“Giant mess”: Why the media won’t report fairly on gender-questioning kids

This summary was written by a Genspect parent.

Many thanks to independent journalist Meghan Daum of the Unspeakable podcast for giving the complex issue of best care for gender-questioning children and youth the attention it deserves by hosting a three-part series this week with Dr. Laura Edwards-Leeper, journalist Lisa Selin Davis, and affected parents. Listen to the first episode (interview with Dr. Laura Edwards-Leeper) here and the second episode (Edwards-Leeper and two parents) here.

In the third and final episode of Gender Nuance, a three-part series hosted by the Unspeakable podcast, We Can’t Know: Lisa Selin Davis On Getting Comfortable With The “Giant Mess” That Is The Current Gender Conversation, Meghan Daum talked with journalist Lisa Selin Davis about the cultural and political forces that have played a role in the current gender movement’s prominence and why the media has failed to cover the whole story.

Lisa is the author of Tomboy, a book about the evolution of gender stereotypes, and is herself the mother of a gender-nonconforming child. Lisa’s passion and current work focuses on making room for gender-nonconforming children and people in our culture. She feels we don’t provide an environment where they can be understood and comfortable being themselves without facilitating them into another category associated with medicalization and also now requires everyone to change our understanding and definition of biological sex. How do we make space for these genuinely gender-nonconforming people to accept themselves and think, “I am perfect as I am and there’s nothing wrong with that”?

Some kids now think puberty is optional. We need to be able to object to that without being deemed hateful.

-Lisa Selin Davis

Throughout history and across cultures, gender-nonconforming people have always existed, but these people didn’t deny their biological sex or sexuality. The concept of gender identity is actually quite new. In the West, some people impose their ideas of gender identity into others and ignore the connection to sexuality. Lisa thus cautioned against the narrative that trans people have always existed, saying we should not impose our current understanding of gender, gender identity, and sexuality onto the past. That is not an academically sound argument. This concept makes us fight what it means to be male and female and tries to control how people talk. It is asking us to give up the biological reality of what males and females are and often leads to medicalization, which is very serious, with the long-term effects of natural puberty suppression unknown. Said Lisa: “You end up having to change your name and the way you look and trying to control how people refer to you when you’re not there. It is really so much more than ‘I just want to be me.’ Now it’s ‘I want you to arrange everything differently so that I can be the me I think I am.’”

Meghan asked Lisa why it is so hard to get the conversation about gender right. Lisa explains that now we have a whole generation with a different understanding of what it means to be human. What we primarily hear in the media is the narrative that “trans kids” are identifiable and require specific types of treatment without question. That narrative includes manipulating research to promote a desired outcome and suppressing research that debunks that outcome and narrative. Beyond the narrative, kids are groomed and then celebrated when they come out as “trans.” When someone realizes they have made a mistake (detransitioners and desisters), they are subjected to terrible bullying. And anyone who dissents or disrupts the narrative also experiences censure.

Lisa then recounted a piece she wrote for the New York Times in 2017 in which she said she supports trans kids but doesn’t think we should assume kids who don’t conform to gender norms can’t be the biological category in which they were born. The backlash against her was severe. She received threats and possible defamation. Then, in 2018 Jesse Singal wrote a nuanced article about gender for The Atlantic. The backlash was so intense that Lisa believes it was a pivotal point in changing how the media and institutions portrayed this issue. The media’s mission turned from reporting the truth or various versions of the truth or opposing truths to promoting social justice and protecting marginalized groups – it was no longer about journalism. Social media and echo chambers have contributed to many people really believing in the idea that we are actually saving lives by affirming kids without question and causing harm to trans people if we do probe. The narrative became that trans people are the most marginalized in the world, and if you don’t do everything they say, exactly as they want it, they are going to kill themselves. A narrative thus has taken hold that we must blindly affirm and not do any kind of exploration, that to even try to make someone feel comfortable with themselves is “conversion therapy.”

Some people like Dr. Laura Edwards-Leeper and others who disagree with this narrative are speaking out at great professional risk, while others don’t for fear of losing their jobs and being replaced with affirmers only. Edwards Leeper-confirmed in Meghan’s second podcast that the research doesn’t support this suicide claim. Lisa has talked to parents, desisters, and detransitioners who said they were told by doctors and therapists, with the kids present, that if they didn’t medicalize right away, they were going to kill themselves. Shockingly, some of the research about puberty blockers and mental health studies often cited in the media comes from a well-known activist doctor who doesn’t even work with transgender kids. In the comments on the studies, people refute his methodology and point out that the studies make wild and unproven claims. Many who work with the transgender population refuse to be associated with him and consider him dangerous. Nevertheless, he has become the go-to “trans expert” for the left-leaning media. However, these same left-leaning outlets are not giving opportunities to Edwards-Leeper, Erica Anderson, Marci Bowers, and others to have their viewpoints expressed as well (in fact, the New York Times told Anderson her proposed opinion piece was “outside their coverage priorities right now,” while simultaneously publishing several articles on the topic that same month). These experts believe the research doesn’t support a universal affirming approach without question and are afraid that suppressing the truth will ultimately backfire and be more dangerous for those who would actually benefit from medicalization.

The media’s mission turned from reporting the truth or various versions of the truth or opposing truths to promoting social justice and protecting marginalized groups – it was no longer about journalism.

-Lisa Selin Davis

At this time, many places, without any political motivation but based solely on the research, are starting to pull back or outright ban these medical treatments for minors. But North American media is not reporting that Finland, Sweden and parts of Australia are banning medicalization for minors. These important international stories should be reported everywhere, but they don’t fit with the narrative and so are ignored. Meanwhile, the American Academy of Pediatrics is telling doctors they need to affirm without question, even though the evidence has been rebutted. Doctors are treating potential suicidality with cross-sex hormones despite most of the current cohort not being good candidates for drugs.

Lisa ended the interview by saying we have to be comfortable with the fact that this is a “giant mess.” Many people have gained power and want to control the way we think about gender. We must resist that. We must be critical thinkers because medicalizing oneself is extremely serious. Some kids now think puberty is optional. We need to be able to object to that without being deemed hateful.

Why is the backlash so great? Said Lisa: Because it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Yet it is absolutely imperative we scrutinize why we are facilitating the medicalization of so many young people. If it doesn’t, then we have to change course, express dissent, and incorporate the experiences of detransitioners.

Lisa contends the way to get the story right is for the left-leaning media to accept this issue is messy and complicated and requires multiple viewpoints.

Image from Lisa Selin Davis’ website.

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