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

Some thoughts on their relationship in 2013.

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 We cannot, however, draw a history of progress: the latter have not yet superseded the former, but have merely been allowed to compete.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.


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

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.

Show Hide image

Chuka Umunna calls for "solidarity" among Labour MPs, whoever is voted leader

The full text of shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna's speech to Policy Network on election-winning ideas for Labour's future, and the weaknesses of the New Labour project.

There has never been an easy time to be a social democrat (or “democratic socialist” as we sometimes call ourselves in Britain). Whereas the right can demonise the poor and extol the virtues of the market, and the hard left can demonise the market and extol the role of the state, our position of constraining the domination of markets and reforming the state is, by definition, more complex.

It is nonetheless the case that social democracy has a historic responsibility, in every generation, to renew democracy and preserve a civic culture. This is achieved not through soundbites and slogans, but through the hard-headed development of a progressive politics that reconciles liberty and democracy, new comers and locals to our communities, business and workers, in a common life that preserves security, prosperity and peace.  This historic mission is all the more urgent now and my determination that we succeed has grown not weakened since our election defeat last May.

But, in order to be heard, it is necessary to make balanced and reasonable argument that both animates and inspires our movement, and which is popular and plausible with the people.  The first is pre-requisite to the second; and there is no choice to be made between your party’s fundamental principles and electability. They are mutually dependent - you cannot do one without the other.

We are in the midst of choosing a new leader and it is clear to anyone who has watched the UK Labour Party leadership election this summer that amongst a significant number there is a profound rage against Third Way politics – as pursued by the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and others - as a rejection of our fundamental values.

In the UK there is a view that New Labour accepted an uncritical accommodation with global capital that widened inequality, weakened organised labour and we were too close to the US Republicans and too far from the European left.

I do not believe this is fair, not least because we rescued many of our public services from the scrap heap when we came to office in 1997 and there were very significant achievements  we should celebrate.  New Labour renewed our National Health Service in a fundamental way; we built new schools and improved existing ones; we set up new children’s centres all over the country; we brought in a National Minimum Wage; we worked with others to bring peace to Northern Ireland; we introduced civil partnerships.  Just some of our achievements.

However, though we may take issue with the critique, I do not think we can simply dismiss out of hand those who hold critical views of New Labour. Like any government, the New Labour administration made mistakes - it could and should have achieved more, and done more to challenge the Right’s assumptions about the world. In the end, it is not unreasonable to be ambitious for what your party in government can achieve in building greater equality, liberty, democracy and sustainability. It is far better we acknowledge, not reject, this ambition for a better world, as we seek to forge a new politics of the common good fit for the future.

Realising our values in office has been disrupted by globalisation and the surge of technological forces that are displacing and reshaping industry after industry.

Some argue that globalisation as an ideological construct of the right. But we must recognise that we live in an increasingly integrated world in which markets have led to an unprecedented participation of excluded people in prosperity, a rise in living standards for hundreds of millions  of people and a literacy unprecedented in human history – this is particularly so in emerging economies like my father’s native Nigeria. And the internet has led to a level of accountability that has disturbed elites.

Yet, this has been combined with a concentration of ownership that needs to be challenged, of a subordination of politics that requires creative rather than reactive thinking, and these global forces have exacerbated inequalities as well as helped reduce poverty.

So it is important that we understand the sheer scale and impact of new technologies. At the moment we are engaged in a debate about Uber and its threat to one of the last vestiges of vocational labour markets left in London, those of the black taxi cabs and their attainment of 'The Knowledge'. But the reality is that within the next decade there will be the emergence of driverless cars so we have to intensify our exploration of how to support people in a knowledge economy and the realities of lifelong learning, as well as lifelong teaching. As people live longer we will have to think about how to engage them constructively in work and teaching in new ways.

Once again, I'm addressing all of this, Social Democracy requires a balanced view that domesticates the destructive energy of capital while recognising its creative energy, that recognises the need for new skills rather than simply the protection of old ones. A Social Democracy that recognises that internationalism requires co-operation between states and not a zero sum game that protectionism would encourage.

Above all, Social Democratic politics must recognise the importance of place, of the resources to be found in the local through which the pressures of globalisation can be mediated and shaped. Our job is to shape the future and neither to accept it as a passive fate nor to indulge the fantasy that we can dominate it but to work with the grain of change in order to renew our tradition, recognising the creativity of the workforce, the benefits of democracy and the importance of building a common life.  Sources of value are to be found in local traditions and institutions.

This also requires a recognition that though demonstration and protest are important,; but relationships and conversations are a far more effective way of building a movement for political change.

One of the huge weaknesses of New Labour was in its reliance on mobilisation from the centre rather than organising. It therefore allowed itself to be characterised as an elite project with wide popular support but it did not build a base for its support within the party across the country, and it did not develop leaders from the communities it represented. It was strong on policy but weak on strengthening democratic politics, particularly Labour politics.

Over half a million people are now members, supporters or affiliated supporters of our party, with hundreds of thousands joining in the last few weeks. Some have joined in order to thwart the pursuit of Labour values but many more have joined to further the pursuit of those values, including lots of young people. At a time when so many are walking away from centre left parties across the Western world and many young people do not vote let alone join a party, this is surely something to celebrate.

So it is vital that we now embrace our new joiners and harness the energy they can bring to renewing Labour’s connection with the people. First, we must help as many them as possible to become doorstep activists for our politics. Second, I have long argued UK Labour should campaign and organise not only to win elections but to affect tangible change through local community campaigns. We brought Arnie Graf, the Chicago community organiser who mentored President Obama in his early years, over from the U.S. to help teach us how to community organise more effectively. We should bring Arnie back over to finish the job and help empower our new joiners to be the change they want to see in every community – we need to build on the links they have with local groups and organisations.

I mentioned at the beginning that in every generation Social Democracy is besieged from left and right but the achievements of each generation are defined by the strength of a complex political tradition that strengthens solidarity through protecting democracy and liberty, a role for the state and the market and seeks to shape the future through an inclusive politics. Solidarity is key which is why we must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office.

Yes, these are troubled times for social democrats. All over Europe there is a sense among our traditional voters that we are remote and do not share their concerns or represent their interests or values.  There is surge of support for populist right wing parties from Denmark to France, of more left wing parties in Greece and Spain and in Britain too. There is renewal of imperial politics in Russia, the murderous and abhorrent regime of ISIL in the Middle East, volatility in the Chinese economy and in Europe a flow of immigration that causes fear and anxiety.

But, the task of Social Democracy in our time is to fashion a politics of hope that can bring together divided populations around justice, peace and prosperity so that we can govern ourselves democratically. We have seen worse than this and weathered the storm. I am looking forward, with great optimism to be being part of a generation that renews our relevance and popularity in the years to come.

Chuka Umunna is the shadow business secretary and the Labour MP for Streatham.