In the intensely fought, fast-moving fight for trans rights it can be difficult to understand exactly what the discussion is about. For those tasked with making decisions on trans issues in education, media, healthcare, law and politics, gaining insight into such a fiercely contested subject area is even harder. One false step and you’re might be piled-on by critics. Where might a politician or journalist fighting their way through the cacophony of differing opinions to make sense of trans issues go for help?
Well, they turn to experts of course!
But what if those ‘experts’ aren’t what they seem?
In discussions around issues impacting the trans community a cohort of ‘experts’ has emerged whose intention is to remove support from transgender people.
The approach has been twofold:
- Use existing experts who are ideologically, religiously, or personally opposed to trans people, to legitimise removing their rights, healthcare and protections. This might be through their professional work, or personal statements on media platforms.
- Present individuals and platforms as ‘experts’, despite them having zero relevant expertise or who have expertise in an unrelated field.
Expertise, neutrality and power
We trust experts. Experts are considered experts because they’ve typically undertaken extensive study, or have been working professionally in a field for many years. We expect our experts to be knowledgeable, balanced, and to prioritise the facts above anything else. Experts often follow professional standards, which act as an endorsement of their unbiased ‘expertise’. Because we have this high expectation, experts in law, medicine, politics, education, and policy often occupy positions of great influence and power. We turn to them, unquestioningly, to answer the difficult questions, and to make life-changing decisions over the lives of others.
Experts studying and working in spaces that impact transgender lives are no different. Doctors, teachers, academics, lawyers and politicians, are all in positions of great power. They get to make the decisions about whether a trans patient can access treatment, whether a trans pupil can change their name on the register or take part in sport with their peers. Their academic work informs judges and politicians, who in turn, make decisions about whether trans people should be protected by policies or law.
Experts are also human.
Behind every decision made, is a person making it, behind every article or report written, is an individual with their own value judgments writing it. Behind every policy signed is a person with power and influence and a lifetime of baggage and ideas and opinions and prejudices signing it. It is impossible to extricate ourselves from our personal beliefs, however impartial we like to think we are.
We live in a world that is systemically transphobic by default. The underlying expectation is that cis is the norm, and trans the ‘other’, the ‘lesser than’, the ‘outcome to be avoided at all cost’. There is a long history of narratives that reinforce the belief that being trans is bad, wrong, deviant, ‘an undesirable outcome’. This has, unfortunately, often been the stance within the medical community for many decades, but it is also a view that has permeated the public discourse. The documentary film ‘Disclosure’ provides an informed and evidenced-based explanation on how films have helped systemic transphobia take hold in society. Against this backdrop of negativity, it is virtually impossible for experts to not be influenced by transphobic narratives. Their personal opinions can introduce bias into how they interpret law, guidance and advice – and because of their power, their personal ideological beliefs and bias can have far-reaching consequences.
Beyond unintentional bias, a more insidious issue surrounding the increasingly polarised discussions on transgender issues has also developed. Some experts with strongly held beliefs are now using their influential platforms and ‘expert status’ to impact trans lives in a negative way. This handful of academics, politicians, doctors and media professionals, amongst others, are actively campaigning against trans-supportive healthcare, inclusive education, legal protections and equality for transgender people. For such people, it is their belief structure that drives them to action. While they may have professional guidelines, their values take precedence, and they use their professional standing, ‘expert’ status’, and access to influential platforms to promote their ideological beliefs.
CASE STUDY: HOW NEWSNIGHT USED ITS MEDIA CREDENTIALS TO PUSH AN IDEOLOGICAL NARRATIVE HOSTILE TO TRANS PEOPLE
On 22nd July 2019 BBC Newsnight presented the first in its most recent spate of reports on healthcare for trans kids. The segment was presented by broadcast journalist, Deborah Cohen, and researched by Hannah Barnes. As a qualified medical doctor, editor of the British Medical Association (BMA) in-house research publication, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and a BBC correspondent reporting on the medical field, Deborah Cohen appears to have all the credentials needed to be considered an ‘expert’ in reporting on trans kids healthcare.
