Nancy Polikoff

Primetime Sends Mixed Transgender Message

Filed By Nancy Polikoff | September 06, 2011 8:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Media, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: ABC Primetime Nightline, growing up trans, LGBT television, news segments, transgender children

I was all excited about the ABC Primetime Nightline program last week on transgender children. Especially because in my class this coming week I am teaching about a court opinion in a dispute between divorced parents over custody of their son who wants to dress like a girl. The court sides with the father, who insists the child's gender variance should be discouraged. The case is as painful to read as those in which a trans parent loses his or her child after transitioning - including having parental rights terminated, the most extreme measure the state can take against a parent.

Just a couple of years ago, Barbara Walters did an extraordinary job covering trans kids on a 20/20 special. abc_transgender_jackie_nt_110831_wa.jpgSame network. I figured it would be just as good.

Well some of it was... The journey of a couple to understand their son who always knew he was a girl - including their decision to allow him to start a new school year, at age 10, as a girl. (The child's older sister goes into the classroom first to explain to the situation to the other students. Priceless.) The mom who wrote a book, "Princess Boy," because her son said that's what he was. Even the 19-yr-old MTF who finances her surgical procedures by earning money as a sex worker was powerful. It was hard to watch but it felt real.

But there was a catch - a big catch.

Let's call him the repentant transexual. A man who decided in his 30's to transition to a woman who later regreted it and had surgery to revert to being a male. What was the point of this segment? If I have to ask the old Sesame Street question - "Which of these things is not like the other?" - this segment wins and it's not because he regreted his choice. It's because he was never a transgender child.

That's right. A show about trans children - young people, some very young, who know they are not the gender that matches their bodies - with one segment about a man who never thought he was a different gender as a child and who makes his later journey sound like it was about fitting in with the trans friends he had later in life.

Maybe the producer of the show thought this added some kind of "balance;" maybe someone at the network thought such balance was necessary. But this wasn't balance. It was an adult describing a life trajectory completely different from everyone else's. All it will do is fuel the fire of those who are convinced there is no such thing as a transgender person, young or old.

Shame on you, ABC.

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The guy that changed back to a man was never a woman. He was a transvestite. What doctor would tell a man that likes to wear dresses he is a transsexual? He is a liar. He got knee deep in the pink fog and he couldn't slow down.

I actually think that people will take whatever they want from the documentary. If they are looking for a reason not to suuport someone's choice to transition, they will find it.
I think it does point out the need for appropraite psychological counselling for both the Trans person and parents
(if you're dealing with a child). The Harry Benjamin Standards of Care are there for a valid reason. I've only met a single person who regretted SRS and I am Trans and know a lot of Trans people. That one person NEVER had any real life experience living as a woman and his therapist never encouraged him to have the surgery. She was as mystified as I was when I heard he'd gone to Thailand to have SRS. He lied to the surgeon about having a letter from his therapist to approve him as a candidate for SRS. Now he regrets his decision. Go figure!

To me Charles Kane is the least of it. No, his segment didn't belong, nor is he any manner of expert on the subject of trans children. They stuck him on to avoid being attacked by the tea party nutjobs.

But almost worse is the continued assumptions by the producers of such shows that they're somehow accurately portraying the experiences of trans people when they're really satisfying their own prurient interest in matters that pretty much break down to: pretending to be a woman, penis, tuck penis, cut off penis... blah, blah, blah. Cynthia McFadden's questioning (which were really more statements of opinion) were awful. I felt embarrassed for Kim Petras. Yes, I think someone will glean information from it. As a child I remember seeing absurd articles about trans women in the 1960s and 70s and hanging on their every word. But it's time the discussion about such matters grows up, gets beyond 'trans for dummies' and really talks about their evolving lives and sense of themselves instead of asking creepy questions about a child's physical transition. Please.

@ ginasf,

I wholeheartedly agree with you. Media, and the public, need to get beyond the sensationalism to the next level regarding presentations about the positive childhood to adulthood constant evolution of Human Beings, regardless of how they may self-identify, and that is inclusive of all Human Beings.

If people want "sensationalism" they can turn on "reality TV" or TMZ or ET, or even Professional Wrestling.

