Monday, 23 January 2017

Intersectioning the Transgender Kids Debate: My Response to the "Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best?" Documentary

If there is one issue that divides ideological opinion on gender issues, it's that of talking about the possibility of children defining themselves or being defined as being born "in the wrong body" or "wrong gender"-i.e. transgender kids. Do trans kids exist? Should they be given treatment before the age of consent (16 in the UK)? Are trans activists poisoning their minds by making them hate themselves before puberty starts? The questions seem endless and are very often ignored by the mainstream media. The BBC tried to address this by airing a documentary on the 13th January 2017 entitled Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best? The documentary explore the work of a sexologist, Dr Kenneth Zucker treating children questioning their gender identity at his clinic in Canada (the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto). Dr Zucker had been fired for proposing treatments that could be classed as "gender-reparative therapy" for trans kids-i.e. a form of conversion therapy with the aim of preventing transgender people from transitioning after they reach the age of consent by making them try and conform to gender stereotypes. As East Midlands PhD trans male blogger "sexdrugssmh" has noted in his blogpost: https://sexdrugsmh.wordpress.com/2017/01/13/thoughts-on-transgender-kids-who-knows-best/ (well worth a read btw), trans activists didn't get Dr Zucker fired for being "transphobic"- "they weren't his employers after all". There was no attempt to discuss the circumstances behind the closure of the clinic. Despite this, various comments were made about the decision to air the programme and even more were made after the programme was shown and all show how divisive the transgender kids debate really has become:
  • One on the one hand we have staunch trans activists who believe that trans children need to be protected from adhering to an old fashioned gender-binary by talking through their feelings with sexologists and psychologists so they can be prescribed the treatment they need to help ease their genuine gender dysphoria (such as puberty blockers). Shon Faye, who appeared on a Newsnight programme prior to the BBC documentary's transmission pointed out the fact there was a lack of testimony from trans people who had successfully made a transition after experiencing issues with their gender identity in childhood and Paris Lees mentioned on her Twitter page that Mermaids, a key organisation that works with young transgender children on a daily basis had not been approached by the BBC to give their opinion on Dr Zucker's methods.
  • On the other hand we have radical feminists and gender critics whose primary aim is to protect children (especially girls) from going through any treatment for fear of erasing their sexuality or biology identity pre or during pubescence. GenderCriticalDad on Twitter asked "do you support gay kids or those trying to fix them?". They challenge the idea of gender identity being "innate", stating that it's better to challenge gender stereotypes imposed on children by society. Stephanie Davies-Arai from Transgender Trend for example praised Dr Zucker for his "watch and wait approach", calling claims against him "false and libellous" and reiterated the need for the BBC to continue to challenge the "trans cult" head on.
It's a very contentious, very emotionally charged debate and more often than not, trans activists and rad fems shout over one another, trying to score points without finding a sensible common ground on which there can be some sort of practical consensus. Trans activists believe they've not been heard and gender critics and rad fems believe they're the ones whose voices have been silenced due to charges of transphobia being made against them. No-platforming happens on both sides. As an intersectional transfeminist, I feel it's more important than ever to make the attempt to talk through the key issues that have arisen in layperson terms, so that those unfamiliar with the issue can try and understand and engage with it. So here's my first thought: I believe rad fems and trans activists can agree that the most important aspect to this gender debate is that we continue to show compassion and love towards those children who are questioning their gender identity pre and during pubescence; that we never condone hurting kids physically or emotionally for wanting to talk about their feelings and that no child is ever coerced into an action which they do not want to carry out either by their parents, activists or sexologists. That's a pretty good start don't you think?

