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‘Inspirational’ transgender lives: what ever happened to healthy scepticism?

‘Inspirational’ transgender lives: what ever happened to healthy scepticism?

by Michael Cook | August 17, 2016

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Photo: Jackie Cohen  

Transgender teenagers have been getting very positive press in Australia this year. The latest episode of the ABC’s Australian Story features Georgie Stone, a 16-year-old boy who wants to fully transition to becoming a woman. (Watch the whole program here.)

The premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, is a strong supporter of his state’s Safe Schools program -- sex education for schools with an accent on combatting homophobia and transphobia. “Georgie’s fought hard to be true to herself and battle prejudice and legal challenges to get there,” he tells viewers. “And now she’s trying to make it easier for other young people who face the same hurdles.”

Basically the episode is designed to be a powerful plea for rolling out transgender policies in families, schools, medicine and the law.

To his (because he is still biologically and legally male) credit, Georgie is a strikingly intelligent, articulate 16-year-old, with chic clothes and lots of make-up. There’s no doubt that he believes passionately in his cause. “I feel like I can actually help people,” he says. “I’m hoping after seeing my story they can see a happy, free 16-year-old who came out the other side.”

What this means is that he has embarked on a three-stage process to becoming a female: puberty suppressing hormones as a 10-year-old, then cross-sex hormones, and finally surgery to reshape the genitalia. In Australia, children who want to transition need to apply to the Family Court for permission to take these powerful drugs – a condition which Georgie and her doctors are lobbying to have struck from the books. At 10 he was the youngest person ever to have been given a green light.

“I would have killed myself if my voice had broken,” Georgie says. “It would have meant people could no longer take me on face value.”

It’s impossible to watch Australian Story without feeling sympathetic to the quest of the winsome and self-confident Georgie to change his gender. As he and her parents, Greg Stone and Bec Robertson, and twin brother Harry explain, he has always felt as though he was not a boy but a girl. Accessing treatment is a matter of urgency. “It’s a human-rights issue,” his mother told another publication. “I don’t need biology to convince me.”

But is it a human rights issue or is it fundamentally a psychological issue? Is Georgie a victim of prejudice or the victim of a passing delusion?

According to the latest edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5, there is very little reliable data about whether discomfort with one’s birth gender persists after adolescence. Studies have shown that between 70 and 98 percent of gender confused boys and 50 to 88 percent of gender-confused girls eventually accept their biological sex after puberty.

No one knows why Georgie – or any other gender dysphoric child – feels that way, a fact which Australian Story failed to investigate. Theories range from different brain structures to fears of living up to expectations of conventional gender roles to traumatic childhood experiences.

Journalists are supposed to ask hard questions, but Australian Story didn’t. Its journalists accepted the family’s narrative of heroic struggle against social prejudice and legal rigidity. But there was a competing narrative hidden beneath the transgender pieties.

Greg and Bec, both actors, were older parents when they married in 1999. They were rattled by the arrival of twins. They spent so much time supporting the transgender twin that they neglected Harry. He lamented in the program that he fell into a deep depression "for quite a few years" – and he is still only 16. Georgie’s gender dysphoria initially caused conflict between the parents, with Greg wondering if Bec had been encouraging it.

And although the program painted a picture of a happy family, united in their fight for Georgie’s “rights”, we discover at the end that Greg and Bec split up three years ago. It was all an act, free-to-air theatre for the transgender cause. In fact, Georgie's family life is very problematic. Perhaps this helps to explain his desire to become a woman.

What kind of life will Georgie have as a transgender woman? Not an easy one, according to the meagre research on the topic. 

A study published in 2014 into suicide and the transgender population found “an unparalleled level of suicidal behavior among transgender adults”. This was compiled by the Williams Institute, at the UCLA School of Law, an LGBT think tank, and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. They concluded:

“The prevalence of suicide attempts among respondents to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS), conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality, is 41 percent, which vastly exceeds the 4.6 percent of the overall U.S. population who report a lifetime suicide attempt, and is also higher than the 10-20 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual adults who report ever attempting suicide.”

The risks of life as a transgender have been known for years. According to a 2001 article in the American Journal of Public Health, 62 percent of the male-to-female transgender persons on the study and 55 percent of the female-to-males were depressed; 32 percent of each population had attempted suicide. Dutch research has confirmed the same pattern of poor mental health.

Too often it is glibly asserted that kids like Georgie can deal with their psychological conflicts by transitioning to a different gender. They are either deceiving themselves or being deceived.  For many transgenders adult life is full of pain. Taking the easy way out by giving in to a teenager's demands may backfire badly. 

The fact is that there are very few facts about kids who want to transition to the opposite sex. Journalists, let alone doctors, parents and lawyers, ought to apply the precautionary principle: don’t risk a child’s happiness and possibly his or her life by supporting what may ultimately be a passing fancy.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

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