Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Yesterday, I came across an article written by Noah Michelson provocatively titled ‘If You Think ‘Straight Acting’ Is An Acceptable Term, You’re An A**hole’. I would say the article is well worth reading, as it evocatively considers some of the concerns with Roland Emmerich’s new film ‘Stonewall’ – namely the accusations of historical inaccuracy, whitewashing, and homonormativity¹ in order to try and bring the film to a wider audience.

Michelson makes the point that:

Being “straight-acting,” for a gay man at least, is directly related to how convincingly he is able to present traditionally masculine mannerisms. The term is so markedly offensive because its very existence insists that there is a particular, instantly identifiable manner of being gay (defined by effeminacy). And what’s more, those qualities are seen as patently unattractive, undesirable and wildly dangerous.

He discusses his own experiences of policing his forms of self expression to articulate a more normative masculinity, in order to protect himself from queer bashing. He remarks how he regrets this, but poignantly asks whether he’d even be here to regret it if he hadn’t – emphasising increasingly how ‘same-sex’ attraction in and of itself doesn’t render one a victim, but the expression of transgressive masculinities and femininities amongst women and men respectively (and those who cross over or identify as neither in particular) puts one at risk. Now, there are those queers who, in the interests of their own safety, or their own ability to socially navigate the world they’re in with the least possible hassle will engaging in ‘straight acting’ actively. Then there are those who simply find that their default state of being is to articulate themselves in an unremarkable, normative manner. There is of course nothing wrong with that. I would however encourage those who have identified or do identify with the term ‘straight acting’ to ask – why do you? How is this identification situated within a larger social narrative and context which shapes who each of us are and how we feel? If you are concerned with how others perceive your masculinity in relation to your sexuality, why is that? Given that masculinity and femininity have large, complex narratives, can you see that when you say you’re ‘straight acting’, what people take from this will never be as simple as pure, value-neutral description (whether they realise it or not)? This can be articulated by different people in different ways to serve very similar ends. A common example being dating app profiles with caveats such as ‘not as camp as I look’, pre-empting judgement from a gay audience which has a clear hierarchy of value.


Emmerich inserts the fictional protagonist Danny into the narrative of the film in order to “provide a very easy in” for a straight audience. One can understand the desire to want your film about an incredibly important civil rights event to reach and educate as many people as possible. There’s two important problems with this however. 1 – It didn’t remotely happen that way, and 2 – It throws the non-normative queers who were there doing what they did under the bus in order to pander to those potential viewers whose acceptance comes with terms and conditions of palatability. It also raises the very important question – have queer people moved so far away from the scary, dangerous activism of the past that is now spoken of reverently, these brave heroes, that we daren’t tell the story how it was for fear of making less headway with creating queer acceptance than we could?

I would say that if LGBTQ support is *dependent* on whiteness, normative masculinity, middle-class status, conventionally attractive embodiment – all the checkboxes of Danny that make him the least marginalised of the marginalised – then it is worth very little. Further, it’s 2015. Shows and films with casts not centred on whiteness, cisness, etc. have demonstrated their ability to be both commercially and critically successful – one needs look no further than Orange is the New Black. I believe that the film would actually have had a better impact on queer rights and empathy for oppressions faced in terms of sexuality and gender if Emmerich had dared to be more accurate, rather than worrying about the most socially conservative end of the spectrum. The comparatively slow limp of transgender rights and protections demonstrates exactly what happens when we try to gain acceptance by sweeping the more difficult queers under the rug. The irony that the charity ‘Stonewall’ only added trans to its remit this year is ridiculously long overdue, but not surprising due to this homonormative precedent. The very fact that Emmerich has been so heavily criticised is evidence that a mainstream audience could handle the more complex intersections of marginality the real historical figures experienced.


It’s a fair question to ask what the problem with Danny’s role in the narrative is. Stonewall is famous for being a turning point, the explosive tipping point for LGBT (but let’s be honest, mainly G) rights. Therefore it’s easy to assume that the ‘mainstream gays’ who are visible and in many Western contexts doing relatively okay were also there. Not so. Those men and women with same-sex attraction in the 1960s who could hide it, often did. The straight actors were only to peer out of their closets after the radical queers had fought for some space for them. Emmerich would’ve done well to realise this, and recognise that his film had a duty to the queers still most marginalised today who fought *because* they had no other choice. Stonewall is a story for all queers, for all people to be inspired by, but not at the expense of de-centring the real, brave people who fought.

It’s very important then, to recognise the difference between what being ‘straight acting’ can mean in the world, and what it means when it’s inserted into this film which will be taken by many people as a representation of what happened. This may explain then, why when a historian of Stonewall, the only surviving member of the Stonewall  Street Youth, and other queer writers and experts were asked what they thought of the premier – the results were overwhelmingly damning. Emmerich has also said “as a director you have to put yourself in your movies, and I’m white and gay”. Maybe, just maybe, this film wasn’t about you, Roland. Maybe it also wasn’t about potential audience members who would deem The Stonewall Riots unacceptable if they saw them led by (as Michelson says) “non-white transgender people, genderqueer individuals, drag queens, butch dykes and sissy men”. Maybe that’s why Miss Major Griffen-Gracy, one of the few survivors of the Riot itself, said “How dare they do this again” of the film.


Miss Major – Photograph credit to Annalese Ophelian.

It’s ironic that the historian David Carter explains that whilst he liked the characterisation of Ray, in reality Raymond Castro was “a very masculine guy, a generous guy – and very conservative-looking. He wasn’t effeminate – he never went in drag. He didn’t prostitute himself, either”. Emmerich had an opportunity to include a character who embodied a normative masculinity, whilst retaining historical accuracy – a bit of a godsend given that was important to him in this historical sea of queers that were more difficult to market. Why that wasn’t done is open to speculation. But if telling the story of Stonewall was important to Emmerich, as he says it was, but positioning the trans women of colour who were absolutely central to the events (Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Riviera, Stormé DeLarverie, and the aforementioned Miss Major) as the *main* characters, the central narrative, was too difficult… then maybe he shouldn’t have been the person to make this film.

1 – Whilst this term has been used in different ways in different contexts, the most common, and how I use it here, was popularised by Lisa Duggan in unpacking how heteronormativity can be assimilated into LGBT culture, practices, and identities. Heteronormativity is (often insidious or unconsciously manifested) practice that positions straightness, cisness, and normative gender and sexual roles as ‘normal’. That isn’t to say there is necessarily an explicit articulation of homophobia etc., but that in positioning particular qualities as normal (rather than common, or relatively frequent) one includes a moral dimension to the description – that positions particular others as ‘not normal’. Heteronormativity can manifest in such simple interactions many non-straight people will have experienced – an acquaintance say, asking a guy ‘do you have a girlfriend?’ or a girl ‘do you have a boyfriend?’ – the assumption of heterosexuality. In a sense then, homonormativity is exemplified by, for example, gay white men who have a distaste for campness, drag, gender-bending, and other aspects of queer culture that are distinctly un-normative. Plus of course, it’s never as simple as saying that a person *is* or *is not* hetero/homonormative – people articulate multiple and complex views, and may comfortably celebrate radical queerness in some contexts whilst wishing to distance themselves or tactically ‘tone it down’ in others. What this means for how queerness is considered by the wider population is an interesting point to consider.

On Thursday 10th September 2015, Katie Glover (who is transgender) wrote an article for the Independent titled ‘Why it’s Time to take the ‘T’ out of LGBT’. I think that this article is misguided and unhelpful for different aspects of queer communities, and I will spell out why.

