Whatever the long-term results of the Leveson inquiry, one appearance may prove a turning point for an increasingly visible and (hopefully) decreasingly vulnerable population. When Helen Belcher presented Trans Media Watch‘s submission last week, explaining the largely negative practices and consequences behind more than a hundred news items about transgender (but mainly transsexual) people, it felt like a turning point for a group no longer prepared to tolerate the media intruding into — and sensationalising — their personal histories.
Tabloid exploitation of transgender lives has now become so crude and so cruel that a 10-year-old is campaigning against it. Returning to her primary school in Worcester as female last September, Livvy James found her story strewn across the headlines after other children’s parents took it to local newspapers and the nationals picked it up. Having been compelled to explain to the Daily Mail and ITV’s This Morning why she let her child go to school as female (with the newspapers treating her decision as a countrywide concern), Livvy’s mother Saffron has secured over a thousand signatures to a petition against media ridiculing of transgender individuals. Livvy felt that the abuse she took from her peers related directly to hostile print and screen portrayals.
It’s interesting to note that the earliest British coverage of transsexual people was fairly even-handed: with no conventions set on the subject, the News of the World handled sensitively the surgical transition of athlete Mark Weston in 1936. It was not until the late Fifties, after Christine Jorgensen’s fame suggested the emergence of a phenomenon that violated a fundamental social norm, that the tabloids started outing people with transsexual histories: the Sunday Express forced Michael Dillon into exile in 1958 and the Sunday People exposed April Ashley several years later.
You might imagine that after fifty years, we would have moved beyond this. The mere existence of transsexual individuals is no longer a novelty — the conservative estimate in Trans Media Watch’s Leveson submission put current numbers at 7,431 — but tabloids continue to contrive stories from ordinary people’s transitions.
Just because editors believe that the public are interested does not mean that this reporting is in the public interest. The detrimental effects outweigh any benefit in this systematically invasive and dishonest coverage, which at worst threatens not just the safety of individuals, but the existence of the entire transsexual population by undermining their right to gender reassignment via the NHS. In this “age of austerity”, stories attacking transsexual people for using a service to which they were entitled became frequent; the unsourced figures oscillating so wildly that Jane Fae compiled a comprehensive guide to the actual costs to the NHS. Her figures are far below the £20,000-£60,000 spread I’ve seen across the right-wing press.
This was another fine example of transgender people using the internet to challenge a media that has objectified and excluded them for years. On Friday, Millivres Prowler launched a stable-mate to Gay Times and lesbian/bisexual publication Diva, aimed at the transgender population. Meta, an online magazine catering to female-to-male and male-to-female people will likely reach a larger readership than any other trans-related journal. Its editor, Paris Lees, appeared on BBC Breakfast last week, alongside Livvy James, to expose transphobia in the media to a terrestrial television audience. Now, there’s a sense that the excuses that gatekeepers of mainstream liberal and left-wing spaces have previously used to keep out transgender perspectives — that the issues are too complicated, or that transsexual people somehow undermine feminist or socialist politics — are finally becoming untenable.
Above all, there’s an understanding that transgender experiences illustrate a wider point: the tabloid habit of interfering with the privacy of non-public figures when they think it will sell can potentially damage anyone. Leveson’s grilling of Dominic Mohan about the Sun‘s mean-spirited “Tran or Woman” quiz, and Mohan’s sheepish admission that “I don’t think that’s our greatest moment,” happened before Trans Media Watch gave their evidence. This is a sign that, slowly, people in power are not only allowing transgender people to voice their concerns but also listening; and that whatever happens to our tabloid press, the situation can never be quite as hopeless again.
Juliet Jacques is the author of the Orwell Prize longlisted Guardian blog A Transgender Journey and also blogs here
Editor’s note, June 2015: This article was edited to remove an out-of-date reference.