Opinion

CBC's decision against airing Transgender Kids doc should leave everyone unsettled

Supporting transgender people, including their right to dignity, support and medical intervention, isn't at odds with taking a scientifically guided approach to determining the best outcomes for children. That's the view the documentary puts forward, and it's one that should be heard.

Ideology is now taking precedence over science

To be clear, Zucker wasn't against transitioning for transgender people. He simply challenged the notion that every single child who says he or she is of the wrong gender is actually transgender. (Jim Ross/New York Times)

To read a counterpoint, click here.

Last week, CBC was scheduled to air the controversial BBC documentary Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best? but scrapped the plan the day of, citing audience feedback and its own "further review of the doc." Activists had argued that the film was "harmful" and poised to "feed transphobia."

In actuality, the documentary offers a rare and factual perspective on the politicization of gender therapy by featuring interviews with Dr. Kenneth Zucker, a psychologist and international research expert on gender dysphoria in children. (Zucker also happens to be a former colleague of mine.)

Although his research and approach to therapy are scientifically sound, they counter transgender orthodoxy in ways on which I will elaborate below.

Zucker's approach

But first, some background: in December of 2015, Zucker was fired from his position at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), where he had served as head of the Child, Youth, and Family Gender Identity Clinic. Many activists who had petitioned for his removal claimed victory.

What was so controversial about Zucker's approach? In short, he did not blindly follow the current popular dogma of affirming young children who say they want to transition to the opposite sex. Instead, Zucker's therapy was informed by research that shows that the majority of gender dysphoric children desist by puberty.

Indeed, across all 11 studies conducted on this topic, including research published in the last five years, about 60 to 90 per cent of gender dysphoric children grow up to be gay in adulthood, not transgender.

Zucker's approach was not about "curing" transgender kids or conducting "reparative" or "conversion therapy," as some of his critics contend. Rather, it was about recognizing that it simply doesn't make sense for a child to undergo the challenges of a social or physical transition if they are likely to grow comfortable in the body they already have, on their own. That is the so-called "harmful" view the documentary explores.

To be clear, Zucker wasn't against transitioning for transgender people; he published academic studies supporting the use of hormonal blockers and cross-sex hormones for patients upon reaching puberty. He simply challenged the notion that every single child who says he or she is of the wrong gender is actually transgender.

The film also discusses the subject of detransitioning: a process whereby people who have transitioned end up regretting it and transition back to their birth sex. It also shed light on the theory that underlying conditions can be mistaken for gender dysphoria, including autism and borderline personality disorder.

When Transgender Kids was released earlier this year, I sensed a feeling of relief among my colleagues in sexology that someone was finally willing to challenge the "gender affirmative" approach, especially in a way that was made for public consumption.

Nowadays, clinicians face extreme pressure to endorse the early transitioning model for their young patients, even when it may not be the best way forward for them. That's certainly the message that Zucker's firing sent, and it speaks all the more to why the film needed to be aired.

Controversy in the U.K.

This is not the first time Transgender Kids has encountered controversy. Upon first airing in the U.K., the film was widely protested and has since been removed from the BBC's website. That's not altogether surprising: in extreme cases, transgender activists have harassed and intimidated sex researchers who produce work that counters their political agenda. That's a big reason why you'll be hard-pressed to find many new studies countering the early transitioning approach.

More recently, this activism has influenced Canadian policy by way of Ontario's Bill 77 —  the Affirming Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Act of 2015 —which incorrectly conflates therapeutic approaches like Zucker's with unethical attempts to change a person's sexual orientation. And Bill 89 earlier this year, which writes gender ideology into child welfare laws and justifies intervention on the part of the government if a parent does not affirm a child's gender identity or expression.

Now the activism has made its way to Canada's publicly funded national broadcaster, which has opted against airing dissenting views on this issue. This should have individuals on both sides of the debate feeling unsettled.

Supporting transgender people, including their right to dignity, support and medical intervention, isn't at odds with taking a scientifically guided approach to determining the best outcomes for children. But as is commonly the case with political movements, these nuances only complicate the narrative and cede opportunities for activists to gain further ground.

Those complicit in the silencing of legitimate science have lost sight of the forest for the trees. The issue is no longer about what's in the best interest of these children, but about winning, at any cost, the ideological war.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Debra W. Soh

Debra W. Soh writes about the science and politics of sex and holds a PhD in sexual neuroscience from York University. She co-hosts the forthcoming podcast, Wrongspeak, with Jonathan Kay. Follow her on Twitter at:

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