Young Trans Activists need to be heard:

A key argument made by trans activists is that there is often little representation of their views on TV programmes. It should be the case that trans activists, trans feminists, sexologists and those who work to provide frontline services for young trans people in the UK should have their say openly and fairly. After all, there are trans activists who have transitioned in their early 20s and beforehand who have vital stories to share with the public at large. Naturally some commentators who are against the idea of transgender identity existing among young people might dismiss the testimony of Aimee Challenor, chair of LGBTQIA+ UK Green Party as being entirely irrelevant because she's "only an activist" and not a sexologist. By saying that Aimee's voice cannot count as legitimate you forget that Aimee is a young woman who has been through the transition process in her late teens and so can tell us honestly,positively and realistically about how she felt before, during and after the process. Yet Aimee was never asked to give her perspective on Newsnight to give the British public an alternative perspective on the Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best documentary either before or after the programme had aired. The BBC hasn't encouraged her to approach them to be in a UK based documentary either. I thank God that Aimee had the courage to write a HuffPost blogpost about her experiences because I found I could identify with some of them myself. I was desperately worried about attending my Year 13 prom because I thought that I would not be accepted for wearing what I wanted to wear-i.e. that my identity could not be accepted as authentic or valid in public by those who are charged with allowing us to develop our authentic self in a safe setting (i.e. at school). I wasn't surprised therefore when I read about Aimee being threatened with a ban from the prom by a Headteacher for wanting to wear a dress or being told by her grandparents who are meant to love you unconditionally that you wanting to live an authentic life is "attention seeking". Such events happen often to trans and non-binary people and so we all have an interest in trying to debunk stereotypes and change attitudes around expressions and perceptions of gender.

The Youth Transgender Centre of Excellence Programme:

Soon after the BBC Programme had been transmitted, I happened to read an article by the Leicester LGBT Centre. You can read it for yourself here: https://leicesterlgbtcentre.org/news/2017/1/leicester-lgbt-centres-response-to-the-bbcs-transgender-kids-who-knows-best. I was very sad to see that young trans people had been upset by the broadcasting of the BBC programme. The LGBT Centre has created a flagship Children In Need supported project- the "Youth Transgender Centre of Excellence" and members of the YTCE "felt angry, disrespected, hurt and afraid", almost as if their emotional experiences were invalided and that they cannot be "gender affirmative" because they could be subject to ridicule, suspicion and treated as if they were intentionally mentally ill. A "gender affirmative approach" is one that respects how children "wish to express their gender and identity" and that sometimes means allowing them access to specialist youth services that are available at the Tavistock and Portman Gender Identity Development Service, the only service of its available in the country. Leicester LGBT Centre, Mermaids, Stonewall have all made it clear that it is imperative that the public understands the facts concerning the transition process. The NHS Care pathway offered to young people is extremely lengthy. Cross-sex hormones (Hormone Replacement Therapy) cannot be prescribed unless the young person has been diagnosed with Gender Dysphoria and they can give their consent. The age of consent, is 16 in the UK and because Gender Reassignment Surgery doesn't happen until a young person has been on cross-sex hormones and been expressing their chosen gender identity socially for 2 years, teenagers cannot have access to GRS. Puberty blockers which are reversible are given to children around 12 years old, before the onset of facial hair, pubic hair etc (see below for further discussion).

Other children who are members of the YTCE do not wish to seek out such advice and would prefer to speak with friends who are gender non-conforming and that's great to see too. The trans male blogger sexdrugssmh that I mentioned above explains that "gender affirmative care is not and never has been focused upon preparing children for medical intervention...Every practitioner would seek to tailor their approach to the child and family involved." believes there should be a focus on protecting intersex children from facing invasive inappropriate surgery to "correct" their body and I'd hope everyone agrees wholeheartedly with him.

Reading about the work that the YTCE has done with young people, I can't help but be elated. To know that a Children In Need scheme has had success in getting children to feel better about themselves without reducing conversations down to medical treatments. In 2016, YTCE helped 27 people who "experienced anxiety, low mood and almost certainly tried to self-harm having previously tried to take their own life". Recent statistics have revealed that 44% of children who identify as LGBTQ have considered committing suicide. 44%. Higher than the average of 32% cited for under 18 year olds in general. If allowing young non-binary and trans people to talk with experts to the point where they desist from self-harm means them turning to organisations such as YTCE, so be it. YTCE managed to reduce instances of self-harm was to show respect and compassion to those young people. All it took was to be mindful of pronoun use, using the name they wanted YTCE professionals to use with them and allowing them to discuss the issues they are facing at home, school and during leisure activities without fear of mockery, disdain or physical reprisals, even if their family members would never use physical violence against them in the first place. Parents have seen a positive change in their child as a result of attending the YTCE and started socially transitioning. They are being given the chance to live their lives authentically, whether others agree with their choice or not. Access to a safe space to talk through issues is paramount to the transgender kids debate and trans activists and gender critics alike should be applauding the efforts of Leicester LGBT Centre and their YTCE.

Dr Stuart Lorimer's interesting comments re Detransitioning:

Gender Critical commentators are very quick to talk about detransitioning and the need for more detransitioners to have their voice heard by trans activists and the public at large. The "Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best" programme included the story of "Lou", a trans man who had been "encouraged" to go through treatment for gender dysphoria which included undergoing a mastectomy and hormonal treatment. Lou decided halfway through the treatment that he no longer wanted to carry on with the transition but the effects were irreversible. It's hard not to sympathise with Lou. To know that he cannot restore his body back to its original state must be heartbreaking for him. Any trans activist would have to be made of stone not to feel empathy with his situation. Lou is only one example. I get that there will be other detransitioners out there who want to tell their story and they should be heard. Trans activists and rad fems alike have to give them space within the narrative to do this without making condescending comments or trying to appropriate them into a discussion to "win a point".

But the fact there are detransitioners out there does not invalidate the fact there are people who go through successful transitions, such as Aimee Challenor. I felt I needed some more information so I happened to chance on the Twitter handle of Dr Stuart Lorimer. Dr Lorimer has stood out for me throughout my exploration of transgender people and the treatment they receive at GICs. Dr Lorimer has spent 15 years working with trans and non-binary people and I would say that qualifies him enough to have had the chance to contribute to a debate. He's right when he talks about activists "debating gender theory all over the shop"; we spend so much time battling over the semantics of the issue and not enough talking about experiential outcomes. So Dr Lorimer decided to talk about what the detransition stats were for adults with gender dysphoria. On the 15th January 2017, Dr Lorimer tweeted that he's personally seen over 4000 people over his 15 years of practice and out of those, 10-15 had been detransitioners. Dr Lorimer suggested that the majority of detransitioners may have done so due to "family or relationship pressures" and that they would consider transition again after they had resolved any "barriers" that had arisen. "Only a quarter" of Dr Lorimer's patients who were detransitioners had had GRS. Dr Lorimer also believes that TV programmes need to now show a different angle on the debate, to share the stories of those who retransition "non-binary or otherwise". I'd like to see such a documentary made but the question is, is any TV channel brave enough to commission it? Plus, we need far more evidence to look at detransitioning around the age of consent to see what the numbers are.

I shall never advocate any form conversion therapy. I don't for gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual people (i.e. on the basis of sexuality) so why would I support any form of conversion therapy on the basis of gender identity? Detransitioning should certainly not be construed as conversion therapy but there will be cases where coercive pressure has been applied by disapproving parents, relatives etc. to prevent older trans teenagers from going through with GRS. I can understand exercising continued caution under the age of 16 (and GRS isn't even given until after you've turned 18, remember) but when a trans person gets to the age of consent they can make an informed decision for themselves. Even if their parents disapprove of the action they are taking, they cannot stop them unless they try and argue they are mentally ill on the grounds of temporary insanity (which is ridiculous). Dr Lorimer admits that more research needs to be done with regards to detransitioning in young people, especially around the age of consent, to see whether the reasons for adult detransitioning are the same in young people and to see how many consider retransitioning afterwards.

Detransitioning can be a valid choice but it is not as common a choice as previously thought. Plus, as children cannot go through GRS or have cross-sex hormones, it's pretty much a moot point. Unless there's any attempt to reduce the age of consent, which hasn't been put forward by any trans activist, sexologist or LGBTQIA+ organisation that I know about.

