I’m angry. This may involve some swearing. And, it seems, some really long paragraphs.
Stop. Take a deep breath. Are you sure you want to do this?
And fuck it, just get on with it.
Last night BBC Two showed a documentary provocatively titled ‘Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best?’. If you’re interested in such things it’s available on iPlayer here for the next 30 days. To be honest if you’re not interested in such things it’s probably not worth you reading the rest of this post, because that’s pretty much the subject I’m going to vent on for the next who-knows-how-long.
I love the BBC. I mean properly love it. It virtually raised me. I learnt about what secondary school would be like from Imelda Davis and Gonch in Grange Hill. I learnt what it was like in ‘The North’ from Spuggy and Winston in Byker Grove. Tony Hart taught me to draw. You and Me taught me about vegetables. Let’s Pretend and Blue Peter showed me the many things you could do with empty cardboard boxes. Des Lynam helped me through England crashing out of Italia ’90 on the BBC and many, many years later, I had a grand old time on Twitter taking the piss out of the London Olympics opening ceremony while watching yes, you’ve guessed it, the BBC (#shutuptrevor). It’s an institution that I trust, that I believe in, that I don’t remotely object to paying for and that I would fight to defend.
And yet today, I feel horribly let down by the BBC. Not because they aired a documentary on a subject which is contentious and emotive. Nor because the views put across in that documentary were contrary to the increasingly popular views on the subject, not to mention contrary to currently accepted clinical practice. I am always open to, encouraged and informed by diversity of discourse. The subject of how to deal with gender dysphoria in children is difficult and complex, with no clear answers or easy solutions. It’s one that we need to talk about, because only by talking and sharing knowledge and experiences can we hope to find a way forward that is ethical, and gives the best possible chance of a successful outcome for the child, regardless of what the outcome may ultimately prove to be.
Do I feel let down because the BBC’s own editorial guidance on impartiality seem to have been ignored in the making of this programme? You know, BBC, the ones that say (section 4.4.7): When dealing with ‘controversial subjects, we must ensure a wide range of significant views and perspectives are given due weight and prominence, particularly when the controversy is active. Opinion should be clearly distinguished from fact.’
There are no such things as ‘facts’ in this debate. There is no blood test that can tell you whether you’re trans or not (more on that later). All we have are opinions based on experience and a tiny amount of research. And yes, I was interested in the opinions of Kenneth Zucker. He may not be popular, and his approach may have been discredited, but putting him in a vacuum and refusing to listen to anything he has to say on the matter is, in my opinion, not a good enough answer. What I had difficulty with, BBC, was that his opinions were quoted as fact. That he was described as an ‘expert’, where trans people (who, let’s remember, have lived this first hand) warranted the slightly less agreeable label ‘activists’.
No, I feel let down by the BBC because they chose to handle this subject in a way that could cause immeasurable harm to those for who this is not just an ethical discussion – but life. Real life. Being tackled on a minute by minute basis without a user guide.
If you haven’t already worked it out, I’ve got a vested interest in the subject. It seems a little strange at this point to say that that might come as a surprise to some people who I consider to be very good friends. My own trans history is something I share carefully, now that I am privileged enough for the sharing of it to be a choice. In most situations, quite frankly, it’s none of your business. It’s not relevant to how good I am at my job. It’s not relevant to how good I am as a friend. If you met me since I transitioned at the end of my 20s, there’s a pretty good chance I haven’t told you. But I’m not ashamed of it, and I don’t actively hide it. Remember that time in the pub where you jokingly asked me if I was in the Brownies as a kid and I said yes? I wasn’t joking.
There’s a language issue here, which someone on Twitter last night accidentally hit on while trying to point out the weaknesses in the ‘trans agenda’. I won’t link the actual tweet because who wrote it isn’t the point, but the statement was: ‘Language is so revealing. Cliches from trans activists. Careful nuanced complex language from Zucker and parents’. The statement itself made me angry – suggesting that trans people are incapable of explaining themselves properly while the medical profession, and the parents, have thought this whole thing through – but fundamentally in the context of the editing of this programme, I agree. The extracts from trans voices were full of tired statements that showed them to be closed minded and limited in their thinking. Were the statements used reflective of those people’s real views? Who knows. But for me the problem runs deeper than editing. The cliché that’s most often trotted out, for example, is ‘born in the wrong body’. Now, trans people don’t use these sorts of phrases when they talk to each other. We moderate our speech when talking to cisgendered people in the same way that I moderate my speech when talking to non native English speakers at work. We use phrases that we know you can relate to because it is extraordinarily difficult to articulate how gender confusion feels to someone who’s never experienced it. The phrase ‘born in the wrong body’ equates the sense of abject despair to something like wearing the wrong size shoes. It’s an inadequate, massive oversimplification of the truth, but sometimes it’s all we’ve got to work with.
