This past week the BBC aired a documentary titled, “Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best?” In addition to this the National Post published a column and an op-ed that questioned whether autistic people—specifically, autistic children—are able to know their gender identity. One writer, Dr. Susan Bradley, accuses transgender activists of unethically influencing autistic children and youth. These articles tie in with the part of the BBC documentary that talks about trans children having higher rates of being autistic. There is also the ongoing case of Doctor Peterson at the University of Toronto and his arguments against recognising trans people. What all of these discussions are doing is attempting to delegitimise trans identities. Further, they are sending a message that children should not have agency into their own care.
What these types of articles and documentaries have in common is that they present the idea of a child being trans as a “terrifying” prospect. They portray those who are not more affirming of trans identities as victims of a transgender agenda. In addition they portray the option of being affirming as one that means that a child who is gender diverse must transition. This is not the case. What being affirming means is that one supports the person in their journey of discovery. These discussions take the approach that being affirming is being activist and forcing transition.
By portraying the transgender community and the experts that support healthy medical care for trans people as militant activists trying to push being transgender on people, we are seeing an attempt to turn back the rights of trans people. These arguments are similar to the arguments used against gay people. Rather than citing academic sources that are current and have sound methodology, these reports often use older studies or, as in the case of the Bradley article, religious documents. The Bradley piece, for example, cites an article from a Roman Catholic magazine which in turn references an article on a website that is a trans exclusionary radical feminist site. Strange partnership indeed!
Most of the time those against the affirming approach like to cite Zucker’s work and the approach his clinic took toward gender diverse children. The report on Zucker’s clinic stated that they could not say that the clinic did not engage in reparative or conversion therapy. The current WPATH Standards of Care state unequivocally that it is unethical to engage in treatment that aims to change a person’s gender identity or gender expression to match that assigned at birth. When I read articles published by Zucker and Bradley on the work done in their clinic the description is that of reparative therapy.
“If the parents are clear in their desire to have their child feel more comfortable in their own skin, that is, they would like to reduce their child’s desire to be of the other gender, the therapeutic approach is organized around this goal.” (Zucker et al, 2012, p. 383)
In other words, their approach will be organised around forcing the child to be the gender they were assigned at birth. The view they present is that if the behaviour is allowed to continue the parents are tolerating if not reinforcing the child’s GID (Gender Identity Disorder)(Zucker, 2008). In the BBC documentary, Zucker refers to his treatment strategy as seeking to help the child be comfortable in their own skin. This makes for a wonderful sound bite. He does not go into how this is achieved other than in very broad terms.
In reading Zucker’s work and listening to him in the documentary there is an underlying thread of blaming the parents for condoning the gender diverse behaviour of the children. This is often echoed by those opposed to any affirmation of gender diverse behaviour in children, particularly if it involves the child socially or medically transitioning. Parents who are public on Twitter and other social media are harassed with accusations that they are making their child transgender. That they are unfit parents.
The documentary and the articles in the National Post reference autistic people who are trans and gender diverse. The published research on this specific intersection is relatively new and is still being developed. The argument being made by opponents to transgender care is that autistic people can’t consent to medical treatment and cannot know the consequences. Some health professionals tell autistic trans people that because they are autistic they cannot know their own gender identities. In short, autistic people and autistic young people cannot consent to their own treatment.
The tone of the articles about autistic children and youth who are trans is that they are being influenced and converted to being transgender. This brings the discussion back to the ethics of working with trans and gender diverse children and youth. How do we determine if they are capable of giving consent to their treatment? Do we seek their assent if they are in a position where it is deemed they cannot give consent? For someone with developmental disabilities what are their capacities in understanding themself? These can only be determined on a case by case basis and it is incumbent on everyone who is working with the person to treat them as a human being. Provide them with as much agency as possible.
The resurgence of anti-trans reporting, especially about trans children, is only going to increase with the political situation in the United States being the way it is. In Canada we are not immune to this influence. This reporting includes a lot of misinformation, interpreting studies in misleading ways, and outright lies. For those of us who are working with trans people and their families we must be vigilant. For those of us who are trans and working to improve our own lives as well as the lives of others we need to be sure to take care of ourselves. The negative attitudes and media coverage can feel like a personal attack. They may not use our names, but they are attacking who we are and our right to exist.
Zucker, K. J. (2008). Children with gender identity disorder: Is there a best practice? Enfants avec troubles de l’identité sexuée : y-a-t-il une pratique la meilleure ?, 56(6), 358-364. doi:10.1016/j.neurenf.2008.05.010
Zucker, K. J., Wood, H., Singh, D., & Bradley, S. J. (2012). A developmental, biopsychosocial model for the treatment of children with gender identity disorder. Journal of Homosexuality, 59(3), 369-397.