Last month the BBC’s CBBC channel for children aired a documentary called ‘I am Leo’ which took the form of a video diary about the personal journey of a transgender child. In my view the programme was biased, misleading and even dangerous, in the sense that it presented an overwhelmingly positive view of the experience of being transgender, with little attempt to qualify this picture with correct information. Indeed, the parts of the programme which purported to give factual information were flawed to an alarming degree, not only in terms of biology, but also in a way which promoted outdated stereotypes of what boys and girls should be, and the way that it made the idea of being transgender look easy and fun. I sent in a complaint through the BBC’s website, and a week later I got a reply. The reply was patronising and insulting and compounded my view that the BBC had only listened to one side of the debate and was unwilling to take on board any criticism or do any further research into the subject. This (with the BBC’s comments in italics) is my response to the points made in the BBC’s reply:
“Thank you for taking the time to air your complaints about ‘I Am Leo’.
By the time of the first broadcast, Leo had lived as a boy for 8 years. The documentary is about his personal experience as a transgender boy and those of the other transgender young people he meets in the film, Kai and Natalie. Like Leo, Kai lives as a transgender boy and Natalie, who was born in a male body, identifies as a young transgender woman. Like Leo, Kai has been accepted by his family and received their wholehearted support. He speaks in the film about how important this acceptance has been to him. However, Natalie’s family has refused to accept her as a young transgender woman, which she feels has been damaging.
The meeting with Natalie shows the only negative experience of being transgender in the film, and the blame for this has been placed fairly and squarely on the family and their lack of acceptance. At this meeting Leo is 13 years old and has been on medication to delay puberty, whereas Natalie is 20 years old and very much more of an adult: the difference between the two in terms of maturity is stark. Natalie’s more negative view of her experience could be down to so many factors, including simply growing up, but the only narrative we are allowed to consider is the one of lack of acceptance from family members about the choice to transition. Leo’s other meeting, with 10 year old Kai, reinforces the message about positive acceptance from parents, as they talk about how lucky they are to have this. However, the rest of the conversation mainly consists of discussing how awful it would be to have to wear dresses or have long hair, which illustrates how immature their world-view is. I mean no disrespect by this: I would not expect a more sophisticated understanding from a 10 year old and a 13 year old with delayed puberty, but it does help to illustrate just how little children know when they still have such a lack of experience of life and are not yet sexually mature.
One very important reason for making the documentary is that some people still refuse to accept transgender people exist and as a result, those who present as transgender, as Leo has done, often aren’t accepted and are instead bullied. Unfortunately, this bullying is not just from other children, but also from adults who haven’t read or don’t accept the many peer reviewed and published scientific studies about gender.
Actually the question here is not whether trans people exist, but whether trans *children* exist, and the jury is still out on this. Gender non-conforming children certainly exist, but there is by no means a consensus amongst professionals that ‘transing’ kids is a proportionate response to gender non-conformity. You say that Leo ‘presents’ as transgender, but this acts as a fait accompli on your part: Leo actually presents as a girl who feels like a boy, as large numbers of girls have always done, and it is the adults who give this the label of trans, which then Leo takes on as his new identity. All labels carry a certain degree of restriction, whether it is ‘girl’, ‘boy’ or ‘trans’. Leo simply has a new box to be trapped in, and to have some legitimate concerns about the implications of this does not equal bullying. When you correlate bullying behaviour with ‘adults who haven’t read or don’t accept the many peer reviewed…scientific studies’ it is quite insulting to those of us who have read these studies extensively and have still considered it important to keep questioning the dogma. It suggests to me that you haven’t read, or don’t accept, the opinions of professionals who have expressed concern about the treatment of GNC children, of which there are a growing number.
Statistics repeatedly show that because of this lack of understanding and education, transgender children experience more bullying than other children and as a result are more likely to self-harm and take their own lives. The documentary was made and first transmitted during anti-bullying week in 2014, for this reason. We hope the documentary promotes understanding of people like Leo who present as transgender, and will discourage children and adults from denying their chosen identity and exhibiting other bullying behaviour towards them.
