31/10/2012 13:12 GMT | Updated 31/12/2012 05:12 GMT

Misleading Journalism on Trans Costs

Sometimes, I hate being a journalist. No. Not the hours, the risks or the public kicking I take every other week from people who reckon that journalists sit somewhere between bankers and politicians on the scale of human infamy. But the fact that by taking on that title, I also associate myself with a business - for that is what it is - that is interested in making money off the back of sensation and misery.

Ria Cooper - a tragedy in the making

As appears to be happening right now with the story of Ria Cooper, the trans woman - or maybe not - once billed as the "youngest sex change patient" in the UK. Have the tabloids really forgotten their outrage earlier this year when they reported on pre-teens beginning treatment with puberty blockers? Ria, as reported at some length in the Mirror and the Mail is now apparently backing off from that misleading title, complaining about the difficulties of functioning as a woman and the side effects of hormones.

Along the way, it is clear that she is also suffering greatly from a lack of support. She talks openly of being rejected by her family: of suicide attempts and alcohol problems; of resorting to sex work as her only means to find love and happiness. This is an individual who, by her own admission, is very mixed-up and, whatever choice she makes now, it is to be hoped that she begins to sort out her life.

The situation is not helped in the slightest by the fact that since being picked up by a Channel 4 documentary and awarded that ridiculous tag of "youngest sex change patient", she is effectively 'fair game' for the sensation-seekers. I have no doubt that she is talking freely and of her own volition: that, of course, is part of the pathology: she needs help, support - and anyone prepared to listen is likely to be welcome.

So what are my problems with this piece, these pieces, which have appeared like a rash across the tabloids in the past few days? First, I guess is the simple human dimension. Ria, or Brad as she now identifies, needs calm, needs support, needs help. Hanging her out in the full glare of publicity does not do that: and while hers is a fascinating story and one I'd like to read when she has arrived a little, I cannot help but feel right now that the press are breaking a supposed cardinal rule of journalism: they are becoming part of the story.

Because these pieces are likely to have direct impact on their subject, on her community, and potentially on her down some dark alley at the weekend.

The long difficult road to transition

But what about the public interest? Surely 'we all' have a right to know about money being spent fruitlessly on assisting individuals to transition? Which I'd agree with, if there was some attempt at context.

Transition is a long and difficult road. Not everyone goes all the way down it (for which, read: progresses to full surgical intervention): not everyone WANTS to go all the way. So there is a beginning, during which individuals receive hormone treatment and must live as their identified gender. Then there is a decision point. Then - and only then - is there surgery.

The process is designed to flush out two issues. First off, whether the individual genuinely wishes to go to the end of the transition road, or whether partial treatment is, in the end, all they need. Second, it is about finding out whether individuals can cope. Not with the transition: but with the abuse and general hostility that follows.

On that score, Ria is a perfect example. Is she de-transitioning because it is wrong for her? Or because she appears to have received next to no support for her decision: has ended up jobless and sleeping on a friend's floor. Who knows? Certainly, none of us. Pretty certainly, too, none of the journalists now retelling the story on the basis of a short original, rehashing, retwisting as they go.

According to one group that works with teen transitioners, there is nothing whatsoever unusual about this: many young people start off on the trans road, back off and then a fair proportion of those return to it five, ten years later, when their life is a little more stable, when they have garnered a little support of their own.

The real question here, of course, is whether the care professionals to whom Ria entrusted her life took sufficient note of the hostile environment into which she was transitioning. But without seeing case notes, that, too, is speculation.

Speculative journalism - and public hostility

Still, all this is par for the sensational course. What is unforgiveable, no doubt justified by one hostage to fortune quote from the subject herself is the idea that de-transitioning will cost (the public) money. It's implicit in the Mirror piece, which talks about her treatment to date costing thousands. Explicit in the original Mail piece.

Or rather, not in the piece, which has no reference to costs at all, but in the misleading, possibly false "'I was born a boy, became a girl, and now I want to be a boy again': Britain's youngest sex swap patient to reverse her sex change treatment - at our expense!"

Er, no. The Mirror claim is decidedly shaky, as the cost to date of transitioning could be no more than a few hundred. It depends on what course has been followed, and whether you factor in any therapy or psychiatric treatment dished out along the way. Still, basic feminising hormones cost a few pounds a month: certainly under a tenner. Anti-androgens, which could also be part of the mix, might cost as much as £500 a year and, it is understood, may have been administered for two years.

But to reverse the process? Simple, really. Just stop taking the hormones. Much of the body development that has taken place will reverse itself over time. In the extreme case where Ria is left with unwanted boobs, an operation could be required. Time will tell.

Yet that simple headline was enough to set the haters off: the haters and the sceptics and those who just don't get it and don't see why THEIR money is being spent on treating a condition that for some really is life-threatening.

They understood that surgery has already taken place: that surgery is needed to reverse the surgery; and that such surgery will automatically happen, automatically be picked up by the public purse. Inaccurate? Misleading? Of course, as is more than clear from the comments.

To the Mail's credit, they have backed off from that headline, as they should. No-one knows if ANY cost at all will be incurred.

So while I remain ambivalent about my chosen profession, I am glad that on this occasion, my colleagues over at the Mail made the right call. Thank you.