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It’s time to stop making trans people debate their identity on TV

Channel 4’s Genderquake debate showed conversations can't move forward if the execution is backwards AF

Channel 4 has kicked off a season of programming titled Genderquake to unpack conversations that are developing around identity in the UK right now. It got off to an ambitious start this week with its two-part documentary of the same name – a show that centred LGBTQ voices, and explored the gaps in allyship and understanding within the community. 

However, last night, after the final instalment of its forward-thinking social experiment, it returned to the tired old format of surly panel debates. Panelists, including Munroe Bergdorf, Germaine Greer, Sarah Ditum, Caitlyn Jenner, and Ash Sarkar were gathered to discuss the government’s upcoming plans to possibly reform the Gender Recognition Act (2004), including removing bureaucratic stoppages in the process of changing a person's gender on their birth certificate.

Trans activists had already submitted a letter to The Independent voicing concerns that the panel would require them to argue for their very existence. Channel 4 news presenter Cathy Newman, who chaired the debate, acknowledged this in the show’s intro by saying: “Some people didn’t want to take part tonight because they believe that debating all of this questions their right to exist.”

Despite these concerns, the show called upon cantankerous transphobe Germaine Greer, whose contentious opinions include comparing trans women to rapists for wanting to be included in women-only spaces. In The Whole Woman, Germaine Greer wrote: “When he forces his way into the few private spaces woman may enjoy and shouts down their objections, and bombards the women who will not accept him with hate mail, he does as rapists have always done.”

Pitting Greer against trans women is not a healthy debate, and to pretend it is is a farce. Such a regressive format can never push conversations forward, it only serves to drown them out. Without an unbiased chair, a balanced panel, and a commitment to not promote or provide a safe space for bigoted and harmful beliefs, minorities will never have equal footing in this format.

Transphobia was rife on the show. Greer appeared next to Sarah Ditum, who, at the mention of the word “pronoun”, launched into a speech about how people shouldn’t be expected to “learn a pronoun like it’s an extra name”. The showrunners also failed to tackle the heckling crowd, who subjected Jenner and Bergdorf to transphobic abuse repeatedly. Bergdorf’s requests for the audience members to be removed by security were ignored.

When it comes to TV debates, the lines have long been blurred between creating a valid healthy discussion that unpacks complex ideas, and simply baiting sensationalism. The obvious conflict arises not only because producers have to entertain viewers, but because there is often an underlying agenda. It's refreshing that, in general, more attention than ever is being paid to the diversity of panels – but the panel format itself is stale, rigid, and archaic, and it just doesn't make sense to package conversations about identity in this way.

Channel 4 failed in its attempts to unpack a necessary and urgent topic like gender identity (figures for gender trasition are rising sharply), and undermined the trans activists on the panel by allowing them to be shouted down and abused by the crowd. It's about time to stop asking trans people to defend themselves against bigots for an audience – there have to be better ways to progress conversations about gender than this. 

Watch the entire show here.