Michael Bachelard’s feature in today’s Good Weekend reaches a new landmark in unethical reporting on trans people.
For the duration of Gay Alcorn’s brief tenure as editor of The Age, my hometown newspaper, I used to wake on Tuesday mornings wondering what transphobic nonsense I was going to read from Alcorn’s pet TERF, columnist Julie Szego.
When Patrick Elligett took over as editor, I waited to see what kind of editorial direction he would set on the paper’s coverage of trans people and our lives. It hasn’t always been great, but it seemed better… until today.
Michael Bachelard is a senior journalist who specialises in investigative features. Assigning him to write a feature on trans young people is consistent with a trend I’ve observed in the Nine papers’ coverage of trans lives: they have consistently reported on trans lives as a social problem, rather than reporting the experiences of real trans people with names, faces and personal stories to share, as the Australian Broadcasting Commission has consistently done.
But this article (see annotated PDF) proves the old saying ‘be careful what you wish for,’ because Bachelard interviews and reports real people, and the result is dreadful. I have serious concerns about the wellbeing of the person interviewed for the article’s opener.
A young person at risk of suicide
An opening narrative of a young person trapped in a world of distress and gender dysphoria frames the other personal stories shared in the rest of the article: it creates an interpretive context that calls gender-affirming care into question.
Normally I’d be writing about framing first, but there’s a bigger problem: by his own admission, Bachelard has interviewed and reported in excruciating detail on ‘Misha’, a young person with autism and serious mental illness, who is clearly in a state of intense distress, and who is openly contemplating suicide.
The piece opens with Misha — no pronouns given — telling Bachelard in halting speech that one of his questions brings up ‘deeply rooted disgust, fear… (and) it brings up pain — unbelievable amounts of pain.’
Bachelard is interviewing Misha over dinner with Steph, Misha’s single mother, who is present and listening intently but not intervening in an interview that is — by Misha’s own words — causing intense pain.
Bachelard details Misha’s history of mental illness:
As a human services practitioner with extensive training in suicide prevention (Lifeline, ASIST, MHFA), the following statement caused me grave concern:
In the ASIST framework we are trained to consider two things: reasons for dying, which are clearly apparent in Misha’s narrative, and reasons for living, and in describing the latter Misha is explicit about the life-and-death stakes.
I’m not saying nobody should ever report on trans people at risk of suicide; in fact, it’s vital we write about sky-high suicide rates among trans people, and indeed The Age has just done so in a sensitively-written piece about the coronial inquest currently taking place into five young trans suicides in Victoria.
However, if you write about a vulnerable person, it is vital you do nothing that might increase the distress they are experiencing. As evidence from the Black Dog now makes clear, distress is an acute risk factor for suicide.
So it’s a problem that Bachelard paints such a negative picture of Misha.
In his telling, Misha ‘slouches,’ has ‘mousy hair’ in an unfashionable cut, dresses poorly, and can’t answer questions. Bachelard states that he doesn’t use any pronouns for Misha because the pronouns Misha gives don’t match his perception of Misha’s gender.
More to the point, Misha is judgmental about other trans young people’s gender identification, doesn’t ‘believe in the ideology’ (of gender affirmation), and has faced criticism from peers in the past for being transphobic.
I am concerned that Misha is likely to read some fairly strong reactions to the views and attitudes expressed in Bachelard’s reporting — reactions that could worsen Misha’s feelings of social isolation and potentiate suicidal distress.
Misha’s experience is presented as a typical case study of gender transition and this is hugely misleading — in Bachelard’s own account, Misha is clearly grappling with multiple crises and requires urgent and coordinated support from a multi-disciplinary team.
But Bachelard claims ‘a succession of psychologists and doctors wanted to focus only on gender affirmation and medical treatment.’ Steph is quoted saying ‘Trauma and autism never got a look-in.’
We have to take Steph’s word for that. Bachelard is sympathetic to Steph and spends as much time describing her experience as Misha’s. But Steph ‘struggles’ to use the pronouns Misha has requested, ‘struggles’ to say Misha’s chosen name, and refused Misha access to gender-affirming hormones.
This account left me wondering a few things. How did Misha come to be on Bachelard’s radar? Was that facilitated by any ‘gender critical’ parent groups? What steps did Bachelard take to ensure Misha was freely consenting to take part, given Misha’s vulnerability and reliance on Steph for love and support?
These are all questions that a researcher or — I would argue — a queer journalist would have known needed to be answered in the text of the article.
Affirmation doesn’t solve every crisis
Misha’s story is familiar to me. Like Misha, I am gender diverse and live with multiple conditions including bipolar type 2 and post-traumatic stress disorder (see Reeders, 2023).
Misha appears to reject gender affirmation because it won’t solve everything and result in guaranteed happiness. On that point, Misha is absolutely correct.
In queer communities there are many people grappling with the realisation that affirming their gender — although vitally important for survival — is only one piece of the happiness puzzle.
The bigger picture often includes treatment for anxiety and mood disorders, assessment for neurodivergent conditions like ADHD and autism, and therapy for complex and social trauma. Unfortunately, in our fragmented system of care, patients (or their parents) are left to patchwork together a care team.
When Misha’s parent Steph claims that psychologists and doctors refused to consider trauma and autism, I strongly suspect she sees them as competing explanations for Misha’s unhappiness, rather than pieces of the puzzle.
Cultures of care
As a member of the queer community, and someone who has both benefited from and contributed to queer cultures of care around gender and mental health, there are two things I wish I could tell Misha.
One is that gender affirmation can be the starting point for an ongoing journey of self-care, and the foundation stone for building a meaningful life and a reliable support network.
It is very hard to do that work when your gender is giving you ‘fear, pain and disgust.’ You can’t treat someone’s trauma and support their adaptation to autism when they are dealing with those heavy emotions on a daily basis.
Second, there is more to gender affirmation than binary transition. Affirming a non-female gender doesn’t automatically mean taking testosterone and identifying as a man.
A queer perspective can expand your sense of possibility around gender identification, sex and sexuality, and relationship prospects.
As a nonbinary person, I have gender, but it’s dynamic, incoherent, partial, plural, and resistant to investigation or categorisation. As Julia Gillard said of being a woman in politics, it’s not everything, and it’s not nothing.
I don’t assume my nonbinary identification is going to make me happy, but it let me escape masculinity, which was making me seriously un-happy. That’s a perspective that offers some purchase on the awful situation in which Misha is currently trapped.
I may write more about the rest of the article, but I wanted to get on the record my strong reservations about the unethical journalism displayed in that piece. I sincerely hope that Misha finds peace in the world, and I very much doubt participating in interviews for this piece will have helped with that goal.