The article starts with discussion of the idea that people can get confused by LGBT, due to confusion and conflation between sexuality and gender identity (one simple, but useful one liner I’ve heard to explain this is “sexuality is who you go to bed with, gender identity is who you go to bed as” – later in the article, Glover misquotes this idea). This is a point dealt with by education, as the association between gender identity and sexuality has been around a lot longer than any kind of LGBT movement has. That association is in part because of how labels like ‘straight’ and ‘gay’ are understood with reference to an individuals gender, so as to understand whether they’re attracted to ‘the same or the opposite sex’ (imperfect though such language is). The article claims “being transgender is at the very least heavily associated with sexual orientation, when in fact it stands completely in isolation” – which is patently untrue. For example, if you are assigned male at birth, and you’re attracted to men, and are read socially as male, then you are going to be considered a gay or bisexual or otherwise non-straight man if you give off any social cues of involvement with a man. Even if you identify as a woman. If you are read socially as a woman, then you become read as heterosexual. Indeed, how an individual defines their sexuality may change with a gender transition even if who they’re actually attracted to does not. Also, to consider things historically, sexuality and gender identity were originally conflated under the idea of ‘inversion’, or a ‘woman’s soul in a man’s body’ as an explanation for same gender attraction – yet this narrative is now far more associated with trans.


Glover moves to discuss how Caitlyn Jenner used to believe that marriage was defined as between one man and one woman, and suggests that because ‘gay issues aren’t trans’ people’s turf’ they won’t necessarily be supportive. I would argue that the vast majority of transgender people are supportive of sexuality minority rights (Glover keeps saying ‘gay marriage’, and even says “gay people… make up three quarters of the LGBT title”, such bisexual erasure is astonishing). The reason why is because trans people often have a first hand understanding of what it feels like to not be accepted, and face stigma and discrimination in various ways. There is a sense of empathy there, together with powerful historical context where the progress of LGB acceptance has moved faster than for transgender. This is ironic given the huge support that LGB folk have had from trans people. The Stonewall Riots are the best example of this, and have been much discussed given the critical response the upcoming film has received for its erasure of transgender women of colour. Reactions like Ellen’s – surprise that Caitlyn wouldn’t have a stronger voice supporting other marginalised people, given her relative privilege and platform – are to be encouraged.

Glover demonstrates a lack of nuanced understanding of queer politics or history in suggesting that the fracturing of the LGBT moniker is progress. The term obviously covers a very wide range of people, with views that can often directly contradict, and with wildly different views about how things ‘should’ be. It’s worth noting that being something, such as gay, bisexual, or trans – certainly does make you the authority on your own experience. It doesn’t make you an authority on the community. That tends to come with many years of work, involvement, reading, and listening. The vast majority of the time that comes from someone directly within a given demographic, but not necessarily. I know there are certainly straight trans people, indeed, trans academics, who have far more nuanced understandings of gay rights than the majority of gay people. Further, Glover makes the unsubstantiated claim that “In fact, it’s been estimated that the number of trans people who are gay is only about the same as in the wider population.” As an academic of gender and sexuality, getting numbers on this stuff is very difficult, and estimates can vary widely. However from my own fieldwork as well as the discussions from dozens of articles on transgender, it seems to me that flexibility and fluidity with sexuality amongst trans people is considerably more common than in the wider population (I can’t be sure that all references are accessible to everyone, but some material can be found here, here, here, and here). The potential reasons for this are beyond this article, though also we have to ask – does this even matter? If there were few non-straight trans people, would trans ignorance or ambivalence on issues of sexuality (which in reality is far less common than ignorance or ambivalence on trans issues from LGB people) not be something we should aim to challenge and rectify? As for all?


In articulating that LGB and T might be getting “too close for comfort”, Glover reveals one of the most problematic and damaging things within LGBTQ community – that is, ignorance and distaste from some for those different from themselves, when we might otherwise be brought together over a sense of solidarity in seeking respect and equality. Some of the greatest successes of LGBTQ liberation have been due to cooperation – for example, whilst not decimated in anything like the same way, lesbian activists of the 1980s shouldered an enormous amount of the struggle in fighting for the HIV/AIDS crisis experienced by non-straight men to be taken seriously. And of course, how trans activists at Stonewall put LGB rights on the map.

