Trans drama Butterfly is rejection and sexism dressed up as social justice TV

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The final part of ITV drama Butterfly airs tomorrow evening, marking not so much the conclusion of a TV show but the climax of a social justice event, at least if you believe the show’s makers and the largely rapturous notices. Starring Anna Friel as the mother of Max, an 11-year-old who’s born male but identifies as a girl, and broadcast in the last weeks of the government consultation on reforming the Gender Recognition Act, it’s clearly been conceived as an intervention on the side of the angels. Or rather Mermaids: Susie Green, CEO of the charity for families of trans children, was a consultant on the programme.

Max’s story closely tracks that of Green’s child Jackie. Like Jackie, who preferred the Little Mermaid to Action Man, Max struggles to play the part of the “real boy”, choosing pink skirts rather than jeans and dancing rather than football (something dad responds to with violence, leading to him having been kicked out of the family home at the start of the series). And like Green, who took Jackie to America for surgery at 16, Max’s mother turns to the US private system when the NHS gender identity development service (here represented by the fictional “Ferrybank clinic”) refuses to prescribe Max puberty blockers immediately.

What Friel’s Brookside kiss did for lesbians, Butterfly’s makers imply, Butterfly will do for trans rights. And as a Sunday night mainstream drama, it really is an incredible opportunity to take trans politics into the nation’s living rooms. The trans debate is often as arcane as it is furious, conducted in jargon-heavy blog posts, and bitter clashes between feminists who want to discuss the legal and social consequences of gender identity doctrine, and activists who want to stop them (by violence if necessary). Butterfly, though, is storytelling. It’s emotionally appealing. It’s accessible. It’s simple. In fact, it’s very simple indeed, which is why it’s quite boring, and also why it’s dangerous.

That’s a strong word to use of a primetime drama, but consider what Butterfly is telling its audience. It offers a starkly segregated version of childhood: boys do active, sporty things and girls are decorative and pretty. Max’s parents first of all try to “fix” him into having the appropriate interests – his dad with corporal punishment, his mum by treating the “girly” things as a shameful secret to be kept to the bedroom – and, when that fails, they solve the problem instead by recategorising him as a girl. The possibility that Max, like 60-90% of children with gender dysphoria, might simply turn out to be a boy who likes pink, isn’t given house room here.

Then there’s that jaunt to America for treatment. In the show, it’s a high-stakes decision for Max’s mother to make, but one that we’re never supposed to doubt is in Max’s best interests. The Ferrybank, with their advocacy of “watchful waiting” rather than filling out a shopping list of prescriptions, act as the story’s primary antagonists. After all, viewers have already been told unequivocally that Max really is “a girl in a boy’s body”. In the context of the show, any resistance to that isn’t sensible clinical caution, it’s just cruel. The lesson for distressed children and their anxious parents watching the show is: don’t trust the experts who won’t give you what you want.

In the real world, though, things aren’t so easy to call. Gender dysphoria has complex, multiple causes, and in children that usually involves the family dynamic. NHS clinicians, trying to address these delicate cases, increasingly find that anything they want to explore has been pre-empted by the pressure on parents to “affirm gender”: parents have often socially transitioned their child long before they reach the consulting room. Sometimes, parents have even started the medical course privately, via clinicians such as Helen Webberley – convicted this month of running an unregistered clinic, but still linked to by the Mermaids website.

The argument for rushing to treatment, as put forward by Mermaids and repeated by Max’s mum in Butterfly, is “better a happy daughter than a dead son”. In other words, children with gender identity issues are supposedly so prone to suicide that the only option is to stall puberty immediately, starting cross-sex hormones as early as possible. (This maximises the child’s chances of eventually passing as the chosen sex; it also costs them their adult fertility and sexual function.) In the first episode of Butterfly, Max follows this script by making a graphically portrayed suicide attempt.

But the script is false. The startling figures offered by Mermaids for suicidality in trans children are taken from self-selecting surveys that don’t control for comorbidity of mental health conditions. The NHS gender identity development service reports that less than 1% of its patients have attempted suicide; meanwhile, Swedish research has found that transitioning doesn’t remove trans people higher risk for suicide. In other words, the Mermaids version overstates the risk and then demands a cure that doesn’t work.

