On ‘Frontline,’ a Sensitive Look at Some Challenges of Transgender Youths

By Mark Walsh — June 29, 2015 2 min read
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There has been much media attention to transgender issues recently, in no small part because of Bruce Jenner’s transition to Caitlin Jenner. Not to take anything away from Jenner’s struggles and journey, but there are other people out there facing the same issues, but without wealth and fame.

Tuesday’s episode of “Frontline” on PBS (10 p.m. Eastern time; check local listings) explores the challenges faced by young people—some pre-teens, some right in the middle of their teen years, and some young adults—who are transitioning from one gender to the other.

This 80-minute documentary by Miri Navasky and Karen O’Connor, two frequent contributors to “Frontline,” profiles eight transgender youths, from ages 9 to 19, and their parents. (“Raising Ryland,” a short film that CNN aired online in March, covers some similar ground, but the “Frontline” film is obviously more ambitious.)

“I’ve been a boy for three years, and I was a girl for six,” a 9-year-old who now goes by Daniel tells us. “I don’t like to be called a ‘she’ anymore, and I really like to be thought of as a boy.”

We soon see Daniel at a medical appointment. Much if this film is about the medical issues faced by these transitioning youths. For Daniel (and his parents, of course), it’s a question of whether to use puberty blockers so there is no onset of female puberty.

For transitioning teenagers, decisions have to be made about cross-sex hormones (testosterone or estrogen) and initial surgical procedures, such as to keep girls’ breasts from growing for those who want to become male.

We visit the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, which is doing pioneering work in this area, but even the medical experts there acknowledge there is little research on some of the treatments for such young patients.

“The stakes are super huge, and we don’t have all the answers,” one expert says in the film.

The patients, meanwhile, turn to a generational source in addition to conversations with their doctors: YouTube and other web sources are evidently filled with video journals by transitioning teens, such as female-to-male transgender youths who record themselves administering testosterone, and document changes in body hair and their voices.

Most of the parents are highly supportive, but the “Frontline” team spends time with John, who was born a girl, came out as a lesbian at age 7, and is now 16 and transitioning to male. John’s father is struggling with the transition. “It’s like my daughter’s gone,” he says. “I’m holding out hope. Could this reverse?”

We also hear from one female-to-male older teen who says he doesn’t want to use the word “regret,” but he notes that the problems in his life he thought might be fixed by his transition weren’t necessarily fixed.

Although we do hear from the young people about some of the issues they have had at school, mostly regarding bullying or getting into fights themselves, this film does not spend time at any schools or address head-on the many issues involving transgender students in school.

I’m not faulting the directors for that. They have made a wonderfully sensitive documentary about this issue. But a film about how schools are dealing with it is waiting to be made.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.