April 24, 2024


Barbara Walters’s program 20/20 on the American ABC network is not famed for its nuanced presentations of complex topics. So its lurid coverage of transgender six-year-olds gives an insight into the kind of bioethical advice that the public is receiving. What 20/20 found was that hundreds of American families with troubled children have discovered each other on the internet and are creating a movement for acceptance of children who feel that they are locked into a body with the wrong sex.

Jazz Jennings is one of the children featured on the show. Now six, he (although 20/20 insisted on calling Jazz “she”) has felt that he was a girl since he began to talk. After consulting medical textbooks and doctors, his parents decided to let him live as a girl, with frilly dresses and pink and purple sheets. They even had a kind of “coming-out” ceremony, when he had a pool party for his fifth birthday and wore a girl’s one-piece bathing suit.

Later on his parents will probably get him to have hormone therapy, take estrogen to grow breasts and possibly have sex reassignment surgery. This family policy leads to social complications, but so far there have been no big problems. His teachers know that Jazz is biologically male, although he dresses like a girl, but most of his little friends do not.

More children were interviewed in other segments of the program, all with the message that the most painful thing for a child with this psychological disorder was not letting them be who they want to be. Not accepting their feelings would undoubtedly lead to self-hatred, lack of self-esteem, and even self-harm.

“At no point, regardless of how happy the child looks, is the child truly comfortable in his or her body or with his or her expected social roles,” 20/20’s transgender adviser says. “The only recourse for these children is to dress as they identify and hope that no one remembers what is really under their clothes.”

The treatment of this difficult issue is another example of how deeply confused notions of confused sexuality have taken root in US society. Nearly all the emailed comments were supportive and the journalists expressed no scepticism about the impossibility of changing a pre-school child’s self-image. No opposing views from psychiatrists were aired.