Visibility matters for transgender people. Its benefits are three-fold. First, it sends out a message to trans people who aren’t able to be visible that they are not alone, and that their worries and identities are legitimate. Second, it injects an element of humanity into what many people see as an abstract, obscure issue. People are more likely to be sympathetic to a struggle that they can put a face to. Third, it is a vital source of education for people who would otherwise never think to do any research.
That is where documentaries have a role to play. Five days after International Transgender Day of Visibility, BBC2 broadcast a documentary by Louis Theroux entitled Transgender Kids, in which Theroux goes to San Francisco to find out about the city’s progressive approach to young trans people. Among others he meets Camille, five, and Nikki, fourteen – the latter in the early stages of medical transition. We learn their stories, the difficulties they have been through, and see their human quirks and the emotions that bring their personalities to life.
Camille, who at one point challenges Theroux to a dance battle, goes about her important business as a child, seemingly unperturbed by the conversations going on around her. To her, being a girl is self-evident, and she grows visibly tired of the constant questioning as she pours Theroux a steaming cup of pencils. Playful, polite, adorning brightly coloured clothes and exuding happy contentment with life, her uplifting attitude leaves the viewer in no doubt as to the benefit of her being herself.
Nikki’s story is an emotional one of dysphoria, bullying at school and unstable moods induced by her hormone treatment. She expresses her hope for the future, but also feels that transitioning is magnifying the difficulty of ordinary teenage problems. We hear from her sister, who was initially unhappy at losing her place as the only daughter in the family but came to accept it. We are also confronted with Nikki’s fear of slipping faith and losing God from her life.
Camille’s and Nikki’s stories show to the viewer the hopes, fears, and everyday problems of being transgender in the real world. Many people on Twitter said the programme brought them to tears. Indeed, the reaction on social media, aside from the predictable cries that the kids are ‘too young’, was very positive. People were particularly moved by how supportive most of the parents were.
However, the programme was not without problems, primary among which was its gender-binarism. Theroux frequently uses terms like ‘he or she’ and ‘boy or girl’, implying that there are only two legitimate genders. This is partly a problem of presentation. Some documentaries feature an authoritative narrator, systematically firing off facts which have been carefully compiled. Theroux’s style is to ask gentle-mannered questions and feign ignorance, allowing the viewers to feel they are learning with him. It is endearing, but while it lends itself well to some topics, gender is not one of them.
This becomes most evident in the sections about Crystal, who goes by Crystal and ‘she’ at home, but Cole and ‘he’ at school and with her dad. Her mother is supportive, her dad is not. The way Crystal expresses her position is that she will live as a girl through childhood, but sees her adult self as a man. Louis appears confused by this delineation of gender. The prospect of a person being non-binary never comes up.
In another scene, he comes across as equally confused by the idea that a trans woman would not have an operation to remove her phallus, describing it as a ‘middle stage’. But, as the doctor explains: “there’s no dysphoria around her phallus, so why surgically remove it? We’re trying to solve dysphoria, we’re not trying to put everyone in a box that the rest of society believes in.”
Therein lies the problem with non-binary erasure. Non-binary people often run into a brick wall of ignorance precisely because they don’t fit into one of society’s boxes, and the fact that Theroux’s prime-time documentary had the opportunity to alleviate some of that ignorance, but didn’t, is a crying shame.
Then, on Tuesday, Victoria Derbyshire’s eponymous programme piloted with a segment on “two of the youngest” transgender people in Britain – or as Derbyshire put it: “boys who are living as girls”. The rest of the segment is sprinkled with equally concerning language. Whilst Theroux’s programme ignores non-binary people, Derbyshire actively reinforces the gender binary, stating that: “transgender means someone who identifies as the opposite sex”. If a programme aims to educate, the information should at least be accurate.
“You have two boys”, Derbyshire says to one mum, before asking if she raised them in the same way. This implication that gender identity results from bad parenting, or is simply a phase, is repackaged and asked repeatedly as if to coax out an admission of guilt. The next parents, a lesbian couple, are asked another salvo of similar questions. “But they are so young”, Derbyshire stresses. Later, she reads out the bigoted remarks of online commenters, as if their opinions are of value.
Hopefully the viewers will have listened less to the poorly planned questioning of Derbyshire and more to the girls themselves, Lily and Jessica, who explain how they feel a lot happier since beginning to present as female.
Visibility does matter for transgender people. But it must be done in an informed manner, and should never be centred around the bigoted opinions of ignorant hate-mongers. When discussing the lives of two young girls, why should it matter how whatshisface on Twitter feels about it? This is where Derbyshire’s programme falls down. Transgender Kids may have been a missed opportunity for non-binary visibility, but it sympathetically presented the lives of young transgender people for all to see without resorting to engineered controversy. In doing so, it demonstrated the emotional power of raw human reality – the most effective form of visibility.
Mariah Hickman (GR. Comment Contributor)