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: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.