We do find people who exist within LGBT who exhibit a self-interested, tribalist approach. Those gay men with zero interest in misogyny, racism, ableism or transphobia spring to mind with a wince, because they’re not affected.  Small minded identity politics which try to scrape acceptance by distancing from any other marginalised groups, in effect trying to get a ticket to ‘mainstream’ society by propping up a status quo which tells everyone that being straight is ‘normal’. Being white is ‘normal’. Being cis is ‘normal’ – positioning everyone who isn’t, as not quite as good. None of this provides a compelling reason for distancing LGB from T, but gives good reason for there to be more dialogue within LGBTQ about our different issues in order to improve society for all.

*This review may contain plot spoilers for the first episode of Boy Meets Girl*

I just watched the first episode of the new romantic comedy show Boy Meets Girl which aired on BBC 2 on 3rd September 2015. The show had already been acclaimed for the first UK show to contain a major transgender character, played by a transgender actress (Rebecca Root).


Now whilst those who know me might suspect I would rave about anything with a positive portrayal of trans people in the media, even well intentioned shows and films can easily receive scathing criticism for their ignorance (for example, the transgender writer Julia Serano makes important points about how transgender characters have historically been portrayed as ‘deceptive’ or ‘tragic’ in the book whipping girl, even in films otherwise praised for positive portrayal such as Priscilla Queen of the Desert). Thus I am actually quite cautious of watching trans focussed media, for the fear of disappointment and having to deal with cheap, stigmatising laughs. However, the first episode of this show was, in my opinion, nigh on perfect – let me explain.

We’re introduced to Leo (played by Harry Hepple) who lives with his mum, dad, and brother James, and has just lost his job. In order to get away from their mother’s exasperation, James drags Leo to the pub where over the evening he meets Judy, a ‘beguiling older woman’ as iPlayer’s summary tells. They hit it off, and arrange a date for the next day. The show manages to do something very difficult, in that it weaves a humorous but believable narrative, critically without relying on Judy’s transgender status for laughs. Nor was dramatic tension created through characters being positioned as transphobic – whilst there might be space for that aspect of reality to be explored later in the series, the way the main characters were introduced was not rushed, nor were individuals set up to represent particular tropes. This is hopefully a sign that even the side characters will be fleshed out in interesting, idiosyncratic ways.

However, the difficulties that transgender people can face were not erased. There was a clear and relatable anxiety portrayed by Root as she tried to come out to Leo (which involved humour, but in a witty and clever manner. No overblown clichéd reactions). Further we also receive hints over Judy’s painful past rejections from men, and see some realistic vulnerability. The show teased its audience by hinting at disappointing moments that many trans people will be all too familiar with – a date running out at the first chance after coming out, being outed to other people without consent – but curves away from these at the last minute which is both refreshing and often quite heart-warming.


That this show made the effort to cast transgender talent (and even from this single episode I believe Root to be very talented indeed) really helped to support the writing. The language used was realistic – the families we see are working class, Newcastle locals – it would be stilted if terms like ‘assigned male at birth’ or ‘gender binary’ were used, as let’s be honest, a large number of people are not familiar with these terms. People still say transsexual, people still say ‘she used to be a bloke’, and it would also be overly simplistic to suggest that all trans people necessarily find such language offensive when that can be how gender is relatable with friends and family. Much as it has been criticised (and rightly so) in some activist circles, the ‘trapped in the wrong body’ trope can still have its uses for some trans people. The show does not tiptoe linguistically and thus become unrealistic, but also strikes an intelligent balance in not engaging with slurs. Again there might be space for addressing this intelligently in future episodes, but it didn’t get ahead of itself.

