No, I will not help Sundog make a documentary on trans “regret”

This afternoon I received an unsolicited email in my work account from an employee of Sundog Pictures. An excerpt follows:

I’m currently working on an idea alongside Channel 4 following transgender individuals who have come to regret their sex changes and are keen to undergo further treatment / operations to reverse the change. The doc will be insightful and sensitive and will look at the way in which transgender individuals are treated in society and whether the process before someone is permitted an operation is robust enough.

I’m currently looking for real life cases to include in my pitch document and was wondering whether you might be able to recommend people I could speak to, or places I could contact to find individuals who are currently thinking about a reverse sex change. Any help would be really appreciated.

Given the email account used, I feel that I can safely assume that I was contacted because of my academic work, which looks at discourses of trans healthcare provision. Sundog seem to hope that I will (without compensation) draw upon my community contacts and research findings to recommend participants for their television programme.

I couldn’t think of anything more inappropriate.

There’s a lot to be said about research ethics and a duty of care towards participants, but plenty has been written about that elsewhere (the BSA Statement of Ethical Practice offers a decent broad overview). So in this post I focus on the huge problems that come with the proposed topic of the documentary: that of trans “regret”.


The numbers

The mainstream media take an undue interest in trans “regret”. It’s very easy to come across such stories on daytime television and in both tabloid and broadsheet newspapers. The popularity and frequency of such stories suggests that it’s not too unusual for people who have undertaken a physical transition from male to female, or from female to male, to consider or undertake a “reverse sex change”.

In reality, research has shown time and time again that the actual rate of regret is extremely low. For instance, only 2% of respondents in the Trans Mental Health Study (the second-largest trans study undertaken in the UK) reported “major regrets” about the physical changes experienced during transition. Reported regrets from participants included:

“…not having the body that they wanted from birth, not transitioning sooner/earlier, surgery complications (especially loss of sensitivity), choice of surgeon (if surgery required revisions and repairs), losing friends and family, and the impact of transition on others.”

It’s clear therefore that “regret”, when it occurs, is likely to stem from societal and surgical issues rather than the process of physical transition in and of itself. The Trans Mental Health Study also demonstrates a clear link between physical transition and wellbeing in terms of mental health, body confidence and general life satisfaction.

With so few trans people regretting physical transition – and even less considering some kind of “de-transition” – it’s no surprise that sometimes the same individuals are trotted out time and time again to re-affirm a discourse of regret.


What’s missing from this story?

It’s pretty clear from the email I received that that the author has not done their research. Given the existence of organisations such as Trans Media Watch and All About Trans who are entirely keen to offer advice, this does not exactly inspire confidence.

For a start, transition is conflated with “sex change”, a term that is not only most frequently associated with transphobic tabloid headlines, but is also broadly meaningless. At what point can we talk about a “sex change”? When an individual undertakes hormone therapy? Chest surgery? Genital surgery? What about individuals who transition socially, but only undergo some (or even none!) of these processes? It’s not the kind of language that suggest an “insightful and sensitive” documentary can be made.

There’s a couple of more fundamental mistakes in the proposal, however. The first is the question of “whether the process before someone is permitted an operation is robust enough”. My own initial research findings suggest that if anything, the process in question is too robust – in that patients requiring surgery are typically required to wait many years before treatment is available.

The World Professional Association for Transgender Health Standards of Care require patients to undergo at least 12 months of hormone therapy prior to genital surgery. In reality, patients in England and Wales face a substantial waiting list (sometimes lasting years) before they are able to attend an NHS Gender Clinic, where two separate clinicians are required to approve a regime of hormone therapy before it can be undertaken. An additional two opinions are needed at a later date before a referral for genital surgery can take place. There are many, many opportunities and a great deal of time for patients to consider and re-consider their option – and that’s even before we take into account the horrific scale of the current crisis in surgery provision for trans women.

The current system is not constructed to facilitate transition so much as prevent the very possibility of regret. The result is increased suffering – in terms of the mental and physical health impact upon individuals who are forced to wait many years for hormones and surgery, whilst fearing (sometimes with good reason) that they will be denied treatment on spurious grounds. It’s no surprise that the Trans Mental Health Study found that “not transitioning sooner/earlier” is a major cause of “regret”, as individuals who have waited until breaking point to transition soon discover that there is still a long, long road ahead of them.

