Balance is not a one-dimensional, black-and-white issue, it is complex and requires a good deal more thought by broadcasters, especially when dealing with marginalised groups such as trans people.
One of the issues raised over Channel 4’s inclusion of trans people in its 4thought slot was the decision to include a “regretter” (someone who regrets their Gender Reassignment Surgery, or GRS) in the line up, as their commitment to “balance” in reporting. Yet including someone who regrets his gender reassignment surgery in this context does not achieve balance. As Christine Burns quite rightly suggested in her blog recently, the idea of balance in reporting appears to have been considered a simplistic and unproblematic area from the point of view of those commissioning and creating television programmes and urgently needs rethinking.
Less than 1% of people who have had gender reassignment surgery have ever regretted it, a proportion which has declined significantly in recent years. So to include a regretter in this series feels very much like “balance” gone mad. This is akin to having a homophobic right-wing Christian to give “balance” in a programme about gays and lesbians. Should a programme about ethnic minorities need to include a racist in order to achieve balance? Should Songs of Praise also include input from the atheists? So why should an evangelical Christian have their say about trans people when we don’t routinely ask the BNP for their opinion on ethic minority issues? Why should one particular group be singled out for “balance” when other groups do not have representatives of people who question their very existence included?
When including someone who has regretted his gender reassignment surgery, in this series Channel 4 have failed to consider the implications for balance in more than one dimension, and as a result have revealed the shallowness of their thinking about balance which led to inclusion of Charles Kane. Balance is not a black-and-white issue, it is one which can be multi-dimensional and including a regretter raises many more complicated issues to do with balance.
A recent, unfortunately as yet unpublished, study in Holland is actually suggesting that the balance between the need to prevent people who will regret having GRS from obtaining surgery needs to be carefully struck, since there is an opposite of “regretter." One of the individuals in the study, who was refused GRS, committed suicide as a result. There are also reports of individuals who have self-harmed and become victims of substance abuse. In this study, the individual who killed herself would account, on her own, for well over double the proportion of regretters in the UK. If you also include in this proportion those whose lives have been rendered almost unliveable by this refusal there appears to be a greater danger from refusing people GRS than permitting GRS when one is not sure. Of course the difference is that those who commit suicide because they have been unable to access GRS are not around calling for changes, whereas Charles Kane is.
So, in my opinion, we should stop being so defensive in the face of people like Charles Kane who, as Christine rightly pointed out, arranged his own GRS privately. There is highly likely to be a consequence if Charles Kane, the religious right or anyone else makes it harder to obtain GRS; that consequence is likely to be a far greater number of suicides and troubled lives amongst those refused treatment. Let us be clear, refusing GRS where GRS is needed can, and does, kill. In one case; that of Cameron McWilliams, who committed suicide aged 10, it is possible that this resulted from the perception that changing gender was not possible. Let’s remember that whenever anyone publicises regretters, they are potentially harming “refusees”.
As such, next time a TV station includes Mr Kane in any of its programmes, balance can only be achieved if a relative or close friend of someone who has committed suicide as a result of being unable to obtain GRS, or someone who has self-harmed or abused drugs or alcohol, is also permitted to put the case against any further restrictions in the availability of GRS. In addition, the entire issue of “balance” needs to be reconsidered by broadcasters. In practical, semantic, philosophical, political and social terms “balance” is highly complex and not a one-size-fits-all issue that can be applied in the same way in every instance.