Review: Louis Theroux Documentary – Transgender Kids
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.