Transgender activism: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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Demonstration in the UK (Credit: Unsplash)

Over these two weeks, Singapore has seen ripples of transgender activism. It started when a Reddit post alleging that MOE intervened in hormone therapy made headlines. Authorities responded, denying the claims. They made a further statement saying that the final decision for such therapy rests with students and their parents. It reached peak visibility yesterday when five people, including four university students, protested outside the Education Ministry.

Current activism centres around transgenderism and the young, schooling population of Singapore. It’s a developing issue, as Twitter activists and alternative media continue to weigh in on the matter. While many are bringing this issue under the umbrella of LGBT rights, we note that transgender rights in Singapore are quite different from that of gay or lesbian. Locals who have undergone hormone therapy or gender reassignment surgery may already change their gender on their IC, and legally identify as their chosen gender. The issue at hand then, is about how much further the health and education systems should go in terms of transgender students.

In Asia, Singapore is not alone in facing such issues.

Last year in Korea, a transgender student was the first to be admitted into Korea’s Sookmyung Women’s University. Days later, the student withdrew, citing fears of opposition. While there was support from the school’s administration and alumni, other women had disagreed with the admission. They said such institutions were created solely for women, who traditionally had less opportunities than men. Others cited safety concerns. Some private universities in Japan have already accepted transgender students.

Regardless looks at the good, the bad, and the ugly of the current activism.

The Good

Singapore has been slow in changing policies when it comes to sexual minorities in schools. This caution has served us well in this area where such policies have wide-ranging implications on the whole of society. There is now a chance to look at other countries’ policies, and to learn from them.

Transgender issues for children and teens are highly controversial. Extreme activism in Anglo-centric countries has tried to block proper dialogue about it; any opinion resembling opposition to transgender rights is labelled as “transphobic,” and therefore silenced.

We take a look at three examples.

1. Research Paper Under Fire

Under immense pressure, Brown University pulled a press release highlighting a paper by one of their researchers, Dr Lisa Littman. The physician had written on “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria,” a term she coined to describe the “phenomenon whereby teens and young adults who did not exhibit childhood signs of gender issues appeared to suddenly identify as transgender.”

Based on parents’ reports, she found that for more than one third of friendship groups, at least half of the youths studied became transgender-identified in a similar time frame. This was a “localized increase to more than 70 times the expected prevalence rate” of 0.7%. She argued that this merited urgent further study. Due to the huge backlash, the journal that published her paper conducted a post-publication assessment, “involving senior members of the journal’s editorial team, two Academic Editors, a statistics reviewer, and an external expert reviewer.” Her paper was eventually re-published with minor changes and clarifications of her research methodology, but its conclusion remained.

Context is key. The journal clarified that the paper fell under “descriptive research,” which often “represent[s] a first inquiry into an area of research,” and is used to “generate new hypotheses that can be tested in subsequent research.” They added that no causal associations should be made due to known limitations of such studies, and the paper satisfied this. Dr Littman concluded that more research is needed.

2. Book Pulled From Supermarket Shelves

Abigail Shrier authored a book on the sudden increase in adolescent girls identifying as transgender. “Irreversible Damage – The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters,” created a stir. As above, accusations of “transphobia” caused US retailer Target to pull it from its shelves (though they’ve appeared to reverse their decision). Amazon suspended the publisher’s paid ad for the book. When socio-political commentator Joe Rogan interviewed Shrier, some Spotify employees called for the episode to be removed. A series of meetings were convened but Spotify CEO ultimately kept the episode on. Though Shrier has repeatedly voiced support for transitioning for adults, she has been labelled as transphobic.

Some journalists (including one transgender) have spoken up against the censorship. The Economist defended the publication and listed it as Book of the Year.

3. Gender Clinic Under Scrutiny

Over in the UK, the High Court recently decided that those under 16 were unlikely to be able to consent to hormone therapy. This follows simmering tensions over the NHS gender clinic’s treatment of young patients, with leaked documents alleging “fast-tracking” hormone therapy for young adults. In 2019, the gender clinic had also made an about-turn on their public position on such treatment. While previously saying that the effects were “fully reversible,” their website now admits that “little is known about the long-term side effects of hormone or puberty blockers in children with gender dysphoria.”

