Portland, OR (November 4, 2008) -
It’s almost become de rigueur in daytime television for shows to have an episode devoted to transgender and gender non-conforming children and youth, so the TransActive staff wasn’t too surprised when we heard that “Dr. Phil” was planning to air such an episode. While initially optimistic the show could reach out to families that might not otherwise have the opportunity to learn about trans youth issues, we were, in the end, sorely disappointed.
From the beginning, Phil McGraw let his own bias regarding transgender identity in children run the show. Tellingly, the show itself was titled “Gender Confused Children,” an incredibly inaccurate and misleading characterization of the children TransActive represents. It is our experience that trans and gender non-conforming children are anything but confused about their gender, and that it is society’s refusal to meet them on their own terms that is the source of any confusion.
The show began by introducing Melissa and Tim, the proud and supportive parents of an 8-year old trans girl. This family exemplified how successful trans children can be when supported by their parents, but this positive outcome was soon undermined by Dr. Phil’s relentless and dismissive questions and commentary.
It’s hard to believe someone could look at a happy, well-adjusted girl who has consistently and vocally identified as female for five of her eight years and lived as such for two years, and still ask her, “Are you sure?” Nevertheless, Dr. Phil did so repeatedly. Even more chillingly, when Tim and Melissa brought up the serious negative consequences of trying to force their daughter to be someone she is not, up to and including the vastly increased risk of suicide, Dr. Phil appeared to blithely brush these concerns away.
Next on the show was Dr. Daniel Siegel, a previously unknown but welcome new resource for us here at TransActive. While we tend to be conservative in our endorsement of physical and mental healthcare providers, we were impressed by his understanding of the issues. Not only was Dr. Siegel’s understanding of gender and childhood development complex and nuanced, he was able to communicate his perspective in an extremely straightforward and comprehensible manner. However, Dr. Phil once again disappointed by juxtaposing Dr. Siegel’s testimony with that of another “expert”, Glenn Stanton.
Mr. Stanton is the Research Fellow for Global Family Formation at Focus On The Family, an evangelical Christian organization based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. While Dr. Siegel was able to easily counter each and every one of Stanton’s arguments (even at one point demonstrating that an example Stanton was citing actually disproved Stanton’s his own argument), Dr. Phil glossed over these misrepresentations of fact and research and continued to present Stanton as an expert on childhood gender identity issues.
According to Stanton’s biography, he is a graduate of the University of West Virginia, having earned a Master’s Degree in interdisciplinary humanities with an emphasis on philosophy, history and religion.
The final guest on the program was Mary, a mother whose teenage son identified as female from a very early age, but later recanted those feelings and chose live as a male. While such cases are not unknown, our experience indicates that many (if not most) gender-identity ‘reversals’ are the result of the child surrendering to external pressures placed on them rather then a genuine shift in the child’s core gender identity.
While initially supporting her son in his gender expression, Mary blamed herself for “encouraging” his behavior and her husband for not spending enough time with his son. She told Dr. Phil, “I was allowing him to be what he wasn’t.”
In the face of ever-increasing abuse at school and the beginnings of puberty, her son finally gave up and tried conforming to the gender expression standards set by society. While he professes to have resolved his gender identity issues and even “thinks of himself as straight,” his mother went so far as to say, “I don’t know if he’s being totally honest with himself.”
For those of us who work with gender non-conforming children and youth, such a story is an all too familiar example of how marginalization, misinformation and emotional abuse conspire to force a child into hiding their identity from everyone around them, often either repressing such feelings for decades or turning to desperate measures such as self-harm and suicide. For Dr. Phil, however, Mary’s son was nothing but a convenient justification for his own bias against being supportive of children in their gender non-conforming expression.
This show should prove a cautionary tale for parents or caregivers invited to be on a talk show highlighting transgender and gender non-conforming children. These shows may approach the issue with an ideological bias, often fueled by a desire to generate conflict, which then results in higher ratings. That approach may not have you and your child’s best interest at heart. No matter how poised, prepared, and confident you are, if the show’s producer film the episode with an agenda in mind, then that is the agenda that will be reflected in the final broadcast. If you are contacted about appearing on one of these programs, we suggest you do three things:
1. Do some research on the show in question. Have they covered this issue or similar ones before? Were the people on the show treated respectfully, or did the show exploit them and their stories?
2. Contact an organization such as TransActive and consult with them on how best to proceed. Request that the show have a representative from an organization such as ours on the program with you. Insist on knowing who the other guests on the show will be and do some research on them in advance of taping the program. If you do not feel comfortable with the other guests, make that clear to the show producer. If necessary, decline to participate in the show if your concerns are not dealt with to your satisfaction.
3. Make sure you and the show’s producers have an understanding of exactly what you are going to be sharing on the air.
The old adage that “so long as they spell my name right, all publicity is good publicity” certainly does not apply to public discussion of a child’s gender identity and expression. When guests with an idealogical bias against freedom of childhood gender expression are mixed with a live audience and the quest for high ratings you have a situation that, by definition, puts your family’s response to your child’s gender expression up for public referendum. Your child and family deserve more than that. We all deserve better than what Dr. Phil McGraw served up last week.