Questioning the Gender Bender Agenda

Emeritus Professor Sue Middleton, University of Waikato

In 2020, the Ministry of Education updated Relationships and Sexuality Education: A Guide for Teachers, Leaders and Boards of Trustees. Rejecting earlier models of ‘sex education’, which were limited to biology, the revised guide aims to help students locate their biological and social development in the digital age, and to develop strategies to deal with bullying, grooming and other forms of abuse. The Guidelines are allied with a wider democratic project to make schools fully ‘inclusive’ and welcoming places in which gender non-conforming – including transgender – children can thrive, and be accepted and understood. In an online survey of transgender adults and youth, many reported having been bullied ‘because of their gender identity or expression.’ Some schools have transgender teachers, and some children have transgender parents, siblings and/or friends. Children may follow trans celebrities in the media. Children share information and ask questions.

While it is not the role of the teacher to question any medical or therapeutic interventions agreed on by transgender children, their families, and health professionals, it is essential for educators to be well-informed about current research, debates and activism on questions of ‘identity’, ‘transitioning’ and ‘stereotypes’. The Guidelines encourage such topics to be taught/discussed across the curriculum, and include a glossary of definitions of these and related terms. Although the glossary’s dictionary format suggests that ‘sex’, ‘gender’ and ‘gender identity’ have agreed meanings, they are objects of bitter dispute in the current ‘gender wars.’ Teachers, parents and Boards of Trustees have to decide whether to teach, what to teach, when to teach, how to (and how not to) teach these topics, and to appraise any ‘outside’ groups involved.

Sex and Gender

The Guidelines define sex in biological terms – as male, female, or intersex. Several reviews of scientific evidence concur that, although there are two human biological sexes, there are chromosomal, hormonal and physiological variations within the ‘male’ and ‘female’ categories. And, although as many as 1.7% of human bodies may deviate significantly from the binary norms, fewer than 0.02% are truly ‘intersexed’ (or in earlier terminology, ‘hermaphroditic’). Sex is immutable. It is not ‘assigned’ at birth; it is observed.

In the Guidelines, ‘gender’ is ‘an individual identity related to a continuum of masculinities and femininities. A person’s gender is not fixed or immutable.’ In other words, it is psychological; a personality or behavioural characteristic of an individual. The past decade has seen the ‘invention’ of multiple gender categories including non-binary, agender and gender fluid, all of which are listed in the Guidelines.

Until about a decade ago, ‘gender’ was commonly understood as a sociological, not a psychological, category. The term referred to the stereotyped roles, expectations, behaviours and personal qualities required of men and women in particular contexts.  Although all societies had ‘gender roles’, these varied historically and culturally. Second wave feminist goals included abolishing the rigidities of ‘gender’, and understanding that girls might present as ‘masculine’, and boys as ‘feminine.’ Homosexuality – same sex attraction – would be legalised and de-stigmatised.

Until recently, the psychological notion of ‘gender identity’ was virtually unknown beyond the medical context in which it was ‘invented.’ In the 1950s, medical scientists performed non-consensual and often brutal surgeries to reconfigure ambivalent infant bodies according to binary norms. The word ‘gender’ was imported from linguistics to name a condition in which a person’s ‘psychological sex’ – their feeling of being masculine or feminine – opposed their bodily sex. Today this is known as gender dysphoria.

Transsexual and Transgender

Medical and/or surgical interventions have assisted ‘trans-sexual’ adults to ‘pass’ as, and to live ‘as if’ they were of the opposite sex (i.e. to cross the binary) in most everyday activities. However, markers of biological sex will always remain. The Guidelines describe the word transsexual as outdated – a relic of ‘older generations’, and instead promote the use of the word ‘transgender’ – a term which has been widely used only since the turn of the 21st century. 

