2013 – Where are we at?


It was pretty much a year ago that the Fleet Street week of shame commenced.  It started with David Batty’s expose that Dr Richard Curtis was being investigated by the GMC – something that quite a few folk had known about for 18 months, and a report that raised questions about “balance” and “trans being easy news fodder” – and prompted by the #TransDocFail hashtag on Twitter where a few hundred allegations of abuse of trans people by medics were made within the space of 24 hours.  Within 3 days the Guardian published a piece by Suzanne Moore with a throwaway comment about “Brazilian transsexuals”, derailing the anger trans people and allies were articulating (at last).  Just as that was calming down, and still within the week, The Observer printed then, a day later, withdrew a tirade against trans activists using language which would never have been sanctioned against any other protected group in the Equality Act, only for the Telegraph to republish it on the grounds of “free speech”.

2013 started with a bang, with trans issues finding themselves centre stage for a short while in the debate about press regulation, and also starting to raise issues about why certain forms of abuse are followed by the media, while other forms of abuse are swept under the carpet as “worthy stories” that are unworthy of publication.

The year carried on with a sharper light being brought to play on the way our society treats trans people, with added heat directed at the Daily Mail when the sad suicide of Lucy Meadows emerged.  Despite the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act being passed in the summer, hardly any mention at all was made of the effects (both positive and negative) this new legislation would have on those trans people who are married.  I only wish the Scottish campaigners better luck in favourably amending the legislation north of the border that is currently being debated.  They certainly seem to have learnt lessons from the Westminster campaign, and I’ve been honoured to have been asked to submit evidence to Holyrood by them.

The publication of the Pink List further propelled Paris Lees into a media career.  Following her well-received Radio 1 broadcast on hate, and her placement as the most influential LGBT person in the nation, she was the first openly transgender person on BBC 1’s Question Time where she shone in a generally less than stellar panel.  I knew her before she was famous, folks.  Indeed my own position (rightly shared with Trans Media Watch’s Chair, Jennie Kermode) as the 13th most influential LGBT person in the country left me wondering exactly how much influence did anyone below me have, because I don’t think I have any!

At the end of this year trans has been on the political and media radar in a way it hasn’t been before – but that’s not actually saying a lot, because it’s still not on very many political or media radars at all.

I look back at my work this year in amazement – exactly the same feelings as the last couple of years.  To have been interviewed by Nicky Campbell on BBC Radio 5 Live, not daring to think about how many millions were hearing my voice; to have been involved in setting up an event in a House of Commons committee room where two of the “secret stories” in TMW’s evidence to Leveson broke cover to 14 parliamentarians assembled at short notice on the busiest parliamentary Wednesday of the year; to have had discussions with Government ministers and opposition front-benchers on aspects of marriage law, being consulted as to whether spousal veto should be pushed to a vote, and hearing words I wrote uttered in the House of Lords debates; to have chaired a Parliamentary Forum meeting with Baroness Barker sitting by my side, and yes, that Pink List appearance – all of that has been utterly amazing.

Prior to February 2013 I had never spoken on a public platform.  This year I’ve spoken on a number of them, including sharing one with Natalie Bennett (leader of the Green Party).  I’ve had mornings when I’ve known two or three contributors to the Today programme, and weeks where I’ve met at least one panellist on BBC Question Time.  I’ve had standing ovations following speeches.  (My thoughts are usually, well, that wasn’t *that* great.)  I’ve delivered training abroad, and also given two speeches abroad.  It’s been a busy and exciting year.

For the last couple of years I’ve been asked what my plans are for the New Year.  My response has been, and is for this New Year also, simply to hold on and try to enjoy the ride.  Each year I’m convinced that nothing can top the previous year, that I’ve “peaked”.  I feel exactly that again.  Maybe I’ll be right this time!

But also I look at the situation that we face and am daunted by the work that needs to be done and the battles that are still to be fought.

In terms of the trans communities, the key has to be fundamental change in the way trans people are viewed by society at large.  The internet filtering episode in the last couple of weeks shows all too clearly that “trans” is viewed as “adult” and “sexual” – something to be put on the “too hard to do” shelf.  My discussions with parliamentarians and civil servants about marriage law revealed the same attitudes are widespread.  While some could see the sense in making the Act truly gender neutral and truly equal, the viewpoint expressed was that it would be “too hard” to convince others that the changes were necessary.

While 2013 has seen trans people gain greater acceptance, certainly within the political “left”, there is still an awfully long way to go.  The fixation of broadcasters using trans as either absent targets for “comedy” or as the subject of heart-rending “freakshows” hasn’t been changed, with trans still being placed into pre-ordained boxes by commissioners who think they know everything they need to know because they’ve been educated by poor media coverage in the past.

