Trans role models: Janet Mock, Paris Lees, CN Lester and Luke Anderson

You may not have heard of them, but popular culture has its fair share of trans people in public life braving the slurs - living examples of what trans people can achieve.

Historically, there have always been trans people, and in the past hundred and twenty years it is easy to notice them blasting their way through popular culture – from Billy Tipton, a jazz musician from the 1930s-1970s, through Calpernia Addams, a transgender author, actress and musician from the 1990s onwards, to cultural icons such as Eddie Izzard. Even now, we know about plenty of trans people making their way onto the big stage of popular culture, with the awareness that there are probably several more remaining stealth.

If you’re not involved in the trans community you might not have heard of these people, or you might not have heard of all of them, but they’re a collection of just a few of the trans people from all ages, cultures and backgrounds, who are part of the "media glitterati" – people who are living their lives in the public eye, and using their history of transition to help others. Sometimes this is done through visibility, being open about their trans status alongside their media career. Other times, activism comes into it as well – whether this is through working with television companies to improve their trans coverage (like Paris Lees), or designing the trans program at a high school for LGBT students (like Janet Mock).

Last year, for the second time, a trans person won Big Brother in the UK – this time a trans man called Luke Anderson, last time a trans woman called Nadia Almada, who won in 2004. When Luke went into the house he didn’t mention that he had transitioned to male, and over time he chose to share his history. The courage that this took him won him many friends both inside and outside the house, and when he won Big Brother, in a nationwide vote, the viewers were saying “we stand behind him, we want him to have the prize money” – a statement of support for a trans man from a significant swathe of the population.

Janet Mock, the former staff editor of People magazine’s website, came out as trans in 2011, disclosing her history in an article in Marie Claire. This set her up as an inspirational figure for a whole new generation of younger trans people. Her career had always been relatively prominent, and as a result, seeing a beautiful, accomplished woman in a position of relative power who had a history similar to theirs was a seminal moment for many younger trans women of my acquaintance. Last year, she also began the Twitter hashtag #GirlsLikeUs, designed to empower trans women of colour, a group of people living at the challenging intersection of transphobia, misogyny, and racism.

Equally stunning, Paris Lees is a UK journalist, and winner of the LGBT positive role model award at the National Diversity Awards 2012 – following her work with Trans Media Watch – most notably persuading Channel Four to commit to trying to remove all transphobic material from broadcast. Her appearances on television have, so far, primarily been brief, but nonetheless her incredible writing skill and untouchable confidence have won her quite a cult following, and in her newer positions of Editor (and founder) of META magazine, a glossy magazine aimed at the trans community, and channel four consultant, as well as her columns in Gay Times and Diva, she is the absolute definition of a rising star.

Finally, the unmatchable CN Lester. CN is a classically trained singer, who navigates the music world as an out genderqueer pianist and singer. Finding people who identify as genderqueer and are able to be open about that in every part of their life is rare, due to the oppressive and binarist culture in which we live, and finding one in popular culture would be expected to be even harder, but in reality CN has managed to combine their identity and their career remarkably, and has just released their first classical album – following their debut indie album in 2012.

Celebrities who try to make the world a better place are often lauded for that, and these people are certainly doing so – whether through the direct activism of Paris and Janet, or the openness about their history and identities, despite the costs and risks this could impose, of CN and Luke. By being out in popular culture, you will always be labelled “the trans one”. Slurs will be levelled at you the second you misstep, or simply because someone dislikes you. These four people have made the decision that that risk is worth it, to continue their careers, and to place their lives out there as examples of what trans people can achieve.
To all the people mentioned, and to all the trans people who live their lives with that level of honesty, integrity, and confidence - you are role models.

Matthew Reuben is a disability and trans rights activist, and a languages student.

Janet Mock, a journalist who came out as trans in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Matthew Reuben is a disability and trans rights activist, and a languages student.

Photo: ASA
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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA