Sunday, 5th February 2017, BBC1: “The Big Questions”

As a nod to LGBT history month, in this week’s episode of the BBC1’s “The Big Questions”, the programme included a segment about trans people. Specifically, the question as stated was: “Should we have the right to decide our own gender?”.

There was some questionable wording in the opening remarks, read out by the Chair (Nicky Campbell): we were told about recent stories in the news of “a man who was now living as a woman”, and “another woman, transitioning to be a man” who was to have a “sex change”; and, of the problems of trans people “placed in male or female prisons mid-way through their transition process”. All of these remarks suggest a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the problem, with the situations being described in the common news vernacular, rather than, one suspects, the language that the trans people in question would actually use.

This introductory segment – scripted, and therefore probably written by a programme researcher, not by Campbell himself – was of a notably different form that Campbell’s own language (unscripted) as Chair later on.

Overall, however, the Chair’s remarks, both scripted and unscripted, did seem sympathetic: “It is not a decision for some people. It is absolutely what they are”; “as a man of God, is this not a wonderful God-given glorious spectrum of gender?”.

Of the principal contributors, we had (seated left to right, and arranged broadly “most pro trans” to “most transphobic”): Susie Green (Mermaids, the transgender children support charity; herself, the mother of a trans person); Dr Rachel Hoskins (trans woman, writer, theologian); Daniel Hannan MEP, Conservative, South-East England; Sarah Ditum, journalist, The New Statesman (well-known author of transphobia in that outlet); Ben Harris-Quinney, The Bow Group (“Centre-right think tank within the Conservative Party“, not that this was mentioned on air); and Kathy Gyngell, Co-editor, The Conservative Woman (self-described as the “voice of social conservatism in Britain”).

We heard from Dr Hoskins (apparently, the only trans principal), who told us a summary of her story, later noting “If you’re trying to be happy, and you’re not an axe murderer, that’s all that matters”.

Interestingly, when the Chair introduced Dr Saunders, he did so with the question: “If an adolescent son or daughter of yours wanted to transition, what would you say to them?”. Dr Saunders tried to avoid the question, but the Chair pulled him up on the avoidance, and he repeated the question – this was good to see. His answer, second time: “I would encourage them not to do so, let me talk about …”. Chair: “What would you say, as part of your discouragement, what arguments would you make?”. Saunders: “It would depend on what our understanding of this whole phenomenon was” – an answer which still seems a lot like avoidance.

Dr Saunders then talked about this “new phenomenon” of increasing numbers of “gender-conflicted” young people seeking referral to Tavistock & Portman, including children “aged ten or less” – he seemed to be implying that this was a bad thing, but he offered no thoughts as to why it was bad. Later though he brought up “gay icons like Peter Tatchell and feminist icons like Germain Greer […] being labelled transphobic bigots and getting no-platformed … denied freedom of speech”, because they had “expressed their view that trans women are not real women” (so … they did have free speech?).  He also talked about changes being made “to appease the LGBT lobby”. Or, to put it another way: LGBT people spoke out about how bad things were, and helped get improvements implemented. Potayto, potahto.

Ben Harris-Quinney’s sole contribution was to raise the subject of a study relating to a young girl with dysphoria “thinking that at times that she was a rabbit, a cat, and other things” – which is of course absolutely nothing to do with trans people. Still, he informed us that was “covered by the BBC” (mentioned once), was conducted at Oxford University (three times), and it was a “medical study” (five times). None of which changes the fact that it has precisely nothing to do with being transgender – a point promptly made by Susie Green.

Kathy Gyngell’s principal moments were to state that “this is a war on reason and a war on science, and a war on men and women”, and to describe being trans as a “fashion” which was being “imposed”; an “intolerant ideology”. Later on she seemed to get outraged at anything that Susie Green (Mermaids) had to say, saying in increasingly animated tones, “That’s coming from ‘Mermaids’! I mean, Mermaids don’t exist! What are we into?”. Interestingly, Ms. Gyngell’s own web site states that “In 1999 she set up Minotaur Media Tracking”, so presumably her aversion to organisations named after fictional creatures is a relatively recent development.

Still, perhaps Susie Green could take some solace in the fact that, instead of attacking, say, the need for trans children and their parents to be supported, Ms. Gyngell instead chose to criticise the name of the organisation that was doing so.

Daniel Hannan MEP spoke principally on the subject of legislation to help trans people being a bad thing. Being trans was a “personal decision”, he told us, therefore you don’t need to involve the full force of state legislation. For example: if a trans person at work, says I want to use this toilet, this is a situation “that normal human relations will accommodate, they work out something that the rest of the workforce will be happy with”. Which of course completely misses the point, maybe even deliberately: “something that the rest of the workforce will be happy with” sounds suspiciously like “make them use the disabled toilet”, which is exactly the kind of discrimination that we do need legal protection from.

Sarah Ditum was on hand to lend us the wisdom of her particular brand of transphobic (so-called) feminism. She told us what she thought feminism was, and how “we can’t give up is the idea that gender operates in society … to women’s disadvantage, and men’s advantage” – which it’s not clear that anyone was advocating, so that seems to be something of a red herring to the topic in hand. Later on, she brought up the “80% desistance myth” – the same thing that had been raised, yet again, and wearily shot down, yet again, in the BBC’s Transgender Kids “This World” programme back in January.

The main heroine of the principals was Susie Green of Mermaids, who made a great many good points about medical care, self-harm and suicide, about the nature of being trans (“This is not a choice, this is not something that is chosen as fashionable”), the problem with labelling people (“Whoever and however you live is surely up to you. If you’re not hurting anyone else, if you’re not breaking any laws, I don’t understand what the big deal is about allowing someone to be themselves”) and many more points besides. But while she stood out as being the single strongest pro-trans contributor, the highlight of the programme was actually the audience – those seated in the second and subsequent rows.

We heard from a man (referencing the court case that the Chair mentioned in the opening remarks) who said he felt the children would be “better with contact with a loving trans dad than growing up in a patriarchal bigoted closed-minded community”; from another man, who said that when there is discrimination, that the law should be there to protect people; and from a trans woman, who related her story of the prejudice and discrimination she’d encountered when simply trying to use the loos in her local supermarket. Overall, the guests, around 65-70 people in total, did tend to applaud pro-trans arguments far more than those against.

We hear a lot about “debating” the “trans issue”, and on this programme in particular you’d expect that – it is, in essence, a debating show – and at least it appears that none of the principal participants felt they had been misled into an ambush, as has happened repeatedly on other programmes in the past. So they were all there to debate, and debate they did, and overall the mood of the room seemed to be more pleasantly pro-trans than one might expect (despite the best efforts of the majority of the principals).

From the wording of the question (“Should we have the right to decide our own gender?”) to the choice of the principal contributors (two pro-trans, three broadly anti-trans, and one wilfully unhelpful), this programme seemed like it had been set up to be biased against trans people.

However, that still begs the question: why even debate this at all?

With gender and gender reassignment as protected characteristics under the Equality Act, why does the BBC even think it appropriate to debate the validity of trans lives? Are we to look forward to future programmes debating “Should we have the right to decide to whom we are sexually attracted?”

Such programmes deserve to be consigned to history.