Channel 4 didn’t just get the trans debate wrong, they broke their promise

Munroe Bergdorf took part in Genderquake: The Debate

The problems with Channel 4’s Genderquake ‘debate’ were myriad. Such debates which question people’s identities always result in an end point of whether those people should have rights. In the current febrile, some would say toxic, media environment towards trans people, this is dangerous.

Such debates almost always start from a position that a trans person ‘becomes’ a gender rather than already is that gender. Trans people don’t have surgery to become a man or a woman. Instead some trans people have surgery to confirm their gender.

That’s the understanding that seems to escape television producers and commissioning editors. It only becomes acceptable, and even then only marginally so, to have debates about the validity of trans people’s identities if you start from the point that trans people become their gender. Science and medicine and increasingly sociology indicate such a starting point is deeply flawed.

But it never becomes acceptable to shout ‘penis’ at someone who has had one in order to try to intimidate them. That’s playground bullying. And it’s even less acceptable for the production team to do nothing about it.

In 2011, Channel 4 signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Trans Media Watch. They committed to:

  • Eliminating transphobia in the media
  • Ending the provision of misinformation about transgender issues in the media
  • Increasing positive, well informed representations of transgender people in the media,
  • Ensuring that transgender people working in or with the media are treated with the same respect as non-transgender people in equivalent positions.

Last night’s Genderquake: The Debate clearly breaks three of the four commitments.

Channel 4 must face urgent questions on whether they stand for trans equality

Media organizations have a terrible habit of engaging in corporate defense mode whenever complaints are raised. They look for reasons, however spurious, to defend the indefensible. Numerous LGBT organizations appear to have raised concerns about last night’s debate. Most trans activists refused to participate. Yet Channel 4 went on regardless. That is not listening and engaging. That is an arrogant belief in your own self-righteousness.

[Editor’s note: Channel 4 have released a statement defending their actions on last night’s show.]

It is for that reason that Channel 4 now rightly face urgent questions about whether they still stand by what they signed in 2011. If they do, then a big slice of humble pie is due. Otherwise trans people should refuse to engage further with them, and at a stroke Channel 4 will find it much harder to fulfill their diversity requirement.

Helen Belcher works with Trans Media Watch to better trans representation in TV, film and journalism.

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