The second fundamental problem with Sundog’s proposal is their idea that trans people who aren’t too happy with their transition might be “keen to undergo further treatment / operations to reverse the change”. This is a very binaristic notion that both stems from and reinforces the notion that transition is a one-way process, from one (binary) gender to the other. In reality, there are many people for whom transition is a complex, ongoing process. For instance,  an individual who initially transitions from male to female might later feel that their identity is better understood as genderqueer, and may allow or pursue further physical changes to reflect this.


The wider political context

Given the tiny proportion of trans people who “regret” transition and the realities of service provision, the choice of a documentary about the subject appears at best to be somewhat misguided. However, the impact of insensitive coverage on this topic is such that I believe that I believe this documentary could be actively harmful, particularly as Sundog’s email asks “whether the process before someone is permitted an operation is robust enough”.

This is in part because the way in which discourses of regret are handled makes it harder for trans people to get treatment. Gender clinics in the UK require urgent intervention to make life easier for individuals who transition, not harder. Media hysteria over the possibility of regret reinforces the current system’s approach, which is to require people to demonstrate over and over again that they are trans before there is any hope of treatment.

But it’s also because discourses of regret are employed by those who campaign against trans liberation, including conservative commentators and anti-trans radical feminists who would deny funding for transition on the NHS altogether. Writers such as Julie Bindel are all too keen to use any example of individual regret to argue that transition is unnecessary mutilation, undertaken by sad, sick individuals who might have done otherwise if only they’d been given the option of, say, some form of reparative therapy.

The focus on the medical process is therefore politically loaded. Yes, some people do de-transition, and their stories are important and of worth. But these stories have yet to be told by the mainstream media in a non-sensationalised manner, in a way that doesn’t reinforce (intentionally or otherwise) a pernicious anti-trans agenda. Sundog’s proposal appears to feed right into this agenda.

This proposed documentary should not be regarded as a curiosity piece taking place in a cultural vacuum. It draws upon and will contribute to damaging and inaccurate tropes about transition. Ill-informed media accounts ultimately play a part in creating and maintaining a situation where “regret” frequently stems from the responses of friends and family, delays to transition and other negative experiences that come with transitioning in a transphobic society.

I hope therefore that any future attempts to examine trans health issues in this way will involve better research into the topic at the initial stages, and a greater sensitivity to both the personal and political consequences of exposing trans lives to media scrutiny.

In a gender liberated world…there would be no moral panic over trans parents or trans children

And so the Bizarrely Busy Month of Trans News rolls on.

On the subject of trans parents, the Daily Mail has effectively outed a trans father; on a slightly brighter note, Green MP Caroline Lucas has tabled an Early Day Motion condemning the ongoing media witch-hunt that’s currently targeting pregnant trans guys. Kudos once again to Trans Media Watch and Jane Fae for their ongoing work on this. Meanwhile, bookmakers Paddy Power are under fire for a transphobic advert, and today saw a five-year-old trans girl splashed all over the tabloids (including front page stories in the Metro and the Sun).

Paddy Power will no doubt defend their advert (basically a “spot the tranny” competition themed around Ladies’ Day at Cheltenham) on the grounds of humour: it’s just a laugh, right? Meanwhile the tabloids will continue to defend their almost fetishistic obsession with the private lives of trans people on the grounds of “public interest”. Both actions serve to dehumanise and objectify trans people even as they build public interest in the queer freak show we supposedly offer.

This is all, of course, of massive concern to the so-called trans community. But we’re not the only ones who are affected.

In today’s front-page article, the Metro quotes “social commentator” Anne Atkins (who?) Atkins – clearly a great expert on gender diversity – says:

“Between the ages of about five and eight, I wanted to be a boy more than anything in the world. Acute though my longing was, it was relatively shortlived. I am grateful to say that there was no one around at the time to diagnose me with GID [Gender Identity Disorder]”

If I had a pound for every well-meaning cis friend who’d told me this at the beginning of my transition…well, I wouldn’t have a huge amount of money, but I’d definitely be able to afford a better toaster. But my problem with this isn’t one of cis privilege. It basically runs as follows:

What’s intrinsically wrong with a kid spending part of their childhood as a “boy” and part of their childhood as a “girl”?

What’s intrinsically wrong with the idea of a man having a baby?

What’s intrinsically wrong with (or, for that matter, funny about)  gender being complex or fluid or aligned with their body in a non-normative fashion?

