by Zoe Harding
On the same night Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best? aired (Thursday 12th), an apparently rather excellent documentary named Hospital exposed the difficult conditions under which the modern NHS works, bringing it to the attention of the nation that if you get sick and go to an NHS hospital, you’ll be treated by a doctor who’s working shifts more commonly seen in 19th-century coal mines while the Prime Minister calls them lazy. It was quite good. The subjects of Hospital (doctors) seem to have loved it. No such luck for the subjects of BBC2’s other documentary that night, however.
Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best? was a piece of startlingly biased filmmaking that seemed determined to present a ‘debate’ between two unequal parties: the medical establishment, transgender activists and most of society on one side, and a discredited ex-child psychologist whose clinic was shut down for being out of touch on the other. The degree to which Transgender Kids was a puff piece for one Dr Ken Zucker, formerly of the CAMH clinic in Toronto, is frankly startling.
I’ve seen less militarised language in Warhammer 40,000.
We heard extensively from one of Dr Zucker’s former clients, two of his staff members and the man himself, and while their theories weren’t exactly egregious they were given a bizarre amount of airtime and weight. Twice, in sober tones, the voiceover reminded us that ‘Dr Zucker, a leading expert on gender dysphoria, was fired’. Indeed, the entire documentary came across as something akin to Panorama covering the Ebola virus, rather than a discussion of medical ethics and issues facing a marginalised part of society. I’ve seen less militarised language in Warhammer 40,000.
‘The transgender community is on the march’ ‘The stakes have never been higher’. At one point, after being introduced to a transgender girl named Warner who seems happy and well-adjusted, we cut to archive footage of children playing set to eerie piano music and a creepy nursery rhyme chant, and for a moment I genuinely expected the next shot to be one of the empty streets of Pripyat. As a general rule, if your documentary is ripping off second-rate horror directors, you’re doing something badly wrong, especially if you’re dealing with sensitive subject matter.
Indeed, the question supposedly at the heart of the issue – should there be a minimum age limit on sexual reassignment surgery? what about hormones? what about puberty blockers? – was largely ignored in favour of Dr Zucker maintaining mildly disturbing eye contact with the camera while slowly explaining an extremely basic understanding of gender dysphoria.
I’m seriously starting to think that Dr Zucker was somehow involved in funding this thing, both as a way of regaining his credibility and driving business. The program is full of little touches that seem designed to instil in parents a crippling fear that their child might not be normal somehow, drawing connections explicitly between gender dysphoria and mental illness and childhood trauma. Oh, and while they’re at it they also suggest that most kids with gender dysphoria are just homosexual. Because of course, all gay men are feminine and all lesbians are butch, which is true if you’re operating off an understanding of homosexuality based on ‘90s sitcoms.
I’m seriously starting to think that Dr Zucker was somehow involved in funding this thing
This reminds me of a sponsored content article churned out to generate clicks more than a serious discussion. That’s not to mention the explicit treatment of Dr Zucker’s firing as some kind of major event. He was fired because he was out of touch. While this program seems to think that’s because of political correctness gone mad, he’s a doctor. Doctors tend to be required to remain up to date on the prevailing medical theory. If they do not, they aren’t really fit to be doctors, and yet here we are.
To be fair, BBC balance is fully in effect: we do get introduced to Warner, who seems like a decent kid, a child psychologist called Herschel (whose cheery attitude and generally upbeat and sensible demeanour does wonders to defuse the ‘Transgender activists are coming for your children’ attitude elsewhere in the program) and a number of others who aren’t openly bug-eyed lunatics or part of a sinister conspiracy to steal everyone’s genders. There were some moments, such as Dr Herschel laughing about how transgender people force everyone to re-evaluate their ideas, and a brief visit to a transgender summer camp and some fiery rhetoric from Canadian politician and trans rights activist Cheri DiNovo, which are genuinely positive.
Unfortunately, however, the whole tone of the documentary phrases things as a debate between the ‘gender positive’ approach and Dr Zucker’s more… outdated methods. Zucker and his cronies spend large chunks of the documentary whining about some kind of all-encompassing conspiracy of ‘trans activists’ who are politicising the debate. According to the voiceover, expressing dissent with the gender-positive approach is ‘dangerous’ and many doctors fear for their jobs.
They aren’t strictly wrong. Transgender medicine is political. It always has been. To be transgender has been illegal, considered immoral or symptomatic of psychological trauma. Zucker’s search for meaning behind gender dysphoria is political, because it refuses to consider a non-traumatic cause for dysphoria. To whine about some hypothetical other side refusing to have a conversation and ‘politicising the issue’ by trying to remove the inherent stigma – trans or gender non-conforming people as damaged goods – is hypocritical.
They aren’t strictly wrong. Transgender medicine is political. It always has been.
Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best? is not unbalanced. Unfortunately, in being balanced it legitimises an outdated and harmful ideology as potentially toxic as the conversion therapy it at one point exploits for cheap menace. In addition, the editing is severely manipulative and shamefully biased even if the script is not, and glaring omissions are made. Transgender children are at high risk of suicide, we establish. No mention is made as to why that is: because they are growing up into a world full of people who hate and fear them – instead, DiNovo discussing this suicide risk is made to sound like some form of dark scaremongering, easily dismissable by people who don’t want to admit that their child is different. That, ultimately, is the issue with Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best? It’s reinforcing the validity of an outmoded form of therapy with the potential to cause real harm, under the guise of a ‘debate.’
Featured image © BBC2