stretcher bearers.
Gender politics is constantly changing. The backlash against women taking men’s jobs and being treated as equals resulted after the war in two decades of women returning to their status as housewives in pinnies. During the Fifties and Sixties, children were allowed to be gender-neutral but their mothers and fathers had very defined roles as breadmaker or breadwinner. Children had an easier time for a while.
When I was growing up in the Seventies girls were expected to be tomboys, encouraged to want blue Chopper bikes and orange spacehoppers rather than dolls. I never owned anything pink and we all wore flares or dungarees, assuming that women and men were equal.
That seemed to change at the end of the last century when girls returned to being princesses in a big way, with glittery nails, pink scooters and masses of new fairy books, while boys were given Nerf guns and Spider-Man pyjamas.
Professors have warned about the risks of puberty-blocker drugs
Now, unsurprisingly, there has been another shift. Children don’t want to be defined by gender at all. Pushed to the extremes, more are feeling distressed at being given expected roles and role models such as the bronzed bikini-wearing Amber in Love Island. There has been a 2,000 per cent rise in children referred to gender-identity specialists in the last eight years and there are LGBTQ clubs now in many secondary schools.
This decision by Justine Greening, the equalities minister, to allow people to choose their gender has caused concern. It’s undoubtedly frightening for women in domestic violence refuges and in female prisons to be expected to live beside those who are genetically male. These are examples where the law should sensibly allow exceptions. But sharing toilets and changing rooms with people of all identities should not be a problem.
What is far more worrying is that pre-pubescent children concerned about their identity are now increasingly being allowed gender drugs that will have irreversible physical consequences. More than 800 British children between ten and 18 are being given puberty-blocker hormone injections to stop the development of sex organs and make it easier to have a sex-change operation when they are older.
In America, where the drugs have been available for longer, three professors, Paul Hruz, Paul McHugh and Lawrence Mayer, warned about the risks last month and said that such treatments may be driving children to persist in identifying as transgender.
The vast majority of under-16s who have gender dysphoria do not go on to change sex. But in the Netherlands every teenager prescribed blockers at one clinic in the last three years has gone ahead with gender-reassignment surgery. Children should be allowed to be fluid and experiment without it affecting their later lives.
Gender needs to become less of an issue, not more. No one ought to be categorised. Instead of 71 ways of describing your gender, as there is on Facebook, there needs to be only one: human.
That way children as well as adults won’t feel forced into any pre-conceived notions of who they should be. We don’t have to fight a war to prove that gender is irrelevant.