This isn’t just inaccurate. It’s damaging. In Max’s story, a child questioning their gender will see that suicide gets results: not just medical treatment, but ultimately the reconciliation of Max’s parents (the final scene of the last episode sees Max getting the longed-for blocker injection as his parents hold hands in the foreground, everything as it should be in the straightest of all possible worlds, the violent man back in the family fold). This presentation of suicide goes directly against the Samaritans guidelines for preventing the spread of suicide. Reckless politicising of self-harm is what endangers young people’s lives, not delaying irreversible medical treatments.

When Donald Trump is launching draconian measures against trans people, it seems obvious that the humane and liberal response must be the opposite of whatever he’s doing. But that’s to make the mistake of thinking we can only choose between two kinds of sexism: the patriarchy of the pussy-grabber, or the misogyny of “girls have pink brains”. Butterfly wants to be seen as a model of tolerance, but its lesson is actually a brutal one. As one gender identity specialist who watched the programme points out, Max is told persistently, insistently and consistently by his parents that he’s “wrong” as a boy. “This is not acceptance,” she says. “In fact, this is rejection.” Under the lipstick smile, Butterfly is a charter for something very regressive, and very cruel: the credo that children who can’t perform the “correct” sex stereotypes must change their bodies, or die.

Independent | I’m not surprised that the BBC chastised Jenni Murray over her transgender comments – this is what institutional sexism looks like

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Impartiality is the necessary fiction that allows the BBC to exist. A public service broadcaster that didn’t attempt to hold its head above bias would be untenable, and this is why the BBC’s editorial guidelines make it clear that news and current affairs presenters are not to publish their personal views on “controversial subjects”.

But what do you do when the controversy comes for you? When, however much you’d rather not be the object of dispute, you become the frontier in an ideological war? When what you are – and how you name yourself – slips from neutral to contentious, without you doing anything?

Jenni Murray has presented the BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour for 30 years, and she’s been a woman for even longer than that. At the weekend, the Sunday Times published an article by her titled “Be trans, be proud — but don’t call yourself a ‘real woman’”. Under that headline, Murray criticised some claims of trans activism (and she was careful to say she was talking about the extreme of the debate): that anyone who identifies as a woman has “always been a woman” no matter the age at which they transition, and that references to the female body should be censored in the interests of inclusion.

Read the full post at the Independent

New Statesman | Why gender became the ultimate forum for self-expression

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In November, the British high-street bank Metro announced that it was expanding its gender and title options. Customers could now register as “non-binary” rather than male or female, and as “Mx” rather than Miss, Ms, Mrs or Mr. In some ways, this development parallels the rise of Ms in the 1970s, which was popularised by feminists who wanted a title that didn’t identify women by their marital status. In practice, Ms marks women by their political affiliation instead (if you’re talking to a Ms, you’re probably talking to a feminist) but, even so, its first intention was to conceal rather than reveal information.

Mx does something different. To declare yourself a Mx is to disclose something about yourself: that your identity is outside what has become known as “the gender binary”, and you are neither man nor woman but something either in between or entirely other. This is a statement about who you are, and it comes with an implicit understanding that not being able to make that statement – or not having it recognised – is damaging. As the father of one gender-non-binary teenager told BuzzFeed UK: “When . . . you don’t identify as male or female and you only see those two boxes, then you don’t see yourself there . . . You are absent. That must hurt, and that’s what makes me angry.”

Read the full article in the New Statesman

First published New Statesman, 17-23 February 2017, as part of the New Times feature

 

BBC One – The Big Questions | Should we have the right to decide our own gender?

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On Sunday morning, I took part in BBC One’s ethics debate show The Big Questions, where the topics were treatment of asylum seekers, child poverty and (the section I was booked for) the right to gender self-determination. There are a few interesting moments to pull out:

  • At about 00:22:00, transwoman Rachel Hoskins gives a personal account of dysphoria, including “the real visceral thrill” of “putting [my sister’s undies] on” at four years old.
  • At about 00:30:00, I give a brief account of the gender-as-class-system position and why that’s not compatible with the principle of gender self-determination.
  • At about 00:38:30, a transwoman tells a story about being challenged on toilet access: “I said, ‘This is the way I’m dressed, I didn’t want to go into the gents and scare anybody in there.’”
  • There didn’t appear to be any contributions from transmen.
  • At 00:46:00 you can see gender in action as Nicky Campbell invites me to contribute to the debate and the man next to me (Ben Harris-Quinney) talks over me.

