We live in a world where access to social media allows anyone to express opinions on any subject, regardless of whether they hold qualifications to substantiate such opinions, or not.
I was listening to Five Live Investigates on Sunday morning (Feb 26th.) The focus of the programme was transgender children and specifically, whether their right to treatment via the NHS should be affected if they sought help privately.
There is no doubt that we are living in far more enlightened times when we talk about what it means to be transgender. However, when it comes to children, that enlightenment is quickly snubbed out: can a child really comprehend its gender identity and is that child emotionally mature enough to understand the implications of ‘changing’ that gender?
I fully support the idea of empirical research, but given that some people are only just coming to terms with the notion that transgender people exist, robust data is sadly some way off.
So, for the time being, we are limited to debate and discussion, opinion and experience. This tends to come from a range of sources:
- real life first hand experiences as a transgender person
- a friend or family member
- an expert practitioner who has worked with a transgender patient
So far, so good…
But then, for whatever reason, the voice of ‘Joe Public’ is thrown into the mix. A voice, which, more often than not, has no personal experience and may not even have come into contact with a transgender person, yet feels strongly that their opinion is valid. Sadly in many instances, that opinion tends to be overwhelmingly negative.
This is a delicate subject matter which is undoubtedly of public interest. Understanding, tolerance and the holy grail of acceptance (to whatever degree) will only be achieved through education. Debate plays a huge part in this process.
People should be presented with a balanced argument based on the experiences of those who work in the field and those who live this experience, with a view to giving the listener some real insight on the topic.
Sadly when negative uninformed opinion is thrown into the mix, it can have the effect of undermining the entire argument. This was exactly the impact of the tweets read out from listeners during Sunday’s programme. As I listened to what was a balanced and interesting argument, stating very different opinions, I wondered what exactly these additional voices were adding. To me they felt like hecklers. Schoolyard bullies, telling the smaller kids to shut up because they have no right to an opinion. I very much doubt that this was what the BBC was looking to achieve.
So my question is: Why do we give these negative comments airtime?
At the centre of this discussion, and others relating to gender variance in children, is child safety. Whatever we feel about the process, the child’s needs are paramount and these have to take priority above anything else. Often this is the only point on which those debating the matter agree.
Then, of course, there is the listener who is affected by the issues being discussed. The child who questions their gender variance, the parent who is going out of their mind with worry, the casual listener who is undecided on where they stand…what impact do these comments have on them? I can tell you, it is not balanced or neutral.
As a therapeutic counsellor who also happens to identify as transgender, I know we all experience our gender identity uniquely, no two journeys are the same, but, there are lots of commonalities and our early experiences form the basis of the rest of our lives living with gender difference.
I realise that, for anyone who has never suffered the incongruence of gender identity, this all feels a bit surreal, if you have never questioned your gender identity, it must mind blowing.
But for those of us who have questioned the very essence of who we are as a person, being questioned continually by the press and society is at the very least, emotionally draining, and when we hear Joe Public tell us to ‘get over it’ it undermines our very existence.
So maybe we should leave the debate to the experts. Everyone has the right to rant about opinions that differ drastically from their own. This is a democracy after all. But whether those rants should be given a public platform from which they can negatively impact those people whose very wellbeing the debate is being had in order to protect, is questionable.
written by Marianne Oakes, Head Counsellor for GenderGP