Prime Time transgender report is ‘delicate, if a little patronising’

TV Review: Contributions of ‘Fr Ted’ writer Graham Linehan are ‘fantastically off-topic’

Protestors outside RTÉ against the inclusion of Graham Linehan in the ‘Prime Time’ Generation Gender report

Protestors outside RTÉ against the inclusion of Graham Linehan in the ‘Prime Time’ Generation Gender report

 

For a moment, as she welcomes the viewer to a Prime Time special, Generation Gender (RTÉ One, Tuesday, 9.35pm), Miriam O’Callaghan seems less like a current affairs anchor than a very sympathetic parent.

“When you’re lucky enough to have a child,” she begins, “either a son or a daughter, all you really want for them in this life is that they’re safe, comfortable and happy. So, when a child says they believe they are transgender… all you want to do is love them and help them to do the right thing.”

The intention, in this gentle introduction to a “deeply sensitive and very important issue”, is to approach delicately, if a little patronisingly. The report, after all, is prompted by a rise in young people seeking to change their gender, and an idea floated to extend the right to self-identify gender to 16 and 17-year-olds.

Why start then with an address to an imagined audience of parents – rather than the affected age group? Even a sympathetic stance can be faintly marginalising.

Besides, Prime Time had to know that it was doing little otherwise to calm an often incendiary subject, a flashpoint in identity politics that easily tips into scaremongering or the undermining of an embattled minority.

Before the broadcast, RTÉ was petitioned to discard an interview with the Fr Ted writer Graham Linehan, whose qualifications for inclusion already seemed suspiciously thin.

A Twitter firebrand, whom Prime Time’s camera portrays as an uncommonly furious typist, Linehan’s blizzard of tweets has rarely approached the matter with much sympathy. Last year he was given a verbal harassment warning by British police following reports by a transgendered activist.

Reporter Eithne O’Brien is wiser to begin with Gwen Doyle, whose school-aged son Will has begun transitioning within a more evolved culture, but who worried nonetheless about how to support a child going through a transition.

The 24-year-old Sam Blanckensee, now identifying as non-binary, recalled personal unhappiness growing up as a girl. For Will, we understand, change can’t come soon enough; for Sam it could have happened earlier.

Because there is no scientific test for gender dysphoria, acknowledging it is ultimately a matter of empathy, respect and trust. But because an estimated 30 per cent of transgendered people have mental health issues, that trust does not always come automatically.

Sara Phillips of Transgender Equality Network Ireland finds the idea of using psychiatrists as “gatekeepers” to transgender medical treatment a “big problem”: “that is a decision for ourselves to make.”

But subjectivity doesn’t make acceptance any easier. The personal experience of psychotherapist Stella O’Malley gives her pause. O’Malley believes she would have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria as a child, but that it was only temporary. “There is a danger that some of these children with gender dysphoria could move beyond it,” she says, but “medicalising the problem”, with puberty blockers, sets them on a one-way path.

Here the programme includes more entrenched opposition, such as the UK feminist academic Heather Brunkswell-Evans, retained to say that a trans woman is not a real woman, and, of course, a brief inclusion of Linehan, whose misgivings are as various as they are fantastically off-topic.

He argues that adolescent girls, typically unhappy with their looks, may be persuaded by “a few ideologues” that they’ve been born into the wrong body; that trans women outclass their cis counterparts on the rugby pitch; and, he adds, arms folded tight, that there are “predatory men out there… intact men, who I don’t believe are actually trans, who are taking advantage of this situation” – in female-designated toilets, changing rooms, refuges and prisons.

This is not a programme about aggressive trans recruitment, unfair sporting advantage or predatory imposters, though. It is about extending trust, choice, support and the capacity to change to young Irish people, in small but significant ways.

For an example with less rancour, last year’s documentary My Trans Life, told from the perspective of young transgender kids, is worth revisiting. It showed that to transition can be as profound and as simple as claiming an identity that fits.

“I’m just so glad that I could be trans without changing myself,” said one participant, choosing to forgo hormones and medical intervention. That the country’s Gender Recognition Act allowed her to do so, with respect for her decision, was a sign that a country could make important changes too.

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