I’ve not come across a single answer to any of those questions that isn’t inherently sexist in one way or another. We shouldn’t have to subscribe to an ideology of gender difference that necessitates people being placed in boxes that restrict their self-expression. We shouldn’t have to rely on old-fashioned gender roles. At the same time, we shouldn’t have to demand that “gender” be obliterated altogether. Why can’t five-year-old Zach live as a girl? Why couldn’t Anne Atkins live as a boy for a few years before settling into womanhood?

In a gender liberated world, gender expression would be free and fluid. Adults could be men, women, genderqueer, polygendered or non-gendered as they desire. Children could be children, and explore gender as one set of social possibilities amongst many. And everyone benefits, not just trans people. We’d all have more space to be ourselves.

If you think this is hopelessly utopic and ultimately impossible, try dropping by spaces such as Genderfork and Wotever, where users/attendees are pioneering gender liberated approaches to language and social interaction.

We don’t need to do away with gender, but at the same time we don’t need to subscribe to fixed, binary ideals of gender in order to live in a decent world where people value one another’s work and care for one another.

In a gender liberated world, neither the media nor the medical world would care about five-year-old trans girl, a pregnant man or a trans person at Cheltenham because it simply wouldn’t be a big deal.

The trans girl could live out her childhood as she desired and privately transition physically – or not! – at an appropriate point in her teens. The man could access appropriate care during his pregnancy without fearing the consequences of doing so. And at Cheltenham…well, isn’t the very concept of “Ladies’ Day” totally regressive?

The Sun’s hypocrisy laid bare

The Sun is in trouble. Years of journalistic malpractice are finally catching up with the venerable tabloid, with employees arrested en-masse on “suspicion” of corruption and bribery.

Associate editor Trevor Kavanagh is upset about this.  “Witch-hunt has put us behind ex-Soviet states on Press Freedom”, his editorial thunders. It goes on to detail the humiliation experienced by Sun journalists and their families:

Instead of being called in for questioning, 30 journalists have been needlessly dragged from their beds in dawn raids, arrested and held in police cells while their homes are ransacked. […]

Wives and children have been humiliated as up to 20 officers at a time rip up floorboards and sift through intimate possessions, love letters and entirely private documents. […]

Nobody has been charged with any offence, still less tried or convicted.

Yet all are now on open-ended police bail, their lives disrupted and their careers on hold and potentially ruined.

How awful! And it’s not like Sun journalists would ever do such a thing to others, is it?

But wait! what’s this we see next to Kavanagh’s article in the online edition?

(click image for full size)

That’s right, it’s the Pregnant Man! Let’s take a look at his story.

Don’t forget kids, private lives are for News International employees, not for proles! Particularly queer proles.

Of course, it could be that the Sun is simply asking for contributions because all their journalists have been arrested…

(For more constructive commentary, see this powerful post by Ralph Francis Fox, as well as analyses from Jane Fae and Christine Burns.)

“Pregnant Man” story isn’t racy enough for The Telegraph

Yesterday, I noted a number of issues with the reporting of a British man’s pregnancy and the subsequent birth of his child. It seems, however, that the story simply wasn’t exciting enough for The Telegraph, who have revised their article somewhat overnight.

(click above for full-sized image)

The story itself remains largely unchanged: there is no new information. The only difference I could pick out was the introductory paragraph, which has changed one phrase in order to turn this somewhat inaccurate but broadly inoffensive sentence:

The man, who is believed to be in his 30s, was able to carry a child after taking female hormones to reverse the effects of his female-to-male sex change treatment.

…into something which takes that extra step to question the subject’s gender.

The ‘male mother’, who is believed to be in his 30s, was able to carry a child after taking female hormones to reverse the effects of his female-to-male sex change treatment.

Somewhat bizarrely, the original story remains online, possibly because The Telegraph wouldn’t dare offend the hundreds of readers who took time to comment on how disgusting it is that trans people want to mutilate their bodies.

Yesterday I was prepared to concede that Telegraph journalists were content to merely be stupid and lazy on trans issues. It turns out, however, that they’re actually prepared to put effort into their transphobic bigotry. Well done all.

British media in a tizzy over pregnant man

It’s finally happened: someone has noticed that a trans man in this country has had a baby. Of course the mainstream media, who between them seem utterly incapable of the slightest act of research, are responding in a predictable storm of inaccuracy and mild hysteria.