TV, and other media, (in the guise of education) need to "evolve", and move to the next level of sincerely educating people, not merely entertaining. The way that they can begin to do that is becoming educated themselves... totally immersing themselves in the true reality, and presenting that, from truly educated/informed minds.

It has been said that "any publicity is good publicity." Well, it seems that there is a need to move to the next level beyond "any publicity."

Perhaps, it may also be thought that the public wants sensationalism. Well, if that is all that they are "spoon fed", then perhaps that the public impression that "spoon fed" sensationalism is all that exists.

If someone sits in front of the "boob tube" all day, then THAT is "reality" to those people.

I also feel that the segment about the back and forth "trans" person, is not congruent with the theme of the presentation, and is another attempt at sensationalism.

With an issues such as this, I often raise an eyebrow, and consider how countries fight wars with counter-intelligence.

Does anyone "really" know whether this particular individual "back and forth" person was "in it for real" or maybe was a covert infiltrator from one of those hate organizations? Counter-intelligence, to give standing to an organization that this person supports, covertly. As it can be for many Trans Humans, does anyone really know what is between this person's legs and/or what is between this person's ears?

"Conspiracy theory?" Perhaps. However one has to consider to what lengths the "other side" may go, to further their "agenda."


Hi Nancy - My understanding is that this program did not feature any FTMs. If that is correct, I would think that such an oversight constitues a greater imbalance. Can you address this?

I had the same thought/comment. I notice more and more a disturbing lack of recognition of "Trans" being more that just MTF; it seems as though FTM voices are invisible. This, of course, does a great disservice to anyone involved in the conversation. Just like the feminist movement couldn't be wholly inclusive without the voices of lesbians and women of color (straight and gay), neither can the Trans community be wholly inclusive without the voices of trans men.

I've heard of a handful of cases of regret, and they all demonstrate one or more of the following...
1) Unrealistic expectations.
2) People with clothing (or other) fetishes believing they are Transsexual.
3) People with undiagnosed mental illness, or repressed trauma.
4) People who lied or circumvented the Standards of Care.
5) People who blamed the care-takers for pressuring them to have SRS.
6) People who had poor surgical outcome or hormonal results.
7) Kooky religious people who "find god" after they have surgery.

If I'm missing any, please feel free to add.

Gina and Jami hit the nail on the head. I too, grew up glued to every article or representation of someone Transgender or Transvestite (because the media didn't really distinguish back then) Is that progress? Perhaps. But, I like to think society has come further than that. It's time to elevate the discussion. The media is used to spoonfeeding viewers at a 5th grade reading level. (Maybe that fits into the Politico/Cultural agenda, but that's a diff. discussion)If we are to advance in gaining our rights, legal/employment protections, and yes acceptance then the public must see our real issues, real lives.
Progress, not perfection - Please!!

ABC's portrayal of transitioned and gender variant youth was more exploitive and stereotyping than positive or affirming. The erasure of trans men and affirmed boys from the program was irresponsible and misleading. I am proud that these young people represented themselves very positively in spite of ABC's sensational portrayal and Charles Kane's intolerant and misinformed attack on their health and dignity. Mr. Kane, like all of us, is entitled to his own life narrative and to be accountable for his own life decisions. He is not, however, entitled to impose his self-loathing narrative on countless thousands of transsexual women and men for whom access to hormonal and/or surgical transition care is medically necessary or even life saving.

The efficacy of surgical transition procedures for those who need them are well studied and very well established. For example, a very large scale comprehensive review by Pfäfflin and Junge (1992) of over 80 outcome studies spanning 30 years of approximately two thousand persons who had completed surgical transition procedures found less than 1% of subjects who regretted surgeries and reverted to their birth-assigned roles. The American Medical Association stated in 2008 that, "medical research demonstrates the effectiveness and medical necessity of mental health care, hormone therapy, and sex reassignment surgery as forms of therapeutic treatment..." for emotional pain caused by distress with one's physical sex characteristics or gender role imposed by others. Similar statements affirming the medical necessity of hormonal and/or surgical transition care have been issued by the American Psychological Association and World Professional Association for Transgender Health. As Rebecca Allison, M.D., noted in a 2009 presentation to the American Psychiatric Association, "Transition works. Outcomes matter."

In the end, I was awed by Ms. Kim Petras' poised and articulate remarks in the last segment of the show. This young woman is a rock star on many levels.