Last month, an 11-year-old trans girl was shot with a BB gun by fellow pupils in Greater Manchester – an incident her parents said left her “traumatised.” It is just one of many examples of the rise in bullying, from the mum who says her child is too anxious to make new friends because, as she puts it “If adults can’t understand and accept me, how are other kids going to?” to Dame Jenni Murray’s recent comments that trans women are not “real women”.
Though the visibility of trans issues has increased, inaccurate representations are behind an increase in bullying, according to Mermaids, Britain’s support group for families of trans children.
The statistics are disappointing, but not surprising: growing up, hardly anything I read about people like me was based on first hand experience or evidence. There simply wasn’t a single trans person who was taken seriously in public life, anywhere. No news readers. No presenters. No MPs.
When Nadia Almada won Big Brother when I was a teenager, it was the first time I’d seen anyone like me presented in a positive light – apart from that, trans people were only ever portrayed as objects of ridicule, pity or disgust. Now it seems that every day some ill-informed commentator has some silly or cruel opinion about trans people that they simply cannot contain. Misinformation is rife, and hurting young people in the community badly.
In January, the BBC documentary ‘Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best’ aired the views of Dr Kenneth Zucker and Dr Ray Blanchard, whose theories – that being trans may be a fetish, or something to be discouraged – are based on ideas that were prevalent in 1970s and 80s.
Blanchard’s theories have been rejected by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (the largest association of medical professionals who provide care for trans people) as lacking empirical evidence. Zucker has been accused of practicing conversion therapy on trans children; his Toronto Children’s Clinic was shut down by the Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in 2015.
Little airtime was given to current best practice in relation to trans youth and as such was widely condemned by parents of trans children, including Diane* the mother of a 10-year-old trans girl. “The day after the show aired, my daughter came home and told me that a small group of girls in her class had surrounded her and told her ‘you’re a boy, you’re not a girl’ and [that] she had to leave.” Diane believes this was a direct result of the documentary. “Nothing like that had ever happened before – she has been treated so well over the past year. This new prejudice has come as a deep shock to her.”
The show suggested that parents are encouraging their children to be trans – for Diane, that couldn’t be further from the truth. “Deciding to support our daughter to transition at school was the hardest decision of my life,” she says. “I struggled for years trying to work out how best to support my child.”
She and her husband read every study on the subject they could find before reluctantly concluding that accepting their child as a girl would be in her best interests; a decision that was “tough. It wasn’t our first choice. I cried and cried with fear of the hostility, ignorance and even violence that she might encounter.”
It is crucial, then, that the discussion of trans issues is done right. One parent told the Mermaids website last month that: “Friends who watched [the BBC documentary] now feel certain that being transgender is something that can be ‘fixed’… They don’t realise how insulting it is to dismiss the fact my son is a transgender boy and make it seem as if he has something wrong with him.”
Families, too, feel under siege. “The last thing a parent needs is more negativity about what they have to live with every day. We do it because our children are happier,” one mother told Mermaids.
Last week, church minister David Robertson claimed that: “Professor Paul McHugh of the John Hopkins Medical School [JHM], one of the first in the world to offer gender reassignment surgery, now says the process is so harmful they have stopped doing them.”
In fact, the opposite is true: As JHM made clear in 2016: “We have committed to and will soon begin providing gender-affirming surgery” because it reflects “best practices and the appropriate provision of care for transgender individuals.” Their decision to offer the surgery is both “evidence-based” and “patient-centered”. Put simply – it works.
Robertson also failed to note that McHugh retired as director of the Department of Psychiatry at JHM in 2001. McHugh, 87, condemns medical therapies available to the trans community on grounds of religious ideology. He also labels homosexuality as an “erroneous desire”. Dean Hamer, scientist emeritus at the National US Institutes of Health, says McHugh uses “a selective and outdated collection of references and arguments aimed at confusing rather than clarifying our understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity.” McHugh is certainly an expert of something.
The ignorance pieces like Robertson’s fuels may also persuade confused family members to withdraw their support, right when it’s needed most. I know this because my own family were ill-informed and could not offer me the support I so desperately needed growing up. Dragging up discredited studies and ‘experts’ when all the recent evidence shows that trans people fare better with unconditional love and support is a cheap, inaccurate and, at worst, dangerous, shot.
Ill-informed speculation could well put more young lives at risk. People must be aware of the facts if they really want to help these children.