Watch the show on iPlayer (gender segment starts at about 00:20:00)

New Statesman | How society is failing transgender children

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In August this year, several UK councils issued guidance to schools on accommodating female pupils who wear binders. A binder is a constricting undergarment for the upper body: what it binds are the breasts, pressing them down to a flatness that the wearer feels is appropriate to their self-perception as masculine or gender-neutral. According to Cornwall Council, the binder is “very important to [the wearer’s] psychological wellbeing.” But binders have unwelcome physical side-effects too, including “breathing difficulties, skeletal problems and fainting.” Lancashire Council’s advice urges teachers to “monitor [wearers] carefully during physical activities and in hot weather. It may be necessary to subtly offer more breaks.”

When the NSPCC invited me to participate in a discussion on the subject “is society letting down transgender children?” (part of its Dare to Debate series), those guidelines were one of the first things I thought of. They’re written in accordance with the overriding principle of gender identity politics, which is that affirmation is all. Any bodily harms incurred count for little compared to the trauma believed to be inflicted by a “mismatch” between appearance and identity. It’s a doctrine that insists we’ve moved beyond the tyranny of physical sex and social pressure, and into a realm of pure selfhood where all must be able to live in accordance with their own inherent being.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

NSPCC Dare to Debate | Is society letting down transgender children?

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Update, 13 October 2016 – Following the withdrawal of Kellie Maloney and protests from trans campaigners, the NSPCC has cancelled the event. According to the statement they have issued: “the trans community have raised concerns and told us that they don’t support the NSPCC hosting this discussion”. In other words, they don’t actually “dare to debate” if there is a risk that the conversation might challenge the current conventions around transgender children.

Original post continues below…

On 25 October, I’m taking part in a event for the NSPCC’s Dare to Debate series, attempting to answer the question: is society letting down transgender children? As soon as they approached me, I knew I wanted to participate. Over the last few years, I’ve dedicated a considerable proportion of my writing to gender, and in the process I’ve changed my own position substantially.

Transgender rights have been described as the “next civil rights frontier”, but within the feelgood narrative, a lot of assumptions have been left unchallenged. Is gender an inherent quality that every human possesses, or a sex-class system that we’re socialised into? Is it possible to identify a child as trans without relying on sexist stereotypes? How does the prioritising of gender identity over physical sex affect women and girls? Are trans-identified youths harmed by the way issues such as suicide are reported? All these are left woefully unscrutinised in the current orthodoxy about gender, and any opportunity to explore them is very welcome.

The other speaker will be Kellie Maloney, the boxing promoter formerly known as Frank who transitioned in 2014. Maloney’s past includes the expression of homophobic sentiments (now repudiated), and a 2005 attack on Tracey Maloney when the two were married (Maloney has attributed this in part to the strain of living with a suppressed gender identity). My participation implies no endorsement of these acts. Gendered violence, and its effects on children, is something I expect to discuss at the event. I trust the NSPCC to facilitate a full and open discussion, and am delighted to volunteer my time for this debate.

The audience will be by invitation, but I will update this post if there are plans to stream it or release a recording.

Read more about the NSPCC and support its work

New Statesman | Are we trying too hard to be liberal about gender?

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When I was four, my role model was a small cartoon mongrel dog with a formidable talent for swordsmanship. Or swordswomanship, because I was convinced that Dogtanian (of Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds) was a girl. My reasoning went like this: I am the most important person in the world and a girl, therefore the most important person in my favourite cartoon must also be a girl. And many happy games of Muskehounds were played by me, in my dungarees, oblivious to the unlikelihood of a children’s cartoon having a female lead in the first place, let alone giving that female lead the lovely Juliette as a romantic interest.

Eventually I realised my mistake, decided it was unfair that women never got to be action heroes, and grew up to be a feminist with the Alien films on Blu-ray. But it could all have gone another way. On Radio 4’s iPM this week, the mother of a 10-year-old called Leo explained that one of the reasons she knew her female child must be either a boy or non-binary was that Leo’s fictional idols were always male: Peter Pan, Iron Man, Wolverine.

Read the full post at the New Statesman