dinsdag 18 mei 2021

Media reports about gender transitions of teenagers are not critical enough

More and more adolescent girls are registering at gender clinics. Dutch media should also highlight the downside, says Peter Vasterman.

Published in NRC,  May 17, 2021.

Dutch version here

At the Gender Talks helpline launched in March, peer supporters will talk to young people who have questions about gender issues, NRC wrote earlier this month. According to the report, transgender care institutions are inundated with applications, leaving 2,000 people on a waiting list: "Explanations for the increased medical need are the increased visibility and acceptance of trans people, and the improved care."

The report is typical of the coverage in many Dutch media about transgender issues. The tone is generally positive, the human interest stories dominate and the transgender advocacy organizations are the most important sources of information. It is all very empathic, as in the numerous programs, series and reports on television about transgender people.

But considering what is going on in the transgender world, it is remarkable that the media hardly pay any attention to the problematic sides of the gender transitions.

Indeed, more and more young people are registering at the gender clinics, but nowadays the vast majority are adolescent girls, not only in the Netherlands, but also in England, Sweden and the United States, for example. In the past there were more boys than girls, nowadays there are three times as many girls as boys at the clinics. This is evident from figures from gender clinics in many countries and from scientific research.

In addition, this new group deviates strongly from the classical profile of children with gender dysphoria, who often have a strong sense of unease about their biological sex from an early age - an important criterion for treatment. Many of those teenage girls have no history of gender dysphoria, but appear to discover quite suddenly that they actually want to be boys.

There is much discussion and controversy abroad about this remarkable development, but the Dutch media remain silent. One of the possible explanations is that the sudden increase in the number of girls is a result of social contamination, via peer groups at school, or via social media where popular transgender people can act as role models. The tipping point in the registrations (from 2012) exactly coincides with the breakthrough of social media among young people. And then there is also a striking overrepresentation of girls with autism spectrum disorders in this group. There may be other explanations for the increase, but there is not much research yet.

The international controversy not only relates to the question of where this suddenly emerging gender dysphoria comes from, but especially also to the question whether the gender clinics should immediately initiate the transition desired by these girls with puberty blockers (from the age of 11) and hormone treatments (from the age of 15 years).

The experts in the Dutch gender clinics also point to the problem that the usual treatment of years of counseling and making careful choices (after all, gender dysphoria disappears in a majority of young children), no longer suits this new group of transgender people.

Thomas Steensma of the gender team at VUmc, for example, explained in the Algemeen Dagblad (27 February): “We do not know whether studies we have done in the past are still applicable to this time. Many more children are applying, and also a different type. […] Why are so many girls suddenly experiencing dissatisfaction with their gender? That really needs to be investigated. ”

There are a lot of diverging views among practitioners: even regarding the most fundamental issues such as what explains gender dysphoria and the need for medical interventions at a young age, there is no consensus, according to a 2015 Leiden study among 34 practitioners in 17 gender clinics in ten different countries.

Dutch media have barely covered the controversial lawsuit against the Tavistock gender dysphoria clinic in London, filed by a mother who wanted to prevent her now 16-year-old daughter with autism from receiving hormone treatments and a 23-year-old woman who tried to transition back to being female. She blames the clinic for deciding on irreversible treatment too fast when she was 16 years old.

The British judge decided on December 1 last year that it is doubtful whether children under the age of 16 understand the long-term effects of this radical medication. As a result, they are unable to consent to this in a deliberate way. The Tavistock clinic is now no longer allowed to prescribe puberty inhibitors for children under the age of 16, and the administration of hormones to children under the age of 18 must also meet strict requirements. The main gender clinic in Sweden has meanwhile decided - also through Tavistock - to stop puberty blockers and hormone treatments for children under the age of 16. Here, too, an important argument is that the medical consequences of this experimental treatment have not been properly investigated (risks of infertility, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, etc.).

The coverage in the Netherlands about the Tavistock case was limited to the previously quoted AD article and a few pieces in the Christian newspapers. It is as if all the other media, including TV journalism, are ignoring this controversy for fear of, yes, of what? Fear of stirring up transphobic reactions? Fear of being blamed for transphobia yourself? Possibly, but in the meantime it is the task of journalism to report critically about the problems and dilemmas in transgender clinics and the causes and consequences of the striking increase in the number of girls who suddenly report gender dysphoria. That is not transphobic.

Peter Vasterman is a media sociologist.


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