Regrets, I’ve had a few

It’s not often that I write about an individual. In general I try to steer well away from such pieces. It stems from a fundamental belief that people should be free to make their own decisions in the awareness of their own circumstances.

Matthew Attonley was interviewed pretty sensitively by Philip Schofield and Amanda Holden on ITV’s This Morning earlier today. Matthew had appeared on the show just six months ago in April, promoting the trans cause as Chelsea – she “couldn’t be happier”. But the press had, over the weekend, revealed that he was reverting and expected the NHS to pick up the bills.

Regrettors are nothing new. People regret all sorts of decisions, so to expect gender reassignment to be any different is somewhat odd – phobic even. When researching for Trans Media Watch’s submission to Leveson I turned up the statistic that around 20% of prostate cancer patients regret the surgery that they undergo. Statistics within the trans community are incredibly hard to come by, but all the evidence points to an extremely low regret rate for genital surgery, possibly no more than 2% – and even then it’s not clear exactly what the regrets are. And the NHS process, however barbaric it may be perceived to be, is supposedly designed to make sure that regrets at a later stage are minimised. I understand that quite a large percentage of people drop off the NHS pathway, although it’s not clear how many of those continue on a private pathway or transition without any further medical intervention.

Matthew made a telling remark near the end of his interview. “I am still a woman inside”, he said, “but medically it doesn’t suit my body.” He also explained that he’d been on cross-gender hormones for around 10 years but, in response to the inevitable question, hadn’t had genital surgery – and, possibly rather more importantly, that his supportive mother had died last year. In such instances TMW’s guidelines are to avoid reference to surgical status, but in this instance, because of the current press coverage, this is important – as it’s no longer clear exactly what the £10,000 NHS price tag being touted round by the tabloids is actually referring to.

What did come across is someone who is still wrestling with issues core to their identity, who felt that society at large was not accepting (he made reference to being treated “like a party piece” when people found out he was trans), and who had undoubtably suffered from the death of his mother. In one word, he is vulnerable.

The Editors Code of Practice makes no reference to vulnerable people. It requires pieces to be accurate, give due respect to peoples’ privacy, not intrude into grief or shock, and not discriminate. In the hidden part of TMW’s evidence to Leveson, we gave numerous examples of the press’ treatment of trans people and their families typically at the point when they were most vulnerable. Not one of these were public personas. Matthew is, possibly, in a slightly different position. It’s quite possible that he has willingly given his story to the press, but the question then lands squarely on the shoulders of the press – is it right to expose and exploit someone who is so obviously vulnerable?

The trans communities have typically given very short shrift to regrettors who are publicised. A large part of this is because of fears around the medical process which is, by and large, seen as disempowering and also extremely vulnerable to funding cuts. The current position, as tracked by Jess Key, is that waiting lists for surgery are growing at a rate which will take years to clear, and GIRES has also noted that the number of referrals is swamping the existing ability of the clinics to cope. The NHS system is already creaking, even though a large proportion of trans people already fund their own treatment. Add to this the feeling that you’re having to jump through someone else’s seemingly arbitrary hoops – it’s not surprising that trans people in and about to enter the system are nervous about stories like Matthew’s. It’s perceived as a big stick – “it’s just a lifestyle choice which we could do without funding”, “it’s just in your head, you should learn to deal with it and I shouldn’t have to pay”.

There is a space to discuss regrets, but it needs to be placed in context, and it needs to avoid exploiting vulnerable people. I hope Matthew gets the space and the support he needs. He could do without the media exposure, and he could also do without trans people leaping down his throat.

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