Introducing Trans Issues Week

Every day this week, the New Statesman website will host a blog exploring gender issues.

In the twelve months preceding November 2012, at least 265 transgender people were murdered across the world. That figure comes from the Trans Murder Monitoring group, and covers only documented cases in 29 countries, so the true tally is likely to be higher.

For anyone interested in equality, it should be obvious that trans people are subject to harassment simply for the way they express their gender identity. If they do not "pass" in the street, they can be subject to everything from cruel comments and sideways glances to assault or rape - just for standing out. The kind of dehumanising language which most people would find outdated and offensive if used against women, or a racial group, is routinely used when talking about trans people.

In recent decades, there have been great improvements in the way that both the medical community and the wider public deal with issues around gender identity. But sometimes it seems that a lack of knowledge, or awareness, is preventing people from engaging in what should be an important cause. Many people I know would never deliberately set out to offend, but are clueless about what pronouns to use, or how to refer to trans people. 

For that reason, the New Statesman blogs will be hosting a week devoted to trans issues, with a new blog every day on the subject. We hope to dispel some myths - and also offer some hope. Talking about trans issues purely in negative terms does not do justice to the many trans people living happy and fulfilled lives, and so there will also be pieces celebrating positive trans role models in pop culture, and describing the reasons to be optimistic about the future of trans people in Britain. 

The aim of the series is to reach out in a straightforward and friendly way to people who haven't considered these issues before: potential commenters should know that no one is waiting to jump down your throat for an innocent mistake. 

There won't be room this week to cover the breadth of trans experience, and so the articles that follow should be viewed only as trying to start a conversation. We hope that you will continue it in the comments here, on social media, and in your own lives. 

Monday: How a trans teacher showed adults have more hang-ups about gender than primary school kids by Jane Fae

Tuesday: Everything you've always wanted to know about trans issues (but were afraid to ask) by Jennie Kermode

Wednesday: Trans people, pronouns and language by Juliet Jacques

Thursday: Trans role models: Janet Mock, Paris Lees, CN Lester and Luke Anderson by Matthew Reuben

Friday: Trans people and the current feminist movement by Petra Davis and Non-binary: An introduction to another way of thinking about identity by Sky Yarlett

PS. I should add upfront that this theme week was planned before the recent Twitterstorm about Julie Burchill's article. We won't be hosting a response to that, as the idea of a New Statesman comment piece about an Observer comment piece about a Guardian comment piece about Twitter comments made after a New Statesman comment piece might be testing the patience of a casual reader.

PPS. You can find our previous theme weeks at the following links: Britishness; censorship and pornography; masculinity and British comics.

Backstage at the Pink Pageant, sponsored by human rights group Blue Diamond, in Kathmandu. Photograph: Getty Images

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder