It was the most ill-conceived headline The Age’s sub-editors could have conjured: “Court Lets Girl, 17, Remove Breasts”. Published last month and syndicated nationally, the story concerns a transgendered boy named Alex who has been receiving hormones and living as a male from the age of 13. The sins of journalist Karen Kissane in her reportage, and, quite possibly, interfering editors, are numerous.
From the opening paragraph the tone of the article is sealed: “The Family Court has allowed a 17-year-old girl to have her breasts removed so she can be more like a boy.” Traversing a minefield of misused pronouns and dodgy Freudian psychology, the article intimates that Alex – and another female-to-male trans boy, Brodie – are transgendered because of their troubled family histories. It’s a dangerous tack to take by Kissane that does much to reinforce misnomers about gender dysphoria.
Attempting to explain Alex’s “problem”, Kissane says that as a child, when he was female, he identified very closely with his father who encouraged him to do ‘manly’ things like urinate while standing up (although this and other backstory details have now been removed from the online version of the article). After his father died, Alex experienced a deeply fraught relationship with his mother who was emotionally abusive and refused to recognise him as male. Oddly, the fact that the family were immigrants is also brought into view:
“Many complex issues swirl around this one distraught orphan who lost her homeland, her mother, and her sense of self.”
Apart from the flagrant use of incorrect pronouns – when Alex has long identified as male and is legally considered one, too – the statement highlights the sentiment underpinning the story: that physically transitioning from one gender to another renders someone an ‘orphan’ from their ‘true’ gender. Kissane refuses to grasp the idea that a person undergoing a sex change merely seeks to bring their external appearance in line with their psychological reality. The only thing such a person might be said to be an orphan of is the body they were born in, not, as Kissane suggests, their “sense of self”.
Going from bad to worse, she quotes ‘ethicist’ Nick Tonti-Filippini, omitting any mention of his standing as Associate Professor at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family. Filippini claims that trans people suffer from a form of “pyschosis” because “what you are trying to do is make a biological reality correspond to that false belief [that they are transgendered]”. Why Kissane approached a Catholic ethicist to for comment is anyone’s guess. The fact that she decided to publish his views – which go against the grain of both the experience of trans people and modern psychiatry – is astounding. Especially considering that not one trans voice is included in the article.
Kissane’s motives in writing this story are not entirely at fault – of course there needs to be careful consideration of minors being granted permission to undergo life-changing surgery. However, as a senior journalist at The Age, her inability to use correct pronouns, her implication that people might be trans because of troubled family situations and her misunderstanding of the very nature of gender dysphoria, is inexcusable. Especially considering that much of The Age’s readership, it is fair to assume, are not au fait with trans issues. Coverage such as Kissane’s sets back the struggle for trans people to be better understood, which, in turn, can only perpetuate transphobia.