Reflections on youth, the media and everything…

The BBC recently screened a documentary on the subject of transgender children and teens, entitled Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best? The programme met with a certain amount of criticism and some vitriol from the trans* community for addressing the issue that some professionals believe there’s evidence to suggest that kids who identify as transgender don’t always know their own mind and that, if left alone and/or exposed to toys, situations and clothing that’s more appropriate to their gender assigned at birth, some will ‘settle down’ and any dysphoria will disappear with the passing of time. Some who oppose this see it as a way of trying to ‘cure’ gender dysphoria.

My personal reaction to the documentary was that it wasn’t as anti-transgender as some had made it out to be. Admittedly, the programme did show a couple of examples of when the wrong decision had been taken – or narrowly avoided – to proceed with reassignment, but I took this as being in the interests of balance rather than any told you so kind of way. Professional opinion is always going to vary, and contrary to some views expressed in the documentary, I didn’t get the impression any of the clinicians expounding a more laissez-faire approach believed they were trying to ‘cure’ gender dysphoria (as some were suggesting) – merely allowing children the space to be absolutely certain of their identity before they – or their parents – took any irreversible decisions.

That said,there’s no question in my mind that a child knows whether or not they ‘fit’ in to the gender roles and environment that parents and society in general confer upon them based on their gender-assigned-at-birth – and also that, if not addressed, that sense of dissonance is invariably carried with them into adulthood. Regardless of whether that sense of discord turns out to be full-blown gender dysphoria or not, it needs to be acknowledged and explored.

I make no secret of the fact that I’m not exactly in the first flush of youth, and watching documentaries such as this, My Transsexual Summer, I Am Jazz etc. etc. have a bittersweet effect on me. The mere fact that such programmes are broadcast on mainstream media and that we can have public discussions about gender identity in young people, shows the progress society has made since my own youth. I think it’s fantastic that children are encouraged and given the opportunity to explore their gender identity at an early age, though I’m certain that for those involved it’s far from easy to instigate the conversation – but still a darn sight easier than it was 40-odd years ago.

We didn’t even have the language. The word transgender didn’t enter my vocabulary until many years after I experienced those first feelings that something about my life and what the world expected of me just didn’t feel right. I spent my childhood and teenage years trying to be someone I could never be, and not understanding why.

I wonder how many of us can, with the wisdom of hindsight, look back now and see the signs? In my case some of my earliest memories are of my mother letting me play with her cosmetics, and clip-clopping about the house in her shoes while carrying her handbag. I remember wanting to be like her, soft and feminine, and actually feeling repulsion at the masculine characteristics and behaviours of my father and older brothers. I remember hating some of the clothes I had to wear, and once at primary school felt absolutely bereft that I couldn’t join in the girls’ games and be friends with them, rather than the boys. But at that age and in that era, the only thought possible was the wish that I’d been born a girl, and to have expressed it out loud would have been social suicide even at those tender years, and would have simply drawn the comment of “Don’t be silly!” if I’d attempted to articulate the same feelings to my parents. Child psychologists existed at that time, but were only for what were termed ‘problem kids’ – those who were disruptive or who had special needs. Special needs is a relatively recent descriptor – the derogatory terms used in those days, which I won’t repeat, said what you needed to know about how such kids were regarded. Few, if any, in 1960s Bradford would have even known what gender identity was.

The relevant memories of my teenage years at single-sex school are still too painful to share. It’s enough to say that thoughts that were already deep had to be buried even deeper to survive. Like many I suspect from that era, manifestations of gender dysphoria became secretive and something to be ashamed of, compounded by the fact that society conflated gender identity with sexual orientation at a time when homosexuality had only recently been legalised in the UK.  No wonder so many of us grew up repressed and slightly damaged.

