Monday, October 26, 2009

Channel 4 response to my complaint about "AGE 8 AND WANTING A SEX CHANGE"

Following the Channel 4 Programme last week I wrote a complaint about the misuse of pronouns along the lines of my blog post below. I have today received a response which has actually made me more angry than the original programme. I have responded to them and both their letter and my response are published below (together with their email address if you would like to also respond to them)

Thank you for contacting us regarding the programme AGE 8 AND WANTING A SEX CHANGE. The Commissioning Editor responsible for the programme has provided the following response for those viewers who wrote in connection with the programme and, in particular, the narrator's use of personal pronouns:

" Thank you to everyone that has contacted Channel 4 to share their views on AGE 8 AND WANTING A SEX CHANGE. The film has aroused a great deal of comment, almost all of it favourable, but I am sincerely sorry to hear that some members of the transgender community were upset by our use of biologically-accurate pronouns in the narration of the programme.

It's important to remember that the majority of our audience will have had little or no understanding of transgender issues. The decision to use the pronouns we did was based on our responsibility to make the programme comprehensible to a mainstream audience.

As many viewers have pointed out, the parents featured in our programme always referred to their child by their "preferred" gender. We were happy that this made it absolutely clear that each family had accepted and were extremely supportive of their child's decision.

I hope you'll agree that AGE 8 AND WANTING SEX CHANGE was a story worth telling, and a story worth telling to as many people as possible, even at the risk of causing some dissatisfaction amongst those who understand the subject well already."

We hope the above explains the reasoning behind this decision and would like to assure you that your complaint has been logged and seen by those responsible for the programme.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact us. We appreciate all feedback from our viewers; complimentary or otherwise.

Jessicka Burton
Channel 4 Viewer Enquiries

Kind regards,
Jane Morgan
Channel 4 Viewer Enquiries

As the email was signed off by both Jane and Jessicka I am not sure who wrote it - so I have to make a point used an inappropriate, but technically correct, salutation. My Response is as follows - and for once I have not taken time to reflect on it - I want my anger to be conveyed.

Dear "Sir"

I am sorry but this response is utter "bullshit." The pronouns were socially inaccurate, insulting and demeaning, especially given the comments about pronouns in the programme by the parents.

I read the responses on your web site - which incidentally did not include mine - and from my quick calculation about 80% of the responses were negative about the pronouns. Bearing in mind mine was not positive and was not published I suspect that there was an overwhelming negative response on this issue.

The fact that the overwhelming majority of the audience had little or no understanding of the subject means that it was all the more important for you to take the socially responsible position of informing them of the "correct" use of pronouns. Your response simply confirms that your producers either did not bother to research the issue effectively, or that they made a conscious decision stir up transphobic feelings.

If you check with the guidelines issues by the Equality and Human Rights Commission you will discover that persistent use of incorrect pronouns, ie pronouns that fail to reflect a persons acquired, or, as you put it, preferred gender, is considered to be Harassment. In a workplace this is sufficient grounds for a discrimination case to be successfully brought against a perpetrator.

Yes, AGE 8 AND WANTING A SEX CHANGE was a story worth telling - but you failed to tell it. I have been interviewed on radio a number of times since this programme and I have noticed that on every occasion I am being asked questions about whether a child is old enough to make decisions about their gender. This did not happen before your programme and other transphobic media stories over the past month and I can only surmise that the change of attitude is because of the way your programme misrepresented the facts.

Can I suggest that next time you plan to cover this topic instead of seeking advice from "Sun Readers" and other homophobes and transphobes, you seek advice from gender professionals, of whom there are many, and get your facts straight. The difficulties these children, and later in life adults like myself, face are because producers like you continue to promote outdated homophobic and transphobic attitudes.

I wonder if the next time you read of a young gender variant person taking their own life you will be prepared to bear some of the responsibility for that, because your programme has contributed to the hurtful and discriminatory way in which other children treated then at school by the model of behaviour set by your programme.

Ms Rikki Arundel MSc (Gender Research)

Edited 27th October 2009 12.30 pm

And here is their response to that:

Dear Rikki,

Thank you for contacting Channel 4 Viewer Enquiries regarding BODYSHOCK: Age
8 and Wanting a Sex Change.

