Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Obligatory Heckler Syndrome

As an advisor to the Department of Health on LGBT issues I've recently been in the privileged position of getting to review the very first efforts by NHS Choices to feature transsexual people within their extensive advice web site.

For those readers outside of the UK, NHS Choices is a web portal that supplements the bricks and mortar services of Britain's National Health Service.

The site provides tools for finding specific local services, run by the NHS's 150+ Primary Care Trusts, and the hundreds more hospitals or specialist services run by what are called "Acute" and "Specialist" care Trusts.

In addition, the service provides online medical advice about a range of conditions. So it was right and proper that NHS Choices should aim to include information about gender identity issues.

As part of this effort, a professional production company arranged interviews with a couple of young trans people. The first was a young trans woman called Ruth. (I've also just helped to approve a great companion film with a young trans man too).

NHS Choices use You Tube as their video platform, so you can see the film here.

The films go onto You Tube some time in advance of the NHS Choices pages being written and uploaded, so it has been interesting to watch how the world's You Tube viewers have responded.

Predictably, Ruth's film has been viewed very widely. When I checked a few moments ago it had clocked up 11,325 viewings.

Actually, this isn't unusual for an NHS Choices film. Their film on back pain has been viewed 233,000 times, and the one on teenagers and contraception has logged over 115,000 hits. Ruth is actually number 26 in the charts.

What struck me when I looked at it on You Tube, however, was the comments.

Again, 38 comments after 11,325 viewings is not a very significant number – and four of those are from 22 year old Ruth herself, feeling moved to respond to some of the speculation about her anatomy.

But, although most of the comments are overwhelmingly positive, complimentary and supportive, there always seems to be a need for at least one commentator to step forward and declare, with touching certainty, that someone like Ruth is a "he" and that "he" can never be a "she" because "his" Chromosomes aren't such and such.

A commentator with the screen name "thetrait0r" opines:

"Let me tell you, I used to be exactly like you... wanting the same thing, but I looked at reality. Nothing magical can happen. You and I were born male... nothing can change what we were born and designed for. We don't have the technology to alter internal body parts... no matter what surgery you get, your still a guy... unless you really REALLY want to waste your money. Even if you do get sugery, your NOT a girl. Your a guy with a mulated (sic) penis..."

The odd thing about this kind of heckle is that it has become almost obligatory. And they're usually quite fervent too .. as though the writers are desperate for confirmation that their views are supported by others.

You'll see heckles like these anywhere that a transgender themed story appears online and is open to reader comments. Pick your publication, search for 'transsexual' or 'transgender', and you'll usually find a proportion of the comments debating this theme.

It's such a common and predictable phenomenon, in fact, that it deserves pathological categorisation. I've dubbed it, 'Obligatory Heckler Syndrome'

The obligatory hecklers have been around for years of course. What's changed is that now they get far from their own way.

Nowadays, for every obligatory heckler, there are at least half a dozen people equally prepared to put him or her straight with an array of facts to demonstrate that their simple certainties aren't so simple and certain as they imagined.

The fact is that sex and gender are a lot more complex than they taught at school. It's more than XX and XY. There are women with XY chromosomes and men with XX. Then there are dozens of different kinds of intersex states as well - not just chromosomal but more physical too. Among all this biological diversity, someone like Ruth is just as entitled to a respectful place as anyone else.

Maybe this will mean that the obligatory heckler is a dying species. After all, if your views get corrected every time you post a comment then, sooner or later, you are likely to give up and seek some other target.

I'm not altogether sure whether I'll be happy or sad when that happens though.

To be sure, the hecklers can be a depressing reminder of all the small minds that lurk out there in our far from civil civilisation.

Yet they are also such good sport too – and their ill-informed bar room attitudes provide such a lot of smiles, as it becomes more and more apparent what a tiny minority they represent, and how their ignorance means they will always lose the argument.

Nah. On second thoughts no space for sentimentality. Let's wave them farewell, as their solitary protests echo feebly in the chill night of internet obscurity.


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