By Kate: firstname.lastname@example.org
On Thursday 12th January, the BBC aired what they called a ‘balanced documentary’ entitled ‘Transgender Kids: Who knows best?’
According to the BBC website, the programme’s aim was to scrutinise the new ‘gender affirmative approach’ to children, which means fully supporting children’s change of identity. The film also presented Dr Kenneth Zucker’s view that most children with gender dysphoria; where a person experiences discomfort or distress because there’s a mismatch between their biological sex and psychological gender identity, eventually overcome the feelings without transitioning.
I watched the programme with distress and upset, that once again transgender communities were being publically misrepresented and misunderstood. I took to Twitter, to gauge a snapshot of public reaction – outrage by many, prejudice by some.
Firstly, the programme spoke only in binary terms – girls who wished to be boys and boys who wished to be girls. Those young people who are intersex or who define outside of the binary, as neither a boy nor a girl, were not mentioned. Then came the extremely problematic idea that transgender children could probably be ‘cured’ or could ‘learn to accept their sexed body’ if only they tried a little harder and parents reinforced the idea that rigid gender stereotypes were necessary to believe in; that boys who do not identify with their birth sex should be forced to only play with boys and boys toys in order to ‘cure’ their transgenderism, and vice versa. This type of thinking harks back to conversion therapy ideas, where psychological treatment or spiritual counselling was used to change a person’s sexual orientation to make people heterosexual.
On the other hand, we were told that telling young people that it’s ok for boys to play with dolls and its ok for girls to like football would mean that boys and girls might no longer feel the need to change their biological sex and/or gender presentation. Indeed, a comment on Twitter reinforced this idea ‘if gender weren’t such a straitjacket, these kids wouldn’t think it were a necessity…’ For me, this highlights a deep misunderstanding of what it is to be transgender. Transgender is the term given to someone whose innate, psychological gender identity does not correspond with their biological sex. Being transgender is not merely about gender performance; about which clothes someone is ‘allowed to wear’ and which hobbies it is deemed societally acceptable to have. The further we move away from this thinking, the better. It delegitimises transgender identities, assumes that gender identity can be changed if people ‘try harder’ and denies people their identity, their existence. Being transgender is not a choice, and if a young person expresses a desire to identify differently to their birth sex, that is not something we should dismiss, but we should listen to and support them. This taps into another series of comments made on Twitter during the programme, ‘a child is too immature to determine if they are transgender, its child abuse, some people shouldn’t be allowed kids.’
Firstly, a child does not need to determine if they are transgender. Young children do not undergo gender reassignment surgery or experience any medical intervention until, at the very earliest, they may start hormone therapy when they begin experiencing puberty. Hormone therapy is not irreversible and no one is coerced into transition. Transition is often a long process, which takes place over many years after much consideration and medical consultation. Secondly, I do not understand how it is ‘child abuse’ to allow a young person to openly and freely explore all parts of their identity. To me, it is not child abuse, it is the exact opposite. Abuse is constraining young people into categories which you deem ‘normal’ and denying the existence of others which may lie outside your world view.
The programme fell into the familiar trap of treating transgenderism as mental illness. The pathologising of transgender issues is something that academics and activists have been moving away from for many years and for this programme to suggest that those children who express an identity different from their birth sex should be monitored for underlying psychological and mental health issues feeds into the idea that there must be something mentally wrong with transgender people and that transgender people are not ‘in their right mind.’ One Twitter commentator highlighted the persistent polarisation between being ‘normal’ and being mentally ill when they suggested that ‘it is a good thing to be tolerant of the mentally ill, but it’s very dangerous to suggest that this is normal.’
The programme also claimed that children being diagnosed as transgender could in fact just be ‘fixating’ on gender disparity because they are autistic. There is still work to be done on the interconnection between gender dysphoria and autism. Indeed, as the NHS guide for gender dysphoria states ‘the exact causes of gender dysphoria are unclear.’ It is important to remember that autism manifests itself in a huge vary of ways and where gender dysphoria occurs in a person who is autistic, they should get the help and support they need to explore both from different angles and treat both separately. This again feeds into the idea that being transgender must be a consequence of an underlying health condition and that being transgender is not something ‘normal’ people express. Indeed, the programme’s use of ‘ordinary’ rather than cisgender sought only to reinforce the divisive idea that there are normal people and transgender people are ‘the other’.
The harm of programmes like this for transgender people can be staggering. Transgender people have to hear the same old tropes being lauded as fact, have to hear their existence being called into question; and what about the impact of those people who are starting to scrutinise their gender identity or look more closely at transitioning as an option for them? There were numerous accounts of people on Twitter who said that they had delayed their transitioning because of the work of people like Dr Zucker.
Perhaps it is important at this point to highlight that Dr Zucker has been largely discredited for his work on transgender issues, his practices in Canada have been made illegal and his clinic has been shut down. Not only it is extremely worrying that someone so disgraced is given such a mainstream, primetime platform on which to share his views, but for me it throws up an important question to consider when exploring all equality issues: who has a voice? Who gives them the voice? Who doesn’t have a voice, and why?
I am cisgender. I am a cisgender ally who fully understands the importance of both transgender and cisgender voices in the fight against transphobia. However, cisgender people must be aware of their position in the debate. I found the cisplaining in the programme and on social media embarrassing and shameful. For cisgender people to explain away transgender people by saying ‘actually, you must have a mental illness, or a special educational need, or you’re actually gay, or you’re just confused’ is cisgender privilege at its worst – the denial of identity based on people’s inability or unwillingness to understand an issue that has previously existed outside of their world view. How dare they? It is not for cisgender people to explain away issues, define what’s normal or what’s not; decide what’s best for other people in circumstances they will never experience. It is for cisgender people to listen, understand and provide support.
To this end, I would like to deconstruct one of Dr Zucker’s central arguments in the programme. Dr Zucker stated that ‘Just because kids are saying something doesn’t necessarily mean adults accept it, or that it’s true, or that it could be in the best interests of the child.’ Too often people are too quick to write children off. Is Dr Zucker suggesting that adults shouldn’t listen to what children tell us, that we should dismiss them? Young people are clever, intuitive, and perceptive individuals, and if a young person has felt able to disclose something personal to an adult, then adults have a duty to listen, understand and support them.