As part of a series of programmes exploring society’s attitudes towards gender, Channel 4 hosted a live debate to discuss issues relating to gender identity.
Ahead of Genderquake: The Debate, which aired on 8 May, a spokesperson for Channel 4 told indy100:
With the Genderquake debate we have sought to bring together a wide variety of voices – including inviting people from many organisations representing the trans community – to discuss the broad question of what gender means today in an open, fair and balanced way.
Channel 4 is committed to providing space for debate and discussion about the big issues that are affecting society and giving the opportunity for viewers to be exposed to a range of different opinions.
Chaired by Channel 4’s Cathy Newman, the debate featured participants with a range of gender identities.
Caitlyn Jenner, who famously announced that she is trans in 2015, sat alongside trans model and activist Munroe Bergdorf. Also participating were cisgender women Sarah Ditum and Ash Sarkar, as well as feminist writer Germaine Greer.
Greer has faced criticism in recent years for her derogatory statements towards the trans community. A selection of these comments were read by Newman during the debate.
In 2015 she said:
Just because you lop off your d**k doesn't make you a f*****g woman.
Feminist writer Ditum has also been accused of being “anti trans”. Both women have made negative comments about Jenner in the past.
In 2015 Ditum tweeted:
Jenner says the hardest part of being a woman is getting dressed, when the thing I’ve always struggled with is where to tuck my penis.
In 2015 Greer said it “wasn’t fair” that “a man who has lived for 40 years as a man and had children with a woman and enjoyed the services – the unpaid services of a wife, which most women will never know – then decides that the whole time he’s been a woman”.
Sarkar, on the other hand, has been more supportive of trans rights, comparing the exclusion faced by both trans women and women of colour.
In November 2017 she tweeted:
We both face exclusions from feminist spaces, discourse, and even femininity itself. We both stand out as particular targets for the right, aided and abetted by those on the left who’d rather kill the movement than see us participate.
With entrenched views on both sides, and emotive topics on discussion, Channel 4’s debate faced criticism before it aired. Transgender campaigners and organisations released an open letter to Channel 4 criticising Genderquake as "counterproductive", accusing the channel of whipping up transphobia for commercial gain.
Ahead of the broadcast, many trans people revealed on social media that they had turned down the chance to appear on the program.
Ultimately, the debate left viewers unimpressed after trans panellists were repeatedly heckled by audience members.
Bergdorf in particular was subjected to transphobic abuse, with an audience member calling her a 'man'. She asked for the audience member to be removed, but no action was taken by Newman or Channel 4.
Trans comedian and journalist Shon Faye was unimpressed with Newman’s handling of the debate. Throughout the hour-long broadcast, Sarkar and Bergdorf were left to put hecklers in line. At one point, Sarkar told audience members to “stop yelling ‘penis’ every five seconds like you’re five-years-old”.
Newman called for a “respectful debate”, but rarely addressed hecklers directly, despite their frequent and aggressive interventions.
After the debate, Jake Graf, who turned down an invitation to participate, tweeted:
Graf is a patron of Mermaids UK, an organisation that provides support for support for gender diverse and transgender young people and their families.
Susie Green, CEO of Mermaids UK, said of the debate:
The debate on Channel 4 last night saw some frankly appalling behaviour from the audience members. Watching the abuse directed at the transgender panellists was painful, but all too familiar, as trans children and young people face this every day in the classroom and in the playground.
The fact that these were grown women makes it even more shameful. I am appalled that they were not removed … Transphobia is clearly the last bastion of acceptable discrimination, and until this is remedied, the obscenely high rates of self-harm and suicide for trans youth will continue.
Viewers were left “appalled” by the way that the debate was handled, with many taking to Twitter to express their views.
Doctor Helen Webberley, who specialises in trans issues, also turned down the chance to participate in the debate. Reacting to the program, she wrote:
The time for debate around the existence and validity of trans people is over. Society and our collective understanding has moved on. Trans people exist.
Those continuing to deny this fundamental truth are, for the most part, members of an extremist and fanatical fringe who seem to seek out a platform to express their hatred and exclusionary views of trans people
After the debate, Sarkar tweeted that, despite appalling behaviour from a selection of attendees, she was glad to have taken part.
Bergdorf, a former adviser to the Labour party, tweeted that abuse from the audience had helped her and Jenner, a former Trump supporter, to find common ground.
indy100 has contacted Channel 4 for comment.