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The BBC controversy, clinicians and the politics of gender identity

The BBC recently broadcast a program Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best?. Unusually for a mass media outlet, it raised challenging questions involving transgender issues. As far as I know it was broadcast only in Britain, but it is available online here (archive.org) and here (dailymotion.com). It follows the BBC’s earlier, uncritical support for transgender ideology (see here and here). Issues surrounding the recent program have been summarised by journalist Jesse Singal in New York magazine.

The film zeroes in on the controversy surrounding the late-2015 firing of Kenneth Zucker, a leading childhood gender-dysphoria researcher and clinician, and the shutdown of his [Canadian] gender-identity clinic — but it’s really about the broader controversy that has raged over this subject, mostly a bit beyond the attention of mainstream audiences.

Many people are upset the BBC aired the documentary at all — to them, Zucker is a monster who practiced a brutal form of “conversion therapy” in which he tried to turn transgender kids cisgender. These and other accusations peppered the negative coverage the documentary received prior to its airing, on sites like PinkNews (“BBC documentary features doctor who tried to ‘cure’ trans kids”), Gay Star News (“There are fears a BBC documentary on trans children will be ‘blatant transphobic propaganda’”), and the Guardian. More than 11,000 people even signed a Change.org petition arguing the BBC program “should not be broadcast until reviewed by experts” — experts, it’s safe to say given the content of the petition, who aren’t fans of Zucker.

As Science of Us explained in a series of investigative articles I wrote early last year, the truth about Zucker and his clinic is a lot more complicated. Many of the claims activists have made about him are false or seriously overblown, and the “external review” that led to his firing commissioned by the hospital which oversaw his clinic, Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, was absolutely riddled with errors and falsehoods. CAMH itself quickly decided it couldn’t stand by the review it had commissioned; after we reported that the single most damning allegation in the review was completely false, CAMH yanked the document off its website entirely, replacing it with a toned down “summary.”

In an update, Singal adds that on the morning after the program appeared, “the BBC Breakfast morning show broadcast a sensationally misleading segment on the subject — one which wrongly implied that Zucker engaged in a variety of abusive practices that he has never even been publicly accused of.”

Singal seems to accept the concept that some children are born into the wrong body, but he defends the chance for clinicians to do their professional work without being dismissed as bigots.

For other supportive views of the program see this post on A butterfly’s diary and this post from transgendertrend.

I want to touch on two issues here. One is the belief in “gender identity” which underlies a lot of the anger against Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best? and trans-critical progressives more generally. The other issue is the role played by clinicians.

The politics of gender identity

The process of sex stereotyping is so subtle, pervasive and continuous that over time it becomes deeply internalised. Our stereotypical behaviours and habits of mind seem to originate within ourselves, as Cordelia Fine points out in Delusions of Gender. For example, while “millions of marketing dollars” are “spent promoting a pink, frilly world to girls”, and this permeates girls’ peer culture, it might still come as a shock to politically correct parents when their daughter demands pink frills; they begin to worry that their efforts to resist stereotypes in her upbringing were just holding back their daughter’s true inner self (page 226, London : Icon, 2010 ed). Femininity becomes a “thing” that females just “have”.

Socialists and feminists in the 1960s and early 70s pointed out that this is a myth foisted upon us. The consciousness-raising groups set up by women’s liberationists were intended, among other things, to listen more critically to the “inner voice” that tells females why it just “feels right” to put themselves second, to take responsibility for others’ happiness, etc. – and to recognise its political origins.

Now the notion of inner, natural femininity and masculinity has been powerfully restored to respectability in Left and feminist circles. The inner voice is now called gender identity, and it comes with a small but crucial tweak: in a small minority of cases, this thing called femininity pops up in the male body, and vice versa.When boys long to be girls, or declare themselves to have always been girls, this does not originate from the accumulated social messages they’ve received about what girlhood is, it does not originate from their daily observations of actual girls adhering to stereotypes, or the pressures and restrictions of being a boy in our world, it comes from a mystical inner source, beyond biology and society. (During the Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best? program a trans psychotherapist and activist, Herschel Russell, says “A mother of a gender diverse kid asked her 8 year old… how come you know that you’re really a boy? And the child said ‘I know way down deep where the music plays.’ And i think that’s so precise. It’s non-rational, it’s profound, it’s beautiful, it’s deep, that’s how we know what gender we are and very young children know that.”)

This trend reflects discontent with sex stereotypes, but in a form heavily coloured by the neoliberal environment: the marginalisation of liberation politics; the rise of postmodernism with its contempt for the whole idea of human liberation; the drive of plastic surgeons and other specialists to expand their professional domains; the growing social acceptance of body modification.

Most importantly, transgenderism is now championed by the neoliberal capitalist class and popularised through its propaganda machine, as a weapon against women. There are also strong arguments (eg here and here) that it aids and abets homophobia and lesbophobia, because many same-sex attracted people face pressure – from family or community or their own internalised self-hatred – about the wrongfulness of their desires, which transitioning may be thought to solve. Young women may also see transitioning as an individual escape route from the restrictions imposed by women’s oppression.