However, what became clear was that BBC Newsnight reports on trans issues were being intentionally presented in a way that was biased against affirmative healthcare for trans youth. The BBC Newsnight segment and subsequent online BBC News article “Transgender treatment: Puberty blockers study under investigation” were so one-sided, that we wrote a blog to refute some of the many myths surrounding puberty blockers and provide some facts from widely recognised expert sources. You can read the blog post here.
That GenderGP had to fact-check and provide balance to a BBC News report was surprising, particularly as the BBC is bound by its Editorial Guidelines on impartiality, and should have been taking a neutral stance. Yet here the BBC was, presenting a factual segment, which not only used visual and narrative techniques to convey fear and disapproval about puberty blockers, but also referenced other ‘experts’ as credentialed neutral commentators on the subject of trans healthcare, when subsequent research uncovered they were anything but.
Cited prominently in this and subsequent BBC Newsnight articles – including those which disproportionately focused on people who detransition – were a number of apparently neutral ‘experts’. Introduced as Oxford University associate professors, ex GIDS employees, ‘healthcare science’ charity Chairs and Tavistock and Portman ‘whistleblowers’, these ‘experts’ – on the face of it – seem unimpeachable. Yet what the BBC article failed to mention was that this group of ‘experts’ are part of a collective who are actively campaigning to remove trans rights.
One of the ‘experts’ cited in the Newsnight programme was Oxford University assistant professor of Sociology, Michael Biggs, whose area of academic expertise is totally unrelated to trans issues. While Newsnight mentioned in passing that he had ‘attracted criticism from some in the transgender community for his views’ the programme also omitted that this was because of his vehement opposition to transgender people, which extended to setting up an anonymous twitter account so that he could tweet abusive comments about trans women, including colleagues at his own university. But to the Newsnight viewing public he was uncritically presented as a perfectly neutral ‘expert’, after all, who would imagine that an academic from Oxford University would do such a thing?
Similarly, Newsnight interviewed and presented a number of ex-Tavistock and Portman ‘whistleblowers’ as ‘experts’ on numerous occasions, yet failed to mention that they had nothing to do with the GIDS service or in treating gender-questioning kids. These ‘whistleblowers’ have also been prominently involved in multiple news articles, speaking engagements and lobbying activities, all with the express intention of reducing or removing healthcare and protections for trans youth – information that Newsnight also omitted. Simple desk research reveals that their views and actions are biased – yet this is never raised in any reporting.
In addition to the clearly biased Newsnight reporting, the key investigative journalist, Deborah Cohen, also used her position as Editor of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) – a publication for medical professionals – to further misrepresent healthcare for trans youth. Her position as Editor, qualified medical professional, and BBC reporter meant that her bias was left unquestioned by many. Fortunately there were some medical professionals who recognised the bias of the reporting and responded to the BMJ article:
“Investigative journalism has an inherent publication bias, it is difficult if not impossible to find a published piece of investigative journalism that did not purport to find what it went looking for. Furthermore, unlike scientific research the investigative journalist does not start with a null hypothesis. It is therefore highly questionable whether a piece of investigative journalism is the appropriate way to examine an unpublished scientific study and whether a scientific journal should blur the boundaries by publishing such a piece.” – Michael J Shaw, Consultant in Gender Dysphoria, Northern Region Gender Dysphoria Service
Deborah Cohen is not the only member of the Newsnight team that has been called out for their bias around trans issues. Previously presenter BBC’s Emily Maitlis was accused of breaching impartiality by comparing trans women to ‘predatory’ men while the BBC has also been called to defend its decision to dedicate significant amounts of time to ‘detransitioners’ despite ‘unverified claims’.
How is expertise being misrepresented in presenting trans issues?
