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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.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.