Transgender activists aim to subvert or dissolve binaries between the sexes, and between sex and gender.  One of the results of this aim is the production of an Orwellian ‘New Speak’ with terms like ‘ pregnant people,’ ‘birthing parents’ , ‘uterus – bearers’ and ‘menstruators’. When JK Rowling objected to this sort of language, she was vilified as ‘transphobic’. This provoked Debbie Hayton, a British transsexual woman and science teacher, to write:

The fury is unleashed because when women are defined by their biology, trans women are excluded from womanhood. To trans women, desperate to be validated as actual women, this is an existential rebuff. While it might be tempting to look the other way, for me this is personal. I  am a trans woman, so it is my identity – supposedly – that is being denied. However, I am also a high school science teacher and I know magical thinking when I see it. Trans women are male – I certainly am as I fathered three children – while women are female. Male people are not female people and therefore trans women are not women. Whatever emotions might surround the debate, JK Rowling is correct.

Gender and Identity

 ‘Gender critical’ feminists claim that the psychological notion of ‘gender identity’ is meaningful only to the tiny fraction of the human population that experiences ‘gender dysphoria’, and that well over 95% of humanity do not ‘have’ a gender identity at all.

‘Identity’ is a sophisticated  psychological construct. It was largely developed  by Erik Erikson, a psychoanalyst and child psychologist, in his longitudinal research on human development. His team coined the term ‘identity crisis’ as a defining feature of adolescence. ‘Identity’ was not the task of earlier stages of childhood development. So, the suggestion in the Guidelines that a five-year old might ‘Understand the relationship between gender, identity, and wellbeing’ seems a bit far-fetched.

As in the UK, some New Zealand teachers are expressing concern that children are being taught that everyone has a ‘gender identity.’ This approach was stopped in Australia in 2017. The British Government recently ruled that ‘You should not reinforce harmful stereotypes, for instance by suggesting that children might be a different gender based on their personality and interests or the clothes they prefer to wear.’ There is growing international concern that young people, especially teenage girls, who do not conform to (outdated) gender stereotypes – and who often exhibit an array of other complex psychological conditions – are increasingly rejecting, and are seeking (irreversible) medical transitioning of, their ‘wrong bodies.’ In Sweden, the UK and several other jurisdictions, this practice is presently paused and/or subject to judicial review.

One of the stated aims of New Zealand’s recently passed Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Act 2022 is to ‘promote respectful and open discussions regarding sexuality and gender.’ Biological sex matters: in healthcare, in prisons, in some sports, and in spaces where girls and women undress or otherwise require privacy or protection, such as refuges or therapeutic contexts. In New Zealand, single-sex spaces are still protected in law. It is possible to protect these while also guaranteeing human rights of trans people. Yet to date, discussion of how ‘gender-identity’ might threaten existing sex-based rights has been largely silenced and misrepresented.  Is teaching about sex and gender in New Zealand schools being  influenced by lobby groups at the expense of science? In the UK, where this has had disastrous consequences for some young people, and their families, a more science-based approach is being introduced. At the outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic, Aotearoa/New Zealand was widely praised as a world leader in science-based health policy. Policy-makers must listen to the concerns of feminists and others, and look to the rapidly changing, evidence-based approaches to gender confusion amongst the young in the UK and elsewhere.


Sue Middleton is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Waikato and a life member of  NZARE. Traversing disciplines, her research and teaching has centred on spatial histories of educational ideas in Āotearoa-New Zealand. Sue’s course on ‘education and sexuality’ explored the historical and contemporary regulation and disciplining of children’s and teacher’s bodies. Her most recent book (edited with Helen May) was For Women and Children: A tribute to Geraldine McDonald (NZCER Press, 2019). Her latest article is ‘Gender Wars and Sexuality Education in 2021: History and Politics’, NZ Journal of Education Studies (2021) 56: 227-243.

One comment

  1. Absolutely correct: sex is “observed at birth”. It is “defined at conception”. When the egg is fertilized, the sex is set.

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