The BBC didn’t make a song and dance of advertising this show as ‘the trans show’. Indeed, the point of interest is as much how romance is negotiated between a younger man and an older woman, and the stigmatised nature of this is reflected particularly in the incredulity of Leo’s mother. There’s also something inherently feminist about a romance narrative that challenges the ‘older dominant man/younger naive woman’ industry base. There were other small aspects to the production that were also positive. Standing out to me in particular was the physical affection between James and his dad, with despite being men in their 20s and 50s were cuddled on the sofa – a simple family act that is so rarely seen because of how masculinity can be constructed within the media. Nothing was made of it, but it showed on another level ‘there is nothing strange about this’.

Positive trans representation is always something to be celebrated on some level. But this show goes a way further – providing visibility to trans talent aided in reassuring the audience that the script hadn’t been written in a bubble, and nor was this aspect relied upon as a novelty. One can watch, enjoy, and learn from this show without any knowledge or even interest in gender, which is so great in bringing awareness to a wider audience through quality entertainment.

See here for more information about the making of Boy Meets Girl.

I gave this talk at the 2015 ESSL (Education, Social Sciences, and Law) conference at the University of Leeds. Enjoy!

(Note – Jenner explicitly stated in the interview that he is still using male pronouns, and still wishes to use the name Bruce, for the time being. This is respected in this article).


On 24th April, Bruce Jenner ended media speculation by giving an interview to Diane Sawyer with ABC, announcing to the world that he is a transgender woman. As of 6.00 am Saturday 25th April GMT the full interview is still elusive (in the UK), with this 15 minute poor quality excerpt the longest I could find. Some high quality, short clips are found here. However I’ll be commenting on and synthesising the various reports and clips on and from the interview available so far.

We still identify as female. And that’s very hard for Bruce Jenner to say. ‘Cause why? I don’t want to disappoint people.

 Bruce Jenner

There’s a range of different things we can learn from this interview. The first thing is that a lot of people don’t appreciate what a big deal medical transitions are for trans people – emotionally, physically, and in most of the world, financially. Jenner literally laughs off the fact that some ‘sceptics’ suggest that this coming out could be a bid for attention, related to his part in the reality TV series Keeping Up With the Kardashians.

Are you telling me I’m going to go through a complete gender change, okay, and go through everything you need to *do* that, for the show? Sorry Diane, it ain’t happening!

Bruce Jenner

In addition to this, Jenner revealed he accessed hormones and facial surgery in the 1980s – being trans is not something new to Jenner himself, putting such ignorant cynicism to rest immediately. His transition was ceased in 1990, after meeting his later wife of 23 years, Kris Kardashian. And in terms of ‘why now?’, he states unequivocally how he couldn’t hide this any longer. Jenner also made the points that fears over hurting his children meant he lost his nerve with his first attempts with medical and social transition, and that he and Kris might’ve still been together (they divorced in December 2014) if she had been ‘able to deal with it better’.

Which brings us to another important point that Jenner clarifies – how his sexuality has nothing to do with his gender identity. That identifying as a woman does not mean that he is attracted to men. Sawyer slowly walks through the logic of this – ‘if you are assigned male… and you become female… but you like women… are you a lesbian? are you a heterosexual… who…?’ Brenner cuts her off brilliantly, saying ‘you’re going back to the sex thing and it’s apples and oranges!’.

Whilst not discussed, it raised the question – how does a person’s gender identity relate to the sexuality of their partner? The answer is that it doesn’t, because whilst sexuality labels are most often used to signpost who a person sleeps with, these *labels* are also about identity. For instance, not all men who have sex with men identify as gay, and this is very important to recognise, in terms of both respect, and when conducting studies on sexual health. As a further example, if a person assigned male at birth comes out to her wife as a transgender woman, this doesn’t retroactively ‘turn’ the wife into a lesbian (assuming she was straight in the first place, and not bisexual for example…!). Also if the wife is still attracted to her transgender partner, still in love with her, that doesn’t mean she’s attracted to other women. It is an example of a straight-identified cisgender woman in what could be viewed as a lesbian, or same sex relationship… even if neither person, given their histories, identifies as a lesbian. But as long as one grasps the initial point that sexuality and gender identity are independent, and that labels aren’t gospel and depend on the person and situation rather than being a ‘neutral’ expression of ‘fact’, the rest can be negotiated from there.

