I became an evangelical, charismatic Christian at the age of 13. Discussing anything about faith and religion with me must have been an absolute nightmare. I’d encountered God, so I knew what was right. If the discussion was whether God existed, I knew He did, and any sense of logical argument that God might not exist must therefore be Satanic.
I felt, watching Channel 4’s Trans Kids: It’s Time to Talk this evening, that there was a distinct parallel. I’ve always been open to talk to people about trans issues and my experiences and knowledge if I believe that the individuals were willing to listen and adapt. I know that most people are fumbling in the dark on these things. I believe that education is a great enlightener and, for that reason, I do expect people to ask questions of me in private sessions which others may find difficult or offensive.
But those who insist on “just having a debate” seem almost evangelical in their fervour. The programme showed snatches of this, with various comments, such as (paraphrasing) “there are some women there and some men. Some call themselves non-binary”, and that (paraphrasing) “being a women shouldn’t be just a feeling”.
What wasn’t shown so much was the dismissal of a lot of the science and research into this area. A number of this crew seem to believe that chromosomes are everything, and that genitalia defines who you are – a remarkably reductionist argument. And then you have the presentations of trans women with the voiceover saying things like (paraphrasing) “this is a man who’s discovered makeup. This is a man who likes wearing short dresses. This is a man with big, dangly earrings.” – again not shown.
Those of you who saw this morning’s debate in Westminster Hall will have seen the same reactions. When Layla Moran MP was saying that there was no evidence of any abuse of the systems under current laws (which operate on a self-identification basis), there were knowing looks and mutterings from the group of anti-reformers sat behind her. So the question is, if there is evidence, where is it?
And then we had the statistic, greeted with an incredulous look, that almost all of the children who the NHS put on puberty blockers go on to transition. No mention that it has been very difficult to get children onto blockers on the first place, which means those who do go on them are those who the medics feel are most likely to transition – so perhaps the high transition rate wouldn’t be so unexpected. Lies, damned lies and statistics.
“It’s all a big experiment” came the cry. Well, partly because no one is doing very much research into the drugs, meaning that most of them have to be prescribed off licence even though they’ve been used for decades. The nod to research was of James Caspian, who had his MA study shut down by Bath Spa University. Caspian gave one reason, the voiceover did say that there were other reasons too. As Caspian found, it’s difficult to design such studies ethically.
We had the “trans people are shutting down debate” line again – positioning trans people as the enemy of free speech. Firstly this assumes that someone’s identity is a valid topic of debate. Given that most trans people I know have had to fight for years to be believed by their own friends and family, perhaps you can understand why debating with evangelicals who won’t be convinced is not high on the to-do list.
But secondly any debate seems to be underpinned by the idea that, fundamentally, being trans is a bad outcome – something to be avoided if at all possible.
I don’t know whether Stella, the presenter of the programme, was trans or not. Certainly, if her story is true, then she appeared to have a difficult time during her teens. But these kinds of programmes rely on the “well, it didn’t work for me so it won’t work for anyone” trope. This one was a bit more forgiving than that, in that Stella did seem to accept that there were some children who were trans, but still it seemed that a trans outcome was something to be avoided. When studies show that most trans adults knew they were “different” as children, if we don’t allow children space to find out about themselves, we are going to create problems. And that, to me, is key. I get that we have only one life, and that it involves a series of decisions, some reversible, some irreversible – and that some of those irreversible decisions are taken in childhood. But if we insist on framing debates in a polarised way, it then makes it very difficult indeed for someone to have the space to find out who and what they are.
On the one hand you had incredulity that the amount of information given to trans youngsters was minimal – but then you also had incredulity that information was available on “Dr Google”. So the third option would be no information at all then?
Stella admitted talking to trans kids brings back memories of her own childhood. I have a similar reaction, because I find myself regretting what I didn’t do. I didn’t have the gumption to stand up to the adults around me, so I doubt if I would have met the diagnostic criteria that the NHS uses to determine if a child is trans. But where is the programme that looks at my upbringing and postulates how different my life would have been had I been accepted when young?
The end was a heartfelt plea that youngsters shouldn’t be “transed”. No trans person I know tries to convert anyone else to be trans. We know what dysphoria feels like. There is no way we would want anyone else to go through that.
Part of the reason for Channel 4 signing a Memorandum of Understanding with Trans Media Watch in 2011 was to attempt to redress the balance in the media, to try to portray trans people and issues with sympathy and understanding rather than sensationalism and denial. Channel 4’s actions over recent months has placed, in my view, that MoU into considerable doubt. There is minimal engagement – lots of warm words but not many warm actions any more. When more-or-less the whole of the mainstream British media has been pumping out misinformation for months – misinformation repeated on tonight’s programme – it feels as though the media landscape for trans people is more hostile than I can remember. Losing Channel 4’s active support feels like a bodyblow – all that work for nothing.