You are well known for being a friendly and likeable presenter but your interview with Joshua Sutcliffe drew a lot of criticism. This included criticism from many people who agree with your stance but disliked your approach. I should imagine you found this difficult. I know from painful experience how hard it can be to keep check on my emotions when I feel strongly about something and your strength of feeling on this issue was clearly bubbling over. I would also guess you felt a little embarrassed about it yourself, especially as you are the face behind the #bekind campaign. On this occasion it was too easy for your critics to call you out for being unkind. That must have stung. I appreciated the way you ended the interview, by saying you hoped Joshua got his job back as he is “obviously a very good teacher.” It was a shame that this was almost completely lost by your statements that his views were “abhorrent” and represented “medieval Britain.” I imagine it was a difficult interview for you, as well as for him.
How we approach transgender issues with our children is something I feel strongly about too. Would you bear with me if I make some suggestions about how the interview might have run?
It would have been interesting to explore how the disciplinary process Sutcliffe is under is operating. He claimed to have had “no professional dialogue” with other staff about how to treat the pupil; said that he always tried to avoid pronouns, using first names instead; and that he apologised when he “misgendered” the pupil. We all know the pressures teachers are under and Joshua Sutcliffe is clearly a gifted teacher: he claimed that under his teaching the pupil concerned had gone from having the worst score in the class to the best. Exploring the additional pressures placed upon teachers by rapidly shifting social understandings of gender would have been interesting and helpful.
Connected to this, as a maths teacher Sutcliffe is expected to teach his pupils objective facts. 2+2 always = 4, and if a maths teacher were to suggest that sometimes 2+2 can = 5 we would expect the school and parents to demand a change in teaching. Why then is it so odd for Sutcliffe to consider the objective fact of a pupil’s sex the basis for how they are identified? Last month you had Martina Big on your show. Martina was born white but now identifies as black, and has had treatments so her appearance matches her feelings. You were incredulous about this and said that, “Race and colour is much more than skin deep.” In saying so you were questioning Ms Big’s subjective feelings in the light of the objective reality of her racial origins. It would have been interesting if you could have explored with Sutcliffe how we disentangle the subjective from the objective and how we decide which has priority. After all, it is impossible to actually change sex – treatment can only change appearance, not our DNA.
You asked whether Sutcliffe didn’t believe it possible to be “born in the wrong body.” Just this issue alone could have formed the basis of the interview. It is a phrase that is commonly used but worth reflecting on. In our mechanised world we increasingly view human beings as machines – as if our bodies are simply hardware and our feelings software with no essential connection between the two. But is that really the best way to think about human persons? Won’t following that kind of logic potentially lead us down all kinds of dangerous wormholes? Should we ever describe someone’s body as “wrong”? What might that communicate to those with disabilities, or anorexia?
It would also have been helpful to explore more thoroughly the dangers of self-harm presented by trans children. You seemed to throw this out more as a punch than as a point of discussion, which was a shame when it is such an important topic. A more cool-headed comparison of rates of self-harm among those who have been prevented from transitioning with those who have would have been a better approach. Also, would it not have been worthwhile discussing when parents and carers should or shouldn’t acquiesce to children’s demands? Many parents have experienced their child threatening self-harm if they are refused something – how are we to judge when it is right for parents to ignore such threats and when they need to be heeded?
There’s lots more that I could say, but I’ve already suggested far more discussion points than you could possible cover in a ten minute interview. But perhaps next time you interview someone on this subject you could ask these kind of questions. The results might be more productive than they were this time around.
Thank you for reading this.