For brevity’s sake, I don’t want to focus on the reactions of Jenner’s family, or the story of Jenner’s youth and athletic successes. The negotiation of significant personal issues is never easy, and the horrific marginalisation and ‘joke’ status that transgender people can still be relegated to isn’t up for debate. Jenner’s wealth and celebrity privileges don’t negate that coming out was a very brave thing to do, and he also makes it clear that he wants to do some good and help people by being open about his transition. He makes the point that his foothold in the reality television world gives him a powerful tool with which to raise awareness, even if not becoming an expert activist overnight.

The Twitter responses to the interview using the hashtag #BruceJennerABC have been overwhelmingly positive, though as S. Bear Bergman poignantly put it, “wondering who else should get 2 hrs on prime time TV?” whilst linking the list of unlawfully killed transgender people on Wikipedia, undoubtedly a list that under-represents. It was also pointed out by Kate Bornstein how the interview didn’t mention non-binary identities at all. Whilst not necessarily part of Jenner’s experience of gender, such a powerful opportunity for visibility and education could have benefited from greater breadth of reflection on the multi-facetedness of transgender lives. Jenner’s fame, wealth, and success position him as amongst the least vulnerable of transgender people, who collectively are still in dire need of protection, representation, access to services, and understanding. Let’s hope that Bruce Jenner inspires increased and better quality allyship.

Disclaimer: This is a big, complex issue. This post will never be able to do full justice to the topic, especially as I wish to remain accessible (which includes not writing a 20,000 word monster essay). I don’t intend to try and play an academic devil’s advocate, or create an argument where there isn’t one. The point of this post is NOT to ask ‘are these words okay?’ – large numbers of the trans community say no, and they deserve your respect. Nor is the point of this post to explain why they’re not okay – you can Google that though if you need to, as it’s important. Some members of the trans community reclaim the words as an act of empowerment, which I’ll come back to.

I had a really unusual experience of talking to a trans woman recently.  She referred to herself and all other trans women as ‘shem*les‘, and asked about the genitals of someone I know. For anyone in the know, you’ll know that when talking to trans people, both of these things are typically big red flags – offensive, insensitive behaviour. If she were cis I would have relied upon my educational privilege and assumed their ignorance, and called them out. It would’ve been an immediate moment of ‘ignorance alert! Need to set them straight in the name of challenging problematic behaviour!’. However, her transgender status changed the dynamic of the conversation, rendering me uncomfortable in putting on a teacher hat. Given that she’s trans, who am I to assume she doesn’t know the oppressive history of the word? Some transgender people (and other members of minority groups) reclaim words that have historically been used as insults, in order to empower themselves and challenge oppressive violence. Possibly the most famous word this has happened with is ‘queer’, which whilst still possible to wield aggressively, is used by many LGBTQ people to describe themselves. There’s even the academic field of Queer Theory. So because it would’ve been a very different (and problematic) thing for a cis(ish) guy to tell a trans woman how to use transgender-related language, instead I said ‘it’s interesting that you say X and Y, because I know many trans people who would have problems with this’.

It was clear from our conversation that her choice of language wasn’t a political decision, and that she wasn’t aware that the word is more often used to insult and oppress. Whilst many transgender people are very well read on transgender issues, as with any large and diverse group not everyone will be. It’s important to recognise that being trans absolutely does make that person the authority on their own experience of being trans, and that people should listen when they have something to say about how it is to be trans. But, being trans *in and of itself*, does not make an individual an ‘expert’ on transgender activism, politics, or language. It just so happens that, for obvious reasons, many people who experience social oppression of one sort or another (and their intersections) are motivated to learn about how to challenge it.