I would like to see the statistics that show this. The threat of suicide is one that is constantly used to guilt-trip parents who are not 100% on board with the trans narrative, but there is speculation as to the cause of self-harm and suicidal behaviour, rather than hard stats: the rate varies according to age and social status for example, and is linked to outstanding mental health issues. Bullying obviously does not help, but there is no evidence of a causal link, and it is certainly not the only factor as your comment suggests. The other misconception is that the way to minimise any suicidal tendency is to go down the transition route, whereas in fact the suicide rate does not fall after transition: in this sense there is no benefit to transitioning. The blame which is exhibited towards parents in the film, and in your response to my complaint, serves largely to silence any dissent from the accepted narrative, and the curtailing of open discussion, the results of which cannot be good for children’s needs in the long term.
The British Government accepts transgender people – hence it being possible to get a passport in a different gender to the one on your birth certificate.
The government will issue a passport in the opposite SEX (M or F) to the one you were born as, if you have a Gender Recognition Certificate. The confusion between sex and gender is not helpful here, but again, nobody is saying transgender people don’t exist.
Factual accuracy is fundamental to our programme making. In the documentary Dr. Polly Carmichael explains that when taken before or during puberty, hormone blockers pause the body from developing into a man or woman. This medication has been prescribed for 30 years to treat premature puberty in children as well as various health conditions in adults. Long-term medical studies show that when this medication is no longer taken, the body’s production of hormones continues as it would have done prior to the drug being administered.
The term ‘hormone blockers’ is misleading, as there is no drug developed specifically for this purpose: the term is used to encompass a range of drugs developed for adult health complaints and effectively used off-label for the purpose of delaying puberty. Aside from the list of side effects, there is no long-term study of the effects on children when used in this way. Professionals admit they have no idea about long-term outcomes. I am not impressed with the standard of ‘factual accuracy’ in this part of the programme.
For Leo, using hormone blockers prevents the severe anxiety he began to experience when his body started to change during puberty. His own GP, as well as the team at the Tavistock and his parents believe hormone blockers are the right medication for him. However, we explain in the documentary that hormone blockers are considered controversial and were only prescribed for Leo after long medical consultation with his parents as well as with him. Leo also makes clear this is not the route everyone who is transgender, or thinks they may be transgender, would take, but he and his family think it is right for him. Leo does not take cross-sex hormones and this medication is not mentioned in the programme.
Very little attention is paid to the difficult questions surrounding blockers: what IS said hardly dents the overall message of good news that Leo is getting what is ‘right’ for him.
The programme had to explain complicated scientific information to young viewers. The graphic device was used to demonstrate in a child friendly way, the peer approved and published scientific studies, which illustrate how gender differences can be seen in the brain.
The complicated nature of scientific evidence is no excuse to present misleading and discredited information. So-called ‘brain sex’ is no longer considered to be accurate: the idea that pink brains are for girls and blue ones are for boys is wrong, we all have human brains, which vary more within the sexes than between them. The most recent ‘peer reviewed and published scientific studies’ also show that brains are plastic and develop according to what is fed into them: in other words our brains change and grow with experience, so that it is more likely we ‘learn’ gender than we are born with an innate sense of it, whatever our biological sex. Furthermore, the notion that we can be ‘born in the wrong body’ is hotly contested, partly of course because this notion relies heavily on the belief in ‘brain sex’ to be possible. And yet in the film the phrase ‘born in the wrong body’ or a near equivalent is used fifteen times in under half an hour.
In response to some concerns that girls and women are negatively portrayed in this documentary – we believe Leo’s mum Hayley is a fantastic role model, and Dr Polly Carmichael is an excellent role model for girls too, as a senior specialist doctor. Leo and Kai’s conversation about not wanting to wear dresses is clearly presented as their personal view, which is directly linked to them being transgender boys.
My complaint made no mention of the issue of how women are portrayed, but what I did find myself wondering as the film progressed was ‘Where are all the men?’ Leo’s father is not around: Leo lives with his mum and sister, and no other fathers are mentioned. Apart from the people in the film who are trans, every other character is female. Without saying it was intentional, I couldn’t help feeling uneasy about this aspect of the programme. Women of course are meant to be the ones with empathy, understanding and the ability/desire to accommodate other people’s needs, and the impression given was that the message was aimed primarily at women. I had the uncomfortable feeling that women were being targeted as a kind of ‘soft touch’, more likely to swallow the inaccuracies than men who might be tougher and more inclined to challenge the assumptions made in the film. I hope I am wrong about this.