In addition to least 35 resignations from the clinic within 3 years, one of the governors of the Trust running the clinic also left, citing concerns over “an unquestioning “affirmation”-based approach to trans-identified children.” Mr Marcus Evans added that while it is “essential to examine” the phenomenon of a spike in patients, with girls in the majority, “debate is continually being closed down amidst accusations of transphobia.”

The Bad

While this developing saga presents the Education Ministry (and Health Ministry) with an opportunity to examine the issue thoroughly, it appears that they’ve left the decision to students and their families. This, along with mounting pressure from activists to be inclusive, is likely to detract from a proper evaluation of the complex issues surrounding transgenderism and youths.

Young activists fronting the current movement injects heightened emotional fervour into a topic already proven to be incendiary elsewhere in the world. Images of security guards and policemen dealing with the peaceful protesters are visually arresting, feeding into the narrative of oppression.

Some media coverage fed into the emotionalism. In the interview with Rice Media, Averyn, an activist who was at the scene of the MOE protest, recalled feeling less than human when attending single-sex primary and secondary schools. Averyn states, “knowing who I was made it really difficult to be like a full human being in an environment full of boys, where everyone expected me to conform to that expectation.” This perspective fleshes out just one difficulty when it comes to addressing transgender issues for students. What would have been the right solution for Averyn? Would it have been allowing different dressing or hairstyles – which would have affected the dress code for the rest of the school by extension, or would it have been to transfer to another school? Such emotional appeal is rhetorically powerful, but also worrying. Policy-making cannot be based on emotions, but careful consideration of many different moving parts.

Another issue to watch for is the potential source of pressure brought by wide international media coverage on such issues. Such pressure might skew civil discourse within countries. Last year in Thailand, where transgenders generally have more visibility, students took the streets to protest against gender norms. The protests gained wide coverage by UK and US media. These media outlets have their own interests of readership, and consequently funding; they do not serve the interests of the countries they report on. While unfettered coverage lends visibility and legitimacy to such protests and trans-activism, they are not directly responsible to the individual polities, especially in Asia. This power-responsibility gap must be recognised and addressed.

With such strident activism, we can only expect further polarisation between the trans-activists, and those they pejoratively label as “transphobes.” Other than the examples of censorship attempts listed above, we previously covered how Singapore’s online space is seeing similar attempts to silence anything opposed to transgender rights. If this continues, “transphobia” will eventually be rendered meaningless as a descriptor for any and all forms of disagreement, and such use will dilute its power to call out actual prejudice toward transgender individuals.

Incendiary rhetoric, if unchecked, will further polarise society. Resentment will build on both sides and make it harder to bridge social divides to reach a middle ground.

The Ugly

The young activists, now martyrs for their cause, are encouraged by older activists and groups who knew that the police will step in. It is one thing to push for change, but another to use or validate the illegal actions of younger Singaporeans. Some commenters who lauded their bravery acknowledged it was “ill-advised” or “reckless.”

Online validation of the protest also points to a growing acceptance of protest culture, now even more controversial amid the COVID-19 pandemic. International media coverage of youth-led protests in Hong Kong and Thailand fuels a narrative welcoming of such movements. Will excusing, celebrating, and encouraging protests lead to people taking to the streets more often amid the COVID-19 pandemic? What of crowd control and safe-distancing measures? In the longer term, does this set a precedent for emboldened youth activism in Singapore?

Seeking for change with wide-ranging implications, accompanied by loud claims of “transphobia” without substantiation, is counter-productive. Yes, there are problems that need to be fixed and psycho-existential pains which require redress. However, until critical issues are dealt with and questionable trends studied properly, unqualified protests for transgender rights for students will not help the Education Ministry do better.

The loudest and boldest voice in the room is not necessarily correct.

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