The importance of tackling gender stereotypes (No, this trans woman does not reinforce gender stereotypes):

The "watch and wait approach" isn't revolutionary or radical and it isn't one that's disputed by trans activists and transfeminists alike. I've not heard Paris Lees call for mandatory GRS at 13 or that all non-conforming kids should receive puberty blockers "just because". It's very important not to blow up discourse and scaremonger for the sake of it. For this reason alone, it's essential that trans activists and transfeminists read around the subject to see what supposed opponents say on the issue and vice versa. FairPlayForWomen for example make a point in their response to the Zucker documentary by focussing on the unknown risk of puberty blockers: https://fairplayforwomen.com/response-transgender-kids-who-knows-best. Puberty blockers are "GnRH analogues, designed to treat prostate and breast cancer with side effects including depression and osteoporosis". Sexologists and trans activists remind me that it is rare to prescribe puberty blockers to children and cross sex hormones are not taken, as the article correctly points out, until 18 years of age. 18 years is above the age of consent so if a young person decides to take them, I feel pretty assured that they have had appropriate conversations with their sexologists prior to agreeing to take them. So yes, they will know that taking cross-hormones causes sterility. Not every person wants to have children of their own and therefore such a decision will not be swayed by the ability never to have kids again. I'm one of those who will consider taking cross-sex hormones and sterilisation doesn't affect me because I don't want children. I'm not castrating myself to prevent it happening though. I'll do it because I want to. You can see that I'm uneasy with fearmongering over puberty blocking; if 90% of those taking puberty blockers at Tavistock GIC do progress onto cross-sex hormones, are they not doing so willingly? 10% have desisted from taking cross-sex hormones so shouldn't their story be told too? Calling trans people like Aimee Challenor "guinea pigs"as TransgenderTrend have done is divisive and unhelpful.

I agree with certain elements of the FairPlayForWomen article; for example that society needs to do more to tackle gender stereotypes. With increasing numbers of children attending Gender Identity Clinics, (a 10 fold increase since 2012), there is a sense that children are now questioning their gender identity more openly than a decade ago. I think this is great because it means children are prepared to open up to parents, teachers and experts to talk through their issues. There is a general trend for more discussion in secondary school classrooms thanks to the improvements in Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) lessons. Gender critics and radical feminists say the increase in GIC attendances could be the result of societal pressures to conform to a traditional notion of gender-for example they say there has been an increase in gendered products. FairPlayForWomen says that products have become increasingly gendered driven by rampant consumerism. They give the example of the Disney brand, showing how superhero toys are now aggressively targeted at boys and princess toys at girls which has only gotten worse since Disney acquired Marvel and Star Wars merchandising rights. Disney now turns over £3 billion a year based on following rigid stereotypes. We should have a situation where it's socially acceptable to play with Darth Vader and Cinderella if you are a boy or a girl.

Reading Dr Dannii Cohen's (resident psychologist with The Gay UK) article entitled "Why Transgender isn't always the answer": http://www.thegayuk.com/comment-why-transgender-isnt-always-the-answer/ got me to think about my own childhood in the 1990s and early 2000s, a time before the advent of Disney Princesses and Marvel Superhero toys. Dr Cohen raises an important question- "are four-year olds too young to know their own identity?" I vaguely remember how I was at 4 years old: I wore hot pants all the year round and played with Barbie Dolls, Kens, animal figures and pushing my cat BabyShell around in a pram. I read Bible passages and Irish Fairytales with my Mum. Once I remember putting on some of Mum's "very special" lipstick and ended up damaging it. She was absolutely livid and the debacle meant I couldn't watch Rupert Bear for 3 days as punishment. Are such experiences necessarily indicative of being trans or non-binary? Possibly so. I never uttered any desire to be a girl or to be both a boy and a girl until I was 7 years old and even then my words were dismissed because they were too busy trying to sort out my dyspraxia than to address my "gender issues" but my Mum remembers that I never ever called myself a boy, not even when prompted to do so by my primary school teacher. Was it the right approach to ignore this? Did not talking about my gender identity damage me between being 7 and 13?  Not necessarily. I think it was more to do with my Mum and Dad being pretty accepting of my "uniqueness" rather than any attempt to think I wasn't "a boy". Mind you, my parents are liberal; my Dad was a mod-hippy and my Mum was a punk feminist. If I had been offered a chance to speak to a psychologist I'd have done so gladly but it never happened. I'm not bitter about that because I was a rather strong willed child and after the age of 13 my parents couldn't really find a way to stop me from dressing how I wanted to at school and at home. At school I used to wear a vest so that nobody could see me developing under my shirt. I didn't want anyone to know that hair had begun to grow down below. I even started wearing a blue v neck sweatshirt and a brooch to really maintain a sense of authentic identity that was apart from everyone else but especially the guys in my class. I was lucky to attend a good school where bullying, even on the basis of perceived sexuality or gender identity was low. Besides, I think my teachers  accepted this as me being "unique" and they didn't want to rock the boat because I was doing exceptionally well in my subjects-better than had been predicted due to my dyspraxia. My strength of character saved me from caving in to pressures to conform to gendered norms but I realise that many children and young people are not so lucky. They need to have the opportunity to talk through their experiences with experts who have their best interests at heart.

