I’M a cisgender female. I think. It’s taken me a bit of Googling to figure that out, and even at that I’m worried that I’ve used the incorrect term to describe myself.

The term “cisgender” refers to a person whose gender identity matches with the biological sex they were born with. So, I’m female and I identify as a woman, therefore I am cisgender.

Why am I so worried about getting the label wrong? Well, we need look no further than the furore around Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton over Christmas after he posted a video of his young nephew on Instagram, asking the little one why he was wearing a princess dress, saying: “Boys don’t wear princess dresses,” sparking uproar on social media about gender prejudice.

Loading article content

Lewis soon deleted the video and apologised, saying he did not mean to cause harm and he very much supports self-expression, whatever form it takes. Some, however, were furious. One campaigner, Imraan Sather of discrimination support charity Stay Brave UK, even called for Lewis to be stripped of his MBE.

As a journalist and nosey person, I find gender studies fascinating. I really enjoy reading about the predicaments we find ourselves in, in the modern age, as we try to reframe how we understand biological sex and gender. Far from the boy-girl world I grew up in, I’m now aware of transgender issues and a number of those in my social circle identify as trans or non-binary (non-binary refers to those who don’t identify with a specific gender norm).

But as fascinating as I find it – and believe me, I am extremely interested – I still struggle with it. As a cisgender woman, I cannot relate in a meaningful way to those who’ve struggled with gender identity. What I can do is accept that they are not liars or attention-seekers, as inflammatory opinion often deems them. Instead, they are deeply troubled by it and the least we can all do is offer compassion, support and as much understanding as we can.

There are some ferocious debates taking place right now about gender within academic, journalistic and activist circles, but the problem is that much of it doesn’t reach an awful lot further.

Still, when we go shopping, we’re confronted by boys' and girls' clothes or boys' and girls' toys. Some shops have decided to go in a different direction in recognition of the current debate – John Lewis recently made its children’s clothes range gender-neutral – but in general we are still bombarded with the same stereotypes as ever, as well as gender clichés throughout media and entertainment. And let’s face it, media and entertainment reaches far more people than academic discussions on the internet.

That’s why the shock and fury directed at Hamilton troubled me a little. While there are many interested people like myself seeking greater awareness of the intricacies of the gender debate, less interested people – not because they’re uncaring, but because they’re human and we all have different interests – have their traditional ideas of gender reinforced every day by almost everything around them. How can we expect people to suddenly or immediately understand a concept that may feel entirely alien to their experience of the world?

The question for our social media warriors, as much as I admire their sincere wish for equality, is what they really want to achieve with their responses. Is the objective to publicly shame a sports celebrity into an apology in order to set acceptable and unacceptable boundaries? Or is the objective further understanding and tolerance?

Lambasting Hamilton, or the many others who have waded into this debate, may make a point on social media, but does it have any ripple effect into the outside world? Will the outrage over the Hamilton debacle encourage parents to think a little more deeply when buying clothes and toys for a new baby, and questioning their role in healthy gender development? Or will it serve to polarise the debate by making those who struggle to understand a difficult concept feel lectured and condemned by intellectuals?

Instead of “Lewis Hamilton, you’re a disgrace”, how about “Lewis Hamilton, here’s another way of looking at things”? Instead of heaping social media fire and brimstone upon those who step out of line, how about using the social media bandwagon to overload the conversation simply with information instead of pointless griping? Then, perhaps, those outside of our bubbles who have a quiet curiosity may just begin engaging with the issue properly.