We are sorry to read you are disappointed with our previous response. You can be assured all your complaint has been logged and forwarded for the information of those responsible for our programming.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact us. We appreciate all feedback from our viewers; complimentary or otherwise.


Lorna Dane
Channel 4 Viewer Enquiries

Well - thats three people who have been involved. I have called the Equality and Human Rights Commission - and they are sending me some template letters - I will blog later with details of what I have done next and how you may be able to get involved as well.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Channel 4 Bodyshock Documentary - Inciting Transphobia?

I have just finished watching the Channel 4 Bodyshock documentary - “Age 8 and Wanting a Sex Change” and like many of the people who have commented on the Channel 4 web site, I am both shocked and angry by their presentation. (Please follow the links above to see the documentary and the comments.)

Throughout the programme the parents described their children with appropriate pronouns, even making comment about how upsetting and offensive they and their children found it when incorrect pronouns were used. Yet despite this the narrator constantly used birth sex pronouns even when to do so was cringingly and obviously wrong. This is not the first time that this production company has acted so irresponsibly in the presentation of children with gender dysphoria.

But the effect was not just to make the narrator and Channel 4 appear silly, it had far more serious undertones of inciting transphobia. Just three weeks ago the Sun and then the Daily Mail and others reported on children born male bodied in the UK and who had started back to school as girls. The reporting of those stories encouraged such transphobic comment that the police have become involved.

Clearly the use of incorrect pronouns was a conscious policy. As a support organisation for trans people we devote much of our time to helping repair the damage done by a society that treats trans people as “freaks”. Far from helping, this programme has encouraged transphobia by presenting the actions of the supportive parents as questionable and refusing to accept these children, and an adult trans man, in their acquired gender. The way this programme was presented will encourage people to question a parent’s decision in allowing their child to grow up in their preferred gender.

What concerns me is that there was that the decisions of the parents were constantly being questioned and there appeared to be an inference throughout that allowing a child to start the process of gender change before puberty was wrong. Interestingly what was not addressed by the programme was the fact that in the UK hormone blockers are not available for children although on the Channel 4 web site comment is made regarding the current debate about this issue. I therefore suspect that this programme has a far darker objective of positioning public opinion against those who are campaigning for change in line with the current practice in the US, Netherlands and Germany.

Currently parents in the UK have to take their children to Boston in the US where Dr Norman Spack will provide treatment. Many of the trans children who go to him have self harmed or attempted suicide. Not allowing a child to express themselves in the gender they feel themselves to be is known to contribute to significant mental health issues.

I am disappointed that Channel 4 have decided to take what could have been a hugely empowering documentary and used it to present an outdated transphobic message that will probably now do more harm than good.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Media stirs up Transphobic responses to children dealing with gender change

The Sun - Boy, 12, turns into girl

Daily Mail - Boy, 12, turns up for school as a girl after sex swap during the summer holidays

Daily Telegraph - Boy, 12, turns into girl

The Sun - Now boy, 9, is a girl

I have not posted here for a while but the events of the past few days have demanded a comment – and possibly even more action. I think it must have been difficult for anyone to miss the press comment over the past few days about “sex change” children.

As an expert in the field of gender diversity I have been appalled at the manner in which newspapers like the Sun and the Daily Mail have misrepresented the stories in a manner designed to stir up huge levels of transphobic and homophobic hatred. Their coverage of the issue will inevitably cause damage not only to the children in question and their friends and families, but to other children struggling to cope with gender identity and sexuality issues.

In case you have not read any of the news, the story that broke on Friday concerns a 12 year old who has started secondary school as a girl. There is actually only a limited amount of information available because the details are at least being kept anonymous for the child’s protection, which has led to lots of misinformation that I will try to correct in this article.

It appears that the child has always expressed herself in female terms (both the Sun and the Mail refused to refer to this trans girl as female), which is a common characteristic of this condition, however the head master at the child’s previous primary school refused to allow her be addressed as a girl. This is an issue we have had in at least one school in Hull and have had to involve the police to get the school to see reason.

On moving to secondary school her parents and the school have agreed to allow her to start the school as a girl, but it seems that some of her previous school friends recognised her and the bullying started. The school head intervened and held an emergency assembly to explain what had happened and made it clear that the child was to be treated as a girl and that no bullying would be tolerated.