I'm very careful not to confuse gender identification issues with those caused by my dyspraxia. The FairPlayForWomen article highlights a study that has been carried out which says that "children with Gender Identity Disorder are seven times more likely to be on the autistic spectrum than the general population". I separate out my gender identity and my dyspraxia (which is part of the autistic spectrum) because when you try and restigmatise trans people because they happen to have a disorder on the autistic spectrum, I see it as a possible attempt to invalidate or erase their identity. To try and make out that dyspraxic trans, non-binary, genderfluid and/or queer children and young people do not really know their own mind when they reach the age of consent. Yes, more studies should be done to explore whether such a link between GID and autism really exists commonly in the UK population but do not use them to erase trans people out the picture. I knew I was gender non-conforming before the age of 16 and I didn't need to be told by an expert familiar with dyspraxia that I felt that way. Dyspraxia affects my hand-eye-coordination, not my decision making faculties.

That's not to say that there could not be internalised form of hatred of one's biology or attributed gender. Internalised misogyny certainly exists in some young girls and women, as Dr Cohen's personal experience has suggested. Being told that "you might succeed better if you're a man" referring to Dr Cohen's stand up comedy career or being told "you look like a bloke" on a regular basis is disgusting and those that say such things should be called out for their bigotry, whether they happen to be heterosexual, homosexual, cis or trans. I've known guys who identify as gay or bi and they've been told by several people at the same networking event that they are "too camp or feminine to bag themselves a gay guy" so they should transition to fit in with societal gender norms and hopefully bag themselves a guy. Luckily I've not felt that way (mainly because I'm not interested in sex) but I recognise it can happen and the LGBTQIA+ community has a lot more to do to tackle such intra-discrimination.  Yet there will still be men and women who want to fully transition after making an informed decision after they've reached 16 and they should be allowed to without receiving hate from those who should know better. I'm quite sympathetic to Dr Cohen's suggestion that those who wish to transition fully at 16 need to discuss it "at least 5 times" with a range of psychologists as well as with friends, family and if possible, their GP. I don't think such a suggestion is radical and if you speak with sexologists such as Dr Lorimer, you discover this pretty much does happen through the NHS Care pathway. Nobody believes in a deviation away from the NHS Care pathway but this doesn't mean that there isn't a need for more staff to help 16 year olds discuss their options as the numbers of people asking to be seen by GICs increase. There needs to be more funding for sexologists, specialist nurses and referral times do need to decrease. If that means opening up another specialist GIC for young people, so be it.

My View RE Gender:

Now gender critics believe that transfeminists should be fighting more for an end to gender specific clothing, toys etc...anything that helps to reinforce gendered norms on our kids. I cannot agree more. I believe our society is stifled by old fashioned stereotypes perpetuated by those who are often too stubborn or too afraid to change their views on what constitutes masculinity or femininity, instead reducing it down to biological dual binds. I'd be quite happy to see the back of restrictive gender labels on legal documentation so that I don't have to refer to myself as male/female, boy/girl etc if I don't want to. Abolishing gender was something I actually advocated for whilst at the University of York. In fact I can remember a Philosophy of Literature class where I left my peers completely gobsmacked because I said I wanted to take a poststructuralist, postmodernist approach and therefore get rid of all labels except that of my name. I just wanted to be known as Matti and that was it. The disagreements came thick and fast. One student said that my view would lead to more sexual violence and another said that it would destroy his own macho identity. Naturally I admit that a total disregard for labels is a very radical idea and too idealistic; we all get perceived within a gender-binary whether we like it or not. I don't want someone to look at me as if I was a "man with testicles in leggings" but it'll happen whether I fully transition or not.  Reducing the essence of our identity down to sexual organs doesn't win me over. I'm not going to be a slave to biology because being enslaved by biology (sex) means you end up being caught up in a dividing line which helps to crystallise  harmful stereotypes which are extremely difficult to shake off- e.g. radical feminists poo-pooing the idea of a non-binary child who is biologically a boy but considering transitioning being banned from joining the Girl Guides on the basis of them being "a danger to girls" even though they haven't even reached puberty yet. Scaremongering for the sake of it even though the same people advocate for a "wait and see approach" so as to not erase non-binary identity and want to see gender labelling and stereotypes abolished. A bit hypocritical, no?