It emphasises a point the wonderful Helen Belcher made in a talk I attended recently. She said (I’m paraphrasing) that ‘coming out as trans could be likened to expressing an interest in GCSE maths, and then having people assume you know degree level calculus’. In being an ally to transgender people, it’s important to listen. But assuming that one trans person can necessarily speak for all trans people not only isn’t realistic, but puts a lot of pressure on that person. I hold to the fact that it was impolite of the trans woman I spoke to to ask about the genitals of another person, close to me, who came up in that conversation. That conviction is informed by both lived, and academic experiences working with the transgender community.

I don’t want the take home message to be ‘trans people can be wrong about trans things, so listening isn’t all that important’. It is. The two points aren’t mutually exclusive – one can recognise that trans people are inherently the authorities on transgender experiences whilst recognising no one person’s points can ever represent what everyone thinks or feels. After all, plenty of LGBT people still loathe the word ‘queer’, and if one such person were to say ‘never use that word, it is always bad’, the queer people who do identify with the term (which includes me) could challenge that claim.

The slur ‘tr*nny’ is a very good example of vocal disagreement between different members of the trans community. For example in reference to controversies involving both slurs on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Justin Vivian Bond wrote how the policing of language is ‘trifling bullshit‘, and that there’s bigger problems to worry about. ‘Pro-slur’ arguments have been slammed – though with caveats pertaining to linguistic reclamation.


There have been conversations about how the slurs are not RuPaul’s to reclaim as a cis-male drag queen, which emphasises how the queer community has changed since the days of the Stonewall Riots – when there was arguably less factionalism (and distinctions drawn) between L, G, B, and T. That may be in part due to there being less information and understanding broadly within society, with the oppressions still being experienced across the board. Now, it’s fair to say that gay and lesbian people have gained more ground with legal and social acceptance than the transgender community – and the differences between the political struggles and communities’ needs are a big conversation all on its own. One might raise an eyebrow at the seeming hypocrisy seen with RuPaul’s use of the above slurs, but then calling out Amanda Bynes for her use of the word ‘faggot’. If fag isn’t her word, tr*nny and sh*male aren’t his, despite the historical connection between drag and trans communities, from a time when there weren’t the words or identity categories for clear distinctions that there are now.

It’s complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. One can recognise that words have different meanings for different people, and use words in a way that is sensitive. I agree that only people who are oppressed by a word have the right to reclaim it, and that it’s insensitivity or ignorance when others play with such words. Words have the ability to oppress and to empower. If you feel strongly about challenging oppressions, then understanding the histories and conversations had about particular words can let you see the bigger picture.

The Documentary Transgender Kids is available to watch on BBC iPlayer until 30th April 2015 – which can be found here. Apologies if you are outside of the UK and this link doesn’t work.


On the 5th April, Louis Theroux’s latest documentary aired on BBC 2. To quote the BBC’s description of the programme: “Louis travels to San Francisco where medical professionals are helping children with gender dysphoria transition from boy to girl or girl to boy”. Whilst even this is an oversimplification (structuring transgender narratives as always having a binary ‘end result’, and also trans narratives or realities being dependent on gender dysphoric feelings, non-intuitive though this might be for some), the content of the program has been well received.

I agree with Paris Lees when she says that Louis excels at asking questions designed to aid the average viewer’s train of thought in understanding the subject matter. Whilst maintaining his position as ‘guy who doesn’t know much but wants to learn’, he also avoided tired issues of etiquette such as referring to people by the names and pronouns they identify with – as this is easily Google-able, but they moved through this in such a way so that viewers who didn’t already know this kept with the program.

The start of the documentary is strategically important and intelligent. We meet the parents of the little girl Camille, who iterate that their chief concern is doing right by their child, and learning how to best ensure their welfare – a position anyone can get behind. We are also introduced to Diane Ehrensaft who for me, was a highlight of the programme in demonstrating exceptional warmth, sensitivity, and wisdom. One would hope to see Diane’s approach in any professional working to support transgender and gender variant people, but which the voices of the transgender community tell us is sadly not the case.

