On Monday evening I was invited to speak at the Royal Society for the Arts. My co-panellists were Linda Riley (publisher of Diva Magazine) and Tunde Ogungbesan (Head of Diversity at the BBC). My speech follows:
Let me start with a borrowed quote – “Mass media is perhaps the most powerful tool in the world for creating, changing or perpetuating society’s ideas about an issue or group of people.”
Trans people are now more in the news and across the media than they ever have been. To that end, Trans Media Watch has been successful – if only that was our aim. TMW’s strapline is accuracy, dignity, respect –three qualities we thought all journalists, editors, broadcasters, advertisers and regulators would readily sign up to. Our aim was never to simply increase the amount of coverage. It was to fundamentally change the way trans and intersex issues were reported.
There have been moments of progress. One of the saddest was the spring of 2013, when the press realised that they had, perhaps, gone too far after one of the trans people they’d had in their sights took her own life. That was the point when a lot of the press changed how they reported, even if they didn’t change much about what they reported. We still have outings, condemned by Lord Justice Leveson in his 2012 report, but they are now sympathetic outings. We still have press harassment, but it is for a good cause. What purpose there is in outing an airline pilot or army officer isn’t hugely clear, but apparently it’s very important. The media loves its firsts, and we’ve now had some firsts three or four times.
Certain elements of the press remain somewhat two-faced. The Mail had a habit of running supportive stories in sections like FeMail, while also running distorted news pieces pushing a hateful agenda. The Sun made progress, then Rebekah Brooks returned. IPSO, the successor to the Press Complaints Commission, made much of a clarification of the Editors Code, which was first announced only 9 years earlier.
Problems are not limited to the press. Broadcasters easily slip into stereotype. Trans characters are constantly foregrounded in drama – because just being trans is so obviously dramatic. Current affairs debates about some human rights problem involving trans people always seem to turn into debates about whether trans people should be allowed to exist. It’s not for nothing that trans people have a drinking game for the documentaries, which are almost always about transition. Trans woman looking in a mirror putting on makeup, take a slug. What the person looked like before – another slug. Born a man named Derek – hic. I pity the mother – “born a man”, ouch. You risk alcohol poisoning within 10 minutes with some programmes.
Underpinning this fascination and way of presentation seems to be a thought that trans people aren’t quite real. We’re zoo creatures, to be examined behind the glass of a television screen. We’re fascinating social experiments, whose very existence can be questioned. We’re just so obviously funny. A senior BBC producer recently tried to explain that trans was simply different to other protected characteristics, which supposedly justified their programme’s approach.
Let’s take one specific example – the recent furore around treating trans children. The word treating is over-stating the case. It’s all psychotherapy until the age of about 11 or 12 – absolutely no medication is involved until then – and cross-sex hormones are a no-go area until the child is 16. Parents often go overseas, if they can afford it, to help their child grow up. When a child is self-harming and suicidal, surely a good parent will do what they can to alleviate their child’s pain.
It seems that this is controversial. Apparently children can’t possibly know who they are – after all, how many of you knew you were a boy or a girl before the age of 18? The media circus senses a story.
It then applies a remarkable set of double-standards, criticising caring parents for supporting their children, and calling into question the expertise of a charity which has worked in this area for many years, while supporting the caution of medics who have defined themselves as experts – but only on the basis that they’ve had some years seeing children in clinics after some years of medical training where trans most likely didn’t feature at all. Support enhanced, it has to be said, by a small number of people who probably don’t have any science training and for whom trans people are a political inconvenience.
So we are fed the fear about giving hormones to children who might turn out not to be trans. The result is that we don’t give appropriate treatment to those who are. Recent work seems to indicate that the severe restrictions applied around giving puberty blockers to trans kids does clearly identify a subset of trans kids, while ignoring the rest of them. The consequences for that remnant are profound. Non-treatment is not a neutral act. Because they do go through an inappropriate and undesired puberty, subsequent painful surgeries and expensive medical treatment are then the result. Let’s be blunt – facial feminisation surgeries are bone-breaking stuff.
Trans children, like trans people in general, are supposed to know all the answers about their futures before they are permitted to take any steps to alleviate their suffering. As a result we are seeing vulnerable children, those who are struggling to find their place in our increasingly harsh and polarised society, being thrown into the forefront of a brutal political debate around identity and public spending – not by trans people, but by those with a very different agenda.
This is where we touch on the topical issue of balance. Just because a small group of people has an opinion, it doesn’t mean that it’s grounded in any fact.
Trans people exist. We have done so throughout recorded history and across the globe. We are not a theoretical construct. To deny us hurts us. Remember that around a third of trans people have attempted suicide. This is life and death stuff. These are facts, not an opinion voiced for some spurious balance.
You also have the other current media narrative – the one where trans people have become the enemies of free speech, no platforming every critic and trying to censor negative coverage. The actual incidences of no platforming are few and far between, despite the BBC trying earlier this year to broaden its definition to include “not wanting to speak on a platform with”. Those who wrongly criticise us for no platforming are usually doing it themselves.
When we set up TMW in 2010, one of our principles was that the press should remain free. We maintain that aim now. What we do is point out the implications of doing something, or not doing something. We explain that certain language and media tropes cause actual harm. Whether the media company or individual takes that on is up to them. It’s not about censorship, or removing the so-called right to offend, which is surely an insistence on some non-existent right to be heard, demanding something from others rather than something you can assert yourself.
As we can see, while some aspects are moving on, the basic narrative around trans people is still stuck. Generally we are bit players in a preconceived story. The power of the transformative butterfly moment is just too strong. Exactly when the pressure is most intense, we ask trans people to publicly justify themselves. The difficult explanations lead to a reliance on media soundbites, and the circle repeats itself. We daren’t ask people who have transitioned more than a few years ago – they’re not exciting any more, because generally they’re just living normal lives.
A very few people are now starting to ask, how do we change this? After all, we now have some trans celebs – Caitlyn Jenner, Kellie Maloney, Rebecca Root, India Willoughby. Just occasionally an unrestrained, authentic trans voice comes through – Paris Lees or Abigail Austen.
But where are the trans producers, the trans commissioners, the trans editors, the trans regulators? There are now some trans and intersex folk in front of the camera or with the reporter’s notebook. Where are the ones behind the camera, or round the editorial table?
I go back to the beginning of this speech. Don’t worry – we’re almost at the end. The media has a powerful influence in terms of what we think about and how we want to shape society. Society is made up of individuals, of whom I am one. The media had a powerful impact on me. As a teenager, I watched the 1980 BBC documentary A Change of Sex. It was full of media stereotypes. As a result, I decided I couldn’t be trans because I couldn’t answer the questions. For example, what did it mean to feel like a woman? So I struggled on for another 22 years, until my third breakdown, after which I realised that no-one could answer those questions. 22 years – two extended families, including my own young children, who then struggled to understand, not to mention countless friends and my employers. I barely functioned for two years. I was suicidal. All based on some flawed and medicalised narrative in a ground-breaking programme.
It has been suggested that trans people have been a case study in how the media, particularly the tabloid press, would treat everybody if only it could get away with it. What an indictment. It’s time to give trans and intersex people their authentic voice in the media, which includes editorial control. It’s time to stop the hate, and stop the harm.