The facts appear to be as follows: some fellow – who quite understandably appears to desire anonymity – decided to have a child, and contacted the Beaumont Society for advice. The Beaumont Society don’t have a lot of knowledge in this area as they predominantly help out MtF spectrum individuals and their families, so they quite sensibly referred the individual in question on to GIRES. The grateful father later got back in contact with the Beaumont Society to thank them for their help, and everyone lived happily ever after.

Of course, that really isn’t a very exciting story. So the British media have taken a few steps to spice it up a little:

1) Exoticise trans pregnancy. Apparently this is the first British man to ever give birth. Except, of course, he isn’t. He’s just the first one they’ve noticed. There are a great many trans men in this country with children, but I suppose if you give birth before having a “sex change” (by which I believe the media mean taking hormones and/or having chest surgery) it doesn’t really count. I mean, you’ve got to be covered in hair to be a “real man”, right? There are probably also several trans guys who have had children prior to transition (at least one guy I know is planning this) but if the media doesn’t know about it, it ain’t happened. Even Pink News fall foul of this one.

2) On a related note: emphasise the international significance. Only around two or three men in the world have ever given birth before! I say “around” because there’s some confusion over this. The Telegraph uncritically quotes the Beaumont Society’s Joanna Darrell, who (purportedly) stated that one trans man gave birth in the United States (Thomas Beatie) and another in Spain. Meanwhile, the Metro states that an additional American and a guy in Israel gave birth after Beatie.

3) Highlight the risks. There is no evidence that trans children are in any particular danger from being born to trans parents, but gosh-darn it there might be! Right? According to the Telegraph: “Last night medical ethics experts called for a full inquiry into the issues surrounding transgender births, saying the interests of the child should not be risked to ‘fulfil the rights of an adult’.” At the heart of this is a very topical concern with trans fertility.

4) Finally, think of the children.  A number of sources are citing Trevor Stammers, Director of Medical Ethics at St. Mary’s University College. Stammers clearly isn’t a fan of queer families:  “The fact that the medical profession is facilitating and encouraging this is a serious problem. You are hardly going to end up with a baby that’s going to have a happy, productive and optimal childhood.

Of course, Stammers himself doesn’t appear to be a medical doctor. Now there’s a surprise.

Trans Media Watch at the Leveson Enquiry

Helen Belcher of Trans Media Watch provided an impressive array of evidence in relation to transphobia in the media during the Leveson Enquiry yesterday. Video footage and full transcripts in .pdf and .txt formats can be found here. Trans Media Watch’s full submission to the enquiry can be found here.

Unfortunately – if unsurprisingly – Belcher’s strong performance warranted little comment from the mainstream and “pink” media alike. Notable exceptions included the headline story in Gay Star News (Trans people victims of ‘horrific’ press coverage) and a comment piece in Pink News (Does today mean change for the trans community?). There have been just brief summaries of Belcher’s evidence (with little or nothing in the way of analysis) within articles that tackle Wednesday’s events more widely in The Guardian, The Telegraph and on the BBC website. Even the #Leveson hashtag on Twitter went relatively quiet as the majority of cis commentators lost interest.

Still, this was to be expected, and we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of Trans Media Watch’s role in compiling and presenting evidence to such a major inquiry. Belcher powerfully outlined a number of very important issues:

  • The consequences of negative media coverage can be extremely serious for trans people: examples include loss of work, death threats, and the necessity of relocation in order to avoid prejudice.
  • Dehumanising and Othering language is routinely used within news stories: “The Sun is basically saying trans people elicit horror, trans people are frauds“.
  • Stories (and pictures) are often published without any consultation with the subject, let alone permission.
  • Newspapers often rely upon false information, such as inaccurate figures about the cost of medical transition on the National Health Service.
  • The Press Complaints Commission is considered useless and toothless as complaints are regularly ignored: “The Press Complaints Commission is regarded as a useless joke by trans people”.
  • Victims of negative media coverage tend to let the issue slide: “[…] we find that individuals rarely want to pursue the case because they then become afraid of future
    harassment“.
  • There tends to be no real justification for most articles about trans people on the grounds of “public interest”.
  • The Sun continues to run transphobic pieces (contrary to the claims of Dominic Mohan during his evidence to the Leveson Enquiry on Tuesday).
  • The Daily Mail publishes six times more stories on trans people than any other UK newspaper(!)