I’d already started work before I first saw anything in the media about gender dysphoria. Some of a certain age may remember a BBC documentary called – sensitively – A Change of Sex. I was still living at home at the time, and it was a miracle my parents didn’t turn the television over to another channel. While they busied themselves with other things, I sat on the sofa and took in every word and frame of that programme. I recall the overwhelming feeling of ‘I wish that were me’, feeling envious at how someone could have such certainty and self-confidence, and wondering in those pre-internet days how on earth anyone found a route in to that kind of world. That was probably the first time in my life everything clicked together and began to make sense, although the downside was that I still couldn’t talk to anyone about it, let alone do anything. It would be many, many years before that became possible.

Which brings me back to the present-day documentaries. The openness of the conversation means that young people of today grow up with a far greater awareness and insight of identity issues beyond the binary, and without the stigma that once existed. And that’s wonderful. What comes across is that if there are any issues in society, then on the whole it tends to be the older generation that have the problems coping with the more open attitudes that exist in society – something that manifested itself in certain other political arenas in 2016 on both sides of the Atlantic. More on that subject I shall not say.

The bittersweet referred to earlier is that inevitably when I watch such documentaries and see such comparative openness in the younger generation, I can’t help but wonder what might have been had such attitudes prevailed and support been available in my own formative years. It’s all ifs, buts and maybes but especially in my tortured teenage years I can’t help but wonder if life might have turned out differently even by just having someone to talk to who understood how I was feeling, and could have helped me make sense of my gender dysphoria.

But to paraphrase Wordsworth, the child is mother of the woman and whatever is suppressed in youth has a habit of coming out in later life. We should celebrate the fact that the younger generation is generally more knowledgeable, accepting and tolerant of difference than the baby-boomer generation, and thus far better equipped to deal with identity issues either in themselves or others. Being transgender is no big deal to them, and paradoxically they’re the ones that have ended up supporting our journeys, one way or another.

To those in the trans* community who were critical of the messages in Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best?, I say this: Whatever the rights or wrongs of the specific ways in which gender dysphoria is treated in children, simply being able to have a public debate about the topic on primetime TV is progress in itself, and that in itself shouldn’t be taken for granted. Far better to discuss the relative merits of prescribing hormone blockers than allow the less-enlightened in society to try and sweep gender dysphoria under the carpet again.


9 thoughts on “Reflections on youth, the media and everything…

  1. I’ve blathered on about that documentary to no end, so I’ll try resist from going off again. But what I do find important to highlight about it are two things: One, that Dr. Zucker, who was unmasked as an abuser and a dangerous individual was presented as an alternative viewpoint and one with perhaps valid thoughts. I can’t fathom a disgraced doctor in another field being given the same sort of attention and treated as someone who might have something worthwhile to say. The participants of the documentary have reportedly been in tears over the final result and feel deceived that nobody told them Zucker was involved. Meanwhile, showing people who “detransition” is misleading, because according to an actual GIC doctor of 15 years, the amount of people who “detransition” are literally 1 in 1000. That’s a fact that’s often ignored, allowing people to think there’s a real risk of regret when the real percentage is tiny. Also, regarding that percentage, in the majority of cases those people who do stop transition often do so because of unsupportive family/friends and/or employment issues, nothing to do with personal feelings. I think it’s therefore misleading to frame them as people who realised they weren’t really trans, when that’s exceedingly rare.

    Anyway! In another note, I’m sad to say even at school in mid-1990s Bradford I felt the same as you did. That voicing my concerns and desires was unthinkable. I’m aware though that things had progressed by that point, and I’m sure the particular school I attended did play a part, but I’m still left thinking it’s really only within the last 10 years or so that kids have been given the freedom to articulate how they feel, and have a real chance of the school and their parents taking it seriously. Which in a way, is good to see in how fast it’s developed after such a long time of it being absolute taboo, but is of course saddening that so many of us felt unable to speak up.

    • You’re right about the 90s, Mia. I considered coming out c.1994 but it felt impossible in that society. As you suggest, progress and openness is more recent that we sometimes think.

