How Not To Do Trans Kids on TV

This morning BBC2’s brand new daytime magazine show, hosted by Victoria Derbyshire, led off with a feature on trans kids. There were some very good things about it, but also some really bad stuff. I’m not entirely sure who to blame for this. In the article that she did for the BBC website Derbyshire is much more sympathetic towards trans kids than she was in the show. Also Lewis Hancox, who was on the show, commented afterwards that she’d been very nice. I suspect editorial interference. Here’s what happened.

The segment got off to a really bad start with Derbyshire stating that the two kids she would be interviewing were “boys who were living as girls”. She didn’t actually say that they were “really boys, and pretending to be girls”, but the implication was there. What’s more she repeated this phrase at least twice during the show, to make sure that the message got through. There would be no acceptance of the kids as girls.

Then we got to the interviews, which were pretty relentless. Almost every question that Derbyshire asked the two girls was designed to get them to say that they were just going through a phase and would change their minds later. The interviews with the parents focused on the idea that they were harming their kids by allowing them to transition, and that the kids’ gender-variant behavior was somehow the parents’ fault. Normally I’d be pleased to see a lesbian couple on TV, but it was pretty clear from the questioning that little Jesscia’s parents were only on the show to allow Derbyshire to insinuate that their lesbianness had somehow caused Jessica’s transness, and by extension that lesbians were unfit to bring up children.

Later in the show there was a panel discussion involving Lewis Hancox; Loretta, one of the vloggers from My Genderation; Jackson, a young trans man; and Susie, the current Chair of Mermaids. This was much better in that we had a bunch of adult trans people able to assert that transition had benefited them. Even so, Derbyshire’s questions were again largely antagonistic in content if not in tone. And there was the inevitable question about what each person had between their legs. I rather wish someone had asked the same question of Derbyshire.

To give you a better idea of how this all came over to me I’m going to pick up an example that Christine Burns used on Twitter. Suppose the show was about left-handed kids. Would you expect all of the questions to them be about whether they would grow out of it and learn to write properly? Would you expect the questions to the parents to be whether they were ruining their kids lives by allowing them to choose to be left-handed instead of insisting that they behave properly? Well of course not. And yet it wasn’t that long ago that such questions would have been asked. When I was at school there were still teachers who would punish pupils for writing left-handed.

That’s basically where we are with trans kids today. Most of society thinks that they are somehow unnatural, and that the right thing to do is bully them until they conform. It wasn’t until we got to the panel that Susie was able to raise the question of how harmful that might be. (Paris Lees makes the same point very well in this article about the Louis Theroux show.)

One thing that both Theroux and Derbyshire harped on about endlessly is the idea that kids might change their minds about gender transition when they got older, and that as a result they were making a dreadful mistake by transitioning young. During the panel discussion Derbyshire brought in a specialist from New York, Dr. Aron Janssen who is (amongst an impressive list of titles) Clinical Director of the Gender and Sexuality Service at the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Medical Center. He was asked how likely it was that kids would change their minds, and his response was that current research suggests that around 75% of them would.

As you can imagine, my ears pricked up at that. After the show, Susie linked to him on Twitter so I was able to introduce myself and ask for more information. (I do have a very good excuse: I’m helping write some trans awareness training for Bristol University Medical School.) Dr. Janssen kindly replied, attaching a couple of papers by a Dutch team that has been working with trans kids for many years. Having looked through the papers, what I’m seeing is as follows.

Yes, a substantial majority of kids who are treated for gender variant behavior will eventually grow out of it.

However, a significant minority (around 25% according to Dr. Janssen) do not, and those kids are highly likely to benefit from medical transition.

The growing out of it generally occurs in an age range of 10 to 13 as puberty starts to kick in. This is also the point when puberty blockers would begin to be prescribed. Prior to that there is no medical intervention, so the kids who do stop their gender variant behavior will probably not have had any medication.

The data is for all kids who present for treatment due to having gender variant behavior. By no means all of them wish to transition socially. However, a desire to transition socially is a strong indicator that the gender variant behavior will persist through puberty.

What we are seeing here, then, is doctors learning how to distinguish between, on the one hand, those kids whose behavior isn’t stereotypical for their birth gender, and on the other those who really need full gender transition. As it turns out, the kids themselves generally understand their feelings pretty well, and those who need to transition will opt to do so socially before there is any need to do so medically.

Of course there is a lot more detail than I’ve presented here. The Dutch doctors looked at many different factors including the language the kids use when self-identifying, and their observed behavior. Interestingly they found parental reports of behavior of girls to be less reliable as an indicator than was the case with boys, suggesting that parental expectations of gender performance are more rigid for girls than for boys. Nevertheless, the point remains that the “making a mistake” issue can and should be challenged with evidence rather than being left hanging there as bait for haters.

It is still good that trans people are being allowed to speak for themselves, but on the basis of this show the media still has a very long way to go before it will treat us with respect, rather than as an excuse for artificial controversy and a target for their own prejudices.

Update: edited as per Jackson’s comment below. Profuse apologies for the error.

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4 Responses to How Not To Do Trans Kids on TV

  1. Aron says:

    Nice summary! I think you made some great points. Regarding the persistence/desistance data, it’s interesting… I personally think that we are conflating a lot of “cross-gender preferences” when diagnosing kids with GD – it’s not that 75% of kids “change their minds,” but more likely that 75% were probably exploring gender roles and expectations and are different from the trans youth that persist.

    • Cheryl says:

      Thanks for the kind words, and thanks again for the papers.

      You are absolutely right that a lot of things get conflated when the medical profession talks about gender variance. In the same way that there are many different ways to be a trans adult, there are many ways to be a trans kid, and by no means all of those ways require social transition or medical intervention. But some do and it is important to identify the kids who really need help.

      What we need to do is let people be themselves, and not try to force them into overly simplistic social stereotypes.

  2. Jackson Nash says:

    Hi Cheryl,

    Just wanted to add a correction here as you listed me as a non-binary person – I’m actually a trans man. Hope that’s okay to let you know.

    All the best,

    Jackson Nash

    • Cheryl says:

      Whoops, very sorry. Sometimes I can over-compensate in trying to make sure NB people are not left out. I’ll edit it now.

      And I can add your name. Thank you, you were great on the show! šŸ™‚

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