Last night, I watched Louis Theroux’s Transgender Kids with a sense of “here we go again, another exploitative documentary about trans people”. My trepidation was not assuaged by the announcer warning that there would be scenes some viewers might find disturbing. I’m not sure which scenes he was referring to but presumably it was the blink-and-you’d-miss-it shot of Dr Curtis Crane’s computer screen showing the results of a phalloplasty. Hardly worthy of a warning. There are worse pictures on the news these days.
In the end, the documentary turned out to be a lot better than I’d feared. Mostly, this was due to Theroux’s presentational style and lack of prejudice about his subjects’ choices. He listened, asked pertinent questions and sympathised with the dilemma the parents found themselves in. Yes, he got a couple of things wrong, especially when he referred to a photograph of Camille when she was Sebastian and asked, “So, is it a he here?” I don’t think he meant any harm by the “it” word but “they” would have been a better choice. Theroux also had problems with Cole/Crystal who presented as both a boy and a girl depending on their environment. At one point, Theroux worried that they would need to choose at some stage, which reinforced the binary rather than celebrated the non-binary. Part of the utter joy of this particular child was that they delighted in being both. I hope they never have to choose.
For me, the most important point came about halfway through the documentary when the psychologist Theroux was following quietly explained that she enables her patients to transition because the alternative is worse. Suicide and attempted suicide rates amongst transgender people (mostly before they get access to professional help) are over ten times those of the average population. As the psychologist said, if these children decide they’ve made the wrong choice later in their lives, they can transition back, at least they’ll be alive to make that decision.
Personally, I found the documentary positive and uplifting. Other reviewers have found it sad and heartbreaking. I suspect, like most trans people who transitioned later in life when the physical changes are always harder to make, I was not alone in thinking how fortunate these children were to have loving parents who heard what their child was saying, found the right professional help and supported their choice to transition. I wish that kind of awareness had been around when I was a teenager.
If you are in the UK, you can catch it on BBC iPlayer here