Debates and Lazy Stereotypes

It was only a matter of time. In the three days from Easter Sunday on the BBC, Louis Theroux documented the lives of some Californian trans children, Victoria Derbyshire traced two British trans children, and Radio 4’s PM programme raised issues about how schools deal (or don’t deal) with trans issues.

So it was only natural that Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour would want to get in on the act, and have a debate. Despite all the evidence that had been presented, peoples’ identities were, again, up for scrutiny.

The evidence: notable non-binary campaigner CN Lester had been approached by one of the researcher on the grounds that, as a non-binary person, they were bound to oppose medical intervention for trans children. The invitation was dropped once CN disabused the researcher of that belief, and a radical feminist (Finn Mackay) was found to be the opposition on the grounds that “it’s good to have a debate”. CN took to Facebook to air their disgust at the stereotypical way the media again wanted to cover this issue.

Well, sorry, it’s not always good to have a debate.

The facts speak for themselves. The Portman and Tavistock Clinic has registered a four-fold increase in referrals over the past six years. The vast majority of trans adults reporting knowing they were trans, although not necessarily being able to describe it, when they were under 10. Allowing trans children to express themselves in their authentic gender almost always sees an immediate lifting of stress and other related conditions after the fears of what their peers at school might say have been countered. The majority of trans children self-harm – the majority!!! Parents almost always say that they have taken this step of acceptance in order to protect their children, and there’s absolutely no evidence at all that parenting causes (or prevents) a child being trans.

When you’re dealing with vulnerable children, a debate is the very last thing you need.

And then you have lazy stereotyping. Brendan O’Neill, never one to pass up an opportunity to put the boot into trans people, today published an article in The Spectator which simply thrives on inaccurate stereotypes. Brendan, mate, these are not boys who decide they want to be girls simply because they play with dolls or listen to Lady Gaga. These are children who have a profound and often crippling sense of unease with how society is treating them based on the box that society has put them in. These are children who fight against being labelled as the opposite gender, with parents who are left stumbling for answers because nothing they do works to counter the profound sense of distress that the children are expressing. These are also children, who don’t always know how to express their innermost feelings with the subtlety and nuance expected by a gender studies student. Heck, it’s difficult enough for adults to be able to do this – so why on earth are we expecting this from 6 and 8 year-olds?

I knew I “wanted to be a girl” from the age of 7. I also knew, somehow, that I couldn’t tell anyone about it – which implies that I’d learnt before then that it wasn’t a “wise” thing to admit to. Instead I learnt to hide from the world, to act a role in order to fit in and, in doing so, sowed the seeds for severe depression and at least one, probably three, breakdowns in adulthood. A friend of mine from primary school remarked once that, when he was learning to interact with the world around him, I was learning to hide from it. The social and psychological damage has the potential to be absolutely enormous.

I watch these youngsters with amazement – largely because I’m in awe of the parents who have engendered such trust that their children haven’t learnt to hide from them. I suspect that, if challenged at that age, I would have denied that I was trans – I would have understood the social cost to have been too high. So I would not have been eligible for treatment – and I’m pretty unequivocally trans! The results from studies from the Low Countries, where they’ve been treating trans kids for 15 years now, are also pretty unequivocal – in that the children emerge as well-adjusted adults completely at ease with who they are. The lazy media stereotypes show no understanding of what being trans actually means, or what the treatment being offered actually involves – hint, it doesn’t involve any medication until puberty starts at the earliest, or surgery until 18, plenty of time to consider your position.

If the society that O’Neill and the radical feminists want is really that we should nail people into pre-conceived gender norms (which, despite their protestations, are actually quite fluid over history anyway), then we should have a debate over whether society is really prepared to continue to fund the considerable cost of doing so, and what that means for other peoples’ self-expression. By now it’s well documented that around 40% of trans people have attempted suicide at least once. In some recent research, the average cost to the NHS of a suicide attempt is around £10,000 – and around 10% of suicide survivors need ongoing help on a more-or-less permanent basis from that point. The cost of an actual death by suicide is estimated at well over a million pounds once you include coroners, financial upheaval and so on. That’s an awful lot of money that we’re throwing away because society doesn’t want to treat trans people properly.

I’ve been in touch with the freelance producer who was involved in this Woman’s Hour piece. Although the piece was predicated on children, it became apparent very quickly that they wanted yet another debate on trans identities. The BBC are apparently aware of the risk of causing offence. Stuff offence, was my reply – these debates cause real harm. The call this morning – the debate is going ahead and they will try to be sensitive with the questioning. Free speech, you see. OK, I said, but you ought to be aware that reports have come in yesterday of another trans teenage suicide. Ah, came the reply. You see – real harm…

The actual debate is to do with society’s discomfort with trans people. It’s that, and that alone, that is the biggest barrier to effective treatment and enabling trans people to lead productive lives from an early age.

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