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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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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.