Leave it to “Frontline” to find the most thought-provoking angle to a story being given a heavy tilt toward celebrity treatment elsewhere. “Growing Up Trans” takes the sudden boom in coverage of the transgender community and filters it through a more complicated lens by focusing on children coming to grips with their own sexual nonconformity. The kids, remarkably open and honest, prove astonishingly good spokespeople, with the disclaimer that they are in some respects guinea pigs for a science and psychology that is still evolving, albeit rapidly.
The somewhat unsettling part about “Growing Up Trans” is hearing youngsters who in some cases have yet to enter puberty confronting weighty matters wrapped up in sexuality and adulthood. The researchers, moreover, freely acknowledge that some of the drugs being used to essentially block, or at least delay, the onset of puberty remain experimental in terms of potential side effects.
The kids’ parents respond in different ways, with some fully accepting their children, others having essentially resigned themselves to it, and a few resisting. Yet given the questions that linger about kids being, as one parent puts it, “tested and controlled and dosed,” their concern is almost palpable, and it’s difficult to judge anyone too harshly, with the adults expressing a desire to do what’s best for their kids while simultaneously fearing the unknown. “This generation of kids … they’re pioneers,” says Dr. Courtney Finlayson, a pediatric endocrinologist.
In her Diane Sawyer interview, Caitlyn Jenner spoke about feelings of being different at an early age, and that event has helped tilt the debate in a significant way. “Growing Up Trans” offers an opportunity to see kids today at that delicate threshold, and lets their testimonials powerfully deliver the message — still ridiculed in certain circles — that this is an innate part of who they are, not a learned one.
Featuring children in association with any controversial material requires delicacy, and filmmakers Miri Navasky and Karen O’Connor exhibit considerable sensitivity. Given the prevailing image of transgender youth being abused, bullied and subject to inordinately high suicide rates — one of the kids, 13-year-old Kyle Catrambone, talks openly about having gotten “very, very close” to acting on those impulses — the documentary also shows these kids interacting with friends who are completely accepting and nurturing.
Frankly those scenes, as much as the medical and pharmaceutical breakthroughs, offer the greatest hope about the topic being far less taboo in the years to come. Because while the battle for LGBT rights has generally been a long, slow slog to win over hearts and minds, if the researchers here make inroads regarding the latter, it’s the kids, and their friends, who ultimately hold the key to the former.