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Trans people and the media: compromise is neither desirable nor possible

Some thoughts on their relationship in 2013.

April Ashley, who was "outed" by the Sunday People in 1961, poses with her MBE in December 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

1.The media has a long history of humiliating and undermining trans people

The media reports on the first transsexual people were mostly reasonable, striving to understand the psychology and the science behind gender reassignment. Coverage became more sensationalistic after World War II, with the screaming headlines and “before and after” photos that came with Christine Jorgensen’s transition in 1952 setting a precedent, and soon the British tabloids began outing people with transsexual histories: Michael Dillon (Daily Express, 1958) and April Ashley (The Sunday People, 1961) amongst them. This practice endures into the present.

The emergence of transsexual and then transgender people as a group since the mid-1960s changed the discourse, particularly in the liberal press. A search of the Guardian and Observer digital archives for the word “transsexual” shows – in general – a shift from medics trying to explain the processes behind transition in the 1970s, to certain radical feminists stereotyping trans people and then attacking those stereotypes for reiterating traditional gender roles (1990s-2000s), to trans people being allowed to respond, and then finally to frame the discussion (2000s-2010s). We cannot, however, draw a history of progress: the latter have not yet superseded the former, but have merely been allowed to compete.

2. Transphobia cuts across left/liberal and conservative media

Transphobia in left/liberal media tends to come, still, from this radical feminist perspective, tending to attack trans people as a category. Conservative pundits seem to focus more on isolating trans people in apparently "public" roles, undermining their identities by exposing details about their pre-transitional lives. I won’t link to individual examples, but Trans Media Watch’s initial submission to the Leveson Inquiry (pdf) provides plenty of evidence.

3. Most commentators (grudgingly) accept the right of individual adults to transition

The “false consciousness” arguments of Janice Raymond and other 1970s feminists are no longer fashionable: the ever-growing numbers who transition or lead gender-variant lives illustrate the scale of their failure. In the face of this, it would be not so much Quixotic as Canutian to continue attempting to deny this autonomy to trans adults per se, but the opponents have adapted old tactics and adopted new ones. They are usually signified by some variation on “I’m not against people having gender reassignment, but...”

4. Commentators disproportionately “monster” trans individuals

I will not link to specific stories to protect their subjects from further discomfort, but this is detailed in pages 12-17 of the Trans Media Watch submission above. Routinely, tabloid newspapers run stories on trans people that are not in the public interest, purely because the individual in question is trans, finding and publishing "old names" and photographs, and using demeaning language to ridicule their bodies and experiences. Frequently, the targets are linked to sex work or criminal cases, or accused of taking money from the state that could be “better” used elsewhere.

5. Editors and commissioners can no longer use the "complexity" of transgender issues as a gatekeeping tactic

In the past, it was possible for editors to insist that “the public” would not understand issues around gender variance as they were too complicated, a position that denied writers the chance to explain them. Since the advent of the internet allowed writers to circumvent mainstream media entirely, and demonstrate that there was a large audience willing and able to understand these issues, this has become untenable. The low-cost, low-risk nature of online journalism has allowed a number of trans writers to enter the mainstream "debate" about whether trans people should be allowed to exist and try to change its terms.

6. The refusal of trans language, culture and history is ideological

The invention of trans language, and the tropes which frame media coverage of trans people and issues, were ideological. Before the 20th century, there was no intellectual distinction between sexual diversity and gender variance, and cross-dressers were frequently arrested on suspicion of being “sodomites”. As sexologists worked to understand and eventually separate the two, the medical establishment defined the terminology around gender-variant behaviour and decided who got access to treatment; as transsexual and transgender people became more visible, the media controlled the terms by which they were understood (or not).

Analysing this situation, trans people began to construct their own language to better discuss and document their experiences, and form a dialogue with medics and the media. One major problem was that there was no diametric opposite to the umbrella term “transgender” (itself devised as an alternative to the historically loaded "transsexual" and "transvestite") and so “cisgender” was coined as an equal. When certain commentators – Sadie Smith in the New Statesman, Simon Hoggart in the Guardian, Ed West in the Daily Telegraph, Julie Burchill in the Observer and then the Telegraph – claim to be oppressed by its use and question its validity, it is a political move aimed at blunting a tool that trans people have developed in a bid for equality, and against the de-normalisation of their own gender identities.

It is interesting, too, that some who are paid to provide expert commentary on contemporary social issues position themselves with “the people” when confronted with new ideas that they don’t like, arguing their conceptual “people” cannot understand them. Often, they trumpet a working class background despite not having been meaningfully proletarian for decades.

7. The focus on the cost of gender reassignment to the NHS is ideological

Public money is spent in all sorts of places for all sorts of reasons: why do the media focus on the cost to the taxpayer of gender reassignment and not (say) injuries sustained in amateur sports or on drunken nights out, or unwinnable wars launched on dubious pretexts against nations halfway across the world?

Besides ignoring the disproportionate effects of NHS cuts on people with a long-term reliance on the service, this coverage is also, frequently, more obviously dishonest: figures for the total cost of transition range from £10,000 to £80,000, often with no evidence presented for them. In an effort to combat this, Jane Fae researched and published on the topic, with the result available here. The regularity with which journalists who write on the costs of gender reassignment consult this resource is unknown.

