“Gender Generation” or “How to Fail Trans Youth”

Prime Time on RTÉ dedicated an entire show (broadcast on 22.01.19), to transgender people. The show was introduced by Miriam O’Callahan as an examination into, “the exponential growth in the number of young people seeking to change gender, and the implications of the proposed new law allowing them to do so without their parents’ consent.”

Callaghan went on to say that it was a “deeply sensitive and very important issue”. Her admission that the programme knew the issue was sensitive is troubling, given the inflammatory and insensitive way the issues were subsequently handled and framed.

Callaghan continues that, “some doctors” (it is unclear who), are concerned that new proposals to allow under 16s to access a gender recognition certificate might give a right to medical treatment. Currently under Irish law a gender recognition certificate does not allow anyone a “right” to medical treatment, nor do the proposed changes to the law so this statement is very strange.

“Are minors too young to make such a radical and life changing decision?” she asks. The “radical and life changing decision” referred to is a piece of paper that legally entitles someone to be acknowledged as the gender they live as.

For trans people such a “radical and life changing decision” was made for them, without their consent when they were babies, but efforts to right the legal wrong that was done to trans people are being framed by Prime Time as “radical”.

Reporter Eithne O’Brien begins the story by comparing children who can’t vote or get married, with proposals to allow them to self identify, “irrespective of if they were born a boy or a girl.”

From the outset the show is being framed as concern for children’s ability to make such decisions for themselves. According to WHO (and trans people), trans people exist. WHO says “an estimated 25 million people, or 0.3 to 0.5% of the global population are transgender.”

Not only do trans people exist, in their millions — but — according to Paediatricians (and again, trans people) — they usually know they are trans at a young age. The American Academy of Pediatrics released a report in 2018 in which they state,

“Children report being aware of gender incongruence at young ages. Children who later identify as TGD report first having recognized their gender as ‘different’ at an average age of 8.5 years,”

University of Washington psychology professor Christina Olson, who has done extensive and numerous studies on trans children (and who would have made an excellent expert for Prime Time), says, “We have heard reports as early as when their kids start talking, as soon as they could say words like girl and boy. So a lot of parents say 18 months, 2 years.”

So, we have the fact that trans people exist. And the fact that trans children exist. Some of them aware they are trans at a very young age. Despite this internationally accepted knowledge, RTE asks us — “are minors too young for such radical and life changing decisions”? And here is the crux of the issue — being trans is not a “decision”. It is just the way you are. You’re either trans or you’re not. And only the individual concerned is best placed to know if they are or are not trans.

The sensationalist language continues as O’Brien says,

“The explosion in the number of young people seeking to change their gender has prompted some experts to ask if children who may in fact have quite different problems, may be prematurely allowed to start down a path that they may not be able to easily reverse out of.”

Given the extraordinary difficulties trans people have in accessing trans-related healthcare in Ireland I’m baffled as to what pathway trans children would not be able to reverse out of. The only kind of irreversible intervention is hormone therapy and gender confirmation surgery — neither of which are given to children. Puberty blockers, not prescribed to anyone under 12 in Ireland and also very difficult to obtain are a reversible process, so what exactly is the path that Prime Time fears will be difficult for children to reverse out of? It’s never made clear what these concerns are, but the idea of children “down an irreversible path” is left lingering in the viewer’s mind.

One of the “experts” (I use inverted commas as I am not aware of Ms O’malley having any published papers on trans people in recognised, peer-reviewed journals but I am happy to be corrected on this), was controversial psychotherapist Stella O’Malley, who retroactively self diagnosed herself with gender dysphoria as a child (but she says she doesn’t have G.D now).

Ms O’Malley made a controversial documentary for Channel 4 in the UK, which — oddly enough — features many of the same trans-critical people and arguments as Prime Time. There is an excellent critical run through of the issues with the documentary on this blog by Gender GP UK.

Even though Prime Time has been presented as being about concern for proposed legislation that allows under 18’s to legally (not medically) self identify as trans, Ms O’Malley begins talking about puberty blockers.

O’Malley says that children making the decision to take puberty blockers at 12 means that they are, “going into a group that is high 90’s — 100% likely to fully transition as adults.” She continues,“They’ve actually taken a decision about their adult life even though they are 12."

This information is presented as if it is a failing, yet surely if 90–100% of children who start on puberty blockers decide to fully transition as adults it only confirms that puberty blockers were in fact the right treatment for their childhood gender dysphoria? I would see those statistics as a reassurance that puberty blockers were the right thing for those kids.

The programme then makes the first of many references to what’s happening “across the water” in Britain, with a scene showing what looks to be a violent clash between trans exclusionary people and trans supporters. Apropos of nothing O’Brien asks what self id in Britain might mean for society there.

On comes the real star of the show, Graham Linehan. It is unclear why Prime Time chose to use a contentious figure who with regards to trans issues is best known for his aggressive interactions with trans people — when addressing what they admit is a “deeply sensitive” issue. Linehan says he doesn’t think, “the vast majority of trans women pose any danger to women but you do have to think about the men who do. There are predatory men out there who are taking advantage of the situation.”

Newsflash Graham, there are dangerous men everywhere! And as Sara Phillips, Chair of TENI rightly points out, there are much easier ways than changing gender “for dangerous men to get access to women.”

The mother of Will, a trans boy whose story is featured in the show talks about just one of the possible issues facing trans people that Prime Time could have chosen to focus the show on. Will’s mum talks of their struggle to get a psychiatric assessment, saying Will is still waiting to see someone about his gender identity issues but, “There is no psychiatrist in Wexford at the minute.”

