Is the Media Brave?

So, Hadley Freeman wrote this piece.

Yesterday I submitted my first piece to the Guardian’s Comment is Free section – no idea whether they’ll publish it or not. It was ostensibly about Julie Burchill’s latest rant against trans women based on the media portrayal of Caitlyn Jenner, but actually, it was about how the media decides which voices to broadcast and which narratives are acceptable.

Hadley’s piece will attract opprobrium from the usual quarters too, largely because it will be read in terms of “why should we treat trans women as women?”, probably because the headline frames it that way. I’m not sure if Hadley’s piece actually says that, but she does repeat the standard cry that trans identities should be open to debate.

The issue I have is with the terms of that debate. Those societies which have been shaped by the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) have a binary model of gender – someone is either a man or a woman, and the two have distinct roles and expectations. This separation is significantly weaker in other civilisations, and its existence presupposes some means of clearly identifying whether one is male or female. Because the Western world is used to observable science providing answers, the questions are inevitably framed in such a way that physical evidence is required. Feelings or intuition are discounted as being, somehow, not real – in the same way that mental health is still viewed as somehow “not real”.

Such questions are directed at trans people, and hardly ever at anybody else. Pretty much every trans person I know has had the experience of being subjected to a volley of questions questioning their validity that simply have no answers. Trying to turn the tables and ask the same unanswerable questions of the interrogator is rejected as not playing by the rules. I’ve done it two or three times over the past few years and my “victim” invariably, after a couple of minutes, gets angry because I’m not accepting the evidence which they feel I should accept. You see, when you write the rules, you claim power over others and, for years, trans people have not been allowed to write the rules.

There is also an intrinsic assumption that such a debate is actually acceptable. Imagine a debate, which has as its endgame the provision of equality, over the validity of gay men’s identities, or why black people are black, or why Jewish people are Jewish. But, somehow, trans identities are still fair game for this “debate”. And when you frame the “debate” in this way, you see how disingenuous the request actually is.

Trans people are used to, if not tired of, being asked questions. There’s a big world out there, containing many, many more people who are not trans than who are, which inevitably means education about trans is a high priority. For years trans people have been trying to explain our feelings and experiences in our own terms – although frequently in frameworks created by others, not always with our best interests at heart. The media then refashions those stories into a narrative it feels is acceptable, in exactly the same way as the medics have done for the last 30 or 40 years. In doing so, nuance is lost and tropes that simply make trans people despair are reinforced.

The debate, if there is to be one, should not be whether trans peoples’ identities are valid, but rather what society is going to do to rectify the disastrous situation trans people so often find themselves in – left waiting for months or years in medical and legal limbo, targets of subtle and unsubtle discrimination in education, employment, housing and provision of services. Government seems, at last, to be waking up to the human rights abuses that trans people have endured for years. Some parts of media woke up two or three years ago.

Ultimately I guess you just have to accept that trans people just are, just as they have been throughout recorded history and across our globe. Demanding “proof” is ultimately a discriminatory action. Challenging society – now, that’s real bravery.


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