That is such a good message because we know how many schools are not as supportive – however that was not the main thrust of the newpaper articles. It is not clear exactly what happened next but reading three accounts I have surmised that some children told their parents who have objected because their children are “confused”. These parents say they should have been informed first and at some stage homophobic parents have contacted the Sun and the Mail and other papers have picked up on the story – giving it a “Boy 12 has sex change” theme.

The only balanced story was that in the Daily Telegraph, although even that still made misleading and inaccurate comments. The articles have attracted vitriolic homophobic and transphobic comments about how wrong it is to allow a child of this age to have a sex change, including many very negative comments on social network sites some of which could result in criminal prosecutions.

Because of the reaction by homophobic and transphobic parents, the child has had to be withdrawn from school and the family given police protection. And today the Sun has “uncovered” a second story of a 9 year old child who has returned to school as a girl and, fuelled by yesterdays comments, this has now also stirred up a similar homophobic and transphobic response.

So what is the truth:

First – Gender Identity disorder in childhood is a well known and surprisingly common condition. Girls expressing masculinity tends to be less of a story because society accepts “tomboy” behaviour, but effeminate behaviour in boys is far less accepted and we also know that typical gender expression in both boys and girls is the single biggest cause of bullying in and out of schools. Unfortunately whilst a child may simply be expressing gender in a way that is not typical of their sex, society seems to always sexualise it. It is possible that such children will later reveal same sex attraction, most at this early age are not sexually active, just confused by a world that will not accept them as they wish to express themselves.

Second - A child of 12 cannot have gender reassignment surgery. That cannot take place until 18. In the UK even hormone treatment is withheld until after puberty, despite very successful experiences in Europe and the USA in blocking puberty until sufficient psychiatric assessment to determine whether gender reassignment is the best course of action. What can and is done in the UK is to support the child in developing socially in the way that is most comfortable to them. I wish the schools and my parents were as enlightened when I was young. Instead I had to keep this as a deep dark secret living in fear most of my life.

Trying to force a child to live in a gender they are uncomfortable with has been proved to cause considerable psychological damage. However there is very little professional support for children, especially outside of London. The most important part of any treatment is to support a child in living in their acquired gender role. This enables the child to experience life in that new gender and thereby as they grow older enable them to determine if they want to make a permanent and irreversible decision. Very few trans people ever undergo gender reassignment surgery and then change their minds and the assessment process is designed to reduce or eliminate that risk.

Third – Most schools do not seem to want to deal with this issue. The schools in the news this week are to be congratulated for attempting to tackle this difficult issue, but need to be criticised for not including gender identity, and sexual orientation in the school curriculum earlier which would have made the process less of a problem. Children need to understand gender diversity. They will have school friends expressing atypical gender, or with lesbian, gay or trans parents. Until we educate children there will always be bullying. And allowing parents to interfere with this education is not acceptable – that simply perpetuates the homophobia instilled into them through the school system. Making sexuality and gender identity a forbidden topic (which we know to be the case in a large number of faith schools who have a “Blue Book” specifying what can and cannot be discussed) encourages phobic responses. This refusal to address the issues or to stop bullying as a result of atypical gender expression or behaviour sends out a message that homosexuality and transsexuality are wrong, effectively giving permission to the bullies to target "gay" pupils.

BBC Leads on Anti Bullying story

It is interesting that with two days of debate on children changing gender in the papers, one of the lead stories on the BBC news today has been on the lack of effective management of bullying in schools. I hope that the traumatic experiences these trans children and their parents are having to face as a result of the media circus being stirred up will finally lead to the issue of atypical gender bullying being properly addressed. Then perhaps their experiences will have not been for nothing.

Monday, February 02, 2009

LGBT History Month - Stonewall Riots

February is LGBT History Month, and 2009 is the 40th Anniversary of the most significant event in our history, the Stonewall Riots that led to the Gay Liberation Movement and the improved rights we now enjoy. 

Friday June 27th 1969 was warm night in Greenwich Village, and New York’s Gay community had been swelled by the many who had come to attend Judy Garland’s funeral. Homosexuality was illegal, as was cross dressing, so few bars admitted openly gay, lesbian and trans customers.

The Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street was one that did. It was a small, private, mafia owned club frequented by the gender diverse and homeless – stone butch lesbians, effeminate gays, nellie queens and street fairies (transsexuals, transvestites and drag queens). It was the only gay bar where same sex dancing was permitted and it was packed with over 200 people.

Local ordinances (by-laws) in New York required that men must wear at least three items of male clothing, and the women must wear at least three items of female clothing – failure to do so would result in arrest if a venue was raided, after a humiliating search.

At 1.40 am on June 28th police raided the Stonewall Inn, which was unexpected because the bar had been raided earlier that week. Subsequently it became apparent that the police had intended to shut the bar down permanently. 

As usual people without ID or cross dressed, including butch lesbians, were lined up and searched, trans people being required to remove all make up. However on this night the trans women and drag queens refused to go into a separate room to have their sex verified, then the men refused to provide ID.

The police decided to arrest them all. Those not arrested were released but did not disperse and remained outside the bar where because of the presence of the police a small crowd had begun to gather. Some of those released played up to the crowd and mocked the police. When the arrested mafia bosses were brought out the crowd jeered and threw coins, then bottles.

A trans woman was seen resisting arrest by hitting the police with her hand bag and a lesbian woman fighting four police officers goaded to crowd to do something. The crowd grew to become a mob of over 500 attacking the police vehicles, and in the confusion some of those arrested escaped. In panic police retreated into the Stonewall Cafe under a hail of bricks, coins and bottles to chants of “Gay Power”. Someone used a broken parking meter to jam the doors shut and lighter fuel was squirted in and lit.

45 minutes later the riot squad arrived to free the trapped police while the mob continued to grow, fires broke out and vehicles were overturned. As police with riot shields tried to disperse the crowd they they found themselves faced with a “kick line” of trans women and drag queens advancing towards and taunting them singing:

We are the Stonewall girls
We wear our hair in curls
We wear no underwear
We show our pubic hair
We wear our dungarees 
Above our nelly knees!

An eerie calm had been established by 4 am but further rioting occurred the following night and throughout the week. The police had been publicly humiliated and the world had changed. The years of oppression and harassment were not over, but the gay community now has a new sense of the power of united action and, modelling on the Black Power movement, four months later the Gay Liberation Front was established and gay magazines began to appear. 

Two years later in 1970 a march on Christopher Street became the first Gay Pride and the following year Gay Pride events took place to commemorate Stonewall across the US and Europe, including the first London Gay Pride.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

LGB and Trans Exclusion

Why this topic is still one that I need to write and speak about I really do not know but, once again I find myself getting embroiled in debates about trans exclusion that really should have been long ago put to bed.

The reason I get so het up about this issue is that it is an issue of discrimination – cross strand discrimination. In most parts of the UK now, support groups tend to be LGBT. Where they are LGB only – the argument put forward is that sexual orientation is different to gender, and that many trans people, once they transition, identify as heterosexual. In fact many trans people once they have transitioned identify as women, secure gender recognition in their acquired gender and cease to identify as trans. So as heterosexual men or women they are unlikely to want to support in the LGBT community anyway.

When we look at difference, the reality of course is that lesbian issues are as different from gay issues as they are from trans issues – and support groups are often very focused on specific issue within the umbrella of LGBT. I can see the value in separate lesbian, gay and trans support groups but often the smaller interest groups are too small to provide any meaningful level of support or secure funding – and when it comes to tackling the broader issues of discrimination and changing attitudes we need to be working together. Trans women for example face issues of Homophobia because many people refuse to see them as female – including some radical feminists – at the same time many trans women are lesbians.

Trans exclusion is not just an issue with some LGB groups – there are a large number of women’s centres that are open only to “women born women” which in practice means “No Trannys allowed”. Trans men often first identify as lesbian – yet most report that the moment they identify as trans men – they are rejected by many radical lesbian feminists. Whist this has not yet been legally challenged, I am certain that this level of trans exclusion is now illegal – and anyway it is only people who are unable to pass who are excluded.

Surely our ultimate goal is to remove the barriers to acceptance and for us all to be considered equal members of a diverse society, where sexual orientation and gender expression cease to be issues. We still have a lot of work to do before that happens, but it is not sexual orientation that leads to discrimination and harassment, it is the expression of atypical gender which is interpreted as lesbian or gay even if the person is straight.

Rikki Arundel
Pansexual Trans Woman