While battling for civil and human rights is important – and compared to the rest of the world, we actually have it pretty good in the UK, although “pretty good” still feels appalling – it’s the battle for hearts and minds that’s key – and that was the basis on which TMW was formed and still continues to operate.  The reason why I got involved with TMW was because of the harm an inaccurate media does to trans people and the importance of that same media in influencing public opinion.  Passing laws can get you only so far, and those laws can be reversed if public opinion swings solidly against them.  My experience with the media, the GMC and also with civil servants this year has been that it’s still acceptable to view trans people as, somehow, differently human – not quite the same as everyone else.

But the media work forces you to think through nuances and shades of grey.  By promoting other ways of thinking about trans inclusivity in the media, will those also become self-selecting memes that serve to further isolate others who don’t feel they are appropriate, or reflect their lives.  Advertising in particular relies on stereotype to quickly get across semi-complete stories in a matter of seconds.  It’s not a medium that really allows for nuanced portrayals.  Does that then mean that, by demanding better representation of trans people, the side effect becomes that trans is too hard to touch – again – resulting in effective censorship of trans people in advertising?

The sub-title of this blog is “a wander through the mind of a potential politician”.  By the time I started it I had had several people telling me I should seriously consider standing for Parliament – one person had even offered to be my election agent – so the sub-title was a nod to those discussions.  Similar questions from others still come – the most recent was last Sunday.

I have been fascinated by Parliament since the age of 10, when we had two general elections.  I’m a psephologist – in that I love elections, trying to work out what’s likely to happen and why.  It ties in with my love of geography and history.  For that reason it’s been a real thrill to have been invited to speak with politicians in Parliament.  The idea of being an MP has been at the back of my mind since my 20s.  But, for years, I’ve never had the confidence that I am articulate enough or quick enough (or politically savvy enough) to make any kind of political career any more than a pipe dream.  Although it’s dawned on me this year that, despite the headmaster at the school I’m a governor at making a plea for me not to go into politics, I actually already am – albeit in a very small and unelected way (although I am elected as a trustee of TMW!)

As an MP you’re expected to have informed opinions on everything – which is why MPs are members of political parties, because having an informed opinion on everything is clearly impossible.  But that necessity is where it starts to go wrong, because the exchange is that MPs are expected to defend their party’s policies on everything – even if they have campaigned within the party to change those same policies.  Part of this trade is caused by an immature media that cannot cope with the idea that people don’t fit into neat boxes, and doesn’t want the responsibility of explaining complexity, preferring instead to sell simplicity.

Most of the MPs I’ve met are considerably more complex and nuanced than the media would have you believe, or allow them to behave.  But the media controls the way that politicians are viewed – and right now the public is angry.  The feeling seems to be that no-one represents “real people” any more; that all politicians are in it for themselves; that all parties are pretty much the same.

The economy is growing, yes, but based on what?  It seems to be artificial inflation of house prices in London and the South East – again.  The vast majority of the population sees bills rising and their dreams falling.  Social mobility is the lowest it’s been for decades.

Accidents of birth appear to be the only guarantee of success – if you don’t have rich parents then your prospects are limited.  The meritocracy that briefly surfaced while I was growing up in the 60s and 70s appears to be dead and buried by a rapacious and unrestrained global capitalism.  Indeed the globalisation of industry and commerce starts to make individual governments irrelevant – think about the Costa Rican government being sued for hundreds of millions of dollars by an American corporation for loss of profits.  Think of Amazon, Starbucks and the rest basing their head offices in tax havens, exploiting labour forces worldwide but contributing as little as they can to the financial upkeep of the societies they rely on – because “market forces” demand best returns for their shareholders rather than wider society.

The demonization of the poor, the destruction of safety nets, the requirement to pay profit to layers of companies to provide services that used to be provided by the state – all of these have led to a more uncaring, more brutal society where, if you can’t survive, you’re weak and deserve to perish.

And in the middle of that globalisation, the British press is feeding the fear of immigration, despite the majority of people wanting sensible debate and welcoming workers to our shores.  Not the first time in recent years when the press seems to have, almost unanimously, decided what public opinion should be at the cost of ignoring what it actually is.

People are angry because they feel powerless to effect any change.  Global corporates can buy expensive lawyers to fight endless cases, quickly exhausting the financial resources of individuals and even governments.  Politicians are constrained to do what’s going to cost least in terms of legal challenges – as even legislation can be challenged in the courts.  The industrialisation of education is reinforced, rather than allowing children to learn to be learners, adaptable people capable of adjusting to a dynamic and evolving workplace.  There are job titles now that didn’t exist ten years ago (social media marketing manager?) so why reinforce outdated concepts of compartmentalised education?

The debate has become sterile, couched in terms of who can manage small aspects of our economy best, and lacking any vision for what humanity could achieve if we weren’t all fighting our small, tribal battles – seeing others as rivals rather than as equals.  The media delights in polarising opinion, because fights are easier to sell than material that actually informs.

That’s why I started this blog – not to focus on trans issues, but to start to think and encourage thought about wider issues.  Maybe that should be my focus for 2014.


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