People with little to no knowledge of transgender often ask the question ‘but how do you know’, and more so in the case of children. The anxiety surrounding the notion of supporting a ‘mistaken’ transition, of the risk of ‘getting it wrong’ is at the front of many people’s minds. It’s a big problem that many people (including medical professionals) can assume that it is ‘safer’ to prevent any kind of gender expression or transition that runs contrary to assignation at birth, because of potential risk. Louis raises this question (at 14.17 in, to be exact). Diane Ehrensaft is worth quoting directly in her response:

Is it a risk? Let’s call it a possibility. So with that possibility then we think, the most important thing is the same exact idea – to find out who you are and make sure you get help, facilitating being that person *then*. We have one risk we know about. The risk to youth when we hold them back, and hold back those interventions – depression, anxiety, suicide attempts, even successes – and if we can facilitate a better life by offering those interventions, I weigh that against there might a possibility that they’ll change later, but they will be alive to change. So that’s how I weigh it on the scales.


It’s also worth mentioning that whilst stopping or reversing transitions does happen, it is comparably rare. These examples shouldn’t need to be ‘hushed up’ because of the fear that they will be used to de-legitimise transgender people’s access to gender affirming services. Indeed one can see that being able to access such things and then stop can also be highly beneficial for an individual, to help work out who they are, and what they want.

The program didn’t make the mistake of trying to make a fictional debate about whether kids should or shouldn’t be given access – it was clearly sympathetic. I felt the show helped lead its audience to accept the importance of this point. It skillfully managed to do this without reducing the transgender voices on the program to one ‘line’ – there were definite differences between the children appearing on the show.

This was perhaps illustrated most clearly by Crystal/Cole, who exhibited a non-binary gender (although the show didn’t name it as such), sometimes expressing herself as Crystal and sometimes as Cole. They broached the fact that for some children (and indeed, plenty of adults as well) gender expression and pronouns could depend upon environment (‘he at school but she at home’) or on time (‘some days I’m Crystal but some days I’m Cole). There are also some conflicts within this particular narrative – Crystal’s mother (at 24.56) says that:

She has said in private with her therapist that she is a girl. Almost 100%. When I’ve sat down and had private conversations with her and said would you ever be interested in [transitioning medically], how do *you* feel about it? And her answer is ‘I can’t do that mommy, I have to be a boy’, and I enquire further as to why and she says ‘because I’m poppy’s only son, and it would destroy poppy’.


This hints heavily at a father who isn’t supportive/understanding/accepting of his child’s gender expression, though we also hear Crystal herself say that she doesn’t prefer one name over the other, and later in the program says she wants to be male when she grows up (though for the very normative reasons of liking the thought of a wife and children, as if one must be male to have this). The show deals with this complexity well, and reflection upon Dr. Ehrensaft’s words are fitting. Crystal/Cole may be a transgender woman who, as a child, is navigating her father socially. They may be a non-binary person, with male and female identities, or some further understanding of themselves may manifest over time. I felt we were invited as an audience to recognise that ‘searching for truth’ is not the point of engaging with transgender people, but the most important factors are respect within the moment, and facilitation of what is needed for happiness and health. Which is not as complicated as critics might make it.

The mainstream media has responded positively to the documentary, although not all the conversations to have come out of it have been positive. For example, BBC Women’s Hour disappointingly attempted to create a very artificial ‘for vs. against’ debate’. Quite rightly, this inspired anger from transgender activist CN Lester, fed up of trans voices and narratives legitimacy being framed as a debate, as if each ‘position’ had equal evidence and importance.

Bottom line – this is a strong and sensitive documentary which I would recommend. Whilst obviously positioned within an American context (and the differences with the healthcare systems are important to consider), many people could learn from the compassion of some of the parents who recognise how important it is to become an advocate for their child. By challenging cisnormativity (the idea that identifying with the gender one is assigned at birth is ‘normal’ or ‘correct’), society is slowly dragged towards being safer and easier for those under the trans umbrella.


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