In previous generations, if we wanted to know that facts were absolutely accurate, of the highest integrity, and free from prejudice, we would turn to an expert. These experts could be identified by their certificates of academic or professional excellence, their employment within respectable organisations, or through endorsements by other reputable institutions. Of course, facts could be questioned, and theories and research might change through time, but everyone knew that if you walked into a hospital ward and spoke to the person wearing a white coat and a badge with the prefix ‘Dr’, that you would be speaking with an expert medical healthcare professional.
That was until someone realised that if you just donned a white coat and stethoscope, called yourself ‘Dr’ and positioned yourself in a medical space, that you could trick people into believing you were an informed medical expert. It is this illusory ‘trick’, amongst others, that has been employed by individuals and groups currently lobbying against trans rights.
The misappropriation of illegitimate or unwarranted ‘credentialing’’ is not a new phenomenon. In the US, the well known example of the legitimate sounding ‘The American College of Paediatricians’, is named in part, because of its likelihood to be mistaken for the accredited and acclaimed ‘American Association of Paediatricians’. While the latter organisation has international standing within the medical community, the former is a fringe anti-LGBTQ hate group that pushes junk science via far-right conservative media, while filing legal cases opposing gay adoption and marriage equality. To the untrained eye, it is easy for someone to be misled that a report endorsed by ‘The American College of Paediatricians’ gives it credibility within the medical field.
This misleading ‘credentialing’ is not just happening within the medical field. Anti-trans campaigners have taken to presenting themselves as ‘experts’ in various fields, including education, research, academia, law and safeguarding; either through creating official sounding platforms, or by misrepresenting existing credentials as relevant to a completely different field of expertise.
What is ‘credentialing’?
Credentialing is the process of obtaining, verifying, and assessing the qualifications of a practitioner to provide care or services in or for a healthcare organisation. Credentials are documented evidence of licensure, education, training, experience, or other qualifications.
How pop-up groups are influencing trans narratives.
Taking inspiration from US hate groups, anti-transgender lobbyists in the UK have created a multitude of ‘pop-up’ pseudo-expert platforms over the past few years. These platforms present themselves as ‘official’ sounding organisations, giving themselves corporate sounding names, shiny logos and drawing an instant social media following from their fellow campaigners. Some platforms are founded by individuals who already hold influential positions in areas such as education, the legal field, or academic research, while others have no credibility at all in the area of trans issues.
A litany of social media accounts and websites have sprouted up in the UK, US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, with official-sounding names such as ‘The Society for Evidence-Based Gender Medicine’, the ‘Gender Dysphoria Working Group’, the ‘Detransitioners Advocacy Network’ and ‘Parents of ROGD Kids’ – ‘Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria’ being a made-up phenomenon which Lisa Littman, a Brown University researcher, reported on, recruiting participants from explicitly trans-hostile parent forums, while ignoring trans youth completely.
Once launched, these professional looking platforms are instantly validated by complicit members of the mainstream media; inserting their ‘expert comments’ into news articles, and insisting that these groups are cited for ‘balance’ about trans issues. As a result, the unsuspecting public are misled by implicit endorsements from media platforms such as The Times, Daily Mail, Telegraph, and even the BBC.
One of the most well-known instances of a mainstream media journalist imbuing expertise onto a newly created anti-trans campaign platform, was when days-old trans-hostile platform ‘Safe Schools Alliance’ was endorsed by Times journalist Janice Turner when they lobbied to get trans model Munroe Bergdorf fired from her newly appointed ambassador position with the NSPCC as documented here.
When observed more closely it can be seen that the founders and key members of these organisations have a high level of duplication between them, and that the different platforms are merely a ‘rebranding’ of the same group of people trying to influence different target audiences. Groups that campaign against support for trans people, especially trans kids, such as ‘Transgender Trend’, ‘Society for Evidence Based Gender Medicine’, ‘GD Working Group’, the ‘Bayswater Support Group’ and ‘Parents of ROGD Kids’ websites all can be seen to be signposting to the same small group of ‘experts’. In the instance of ‘Transgender Trend’ they even promote the award that the sole individual running the website was shortlisted for, in an attempt to add a veneer of credibility to their platform.
