“Shock UK’s first transgender pregnancy” screamed headlines in the Daily Mail this week, probably not doing much to shock its own readers, who have been reading similar things for several weeks. The Sun is at it too, pursuing the father in question so aggressively that a parliamentary motion condemning its activity has attracted cross party support. The tone of the articles is superficially neutral or sympathetic, even implying that it’s a miracle of the modern age that a man can give birth. Alongside this, opinion pieces attack what is seen as unnatural with all kinds of inflammatory language, and commentators casually suggest that both father and child should be killed.
There are two kinds of backlash going on here. One challenges the right of transgender (trans) people to be parents. The other, ostensibly more reasonable, asks what’s supposed to be so amazing about a person with a womb having a baby, regardless of how we refer to them. Both are underscored by serious misunderstandings of the social, psychological, biological and medical science involved. It is a testament to the hysteria surrounding these issues that they have been published without any apparent fact checking.
Take Peter Martindale’s contribution, “What is This Nonsense About Men Conceiving Babies!” (sic) in the Huffington Post, a publication which has enjoyed a good reputation on trans issues. Martindale, who describes himself as a human rights activist, may well have good intentions but his ill-informed argument only muddies the matter further:-
“If they had been born hermaphrodite (which happens not infrequently in nature), then there might have been some real story,” he says in reference to the parents in question. Hermaphroditism does indeed happen frequently in nature, but it doesn’t happen at all in humans. Some humans are intersex – having bodies whose primary or secondary sexual characteristics don’t fit with the usual expectations of either male or female – but unlike hermaphrodites they cannot reproduce as either male or female. Martindale goes on “Usually only one set of gonads is in a location that makes them functional, i.e. accessible; the other set is usually isolated deep within the body.” In fact, it is vanishingly rare for any intersex person to have more than one set of gonads. Occasionally both testicular and ovarian tissue is present, but in just the one set. This is well understood because non-functioning gonads, whether a person is intersex or not, often have to be removed because they represent a cancer risk.
Martindale’s subsequent imagining of a ‘sex change’ that involves creating fully functioning testicles in a person born with female anatomy is well beyond the bounds of what is available to trans people today, but his phrasing hints at the origin of many pervasive myths in this area. It may be surprising to many people to realise that it is very unusual to hear a trans person use the phrase ‘sex change’. This is because trans people are just as aware of biological reality as anybody else. What they may seek to change are the appearance of the body and the social role they live in. Few trans people frame their experiences in terms of being one person and turning into another – but, rather, in terms of becoming more able to express who they have been all along.
Does this mean that a trans person born with female anatomy will expect to always be a woman? No – rather, he will usually see himself as becoming more visibly the man he has always known himself to be. This doesn’t hinge on the nature of surgical procedures. It isn’t about the possession of a penis (after all, nobody would seriously deny that a man who loses his penis in an accident is still a man). Rather, it hinges on how we define a person’s gender to begin with. This is where the existence of intersex people is relevant, because it reminds us that we are not divided into two neatly separated categories. Sex at birth is determined on the basis of a collection of characteristics that don’t always go together the way we might expect. This should make sense to anyone working in the field of biology, where fuzzy boundaries are the rule rather than the exception.
It is particularly unfortunate, then, to see such a poor public awareness of what intersex is, compounded by press error. Within the last year, both the Sun and the New Statesman have run articles conflating it with bisexuality, whilst the Mail’s recent exposé on “Caroline the human hermaphrodite” has more in common with the logic of Victorian freak shows than with anything approaching reality. And this ignorance spills over into other matters. Recent newspaper criticism of trans men who give birth has focused on the notion that there may be unknown risks to their children because of their testosterone. Reasonable enough, you might think, but it elides the fact that many intersex people have both wombs and high testosterone, and successfully carry healthy babies to term, and we’ve been following their offspring for long enough now to have a pretty clear idea what they can expect in life. What’s more, where trans men have planned pregnancies they generally stop taking testosterone for at least two months beforehand. Unlike that subset of intersex people, trans men don’t naturally produce more testosterone than women do, so their levels will actually be lower than those whose children’s progress has been mapped.
Similar issues arise in relation to the shock expressed by newspaper commentators like the Telegraph’s Ed West at the provision of puberty blockers to trans children. According to West, these are “extreme treatments” for an “at best unproven” condition. The vast body of scientific work that has been done on gender identity aside, calling puberty blockers “extreme” is somewhat immoderate in itself, given that they have been prescribed for many years to children with precocious puberty (e.g. menstruation starting at primary school age, less rare than you might think) and they have no known dangerous side effects. This characterisation of what is now a widely accepted medical procedure undermines attempts to do the opposite of imposing gender issues on children – to give them time and space to grow up before they have to make life-changing decisions.
Attacks on the treatments offered to trans and intersex people are frequently backed up by quotations from the same small cluster of scientists, such as Kenneth Zucker, giving the impression that they are met with considerable opposition despite the fact that there is now widespread consensus about them within organisations like the NHS. This creation of false controversy mirrors the approach of groups attacking the scientific consensus on evolution and climate change. It creates confusion among a largely uninformed public. As the researcher Jane Fae has shown, the costs of medical procedures are frequently inflated, and procedures are misrepresented – for instance, Richard Littlejohn has described depilation for trans women as cosmetic when in fact it is vitally important to reducing the risk of infection in reconstructed genitals.
How much of this stems from hostility toward stigmatised groups and how much from laziness is difficult to say – it’s certainly the case that once an idea gets into the newspapers it is often just picked up and repeated, as if the Mirror were as reliable a source as a BMA journal. The stigma attached to ‘politically correct’ ideas can lead to an unwillingness to take some scientific work seriously, no matter its quality, and newspapers frequently dismiss it as contrary to the ‘common sense’ (or received wisdom) that every scientist is trained to be wary of. On other occasions, inconvenient work is simply overlooked or ignored. For instance, a number of recent articles have talked about the tragic lives of intersex people (itself a patronising approach) in opposition to the ‘lifestyle choice’ of trans people – ignoring a growing body of work by the likes of Antonio Guillamon, Elke R Gizewski and Lauren Hare which has found that at least some transsexual people exhibit neurological or genetic differences from peers placed in the same sex category at birth. As with the much-vaunted search for the ‘gay gene’, the real origins of transsexualism are likely to be more complex and there may well be more than one cause, but the notion that it is always a choice is, at the very least, scientifically problematic (and, as many trans people have noted, it seems unlikely that many people would choose to live with so much stigma).
When it comes to reporting on the intimate details of other people’s bodies, the press has a duty either to get it right or to say nothing at all. Otherwise our newspapers become conduits for misinformation that do not deserve the public’s trust.