There is no one way to be trans. No single, uniting experience. The community (if such a thing really exists) is as diverse as the world from which it is drawn. I don’t speak for everyone with a trans history, I can only speak for myself. Gender dysphoria for me meant knowing, from an early age, that my entire life would be founded on a compromise not of my making. That even if I achieved everything I wanted to achieve, it wouldn’t be like the picture I saw in my head. Because the person I saw when I looked in the mirror, and the person everyone else saw when they looked at me, wasn’t really me. I could grow or cut my hair (and I did), lose or gain weight (and I did), wear anything I wanted (and I did). But I would always be invisible. I lived with that compromise for as long as I could. Initially I lived with it because I thought I had no choice, and later I lived with it out of fear. Fear of rejection, ridicule, ostracism, fear of going through all this and still not being happy. When I could live with it no longer I transitioned. It was a process that took years, from finally gaining the confidence and the means to get on with it, through to telling family and friends and work colleagues what was going on, to learning how to live in a new reality. It was fucking hard. It’s still hard sometimes. But I haven’t regretted it for one single moment.
If you ask me now, I’d probably say that my gender identity leans towards the non-binary, but it’s still evolving – and I’m comfortable with that. Having lived on both sides I see gender largely as a social construct. I know who I am, and I look like me now. If you read what you see as male, then great. Perception is reality, after all.
For a long time I was desperate for someone to tell me if I was trans or not. To look into my future and reassure me that the process of transition would ultimately make me happy, that it would ease the profound sense of being incomplete that I had lived with for almost my entire life. But as I said before, there is no revealing blood test, and nobody has a magic crystal ball. No medical professional, no counsellor, no religious leader, no parent, can cheat the laws of physics and tell you that this is the right or the wrong thing to do – even if some of them might try.
Ultimately it has to be the decision of the individual. They are the ones that will live with the consequences. In the case of adults, this is reasonably straightforward, thanks to the concept of informed consent. However – the necessary involvement of the medical profession in transition has created a scenario where a range of gates must be passed before the necessary treatment can be accessed (unless, to some extent, you can afford to sidestep them). This is, in theory and in my opinion, largely sensible and appropriate. It encourages the individual to think properly about what they are taking on and reduces the possibility that a wrong decision will be made, for whatever reason. Sometimes getting through those gates takes longer than we’d like. Sometimes the gatekeepers are not as open minded, or – damn it – as polite, as we’d like. That’s a separate discussion for another time. The problem is that getting through those gates has become akin to passing an exam. In some situations – honesty and a genuine examination of thoughts and feelings can be secondary to giving the answers needed to pass the exam and get on to the next stage. It’s not ideal, and it could probably be better, but it does on some level seem to work.
Children, though, can’t legally give informed consent. They’re unlikely to know which buttons to press, which answers to give, in order to pass those exams. They’re arguably more vulnerable to suggestion and influence and some of them may struggle to articulate their true feelings just as much as the rest of us do. How on earth do you make a decision on their behalf that could affect their entire future when you’re scared that next week they’ll have moved on?
I don’t bloody know.
Fortunately, it’s not my job to know.
What I do know is that so called documentaries like the absolute bobbins that the BBC put out last night do nothing to support or inform parents in this situation.
If you’re one of the people who ‘didn’t know’, I’m sorry that this was how you found out. Normally my preference is to casually drop it into conversation, or have a quiet face to face chat. These days, it’s not a big deal to me, and I hope it’s not for you. Please don’t take it personally, nothing’s really changed, but don’t feel it’s a taboo subject. If you’ve got questions, ask them. I promise not to be offended by you asking, as long as you promise not to be offended if I choose not to answer.
I’m sharing this now because I think it’s important, in this changing world, for us all to stand up and be counted for what we believe is right. I cannot, and will not, live in fear again. If you don’t like it, that’s your choice, and says more about you than it does about me. Don’t let the door hit you on the arse on your way out of my life.
And finally. A message for my ex, if she ever reads this. Because from day one she always saw me, especially on the days when I couldn’t. Thank you. Even if it didn’t work out for us, you are a truly amazing person, and you can and will achieve anything you want to. I hope you’re ok.