Techniques used by anti-trans campaigners to give their views credibility:
- Using academic titles like ‘Dr’ to allude to medical or relevant expertise, even when they’re in a totally unrelated field.
- Citing awards, which were given by organisations where fellow anti-trans campaigners were on the awarding panel.
- Holding meetings in prestigious locations, to gain endorsement by association i.e The Houses of Parliament.
- Being featured and quoted in mainstream media articles written by fellow anti-trans campaigning journalists.
- Being included in legitimate events or consultations – often via invitation from influential anti-trans individuals from within the inviting organisation.
- Meeting with influential people or organisations as a member of the public, then subsequently reporting that the influencer met with the anti-trans organisation.
- Individuals in positions of power within organisations and political parties using their influence to enact anti-trans communications, policies and services through privileged channels.
How transphobia in the UK is being used to influence trans policies worldwide
While the impact of this ‘credentialing’ by those with trans-hostile intentions is undoubtedly damaging to trans people, especially trans youth, in the UK, the effects are also being felt worldwide. In recent months, US publications have published articles explicitly stating that healthcare for trans kids is under attack in the UK – and it’s impacting the US. Such articles note that: ‘a wide range of new anti-trans organizations were formed targeting different areas of trans rights, health care, sex education and inclusion policies in schools’ while documenting the impact that the Bell v Tavistock case has had on trans kids healthcare worldwide. The article also states how: ‘in the U.S., the Tavistock case has no legal impact, but has provided plenty of fuel for the fires of anti-trans advocates and activists, who cheered the decision.’ and has been cited in a number of US bills trying to remove trans healthcare for kids. In fact , the Bell v Tavistock case is now regarded as ‘not just a canary in a coal mine – it’s a blueprint for anti-trans organizations and networks across the world for how to undermine trans-affirming care for youth.’ All of this has been enabled by the trans-hostile narratives and misrepresentation of supposed ‘experts’ in the UK media.
Other international publications have also highlighted, as we have, that there is a cohort of professionals using their credentials to mislead the public on trans kids healthcare. Buzzfeed reported on the ‘fringe extremists’ pushing flawed science to target trans kids, while exposing many of the same anti-trans healthcare professionals signposted as ‘experts’ by UK platforms. What is clear is that this is no longer just a UK problem, and that anti-trans campaigners with ‘credentials’ are now working as a network internationally to further signpost and endorse each other. What is particularly concerning, is that many of these individuals and seemingly legitimate looking platforms are also now networked with US right wing and evangelical organisations, well known for their extremist anti-LGBT campaigning.
How to recognise misrepresented ‘experts’ in trans discourse, and what to do about it?
There is no easy way to identify the individuals and platforms that misrepresent themselves as ‘experts’ in the field of trans issues. They have become very good at endorsing each other, and are enabled and supported by established media institutions and platforms through their contacts with influential individuals within those organisations.
However, with a little effort, it is possible to peek behind the meticulously created smoke-screen of trans-hostile ‘expertise’ that has been created with a few simple actions:
- Note the newspaper, TV programme, website, social media account any article or statement comes from. Is the editorial stance of the platform known to be trans-hostile? If unsure – look at previous articles, content or statements on trans issues – are they biased or do they use negative rhetoric?
- Look at who is making or endorsing any statement – Check their social media account. Do they call themselves ‘gender critical’ or primarily post or repost transphobic content? If so, they’re likely using their ‘expert’ credentials to endorse trans-hostile ideas.
- Search the name of the person claiming expertise in trans issues – Do they actually have relevant credentials? Have they made numerous negative statements on trans issues in other publications or platforms?
While trans issues may well be a minefield to navigate in order to get accurate information – one failsafe method of ensuring you get the facts you need to know on healthcare, education, media and policy, is to ask a trans person themselves. You can be sure that they will either have first-hand experience, or will know someone who does. Plus, having to navigate through the trans-hostile social landscape, they are adept at differentiating those people who are knowledgeable on trans issues, from the fake ‘experts’ with an agenda who exist purely to spin negativity and misinformation.