Yes I accept that there are some elements of biology that cannot be easily ignored. I think it's important for transfeminists to advocate for sanitary products to be freely available to homeless women because there will be those who identify as non-binary or transmale who are homeless and haven't had the treatment to stop the menstruation process from happening. Yet we should all be abhorred by attempts by some to misgender on the basis of biological function, especially if doing so creates a mental health issue. That's why I feel the to remain compassionate when I am talking about transgender kids because although I may be comfortable in a sort of non-binary trans middle sort of identification where only being called my name matters, many are not. Having empathy for those who differ from you is vital and that means not shouting over each other all the time just because we happen disagree ideologically. I believe in gender self-identification and that means allowing people to identity with whatever they are comfortable with, whether ridiculous or not. That's life.

Conclusion:

At the end of this very long blogpost, I hope my readers can see that an intersectional feminist approach is vital to discussions on gender non-conformity in children. It's absurd to argue that children are always being hurt or coerced by trans activists, sexologists, psychotherapists who are helping children to talk through the issues they have concerning their gender identity. GRS isn't available to under 16 year olds and treatment prior to this is really restricted to cognitive talking therapies and puberty blockers. Trans activists and organisations aren't trying to force all children to take these blockers or convince parents to do it in order to make their child conform. Trans activists aren't deliberately trying to turn all children who turn out to be gay, lesbian or bisexual into trans people to get them to fit into outdated dual binary model. Yes I feel that trans activists need the space to talk about their experiences without being accused of "predatory ideological behaviour". As Ms Challenor has noted in her blog- "why would some trans activists choose to be trans in this world if they are being vilified by the media on a regular basis?" I don't know the answer to that truthfully. I'm someone who believes that we should have the right to choose our own gender identity, even if that means changing our bodies to achieve the authenticity we feel that is needed. I cannot vilify any person for wanting to be who they are whether I agree with them or not. After all, whether the person changes their physical appearance, sexual organs, pronouns or mode of dress, they are still the same person underneath. They have the same hobbies, same academic qualifications, same occupation, same wishes and aspirations as before. So should someone treat them differently just because they decided to transition or in fact, detransition? Don't. Demonstrate compassion altruistically. Do the same for those who are non-binary, genderqueer or gender-fluid too. Don't just restrict compassion to those who choose to live within a gender binary identification.

At the same time I do realise that a child needs to reach the age of consent to make an informed choice and that any attempt to reduce the age of consent from 16 would be extremely foolish. Children need the chance to talk as much as possible about their feelings and to know they are being loved for themselves unconditionally. "Kids should be kids", allowed to dress how they want, when they want and to play with whatever toys they want, how they want, when they want to play with them. Gender stereotyping needs to be tackled, especially in the leisure industry. I'd like to see more trans activists support campaign groups such as "Let Toys Be Toys" and "Let Books Be Books" to help do this. I'd like to see trans activists talk about empowering intersex activists and speaking out against the cruel practice of inappropriate reassignment surgery for those too young to give consent about their own identification. I'd like to see rad fems accept self-identification doesn't lead to the erasure of their own biological identification and that not every trans woman is a threat to their safe space and not every trans man is in need of saving. I'd love to see trans activists, transfeminists and rad fems taking an intersectional approach and coming together to do this but perhaps I'm too optimistic. Optimism, love and hope aren't to be sniffed at, though. As I am reminded by the extremely wise example of Dr Martin Luther King Jnr: " I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear". We can all try and adhere to that, no matter how hard it may be for us to achieve. Even in such a divisive debate as that of transgender kids.