The high ground

However, if you believe that gender identity is not an internalisation of stereotypes, but something true and vital to your inner self, anyone who denies it is denying you. Once you believe this, denying gender identity is comparable to denying the inner selves of lesbians and gays on the grounds that only hetero sex is natural and healthy. It becomes bigotry. The loudest and most widespread opposition to the trans trend comes from social conservatives, and very often they do say that trans identity and same-sex attraction are comparably unhealthy and unnatural. This obviously reinforces the commitment to gender identity politics among progressives.

So trans people and supporters have a very confident claim to the moral high ground, continually affirmed by the neoliberal capitalist media and by most leftists, feminists and LGB activists.

This raises the free speech issue. While liberals tend to support free speech generally, abstractly, leftists often say we should deny it to racists and bigots, pointing out that letting such people speak freely actually reduces free speech through the intimidation it imposes on oppressed groups. Once trans-critical progressives are seen as bigots-in-disguise there is a case for closing down them too.

It also invites comparisons to conversion therapy used on gay men and lesbians by clinicians – the practice of problematising same-sex attraction, and seeking “cures” for it. If inner gender identity is self-evidently true, why even explore possible social origins to it, unless you’re a bigot? In fact, there is no valid analogy between such work and conversion therapy of lesbians and gays. But that fact has been buried, so powerful is the coalition advancing the transgender trend.


The work of clinicians

Clinicians (psychotherapists, psychoanalysts, etc) are trained to look beyond the surface of what their clients tell them, to explore its meaning, try to unpack it, to try to see where it comes from and where it might take them, so as to give clients a deeper understanding of themselves and a clearer basis for making decisions about their lives. The clinician’s work includes asking questions about past and present family dynamics. At times this will mean coping with hostility from the client and/or members of the client’s family, and trying to find ways around this resistance.

Clinicians have their own political preconceptions. Socially conservative clincians will no doubt believe that adhering to the sex roles you were born to is the best way to a fulfilling life. A great many more clinicians now accept the assumptions of transgender politics. A few may have a political critique of sex roles from a liberationist perspective. These preconceptions no doubt contribute to their professional work, sometimes negatively, despite their attempts to avoid this on the grounds of professional ethics.

At the same time, the work of clinicians can’t be reduced to their politics. A skilled, insightful, experienced clinician may still be of great help to someone even if, for example, they hold traditionalist values. Certainly, it would go against clinicians’ whole professional training to let politics dominate their work.

Yet this is exactly what is happening. Clinicians are caught between the pincers of elite support for transgender ideology, imposed via bureaucratic hierarchies, and the pro-trans moral fervour of left-liberal activists. While some therapists have simply capitulated to the new politically-driven trans paradigm, others are finding that they have no room to criticise or to deviate from it.

It is very instructive to read the comments of clinicians who have resisted this trend. Take for example the commentary of Lane Anderson (pseudonym), writing on the 4thwavenow blog. “I am a licensed psychotherapist” writes Anderson. “I’m writing this post on my last day at a teen health clinic, where I’ve seen clients and their families for nearly a decade… After much soul searching, I felt I had no choice but to remove myself from this crippling work setting.”

In the past year especially, it’s become increasingly clear to me that I cannot uphold the primary value of my profession, to do no harm, without also seriously jeopardizing my standing in the professional community… for a significant portion of my clients and their parents, I am unable to provide what they profess to come to me seeking: sound clinical judgment. Increasingly, providing such judgment puts me at risk of violating the emergent trans narrative which – seemingly overnight and without any explanation or push-back of which I am aware – has usurped the traditional mental health narrative.

When I am suddenly and without warning discouraged from exploring the underlying causes and conditions of certain of my clients’ distress (as I was trained to do), and instead forced to put my professional stamp of approval upon a prefab, one-size-fits-all narrative intended to explain the complexity of my client’s troubles, I feel confused.  It’s as if I am being held hostage. No longer encouraged or permitted to question, consider or discuss the full spectrum of my client’s mental health concerns, it has occurred to me that I am being used, my meager professional authority commandeered to legitimize a new narrative I may or may not wish to corroborate.

It’s been perilous to simply admit to not fully understanding it all–let alone disagree with the trans narrative. There was no training or teaching. I was just suddenly told that some of my clients thought they were trapped in the wrong body and that was that.

The 4thwavenow blog also includes an earlier post with another critical perspective, from a clinical psychologist. Another blog, transgendertrend.com, includes a range of articles and statements from professionals questioning transgender diagnosis, one of them describing “a vigorous albeit suppressed debate among physicians, therapists, and academics”.


Clinicians, transgender and
women’s liberation

Clinicians have been caught up in a much wider struggle. Capitalism needs to maintain women’s oppression and that involves supporting the anti-woman elements of transgender ideology. This includes the mystical and alienated concept of gender identity, which naturalises and eternalises sex stereotypes, and has helped to drag leftists and liberals so far to the right on this issue. In response, we should defend clinicians who try to do their work unimpeded by bureaucratic fiat or pressure from the neoliberal mass media.

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