Our thanks to Woman’s Hour today for broadcasting a thoughtful and informative item about the recent unprecedented spike in teenage girls presenting to the Tavistock gender clinic in London. We are very glad to see this subject covered, when usually we only hear an unquestioning positive account of “transgender kids” throughout the mainstream media.
1,398 children and adolescents have been referred to the Tavistock Clinic this year (compared to 697 last year) and of that number almost 1,000 are girls. Girls have been over-represented at the clinic for the past five years, with the disparity between boys and girls increasing year on year.
Throughout their interview, both Polly Carmichael and Bernadette Wren from the Tavistock clinic referenced the “social revolution” and the rapidly changing context within which teenage girls are making the decision to transition. Various points were made, such as the fact that people are much more accepting now and we live in a world where people surgically alter their bodies, a possibility which did not previously exist. Dr Wren’s view: “I don’t think we should necessarily take a negative view of this” was echoed in her neutral stance on the “phenomenal unexpected increase” in the number of girls referred to the Tavistock this year: “it’s not for us to approve or disapprove.”
Although it was reassuring to hear that the clinicians see their job in terms of “holding” these girls, enabling them to “get on with their lives without necessarily jumping into the physical interventions,” we feel there does need to be an ethical debate about whether this is a positive or negative development, given that we are talking about medically unnecessary invasive interference with healthy bodies, with some irreversible effects and a lack of research on the long-term health effects. This is not something about which we can afford to be neutral. Use of terms like “social revolution” make it very clear that the recent transgender phenomenon is sold as a social justice cause rather than a medical one, but those adolescents caught up in it will nevertheless be medical patients for life as long as they identify as transgender.
There was some exploration of the reasons why teenage girls in particular may feel that “being male and having a male body” is an attractive proposition: that many young girls have problems with their bodies, hate the development of their secondary sex characteristics and find developments such as menstruation especially distressing. Reference was made to the pressure on girls from our very “visual culture” but it would have been nice to hear a more serious and thorough exploration of how much the highly sexualised, pornified culture which surrounds young girls today has exacerbated the body dysmorphia already common amongst teenage girls. The “anxiety about being forced down a particular path” posited as a motivation to transition would seem to fit what we already know of how the normalisation of porn has vastly increased the societal pressure on girls to accept their role as being primarily sexual commodities for men. Is it really surprising that so many teenage girls don’t want to become women?
The typical case scenario was described as a girl who has already gone through puberty, who previously thought her feelings of being different and not fitting in were to do with her sexuality, but “starting to learn about trans” at around age fourteen or fifteen has given her an alternative interpretation of her feelings. Although this was seen as “positive,” this is the aspect of trans culture which we feel needs the most serious examination: if young lesbians are being encouraged through online trans forums to re-identify themselves as heterosexual transgender men, this amounts to the erasure of lesbians. People may be more accepting of transgenderism now, but how accepting is our culture of lesbianism? Compared to the media circus around all things trans, lesbians are almost invisible. What help and support is there for teenage girls to accept and celebrate a lesbian identity?
Within the changed “social landscape” referred to as an explanation for the increased “honesty” in girls’ reasons for wanting to transition, there is no mention of this relentless media promotion of transgender ideology as truth, nor the susceptibility of young minds to the influence of the media’s portrayal of transgender people as cool, special and glamorous.
The interview with Sasha, a 26-year-old former transgender man, now identified as non-binary, represented clearly the reason why there is a great need for more understanding of girls’ typical problems at adolescence as well as a recognition of the social contagion of trans blogs, websites and forums: “There is a lot more information out there now and it is mainly females who look at these sites” says Sasha.
This very thoughtful young person described a history of being depressed at age twelve, with suicidal feelings expressed by cutting and self-harm; an adolescent who “didn’t fit in” and felt that life would be easier as a man because “certain paths would be more suited to who I am,” a clear expression of the rigid cage many girls feel themselves to be trapped in.
Sasha took puberty blockers at age eighteen, halting menstruation which eased the more triggering symptoms of dysphoria, and then moved on to testosterone after a year. Two years on testosterone was followed by a double mastectomy and chest reconstruction surgery.
What jumps out from this account are Sasha’s statements around the changing nature of identity:
“I identify as non-binary now, neither male nor female, very different to when I went to the Tavistock.
My identity has become more fluid recently.
I don’t regret anything, my decisions were right for what I was feeling then.
But now I think there may have been more options I didn’t consider then – I wish I’d taken things a bit slower and waited a bit longer.”
This was a very moving and honest interview which demonstrated clearly the issue of the immaturity of adolescents whose identity is not fixed but developing. It is noteworthy that Sasha’s current age is 26, just over the age when the brain reaches full adult development.
Given the current climate of silencing any debate, it was brave of Sasha to speak so honestly, and brave of Woman’s Hour to broadcast an account of a trans/non-binary person who expresses reservations about the process of transitioning. As far as we know this is the first time that a mainstream media outlet has done so, and they will no doubt face outrage from transgender lobbyists who will pronounce Sasha’s story as atypical and unrepresentative.
For all teenage girls however, and perhaps especially lesbians, stories like this need to be heard and we salute Woman’s Hour for giving this issue airtime on national radio.