I Am Leo is part of the 6th series of My Life films which have covered many different topics, including ‘What’s a Girl?’ about gender perceptions, featuring tomboys and looking at how children are pushed into behaving in certain ways from a very early age. It was presented by a young lesbian. This documentary however, is about one boy’s journey and how he feels. It’s not about sexuality, but identity – an issue that many children relate to because of our universal need to feel accepted, however individual we are.
Of course I know that transgender is about identity, not sexuality, but this is part of the problem with the message of the film. When research shows that around 80% of GNC children will grow up to accept the sex they were born, and the majority of these will identify as gay or lesbian, there is a real prospect that we are erasing homosexual identities in favour of trans ones. This film gave no other option to GNC children other than that they are probably trans. You don’t have to be transphobic to know that a lesbian or gay outcome would be better for most children than a path which leads to a lifetime of drug dependency, surgery and sterility. But for parents watching this film with their children the message is clear: you can either be ‘brave’ and support your child’s journey towards transition, or you can be a ‘bigot’ who blocks their true path. Bigotry leads to unhappiness, self-harm and possibly suicide, whereas bravery leads to a happy smiley trans kid who gets to be on television. For children watching the programme this must look quite exciting.
The message portrayed in the programme could have been lifted straight from a trans propaganda website: it follows the standard narrative so closely. Children now have access to reddit, Tumblr and Youtube sites which promote transgender as a lifestyle choice, and parents seeking information online will be directed towards sites such as Mermaids and Gendered Intelligence which are overwhelmingly in support of a child’s trans identity. Parents and their children are getting the same message reinforced wherever they look. Meanwhile, contrary opinions are being silenced through a combination of name calling, emotional blackmail, no-platforming and even personal threats.
In response to this there are now sites growing up where worried parents can express their concerns anonymously, such is the fear of backlash from trans advocates. Twitter, Facebook, Mumsnet forums and blogs are increasingly home to dissent over the current orthodoxy, because there is a common need to find out information and express opinions without being accused of transphobia. New websites Fourth Wave Now in the US and Transgender Trend in the UK have been set up by parents with the intent of gathering information free from dogma, and there is a growing number of blogs written by trans people themselves who have detransitioned and regret the process they went through. In the last few weeks a website has been set up in the UK called Youth Trans Critical Professionals, to provide a forum for those who are working with children in various professional disciplines and have misgivings about the ideology they are increasingly expected to adopt uncritically.
There is no doubt that some children experience such extreme hatred and discomfort with their sexed bodies that medical intervention may be necessary, and I do not minimise the suffering of these children. Leo may well be one of them, judging by the tenacity of the symptoms in his case, and I wish him nothing but the best. However, as a public service broadcaster, the BBC has a duty to all the other children, whose distress with their sex may not be as severe but who may be encouraged to believe that they are trans when they are not. The programme did not adequately express the fact that it is only a tiny minority of children who will be affected by body dysphoria to this degree, and in trying to stress how ‘normal’ Leo is, the impression ended up being that his story is far more common than it actually is.
Children are suggestible, which is why they are so easy to abuse. They naturally believe what adults tell them: they have no context or framework in which to test new facts which would help them to think critically about what they are being shown. ‘Born in the wrong body’ is an idea, not a fact, and it’s an idea which requires a suspension of disbelief. Our bodies are part of us, we are all born in bodies, our bodies are not ‘wrong’. There is plenty wrong with enforcing a certain set of behaviours on people *because* of the body they are born in: maybe the BBC could look at different ways to present the idea of challenging these beliefs, rather than encourage the idea that it is feasible to change sex. The Wibbly Pig Guide to Gender is a perfect example of one way to make the idea of gender easier for children to understand. The campaign group Let Toys be Toys does great work looking at how children are ‘gendered’ according to their sex by toy industry marketing. Presenting bad science is not necessarily the answer, however ‘child-friendly’ the graphics are.
There is no doubt that the intention to tackle bullying and prejudice towards the trans community comes from a good place, but it has resulted in the fact that ANY dissent from the preferred narrative is now seen as transphobic and a contribution to inequality. The BBC owes its listeners a balanced view which is not overly informed by a current lobby, particularly where children’s programmes are concerned. It has a duty of care towards its younger listeners (and their parents) to be aware of all the facts and to present them responsibly. Showing ‘I am Leo’ to an audience of 6 – 12 year olds, with no balancing point of view or counter-argument, is in my view a dereliction of that duty. I hope that in response to this the BBC will take the concerns of parents seriously, do more research and make sure that future programming is more balanced.