(It’s also worth reading Jane’s recent blog post on this, here.)

8. Commentators “monster” efforts of trans community to organise

There have been efforts to organise since the 1960s, but the internet radically changed their nature, allowing trans people to engage in political action without having to out themselves to family, friends or colleagues. The internet has allowed trans people to expose the discrimination they face, and the structures that enable it, and unite against it: the media still demonises and humiliates individuals but now monsters collective dissent as well, portraying both their anger and the language used to express it as somehow unreasonable – here’s Ed West again. This move is age-old, and should be familiar to anyone interested in minority activism. Given the situation, the fairest question is not “Why are they so angry?” but “Why aren’t they more angry?”

9.The battleground has moved to the lives of children

In light of the grudging acceptance outlined in point four, commentators have switched their focus onto children and gender variance – the presence of trans adults around children or the actuality of schoolchildren publicly presenting as female when born male, or vice versa, even though this involves no more than a change of name and clothes, and reversible hormone blockers to delay the onset of puberty. Whenever you see the invocation of childhood innocence, consider adult malice.

10.  Liberal/libertarian constructions of “freedom of speech” preserve this status quo

Defending commentators who write outright barbarous things about trans people, writers will often cite the right to freedom of speech, sometimes mistaking the refusal to give views a platform for their absolute censorship. This ignores the fact that one person’s freedom of speech can, on occasion, impede the right of groups to exist without feeling persecuted, and fails to recognise that using "freedom of speech" to deny these groups a right to reply to individual aggression is in itself an attack on freedom of speech. The right to free speech is, incredibly important, obviously, but rights work best when accompanied by a sense of responsibility, and it would be nice if more commentators asked themselves: Why am I saying this, and why am I saying it here? What power do I have, and what is the responsible way to use it?

11. Going to the PCC is understood to be pointless

Trans Media Watch’s Leveson submission stated that trans people widely regard the PCC as an “ineffective joke”. The failure of the PCC’s Code of Practice to protect against attacks on communities meant left it powerless to deal with the notorious Burchill piece referenced above; I won’t insult you (or anyone else) by pointing out the problem with Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre being chairman of the PCC’s Editors’ Code of Practice Committee, and how it dissuades people from taking cases to the PCC.

12. The structures of online journalism should be considered in any analysis

Let us consider the sociopathic tendencies of online journalism, and how they affect trans people specifically. Online journalism relies on advertising revenue for its income; revenue is directly tied to hits, especially crucial when the newspaper industry is in crisis and can see no other future besides the demise of print, and so of paying customers.

Advertisers do not care whether people visiting a website support its arguments or revile them, and certain media outlets seem to have realised that orchestrating Twitterstorms through wilfully “provocative” opinion pieces will drive up the numbers. However, this has to be balanced against the understanding that gratuitous unpleasantness is bad for brands, so commentators who seek a living through this type of writing, and organisations employing them, must ask themselves: Who can we attack? How? Will we remain brand-coherent? These are the wrong questions and the conclusions are frequently, if not always, misjudged.

With all this in mind, the sheer hypocrisy of a Mail spokesperson trying to position any connection made between Richard Littlejohn’s Mail piece on Lucy Meadows and her death as "an orchestrated Twitterstorm, fanned by individuals … with an agenda to pursue" should be enough to leave you burning with rage.

13. The "outrage fatigue" generated by this model is particularly dangerous

It is widely agreed that the best response to such behaviour is to ignore it, and not to link to it. This is ultimately a zero-sum game: people who cannot afford to ignore this coverage as it impacts directly on their lives fear that if they will be demonised further if they pick every plausible battle, or simply run out of energy or hope. Consequently, the level at which these media outlets operate continually flatlines, and the only way to provoke people into making those precious hits is to noticeably drop it further.

14. This situation is self-perpetuating

Many trans people want nothing to do with the media, leaving it open to conservative and radical feminist critics, as well as lazy comedians who seek easy laughs from transphobic stereotypes. This makes it harder for trans people to enter the media, as doing so seems like an act of collaboration, creating conditions for attacks from their own community, whose support is desperately needed.

Typecasting exacerbates this: it’s hard for openly trans writers to combat the stereotype that trans people are only interested in trans issues if these are all that editors will commission them to discuss. It is finally becoming recognised that many trans journalists can and do write on a host of subjects, but the present circumstances are so dismal that being openly trans with any sort of media platform and not using it to critique them inescapably feels irresponsible.

15. Compromise is neither desirable nor possible

Trans Media Watch have drafted principles and offered consultation for editors and journalists for years in a bid to improve their coverage. A number of trans writers have interjected into the argument, on other people’s terms, and I spent two years revealing intimate physical and psychological details about my experiences of transgender living in a bid to change those terms. None of these tactics have been completely successful as yet. This is not a situation where trans people want A, the media want to treat trans people like B and the solution lies somewhere between: it is a position that is hurtful, hateful and, at its conclusion, homicidal, and it cannot be allowed to continue.