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The turning of the tide

The media's monstering of transgender people is finally being challenged.

Whatever the long-term results of the Leveson inquiry, one appearance may prove a turning point for an increasingly visible and (hopefully) decreasingly vulnerable population. When Helen Belcher presented Trans Media Watch's submission last week, explaining the largely negative practices and consequences behind more than a hundred news items about transgender (but mainly transsexual) people, it felt like a turning point for a group no longer prepared to tolerate the media intruding into -- and sensationalising -- their personal histories.

Tabloid exploitation of transgender lives has now become so crude and so cruel that a 10-year-old is campaigning against it. Returning to her primary school in Worcester as female last September, Livvy James found her story strewn across the headlines after other children's parents took it to local newspapers and the nationals picked it up. Having been compelled to explain to the Daily Mail and ITV's This Morning why she let her child go to school as female (with the newspapers treating her decision as a countrywide concern), Livvy's mother Saffron has secured over a thousand signatures to a petition against media ridiculing of transgender individuals. Livvy felt that the abuse she took from her peers related directly to hostile print and screen portrayals.

It's interesting to note that the earliest British coverage of transsexual people was fairly even-handed: with no conventions set on the subject, the News of the World handled sensitively the surgical transition of athlete Mark Weston in 1936. It was not until the late Fifties, after Christine Jorgensen's fame suggested the emergence of a phenomenon that violated a fundamental social norm, that the tabloids started outing people with transsexual histories: the Sunday Express forced Michael Dillon into exile in 1958 and the Sunday People exposed April Ashley several years later.

You might imagine that after fifty years, we would have moved beyond this. The mere existence of transsexual individuals is no longer a novelty -- the conservative estimate in Trans Media Watch's Leveson submission put current numbers at 7,431 -- but tabloids continue to contrive stories from ordinary people's transitions.

Just because editors believe that the public are interested does not mean that this reporting is in the public interest. The detrimental effects outweigh any benefit in this systematically invasive and dishonest coverage, which at worst threatens not just the safety of individuals, but the existence of the entire transsexual population by undermining their right to gender reassignment via the NHS. In this "age of austerity", stories attacking transsexual people for using a service to which they were entitled became frequent; the unsourced figures oscillating so wildly that Jane Fae compiled a comprehensive guide to the actual costs to the NHS. Her figures are far below the £20,000-£60,000 spread I've seen across the right-wing press.

This was another fine example of transgender people using the internet to challenge a media that has objectified and excluded them for years. On Friday, Millivres Prowler launched a stable-mate to Gay Times and lesbian/bisexual publication Diva, aimed at the transgender population. Meta, an online magazine catering to female-to-male and male-to-female people will likely reach a larger readership than any other trans-related journal. Its editor, Paris Lees, appeared on BBC Breakfast last week, alongside Livvy James, to expose transphobia in the media to a terrestrial television audience. Now, there's a sense that the excuses that gatekeepers of mainstream liberal and left-wing spaces have previously used to keep out transgender perspectives -- that the issues are too complicated, or that transsexual people somehow undermine feminist or socialist politics -- are finally becoming untenable.

Above all, there's an understanding that transgender experiences illustrate a wider point: the tabloid habit of interfering with the privacy of non-public figures when they think it will sell can potentially damage anyone. Leveson's grilling of Dominic Mohan about the Sun's mean-spirited "Tran or Woman" quiz, and Mohan's sheepish admission that "I don't think that's our greatest moment," happened before Trans Media Watch gave their evidence. This is a sign that, slowly, people in power are not only allowing transgender people to voice their concerns but also listening; and that whatever happens to our tabloid press, the situation can never be quite as hopeless again.

Juliet Jacques is the author of the Orwell Prize longlisted Guardian blog A Transgender Journey and also blogs here

Editor’s note, June 2015: This article was edited to remove an out-of-date reference.

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

Photo: Getty Images
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Bomb Isil? That's exactly what they want

The government appears not to answer the nature of its enemy, warns Maria Norris.

As MPs are set to vote on further airstrikes in Syria, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that the government does not fully appreciate the complexity of the problem Isil poses. Just a cursory glance at its magazine, the pronouncements of its leaders and its ideology reveals that Isil is desperate for Western bombs to fall out of the sky. As Martin Chulov argues, Isil is fighting a war it believes was preordained since the early days of Islam. Isil’s obsession with the city of Dabiq, in Northern Syria, stems from a hadith which prophesises that the ‘Crusader’ army will land in the city as a precursor to a final battle where Islam will emerge victorious. Dabiq is also the name of its magazine, which starts every issue with the same quote: "The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify -- by Allah's permission -- until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq". Isil wants a war with the West. If we don’t negotiate with terrorists, then we also should not give them what they want.

Further, bombs are indiscriminate and will inevitably lead to the suffering of those trapped in Isil territories. Isil is counting on this suffering to swell their ranks. Civilian suffering from airstrikes only underline the narrative that the West is at war with Islam, which plays directly into Isil’s hands. And despite misleading headlines and the genuine government concern with individuals fleeing to Syria, Isis is supremely unpopular. It is no wonder that its magazine is filled with glossy adds begging people to move to its territories.  You cannot be a state without people. Terrorist attacks such as Paris thus have a two-pronged purpose: they provoke the West to respond with its military, and they act as a recruitment drive. The fact that fake Syrian passports were found around the sites of the Paris attacks is no coincidence as Isil are both seeking to stem the flow of refugees from its territories and hoping to provoke an Islamophobic backlash. They hope that, as more Muslims feel alienated in the West, more will join them, not just as fighters, but as the doctors, nurses and teachers it desperately needs.

In addition to this, airstrikes overlook the fact that Isil is a result of what Fawaz Gerges calls a severe, organic institutional crisis in the Middle East. In a lecture at the London School of Economics earlier this year, Gerges pointed out the dysfunction created when a region that is incredibly resource rich also is also deeply undemocratic, riddled with corruption, food insecurity, unemployment and poverty. This forms an institutional vacuum that is filled by non-state actors as the population does not trust its political structures. Further, the civil war in Syria is also the site of the toxic soup of Middle Eastern state dysfunction. Iran supports Assad, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, fund anti-Shia groups in Syria. Throw in the Kurdish conflict, Turkey’s ambiguous position and Russian bombs, it is difficult to see how airstrikes will solve anything.

Finally, it is crucial that Isil is seen as a direct result of the Iraq war. The American-led invasion destroyed the institutions, giving the Shia majority power almost overnight, creating deep dissatisfaction in the Sunni regions of Iraq. On top of this thousands of foreign fighters flooded Iraq to fight the invaders, attracting disenfranchised and angry Sunnis. The result is that since 2003, Iraq has been embroiled in a sectarian civil war.  It is in civil war, inherently connected to the Iraq War, that you find the roots of Isil. As even the Prime Minister concedes that ground troops are necessary, albeit it regional ground troops with its own set of problems, it is important to consider what further monster can arise from the ashes of another ill-thought out military intervention in the Middle East.
We have had decades of military intervention in the Middle East with disastrous consequences. Airstrikes represent business as usual, when what we actually need is a radically new approach. Who is funding Isil? Who is buying its oil? How to curb Isil’s recruitment drives? What can be done about the refugees? How to end the conflict in Syria? What happens to Assad? These are questions hopefully being addressed in talks recently held in Vienna with Russian, Ira, the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states. Airstrikes do not answer any of these questions. What airstrikes do is give Isil exactly what it is asking for. Surely this is reason enough not to bomb Syria. 

Maria W. Norris is a PhD candidate and a teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her PhD is on the UK counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 and its relationship with identity. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.