Last night, ABC’s Primetime Nightline ran an hour-long special on transgender identities, focusing in particular on the experiences of transgender young people. Overall, the special was positive and affirming, but it also fell into some journalistic traps and missed some important opportunities to highlight challenges the transgender community faces. Here are five critiques of last night’s special:
1. FALSE BALANCE: One of the five segments focused on an adult individual named Charles Kane, who transitioned to female and then back to male. Claiming that he regrets his transition, he had disparaging things to say about the transgender experience, including calling puberty blockers for young trans people “brainwashing.” His experiences are unfortunate, but not representative, and he has absolutely no expertise in transgender health to be critiquing other people’s transitions. His inclusion was unnecessary, irrelevant, and represented false balance .
2. ABSENCE OF ADULT ROLE MODELS: Kane was the only trans adult featured in the special and his was a negative experience. In highlighting the transition process, Nightline should have showcased the many transgender people who have successfully transitioned and are leading happy healthy lives to show what future these young people have to look forward to. Instead, the audience is left with lingering doubt that they’ll all regret being authentic with their gender identities.
3. SENSATIONALISM: Reporter Cynthia McFadden would not stop asking every trans person she interviewed about their genitalia. The experience of a transgender identity is so much more than whether an individual has had sexual reassignment surgery (SRS), let alone how their new genitalia might work. In fact, many transgender people do not pursue surgical options at all. All of the time spent on McFadden’s penis questions could have been used to better highlight the important psychological benefits of affirming an individual’s gender identity.
4. NO DISCUSSION OF HEALTH CARE LIMITATIONS FOR TRANS PEOPLE: Vanessa’s story of turning to prostitution to pay for her surgeries with a wad of cash in Mexico was a lost opportunity to discuss the health iniquities trans people face. One of the interviewed experts mentioned in passing that the community struggles with high levels of suicide risk because of mental health issues related to transitioning and anti-trans stigma, but the special neglected to discuss the complete lack of health coverage many trans people face, such as insurance providers that don’t cover psychological therapy, hormone treatment, or SRS.
5. NO DISCUSSION OF TRANSGENDER MOVEMENT OR COMMUNITY: An audience member unfamiliar with the transgender community might think that all of these young people are heading out into the world alone. The special didn’t discuss the larger transgender community at all, let alone the many resources available for young trans people and their families, nor did it mention the organizations working across the country to advance transgender equality.
Despite these critiques, the special still showcased some very positive portrayals of young trans people and the transition process. Hopefully, people who watch the special appreciate the importance of that affirmation. Watch the special on hulu: