Melanie Sayarath ‘17
Assistant Features Editor
Charlotte told her parents at the age of 14 that she identifies as female. Without the support of her family, Charlotte, now 18, was unable to receive hormone-blocking treatments in her pre-adolescence, but has been able to receive estrogen treatments since moving to a group home in Waltham, MA.
In an episode from the new fifth season of VICE on HBO, entitled “Trans Youth”, Emmy- nominated VICE producer and correspondent Gianna Toboni, explores the pressing issues faced by the trans community and the decisions made by trans youths and their families regarding the process of transitioning.
Paramount among the many concerns these individuals and their families face is the fact that many treatment options available to them are still very much evolving and there is little long term data on the effects of transitioning before puberty that has been produced.
The film focuses on key stages of childhood and adolescent development that are critical to the effectiveness and safety of current medical therapies available for young people who are considering transitioning. Kai, a little girl from Texas is about to start kindergarten. As the youngest child featured, the pros and cons of hormone-blocking treatments are not an immediate issue, but weighs heavily on Kai’s mother as she knows it is something that needs to be address in the near future.
Max is an 8-year-old experiencing pubescent changes, a developmental stage at which hormone-blocking treatments would be of most benefit to transitioning. As Max and his parents work with transition counselors and health care providers, there are many unknowns about the treatments and several possible health effects to consider. At this particular stage, the effects of the hormone-blockers could be reversed if discontinued.
Another featured youth, Stevie, is a 15 year-old teenager from Pennsylvania, who is just beginning to receive testosterone treatments. For Stevie, the decision to receive testosterone treatments is a milestone in his transition. In many ways, this decision has consummated his transition, since once an adolescent receives hormone therapy, the process and developmental effects are less reversible than hormone blocking treatments started before the onset of adolescence.
Of all the individuals and families that Toboni speaks with, Charlotte is the only young person in the film who’s been without the support of her family. She is also the oldest of the group. Her particular experience of reconciling with her gender identity and of transitioning has been made especially hard without a family support network. This contributed to her being unable to transition until recently. The later start to estrogen therapy has had an impact on the outcome of Charlotte’s transition as well as her self-image.
Toboni takes a refreshing direction in approaching the issues faced by the trans community. Though she primarily discusses the complex issues of early medical transitions, the film itself speaks to the greater emotional aspects of these issues through the powerful perspectives of the young individuals she speaks with. I was able to participate in a group interview with Toboni and a group of other college news writers from around the country. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Kyeland Jackson, The Louisville Cardinal: How do you handle the sensitivity of the issue?
Gianna: Our approach was to just let the children speak. There are some tough questions that you have to ask, but as long as you ask it in a gentle way, and always stay genuine and respect the lines they’ve drawn. Someone asked me the other day after watching the piece, they said “you ask this question ‘how do you feel’ all the time.”
It’s very intentional on my part to ask questions that simply…because as the person is telling their story, they’re changing the way they’re feeling.
Emily Bice, Michigan Daily: Have you reached back out to any of these kids after the events with Trump’s inauguration?
Gianna: We didn’t focus too much on the politics. We really made a decision to focus on the medical transition because we felt that was what other media companies haven’t been focusing on….However, massive news this week and even just Trump being elected in November really affected the community, so of course we’ve been in touch the with the families. We’ve been talking to them pretty regularly, so of course they’re devastated. ….They don’t know how this is going to effect their health insurance, how its going to effect whether or not they’re going to be able to continue transitioning, the bathroom situation is affecting some of them. The short of it is, they’re devastated, but they’re not deterred. They’re still going to protest, still connecting with their community and they’re able to fight the way they were before this decision to overturn Obama’s directive came and before Trump was elected.
Melanie Sayarath, The Sophian: Even with the support of family members, healthcare plans still have trans exclusionary policies despite the Affordable Care Act. Obviously with the Trump Administration, there’s a lot at stake for the Affordable Care Act. Did the discussion of healthcare under the new administration ever come up because that wasn’t really something that was touched on in the piece?
Gianna: Yeah, so it’s a big concern for people. Every family that we filmed with was concerned about that but because they’re not super affluent, these are real expenses to them. They don’t know how insurance is going to change for them. They’re waiting to see what the Trump Administration replaces Obamacare with. That will be a huge indicator for them how they move forward. It’s expensive to transition. For a lot of these families it’s completely prohibitive if insurance is not covering it. It’s a really important question, and I would say one of the central questions that the community is grappling with right now. So we’ll have to wait and see what happens with the replacing of Obamacare.
Edgar Sanchez, Daily Cardinal: For viewers who are inspired through this episode, what can they do, how can they champion this cause and work to promote an inclusive community when their opponents, as quoted from Kai’s Mother, ‘There’s a lot of people in this world who hate my child simply because they exist”?
Gianna: I think that’s the reason we do this work… It’s to help educate people and then we help those influencers, policy-makers, civilians, educators go on into their communities and act in a way that they feel is appropriate… Senator Cory Booker told me something one time when we were doing a piece on the battle between religious rights and gay rights, and what he said was ‘I’m not trying to convince the people who don’t agree with me that the LGBT community deserves the same rights that we do. I’m trying to penetrate the people who are the silent majority, the people who agree with me but who aren’t speaking up.’ So I think it’s about speaking up honestly. It’s about talking to your peers and educating oneself. That’s the first step towards creating change.