It’s Time for the Media to Change the Record on Trans Healthcare

Transgender healthcare is in the news again. It’s been widely known amongst trans people for some time, but on the 6th of January, Guardian journalist David Batty reported that the General Medical Council is investigating private trans healthcare specialist, Dr Richard Curtis. In his article, Batty paints a picture of misdiagnosis, patient regret, and inappropriate prescribing.

Those of us who follow this stuff might be forgiven for experiencing a sense of deja-vu. Dr Curtis took over the private practice of Russell Reid from 2005. In 2007, Dr Reid faced a General Medical council fitness to practice hearing which was reported on by no other than Guardian journalist, David Batty. In his reports, Batty spoke of misdiagnosis, patient regret, and inappropriate prescribing.

It’s entirely proper for the GMC to investigate allegations of misconduct, and for the press to report on it, but it’s difficult for trans people not to notice how terribly one-sided it all seems to be. The doctors who seem to end up in front of the GMC seem to be those ones who are generally well regarded by trans people, and who have a reputation for helping us when nobody else will. Press reports concentrate on regrets about procedures which have satisfaction levels beyond the dreams of most other fields of medicine, where much larger regret rates are regarded as par for the course. They rigidly stick to a narrative about a dangerous procedure which gullible people are tricked into by reckless doctors and end up bitterly regretting.

The reality experienced by trans people ourselves is not recognisable from the press reports. In reality large numbers of us are used to being ignored, abused and ridiculed by doctors when we seek treatment. We are denied referrals, denied funding, denied prescriptions and humiliated by a medical establishment which many experience as institutionally transphobic.

Batty’s recent article prompted me to take to Twitter to highlight the hypocrisy of the media in how they report trans healthcare. I wrote:

I had a misdiagnosis which led to surgery I regret, and which has caused long term problems.

Here press press press! I, a trans person, had surgery due to misdiagnosis and I regret it. Come and get it, you know you want to.

The scarring will never fade. My mutilated appendage will never be fully functional again. It’s all true. Nice and juicy! Come and get it!

I was offered surgery after only two appointments with the specialist.

Less than five minutes later, and despite my painfully obvious trolling, the phone rang. It was a newspaper noticing that I’d spoken about surgical regret and could I elaborate? They lost interest when I said it was all true, but I was talking about surgery I had on my right hand in 2011. I apologised for wasting their time.

The misdiagnosis which led to me having surgery on my hand when I shouldn’t have done, and which made the existing problem worse, won’t ever be the subject of a GMC fitness to practice hearing, nor would I want it to be. There’s nobody at fault for what happened; it’s just one of those things which falls within the limitations of modern medicine. I may ultimately lose one or more fingers because of it, but these things happen and I am simply unlucky.

But I could not have wished for a more perfect example of the double standards at work here. Prompted by this, a few trans people started sharing stories of how they had been mistreated by their doctors with me. The next morning, I made a Twitter hashtag, #TransDocFail, to share stories about mistreatment and prejudice at the hands of the medical community. I expected a few dozen. Later that day I stopped counting at 2,000 and several days later, it’s still receiving new reports. Lots of the descriptions are harrowing: people being called “abominations” by their doctors, people bleeding to death being refused treatment by A&E departments, vast numbers of GPs telling people to pull themselves together, or “sacking” them as patients, sexual assault by unnecessary and repeated genital examinations, and so on.

The reports went on and on. Trans people watched it with sadness and resignation. Non trans people stared, open mouthed, barely comprehending how the healthcare system can treat people like this with barely a whisper in the national media. If this was happening in any other area of medicine it would be a national scandal, comparable in magnitude to the Saville affair, staying in the headlines for months and prompting widespread investigations.

I’m thrilled because I managed to speak about it for 5 minutes on local radio.

The media needs to end its transphobic obsession with transition regretters, because this wilful tunnel vision is blinding it to routine and systemic abuse of transgender people when we try to access health services. The LGBT movement wouldn’t tolerate it if the bulk of LGB coverage in the press was about loud and proud ex-gays. We shouldn’t tolerate this either.

5 thoughts on “It’s Time for the Media to Change the Record on Trans Healthcare

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful piece. The media indeed needs to change its tone when it comes to trans healthcare and “regret”. When I first told my family I wanted to transition, the immediate response I got was “but you’ll regret it!”, which they kept going on and on about (of course citing the newspaper horror stories) until I started to believe them, putting off transition until it was got to the point where it was a choice between either that, or suicide.

    Even cissexist doctors and academics cite the media when arguing that SRS shouldn’t be available. For example, see psychiatrist Az Hakeem’s ‘Transsexuality: A Case of the Emperor’s New Clothes’ where he cites the media regret cases, failing to report the fact that these actually constitue 1-2% of the trans population (which, of course, isn’t reported in the horror stories in the first place, creating the popular illusion that the regret rate is as much as ninety times higher than it really is).

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  5. I put in two carefully constructed complaints at the GMC about a certain doctor who, among other things, subjected me to a forced examination of my genitals and bullied me into a suicide attempt as a 17 year old. Though these events were over 30 years ago he put false allegations of mental illness on my record which took away my planned career. The GMC complaints were in 2008/2009 and supported by written evidence and even a doctors analysis of his notes.

    The GMC ignored the complaints & evidence saying that it is not in the public interest to investigate a crime against a vulnerable minor by someone who is believed to have taken up so called gender reassignment after doing this to me.

    He was also arrested by a child abuse officer on september 4th 2008 but nothing has been done …there is something of a double standard operating methinks

    As for David Batty, I have spoken to the PCC about his fraudulent reporting of Reid’s trial and “Patient B”, Paula Rowe in particular ..and will be following UP

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