Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Some Thoughts on ‘Age 8 and Wanting a Sex Change’

Channel 4’s “Age 8 and Wanting a Sex Change” examines the plight of trans kids across the pond ahead of a possible change in the laws governing treatment of trans kids in the UK. Being from the ‘Bodyshock’ strand of documentaries (sample titles: The Man Who Ate His Own Face; The Man With A Shark For A Foot) I wasn’t expecting much in the way of sensitivity and after a minute or so I thought my suspicions had been confirmed when the narrator started to use the wrong pronouns to refer to the trans kids, and continued to do so for the rest of the documentary.

First off, seriously? The people interviewed (mostly the families of the trans kids or the doctors who were treating the kids) were using the correct pronouns! Everyone in the context of the programme used the correct pronouns. Why the hell was the voice over using incorrect ones? That’s beyond insensitive. It’s damn right insulting. Are we supposed to infer that the kids and their parents are deluding themselves? That it could only happen in America? That the documentary filmmakers don’t respect the gender choices of the subjects, or worse, don’t see their subjects as the gender they are? That they’re trying to dumb it down, match the pronouns to the “true sex” and aim it at the general public who don’t know anything about trans issues?

I suspect that the last question is the most accurate and it’s the most troubling. Part of the reasoning behind the documentary was that it was designed to educate ahead of a possible review of guidelines for dealing with transgender kids in the UK. By consistently using the wrong pronouns, the programme just reinforces negative assumptions about transgender people, chiefly that they will never truly pass and they’ll always be the sex they were born. Worse, it reinforces the idea that these kids are deluded, or going through a phase; eventually they’ll return to their “true sex.”

In fact there are a couple of occasions in the documentary when the interviewer asked the younger kids if they were going through a phase, as if hoping to catch them out. Of course, they all strongly denied it with one going as far as to say, “If I had to dress in boys’ clothes and be a boy for the rest of my life I’d probably die.” The thing that bothers me the most about the implication that trans kids “grow out of it” is the assumption that children don’t know what gender they are. Cisgendered children know if they’re a boy or girl, even before they know that boy bodies are different from girl bodies or the cultural expectations that their gender places on them, so why can’t a transgendered child know the same thing?

The medical side of the process of obtaining puberty blockers and cross gender hormones was somewhat glossed over as well. In each case we were told how the child had been unhappy in their birth sex, worked up the courage to tell their parents they were really a boy or really a girl, and were diagnosed with gender dysphoria. The process of being diagnosed can be a lengthy one and isn’t something that happens lightly. The programme seemed to be suggesting that this wasn’t the case, and somewhat ignored the regular doctors’ appointments and medical procedures before and after the kids were diagnosed.

There were one or two other troubling moments in the documentary; firstly the fact that Josie, an eight year old mtf, still played with cars and other “boy’s toys” and secondly that Bailey, a twelve year old ftm, had been on age appropriate “dates” with girls who didn’t know that he was genetically female. In the first case, the narration treated Josie’s toys as an anomaly and perhaps a sign that she wasn’t “truly” a girl. In the programme makers’ world there only appears to be two modes of gender expression: ultra feminine girls and butch, masculine boys. That Josie could be a tomboy never seems to enter into their heads. The only person who seems au fait with this is Josie’s awesomely supportive mother who basically says it’s none of their damn business what toys her daughter plays with, “Just because a man likes to cook doesn’t make him a woman and just because a women knows how to change the oil in her car doesn’t make her a man.” The documentary really missed a chance to explore other gender expressions here, and instead chose to point to this as something (else) that wasn’t really “normal” about these children.

The second moment is one I had the most trouble with. Bailey’s family had had to move due to the bullying he was receiving at school, and they purposefully haven’t told anyone in their new town that Bailey was born female. Being that both of the ftms in the documentary are a little older than the mtfs, they are both asked about dating girls and the problems this presents for them. Bailey has been on “dates” with other girls, but hasn’t told them that he’s genetically female. Later, the interviewer asks Bailey’s mother what she would do if her daughter had been kissing a boy who was “really” a girl. Ignoring the transphobic implications of that question, Bailey’s mother says that she would be a little freaked out but she doesn’t really think it’s a problem at this age, and she believes that when Bailey is older and in a serious relationship he would tell the girl the truth up front. A sensible answer you might think, but the tone of the interviewer and the way the question was asked really speaks volumes about the programme makers’ intentions. The idea of transmen and women preying on hapless cisgendered people who have no idea about their partner’s “true” sex is one that is prevalent in society and the documentary seems to be pointing the Bailey’s behaviour as an example of this (see something like The Crying Game for a filmic example). Look, it seems to say, these kids are no better than those terrible transsexuals we’ve all heard about. Luckily, the documentary asks sixteen year old ftm Chris the same question and he explains that he has a girlfriend who knows that he was born female. In addition to this, Chris’ mother is in a relationship with an older transman (who the narration still refers to with female pronouns in what was perhaps the most offensive moment of the entire hour) so we do get to see that the “happy-ever-after” as it were, and “balance” out Bailey’s behaviour.

The programme doesn’t include an adult transwoman, which is a glaring omission considering transwomen are often the most stereotyped and vilified by popular culture; this would have been an obvious chance for the programme makers to truly dispel misconceptions and educate the casual viewer.

Despite all this negativity, what truly made the programme worth watching was the trans kids themselves. They were all overwhelmingly happy and had incredibly supportive parents and families. After seeing the kids with their families, there is no doubt that they are making the right choice and living their lives as they were meant to. Without the narration, the programme could have been truly revolutionary; a sensitive and largely positive portrayal of a difficult issue. The narration undermined the strength and courage of the kids as well as the positive message they presented. If you can divorce the programme content from the offensive narration and have an interest in transgender issues then I’d say it’s definitely worth a watch.

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