CBC's Transforming Gender comes amid headlines over gender identity

Eleven Canadian transgender people tell their stories in Doc Zone feature airing Thursday on CBC-TV.

11 Canadian transgender people profiled for Doc Zone feature airing Thursday on CBC-TV

Transforming Gender, a documentary airing this Thursday on CBC's Doc Zone tells the stories of 11 Canadian transgender people in their own voices. (CBC)

Transgenderism has been prevalent in the headlines lately, with transgender characters on TV shows including Orange is the New Black and Transparent, and speculation over Olympic legend Bruce Jenner's gender identity.

Dr. Carys Massarella, a transgender Canadian physician who appears in the new CBC-TV documentary Transforming Gender, says having a celebrity face linked to the subject is a double-edged sword.

Dr. Carys Massarella of McMaster University says having a celebrity face linked to transgender issues is "a double-edged sword." (St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton)

"Yes, it raises the issue publicly, so that probably allows more people to become aware of transgender issues and who transgender people are," Massarella said in a telephone interview.

"But at the same time I think ... it sensationalizes the whole concept of being trans, which I don't think is helpful.

"Secondly, it makes people think, 'Well that problem is solved. Everybody is OK with people being trans, transgender people are successful — look at Laverne Cox, look at Janet Mock."'

Cox is a transgender actress on Orange is the New Black, while Mock is a high-profile writer who has come out publicly as a trans woman.

"That's what I call the transgender one per cent," said Massarella. "Those are the people who do have successful lives, who do live easily in society, but for many, many, many people, that's not their experience.

"I think we need to be aware that, yes, for a certain segment of the transgender population, life has become much, much better — but for a large, large, large percentage of trans people, it's still quite difficult for them to go forward with their lives and it's a daily struggle."

The most humane way to treat transgender people is to provide them with supportive transition care rather than some sort of a psychiatric pathologization and mental health cure.- Dr. Carys Massarella, transgender Canadian physician

Transforming Gender, airing Thursday (at 9 p.m. ET, 9:30 NT) on CBC's Doc Zone, profiles 11 Canadian transgender people (those who were born one sex but identify as another).

They range in age from 11 to 90 and have vastly different stories of how they came to identify as trans — for some it was as early as age two or three and for others it wasn't until well into adulthood.

Directed by Marc de Guerre, the doc follows their triumphs and struggles, from fighting for their civil rights to fear about being fired from their jobs and being denied medical treatment.

Massarella said she identified as trans almost all of her life growing up in Sudbury, Ont.

She had an epiphany as a kid while watching a TV program on Renee Richards, an American ophthalmologist and professional tennis player who had a gender change in the 1970s.

Massarella made the decision to transition from male to female about seven years ago.

Now, she's a physician at St. Joseph's Healthcare in Hamilton and at Quest Community Health Centre in St. Catharines, Ont., where she administers transgender care.

"Certainly within the last five to 10 years there has been a revolution in transgender care," she said.

"Before 10 years ago, most people would have been identified as having a mental illness, and the first thought was to send people to a psychiatrist, in a sense to be cured of their transgenderism."

Now, the medical community uses the term "gender dysphoria" over "gender identity disorder" to diagnose someone who feels uncomfortable in the gender that they're assigned.

And many health-care workers realize "that the most humane way to treat transgender people is to provide them with supportive transition care rather than some sort of a psychiatric pathologization and mental health cure," added Massarella.