Trans Media Watch also identified a number of common themes in confidential complaints they’d received from trans correspondents who had suffered negative media coverage:

“In each case, the subject of the story had their right to privacy grossly breached, often at a very vulnerable time, with no public interest being served whatsoever.

Was put in danger of public abuse and/or violence.

Is left with candid details of their personal affairs, including previous names, pictures, home or work, available on the Internet.

Often these details, including photographs, were acquired without the subject’s permission. Had to fight the press to force them to exercise restraint — often with no effect.”

Finally, Belcher made a number of recommendations:

  • That it should be possible for organisations to issue complaints on the behalf of vulnerable individuals.
  • Anonymity should be granted to all who pursue complaints; we shouldn’t have to rely on the limited protections offered by the likes of the Gender Recognition Act.
  • The complaints process for media malpractice should be free:
    A lot of trans people lose jobs, find it difficult to get jobs. There is evidence that the earnings of a trans person is significantly lower than they could expect if they weren’t trans. That is a further deterrent for them to seek any recompense. It actually pretty much prevents any trans person from pursuing any action against a newspaper in the courts.

10-year-old trans girl launches petition as Leveson Enquiry tackles transphobia

Jane Fae wrote a powerful post
today
highlighting the connection between two important events this week for trans people in the media.

The first of these events is the launch of a petition that calls upon the press to stop using dehumanising and othering language to describe trans people. The petition was started by the family of Livvy, a 10-year-old girl who became one of the most recent examples of trans children hounded by the news media.

They argue that transphobic language can ultimately kill:

People with gender identity issues are being murdered, beaten, threatened with their lives, bullied, teased, intimidated, disowned and are prone to suicide both attempted and successful and self harm. The Press being an extremely powerful medium has the responsibility to ensure they are not aiding peoples ignorance and hatred and increased lack of self esteem.

Meanwhile, the Leveson Enquiry is due to receive evidence  from Trans Media Watch this afternoon (a live video stream will be available here, as well as an archived video and transcript following the hearing). Josephine Shaw posted the following announcement on the group’s Facebook page:

“[…] Helen Belcher will be representing us at the Inquiry, next Wednesday – February 8th. She’ll be doing so following a detailed written submission made by TMW a few weeks ago, a public version of which is available via the downloads page of the TMW website.

There have been a very large number of written submissions to the Inquiry – only a small number have resulted in Lord Leveson calling witnesses in person. We’re absolutely delighted to be counted in that number […]

TMW’s aim next week is simple. To give voice to the pain and anger of all those trans and intersex people whose lives have been invaded, even ruined, without any cause or warning by the British press. Who deserved accuracy, dignity and respect. Or who simply deserved privacy. And to try and represent our community in calling for a profound change in the attitude of the press and an end to the incessant outrageous and unwarranted intrusion into the lives of innocent trans and intersex people.”

This week therefore sees two significant responses to the ongoing media assault upon trans lives. The two met this morning on the BBC’s Breakfast show, when Livvy and Trans Media Watch’s Paris Lees spoke about transphobia in the media.

It’s really heartening to see all of this happening. I agree with Jane that we have good reason to remain cynical, but equally we have plenty to celebrate at this juncture. For too long, journalists have been getting away with inflaming public opposition to trans liberation, and people in power are finally beginning to listen to our howls of outrage. This is an early step towards a more fair and friendly world, but an important one.

I was fortunate enough to meet Livvy a few months back and was inspired by the sheer determination of both her and her family; we have a lot to learn from them! I was also struck by my own surprise role in Livvy’s story via a sensationalist piece published by the Sun back in September:

But yesterday a row broke out after a parent claimed that kids as young as EIGHT at Livvy’s school were shown a film about sex-change surgery.

In the footage, made for the NHS website, Ruth’s Story describes how she was born a boy — but knew from the age of 16 she wanted to be a woman.

One parent said: “We are not against the child. It’s that the children are being asked to treat her differently and watch a transgender video without parents knowing.

The video in question was made for the NHS a few years back, and at the time I had no idea it could ever be shown to a primary school assembly! I would probably phrase a few things differently now but ultimately I’m still pleased with how it turned out. I became involved in the project by responding to an email from a mass trans mailing list: someone else could just have easily done it.

Ultimately I suppose my point is that every bit of effort counts. Every signature on Livvy’s petition, every angry letter to an editor, every trans awareness workshop and every intervention within public conversations. Let’s keep up the pressure, because it’s the only way we stand a chance of winning!