Transphobia at the BBC

By Jessica Derwent

The recently aired Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best?  has caused controversy and led to outcry from trans charities, activists and the general public. It has cast serious doubts on the BBC’s commitment to impartiality.

It subtly attacked the gender-affirmative consensus among transgender experts – the idea that children should be supported when they identify as a different gender and helped to transition, which is to express themselves through their name, everyday clothes, or other means.

This led to a manipulation of what was meant to be a balanced debate.

Durham’s own LGBT+ Association have shared their concerns with Palatinate. Transgender rep Luke Armitage and acting president Fred Banks said the following:

“It went against the knowledge and experience of UK medical practitioners who work with trans children, as well as voices from the trans community.

“A request to allow the programme to be reviewed by UK trans experts was denied, and thus despite the BBC being fully aware of concerns about its detrimental impact it was shown anyway.” This petition received over 11,000 signatures, yet there has been no official comment from the BBC on the issue.

“I am very concerned about the potential negative influence this will have on the public perception of trans children and adults,” Banks and Armitage conclude.

Dr Kenneth Zucker, a transgender psychologist who lost his job for his controversial methods, was a questionable ‘expert’ for the documentary to use, yet was granted a prominent role and generous screen time. He was fired from the clinic CAMH in 2015 after an external review shut the clinic down.

Whilst the BBC acknowledged this fact, they did not have a satisfactory reason for his inclusion. They portrayed him as a renegade psychologist going against the tide, instead of the disgraced psychologist he is.

His approach has been likened to reparative therapy (a method used to ‘cure’ patients of homosexuality) and he often equates identifying as transgender with mental illness. Several of his comments during the programme smacked of transphobia, including: “a four-year-old might say that he’s a dog; do you go out and buy dog food?”

It wasn’t just the selection of experts that revealed an underlying transphobia. The voice over, traditionally a dispassioned voice in documentaries, was also guilty of some transphobic and demeaning comments. “Online media and TV shows are now full of young people who are proud to talk about their transgender identity,” they said, implying that the gender-affirmative approach was the product of keyboard warriors and not the vast majority of transgender experts.

A sense of panicked hysteria was created. At the start of the documentary we are told that “parents are facing an explosion in the number of children who think they were born in the wrong body.” Here sympathy is clearly on the parent’s side, transgender kids are an “explosion” to be “faced,” a threat to the norms of family life.

We were also introduced to Chris, whose daughter identified as a trans boy in childhood before ‘desisting’ in adolescence. Chris was explicitly portrayed as a victim. A repeated soundbite from Chris tells how “it was like a battle, a warzone. She would literally scream ‘AAH! I’M A BOY!’” Once again sympathy is with the parents, transgender children are enemies in a warzone, to be defeated if they ‘desist’.

In fairness, the programme was not entirely one-sided, Dr Norman Spack and transgender psychotherapist Hershel Russell added a gender-affirmative counterweight, and vocally opposed Zucker’s views. Some of Spack’s comments about the joy he found from helping children transition were genuinely moving.

John Conroy produced and directed the documentary, famous for his hardcore investigative journalism pieces such as Ross Kemp on Gangs: Bloods and Crips in St Louis. Hardly the kind of documentary style this programme should have been made in.

The documentary sensationalized the trans debate. It made it into a hard-hitting news story which showed disregard for the real life implications this will have on children already regularly discriminated against. For this, Conroy and the BBC should be ashamed.

Photograph: Tim Evanson

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