Tellingly neither the Health Minister nor the Minister for Children seem to have been asked to comment on why children like Will’s health and psychological needs are being failed by the State.

With no reference to the public discourse prior to the 2015 gender recognition bill and the awareness this raised of gender issues, O’Brien then ponders the “massive jump” in Irish referrals to Tavistock, (a gender clinic of UK specialists who visit Dublin once a month).

The “massive jump” went from 1 referral in 2011 to 35 in 2017 which doesn’t seem that high when you consider that there are more than 950,000 children under the age of 14 in Ireland.

Dr Aidan Kelly from Tavistock tells O’Brien that there’s been a global rise in numbers referred to youth gender clinics and that the situation is not unique to Ireland.

A stylised cartoon graphic shows children being injected with huge syringes and swallowing pills. The sight is startling and would seem to imply that trans kids in Ireland are being drugged to the hilt. If the parents groups for trans kids I am in are anything to go by, this graphic does not represent anything close to the majority of trans kids experience in Ireland. So woeful are the healthcare options available for trans people here that an advocacy group was set up — just to campaign for trans healthcare.

We hear that demand for adult services within the HSE has “soared” in recent years, but again no possible/likely explanations are given (like greater public awareness?) The word is just left to hang there, like being trans is a fashionable thing that people are falling over themselves in their rush to change their gender.

Enter Dr Lisa Littman and her widely discredited term, “rapid onset gender dysphoria.” The term was based on one study which has been described as “heavily flawed”. Brown University removed it from their website citing “poor methodology” as the reason.

But one flawed study with poor methodology is good enough for Prime Time apparently, especially if it feeds into the idea that teens are lining up to jump on the fad that is the trans train.

It seems where Prime Time is concerned, every tired trans trope must have it’s day. When moral panic has been dished out by tarring all trans people over the actions of a few, concerns expressed over how safe will a theoretical 13 year old girl be in a toilet with a trans woman (a lot more safe than she is with the men in her family and friend circle studies show — but heck who needs evidence or hard data am I right Prime Time?) and a general push on the idea that being trans could just be a fad then you know it’s time to pull out the desistance myths.

According to Ms O’Malley (and not disputed or fact checked by Prime Time), 70 -90% of gender dysphoric children will end up, “perfectly comfortable in their own gender”. No word of how the studies these statistics were based on have been discredited. Why did RTE share data that is not accepted by most experts? Will they be clarifying this given how misleading this information is to the public?

The truth is no one knows what the desistance rates are but, as Dr Stuart Edser says, desistance rates could be as low as 4% if the experience of 14 years data from one major children’s gender clinic in Australia is anything to go by.

Next Prime Time takes us to the UK. It’s hard to know why, perhaps they couldn’t find scenes of aggressive fighting between trans supporters and trans exclusionary people in Ireland? Did they struggle to rustle up people in Ireland who, as Prime Time Editor Donagh Diamond said on 2FM, could speak “to the heart of the issue”? Could the lack of angry and abusive transphobia in Ireland be worthy of discussion? Apparently not. For whatever reason the show then heads to the UK to interview some more people angry about trans rights.

UK woman Heather Brunskell-Evans is interviewed. Brunskell-Evans is a social theorist and philosopher with no medical or scientific experience of trans issues/people. Brunskell-Evans told O’Malley in her C4 documentary that there is no medical evidence to support the existence of trans children. (Spolier: there is medical evidence and consensus on the existence of trans children).

On Prime Time she theorises concern about possibly being in a “dangerous society” of having to “police our thoughts” because “ordinary” women cannot say, “I don’t think that man is actually a woman and he’s in that dressing room with my 13 year old daughter.”

Either Ms Brunskell-Evans is saying she doesn’t believe that that the trans woman using the dressing room is a woman, or she is talking about a cis man pretending to be a woman in order to use a women’s toilet, in which case that has nothing to do with trans people at all and why was she asked to speak about trans people on the show?

The general vibe I get from her is, in my opinion, “I don’t believe trans women are women.” Which means Prime Time went to England to interview someone (with no medical or real life expertise in trans issues) who denies the very existence of trans people. This discourse allowed questioning of the existence, humanity and human rights of an already vulnerable and stigmatised section of Irish society to be spread in Ireland.

Finally another of O’Malley’s documentary stars, James Caspian appears to hit the last of the trans trope bingo. Regret. But what about the people who regret transitioning? Should trans people be allowed to transition if some of them regret it later? I have met and interviewed people who regretted breast surgery, vasectomies, marriages even having children, yet no one is suggesting any of these rights to personal and bodily autonomy be removed just because a small portion of people have regrets about them. But trans people are seemingly fair game.

Marianne Oakes of Gender GP UK says James Caspian, “claimed that his research into de-transitioning had been shut down because it was deemed too controversial. My understanding of events is that, when he couldn’t find enough people who regretted surgery to take part in his research, he expanded his ‘regretter’ profile to try and improve the figures. Unfortunately, he failed to inform the University, so they pulled the plug.”

Why did RTE go out of their way to interview so many individuals noted for their aggressive and disputed arguments, ahead of recognised experts with relevant peer reviewed research?

In closing the show O’Callaghan tells anyone “directly affected by the issues raised in the report” to contact their GP. The final invalidation of trans people was sending them not to the real-life lived experiences, expertise and knowledge of the staff at TENI,but to a GP. It was, in effect, the perfect summation of the show’s motivations and agendas.

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Joy bringer, writer, podcaster, mother of 5, colourful fashionista