Because trans issues are ‘adult issues’, the BBC documentary, Transgender Children: Who Knows Best, didn’t start until 9pm.
Quite why children shouldn’t be able to see a show featuring children baffles me, especially when BBC One was showing tortoise sex 15 minutes before the watershed, but still, Auntie knows best. Except this documentary showed that she really doesn’t.
Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best? featured Dr Kenneth Zucker, a doctor who had worked with trans people for around 30 years before his clinic in Toronto was closed down. The focus on Zucker sparked immediate concern in a number of trans groups, not helped by a Newsnight debate the previous evening.
Zucker’s friend and former colleague-in-arms Dr Ray Blanchard had a major supporting role. These two have had large amounts of research rejected by their peers. Another CAMH doctor, Devita Singh, was brought in to help make the case that their approach was rejected because of politics. It took 18 minutes before a ‘gender affirming’ doctor appeared in the shape of Dr Norman Spack. He was the only cisgender medic on that side, apart from five seconds of Joey Bonifacio. Hershel Russell, a trans therapist, and Cheri DiNovo, a bisexual politician, completed the lineup of experts. None of these, apart from Spack, could be described as impartial.
Most concerning was the narration. Voiced by the producer, John Conroy, the script contained some sexed-up phrases. ‘Parents are now facing terrifying choices’, Conroy gravely intoned. Discredited Zucker was repeatedly called ‘one of the world’s leading authorities on gender dysphoria’. ‘Many of the patients were shocked by the closure of the clinic’ we were told, and then we were shown a parent of a patient who seemed suitably shocked.
Zucker’s approach was intrinsically Freudian – he picked at episodes in a child’s life, then extrapolated forwards. Blanchard asserted that being trans was an undesirable outcome. ‘Studies showed’ that 88% of people who were patients at CAMH did not transition. Well, if the medics are doing everything they can to avoid their patients transitioning, maybe that statistic isn’t so surprising.
The difficulty with explaining trans is that we don’t really have the words for it. Hershel indicated this complexity by referencing standard tropes. These narratives, already explained to be reductionist, were then ripped to shreds by the specialists. For ‘girl brains in boy bodies’ brain specialist Gina Rippon was helpfully on hand to explain that there wasn’t a single visible difference between male and female brains, and that trans people were unfairly simplifying things. Well, yes – because we’d already been told these soundbites are always an approximation, a simplification.
If the BBC thinks this is balance, there is a much wider public debate to be had. Trans people are now too often incorrectly cast as the enemies of free speech – something alluded to here with the Zuckerites claiming intimidation if you didn’t say the right thing. Yet trans people persist in being victims of unbalanced coverage. It’s as if every time trans is on, there has to be some kind of expert, even a discredited one, saying that trans isn’t real, that it’s undesirable, that it’s not for children.
There were plenty of CAMH patients who alleged abuse, yet not one of them made it onto the screen. There were plenty of doctors (other than Spack) who reviewed Zucker and Blanchard and found them wanting. Their absence was notable. Trans people were left to state the affirming statistics while the narrator intoned the scary ones. Affirming children was presented as a weird life choice – far better to challenge and control. What kind of childhood memories would the CAMH patients have? Probably not ones of love and acceptance – more likely ones of fights and despair.
Sadly, it looks like the BBC has forgotten any lessons it learned after Andrew Wakefield and the MMR disaster. There are great dangers in giving discredited doctors a voice and you have to ask whether ‘balance’ is the right approach in such cases. The BBC’s prior protestations led me to believe that Zucker would be one of many voices, not the principal one. Adding to the parent who claimed she was duped by the producers, a YouTuber has now alleged that her video was used in the film without permission. All this adds up to seriously bad practice.
The best bit was the end, when Warner, a nine-year-old trans girl, said ‘I feel like a jigsaw with a couple of pieces missing and my journey is to find all those pieces’. The worst bit – feeling that our national broadcaster has lost the plot.
Helen Belcher works with Trans Media Watch to fight for better representations of transgender people on TV, radio and in the news. You can find her on Twitter.