      I’ll admit I took the documentary at face value – I’d no idea of some of the issues you refer to about individuals. The point I was trying to make – perhaps not very well – was that such documentaries are becoming almost mainstream and that if nothing else provoke open debate that would once been unthinkable.

      • Yeah, you’re dead right that is causing more people to talk about it openly, that’s definitely a good direction to be going in. People need to understand that this happens and it’s not some huge secret taboo.

  2. The infamous James Barrett at Charing Cross (CHX) told me that their “regret rate” was about 1% and those who detransitioned often re-transitioned later. To my surprise that happened with someone I knew personally. She stopped transition and wrote a vitriolic letter to CHX blaming them for tragedies in her personal life (that where not transition related) then, about two years later, went back to CHX and was put back on the program where she had left it. CHX, it transpired, expect this every so often, so they were not bothered by her earlier letter. She even got the same clinican as before.

    I knew around the age of 5 or 6 that being a boy was not right for me and I made the mistake of telling people, but only for a short period because their reaction made it clear to the 6 year old me that this was not acceptable.

    In my teenage years I too watched Julia Grant in “A change of sex” and it made a huge impression on me and also filled me with despair because it offered a solution that I felt I could never ask for. Like so many of us, I buried my feelings, but if I could have transitioned in my mid-teens I would have done so and even these days, no-one in the UK (supposedly) gets hormones until they are 16 and no surgery before 18 so in theory only adults get GRS in the UK.

    Do I regret having to wait until my mid 40s? Yes and no. “Yes” because the results would have been better if I had done it as a teen. “No” because I made the best of it and now have wonderful children who would never have existed had I transitioned as a teen. I find I can now socially function without question as an ugly woman and so that is good enough for now. To be accepted as a woman is all I ever wanted.

    • Thanks Beverley. Interesting point – and possibly worthy of a post in itself – about the realities of regret, or otherwise. I’d say that there are plenty of us who can identify with having to ‘make the best of it’, and got on with whatever life was on offer. We should never consider the pre-coming out years as wasted – we all did the best we could at the time and, as you say, it wasn’t all bad.

  3. I did not see the programme Ruth so I am not qualified to comment. However I firmly believe that we know what we want from a very young age. That how we feel about ourselves, where we fit is all formed very early. Many of us will hide these feelings because we learn that this is not what is expected from us so we give the appearance of conforming. The young me was mortified when my mother joked about putting a skirt on me. (No reason. She was just being mischievious). I felt I could not show that I would like that and consequently over did my protest. My games as a child were mainly with girls but as I grew older I learned how to fake liking football and traditional boys games. Children pick up much much more than adults could ever believe. They know who thry are dispite adults thinking they do not. I am not suggesting though that parents should allow a child to transition simply just becsuse that child says they want to, but they do need to recognise that it is a real possibility and to allow them to fully discover who they are and support them every step of the way. After all their life is theirs not yours. An excellent thought provoking blog Ruth.

    • Your comment about feeling mortified at any suggestion of femininity or feminisation in childhood strikes a real chord, Michelle. I can recall similar examples myself and reacting exactly in the same way. Overcompensation, though at the time I couldn’t have explained why. Also trying desperately to be interested in traditionally male pastimes such as sport – football and rugby league in my neck of the woods – only to be ‘found out’ and ridiculed when supposed friends twigged I’d no idea or ability.

  4. I did not watch the programme in question. To be honest just because I’m trans doesn’t mean I feel the need to watch everything on TV to do with the trans world. I would have been more likely to do that 10 years ago when all my feelings about this were buried deep and had no outlet. However if it is true that around 1% detransition then showing someone who did just that is not balance, it is a gross distortion of reality (unless of course the programme also featured 99 people who did transition and are very happy with the result)
    Where one outcome is massively more common than another, to feature both outcomes with equal or close to equal prominence isn’t balance. It’s bias.

    • Indeed, but I guess my point is that at least a debate on the rights and wrongs of what was being expounded is at least possible nowadays, compared to the feelings that were stirred and then had to be swiftly buried once upon a time.

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