‘My name’s Josie…and I have a penis’
Age 8 and Wanting a Sex Change took an unusually empathic look at ‘gender dysphoria’ amongst children.
The issue of sex-change has the tendency to bring out the cynical side in people. There is sometimes the unfortunate temptation to assume that transgendered people are somehow wrong in the head, or frauds, or just freaks.
Thanks to highly dubious methods employed by Stalinist countries during the Cold War, in an effort to cheat at Olympic Games, some of the most high-profile transgendered people in living memory have simultaneously been disreputable impostors. The caricature of the grotesque, butch East German ‘female’ athlete was parodied in the 1984 film Top Secret! (1). Yes, that was a quarter of a century ago, but as the case of Caster Semenya – the South African athlete who was just this summer accused of being a man – showed, there remains a suspicion that some change their sex principally for deceitful purposes. Ergo, the transgendered are subconsciously associated with charlatanism.
Elsewhere, the transgendered are deemed to be mere fantasists, or a bit mental. This caricature, to use another cinematic example, was illustrated in a scene from the 1979 movie Monty Python’s Life of Brian. When Stan (Eric Idle) from the People’s Front of Judea declares that he wants to be a woman, his comrade, Reg (John Cleese), admonishes him and asks why.
Stan: I want to have babies
Reg: You want to have babies?
Stan: It’s every man’s right to have babies if he wants them.
Reg: But you can’t have babies!
Stan: Don’t you oppress me!
Reg: I’m not oppressing you, Stan. You haven’t got a womb! Where’s the fetus gonna gestate? You gonna keep it in a box?
Stan insists that he wants to be called Loretta because it would be symbolic of the PFJ’s struggle against the Romans. Reg retorts that it merely symbolised his struggle against reality.
Then there’s a third reaction: to regard sex-changes as symptomatic of a culture in decay, as proof that we are living in an over-sexualised, dysfunctional, modern-day Weimar republic in which we ‘meddle with nature’, are obsessed with bodily self-gratification and blur the pre-ordained boundaries established by the Creator. Sex-changes are the kind of thing that occur ‘in America’, a routine code for ‘ghastly, weird things that happen today in the United States and will be coming to the UK tomorrow’. To use a further cinematic allusion, in the beginning of the 1987 film Withnail and I, Marwood (Paul McGann) feels he must get out of a degraded, putrefying London. The final straw is when he views a headline in the News of the World reading ‘Why I HAD to become a woman’.
Considering its title, I suspect I wasn’t alone in fearing that this week’s Channel 4 Monday documentary, Age 8 and Wanting a Sex Change, would fall into the third category (2). The fact that the documentary was filmed in America further aroused the suspicion that it would conform to the ‘in America’ approach, and that it would basically be a salacious and prurient programme implying that the US is so utterly screwed up because now even its children are seeking gender re-alignment.
But I couldn’t have been more wrong. Age 8 and Wanting a Sex Change was a very sober, serious, sometimes moving, often depressing, documentary. If The Crying Game (1992) proved that the matter of transgender can be addressed in a sincere, sympathetic manner on the big screen, this doc showed that on the small screen the freak show, faux-serious, Louis Theroux technique needn’t be the default approach.
‘Hello. My name’s Josie. I’m aged eight and I have a penis’, the film began, bluntly. Josie was born a biological male and he used to be called Joseph until the age of six. Despite, by scientific definition, being a boy, and being dressed and raised in a conventional ‘male’ manner, Joseph was adamant that he was a girl inside. Joseph’s parents didn’t react well to his condition, which was later diagnosed as gender dysphoria, but eventually, if reluctantly, came to respect their child’s wishes.
Josie’s father remembers thinking ‘I lost my son’, while her mother recalls feeling ‘devastated’. But they made their difficult decision after the mother discovered Joseph in the bathroom, his penis exposed, clutching a sharp instrument. The boy’s intentions were obvious. So the parents were faced with a horrible dilemma. As the programme reminded us, for most children (alas, we weren’t told what percentage) gender dysphoria passes away with puberty, and the desire to change sex dissipates. But could a caring parent gamble on the few, potentially suicidal, years when young Joseph felt so utterly wretched in the hope that he would, literally, grow out of it? I don’t have children, so I can’t accurately empathise, but if I did, I probably wouldn’t have taken that risk either.
Another biological boy named Kie now calls himself Kyla. Like Josie, he would ask his parents ‘why was I born a boy?’. Kie’s mum and dad thought he might be gay (homosexuality ran in the family, the mother informed us), but when gender dysphoria was diagnosed, they were more accepting than Josie’s mum and dad had been. Kyla is currently undergoing hormone treatment to offset male puberty, a programme that seemed to work well with another transgender, Chris (formerly Julia), who is now a very happy 16-year-old young man. But there were no fairytale endings in this documentary. Chris’s father still can’t come to terms with the fact that his daughter is now his son; he had wanted a son, but didn’t want a daughter who acted like a son.
Was Chris’s gender dysphoria a subconscious reaction to the young Julia’s knowledge that her father had wished she had been born a he? The programme hinted as much, but didn’t pursue the point. This was the only, but major, flaw in the programme. Fascinating as it was in explaining the emotional turmoil that this condition engenders, it didn’t seek to explain what causes it. It did little to dispel the myth that all transgendered people have psychological problems, and didn’t explore whether gender dysphoria may principally itself be a symptom of hermaphroditism. Family upbringing may indeed also be a factor, but so can culture.
Josie kept talking about her main desire: ‘to get boobies.’ Might our sexualised society, and indeed a culture in which the boundary between childhood and adulthood is less clear, be a compounding influence? There was the insinuation that gender dysphoria and homosexuality are linked. Is this really the case, or it is based on lazy, old prejudice? I don’t know myself, but I’d like someone to try and tell me.
Cultural feminists might also take issue with one particular segment of the documentary in which we were told that Kyla, despite now being a girl, ‘still’ liked to play with ‘boyish’ toys such as plastic dinosaurs and toy trucks. Anne and Bill Moir did persuasively argue in their 1998 book Why Men Don’t Iron (3) that boys will invariably gravitate towards toy guns, soldiers and cars, while girls will be drawn to dolls and more creative and aesthetically-orientated pastimes, no matter how much parents try to de-programme their biological impulses. But it’s not very scientific to use the boys toys/girls toys dichotomy as a rule-of-thumb signifier of gender orientation. The programme can only have left the impression among some viewers that, if they saw their daughter playing with an Action Man or GI Joe figure, she must be gender dysphoric, or a lesbian.
Still, it was nice to see Channel 4 attempting to take an adult approach to an issue that can, for some children, be very distressing.
Patrick West is spiked’s TV and radio reviewer. Read his blog here.
spiked-issue TV and radio
(1) Top Secret!, YouTube (at 2.43 minutes)
(2) Bodyshock, Channel 4
(3) Why Men Don’t Iron, by Anne and Bill Moir
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