If your six-year-old son wanted to wear a dress to school one day, would you let him? What about a couple of times a month or more? Now, what if the child in question wasn’t part of your family at all, but a pupil in your child’s class, enjoying the full support of their teachers and parents? If your response would be to take your own child out of school and begin legal action against it, then you’ll find allies in Portsmouth couple Nigel and Sally Rowe, who’ve spent this week voicing their considerable concern over the acceptance of their son’s former classmate – a child who mostly presents as male, but likes occasionally to wear a frock.
The Rowes, who describe themselves as Christians (presumably the sight of male ministers in dresses doesn’t quite so offend), say they have “great compassion for transgender people”. They say they’ve removed their own small child from school because he was “confused” about his classmate’s permitted choice of clothing, because they feel parents should have been consulted about the school’s policy, and because they fear for what might now happen “in changing rooms” (the mind boggles. Do six-year-olds even need gendered changing rooms? In my state school, we stripped to identical vests and pants in a school hall that smelled of soggy chips and feet).
The situation, apparently, left their son feeling anxious about going to school. This, they assume, is around the presence of a boy in a frock, and not from the parents weirdly preoccupied with his classmate’s taste in clothes. It would be no wonder if a child was reluctant to attend school when his primary caregivers are so openly displeased and disgusted by what goes on there. It seems highly unlikely that an item of clothing would have anything like as much impact on his precious worldview otherwise.
One almost has to envy any parent whose biggest fear for their child’s schooling is the malign influence of a boy in a skirt, and not the increasing incidences of cyber bullying, revenge porn, eating disorders, literacy and obesity crises, coercive relationships and teen suicide (a disproportionate number of them boys and/or trans kids). I hope, for their child’s sake, they never have to face a real problem. But given the message of entitlement, judgment and ignorance they’re sending their children, I suspect there are plenty in the post.
Quite rightly, many details of the school, the pupil and his family have been kept from the media, and for what little it’s worth, there are no suggestions that the child identifies as a girl, but one should assume it’s a distinct possibility. Maybe this is a phase, maybe just the beginning, maybe they’re still working it out during every day schooling and play. And there should be no rush, no pressure, no need to label or define unless the child requests it. Ironically, it is the Rowes themselves who, in desperation to eradicate any nuance, insist that the child’s unorthodox wardrobe choices mean they need “medical attention”.
Rather than seize an opportunity to explain that children and adults are diverse and individual, and certainly before advocating love, acceptance and other Christian values, the Rowes have chosen to teach their child the more direct and fearful route of marginalising those who might already feel “other”, slamming publicly the school they claim to otherwise “love” for accepting a family they improbably call their “friends”. All the while, they assign themselves as victims, and a tiny child and caring staff the aggressors. “We feel we're being discriminated against... We're not being heard about what our beliefs are,” the mother has said, while on yet another news outlet airing their beliefs to a large audience.
While the Rowes see six as an age of extreme vulnerability and anxiety, many parents see it as a golden age when children are at their freest
As it happens, the Church cares – enough to make a statement at odds with the Rowe family’s campaign. A representative from the Diocese of Portsmouth said, "Church of England schools are inclusive environments where pupils learn to respect diversity of all kinds” (the Christian Legal Centre, however, is supporting Mr and Mrs Rowe), but on the outwardly crestfallen couple ploughs with their pious argument and potentially lucrative legal action and media appearances. "How far are we going to go?” said Nigel Rowe on ITV’s This Morning. “Are we going to allow children to come dressed as animals?"
At six years old, I would hope certainly so. While the Rowes see six as an age of extreme vulnerability and anxiety, many parents see it as a golden age when children are at their freest, yet to shrink to fit the narrow boundaries society imposes. Soon, it may be too late for both children to unlearn that assertive girls are bossy, while assertive boys are strong. That boys who like boisterous play are athletic, the girls who join their games are “tomboys”. That girls do pretty crafting, love pink, want to be princesses and sit quietly and obediently, while boys play-fight, build things with Lego and never cry. That John Lewis, who dare to acknowledge our children don’t immediately fall into these stereotypes we alone have imposed on them, by putting a pirate or triceratops on a dress and removing the word “boy” from a simply stripy tee, are sending respectable society to hell in a handcart. That girls wear skirts and boys must always wear trousers.
Children, of course, aren’t born with this stuff – we give it to them like a cat dropping a dead pigeon on the mat. It was a sad day when, at seven, my youngest son came home from school and said he would no longer be wearing his beloved green and silver nail polish on weekends because “that’s what girls do”. There was never any suggestion during the very happy manicure and ballet years that my son identified as anything but a boy, nor was there any confusion as to who my friend’s son was when he attended a fancy-dress party as Elsa from Frozen. Another friend’s daughter – who lives in jeans and is completely obsessed with dinosaurs and messy play – feels in no way obliged to reject her doll buggy. Some children inevitably will feel confused about whether their assigned gender is correct, some will know for sure that it isn’t, many won’t. But in any eventuality, the child deserves respect, compassion and an inclusive education. The notion that other children should be withdrawn from their company in fear and revulsion is misguided to the point of cruel. Just leave children be, let them work out who they are, rather than prescribe exactly what they should be, and offer them support, kindness and encouragement whatever they decide, not fear and disgust that they haven’t followed the life-limiting path we’ve laid for them.