Today’s Transphobia

Around 10:30 this morning, I received an email from one of the researchers on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme who I spoke with at length last month. He was working towards what turned out to be a half-hour slot on last Wednesday’s programme. In his email today, he wondered what in particular was transphobic in that slot. This is my reply, his name removed to protect the innocent:


Firstly let me say that I’m not fussed about appearing or not appearing on the programme.

I must admit that I didn’t know how to respond to your email. I’ve spent some time today thinking about the best approach to use, and also transcribing the half-hour segment of the programme.

When we talked, you said very clearly that this slot was not going to give voice to the likes of Germaine Greer. However, that’s what it did, time and again. People who are opposing trans equality do so in what sounds like a very reasonable manner. They always only want a debate about issues – again, and again, and again. And typically they are used to framing the terms of those debates. And when the debate doesn’t happen, they splash across national media about how they’ve been silenced.

Janice Turner, for example, used the usual line of “what about the children” – which sounds perfectly reasonable. What happens if you give someone medication and it turns out to be a mistake. The flipside of this argument – what happens if you don’t give someone medication and that turns out to be a mistake – is seldom if ever voiced. When statistics from study after study after study are presented which show high incidence of mental health issues and suicide ideation within trans populations, these are routinely dismissed, using arguments like self-selection, or small sample sizes. Yet there are no studies at all proving the opposite. We have years of experience knowing what the flipside to my example question above results in – mental illness, suicide, broken families, wasted lives. Terry Reed had around 30 seconds where she got some of that across, as opposed to around 2 minutes of pontification with no experience to base it on.

You also included Nazir Ali – who is simply concerned that we are about to destroy our society. No concept at all that what we in our society perceive as “gender” was rigidly enforced within the Abrahamic religions only – and that other societies across the world have used other concepts of gender for hundreds if not thousands of years.

The “debate” also ignores the fact that people do not currently have to have genital surgery in order to gain gender recognition – and there have been no instances in 13 years of trans people committing sexual offences in women’s only spaces. But, why let facts get in the way of a good rant, expressed so nicely because people are only “worried” about what this might mean in the future.

If you’re going to include a regrettor – and sure, there are a few – then probably choose someone who went through the system then decided it was a bad idea. Choosing someone who self-medicated in their 20s and didn’t seem to seek medical support is not a good example. As a medical student she should know better than to extrapolate from anecdote. But she got 5 minutes more-or-less uninterrupted.

John talked about terminology emerging in the 70s and later, with an underlying assumption that this was all new – reinforced by the section opening with Danny La Rue from the 60s, and identifying him clearly as a gay transvestite. Ignoring that “transsexualism” was first properly documented in 1949, and that didn’t stop German doctors undertaking experimental operations on trans people in the 1930s – the example I usually use is that “myocardial infarction” wasn’t routinely used until the 1800s, but it didn’t stop people dying of heart attacks for millenia before that.

The basis of the whole section was fundamentally flawed. It conflated sexuality and gender identity, and posited the idea that trans activists were trying to destroy gender. John repeatedly talked about a “post-gender” nation or society. This is a mischaracterisation at a very basic level. The binary model of gender has become very deeply rooted in our society, reinforced by social policies after both World Wars, and only starting to be relaxed as psychologists understand more about how gender roles can limit children from an early age – see the outcry over the recent BBC television series where attempts were made to equalise how boys and girls were treated in the classroom, and what effects that had in just one term. What trans people can do is show that maybe our perceptions about gender are wrong – which is not the same as saying gender does not or should not exist. But to place the whole of the scientific endeavour in this area and whatever repercussions there might as be the results of the efforts of, at most, a few dozen trans activists is unfair to say the least.

John referenced a powerful and influential campaign at one point. Really? I’m probably one of the people who would be pointed to as one of the core group, which is very small, usually ignored and doesn’t have that much co-ordination as we all have other jobs to do in order to pay the bills. Who are powerful and influential are those who want to deny trans people equality – like Germaine Greer, Sarah Ditum, Julie Bindel and, yes, Janice Turner amongst many who have regular columns in the national press. How many trans people have regular columns in the Times? Oh, yes. None. The debate goes round in circles because those who are powerful and influential ensure that it can.

Am I angry? Yes. Because all the media ever seems to do is treat trans people as exotic, as issues, as subjects of debates we would rather not have. Do I expect anything to change? Not within BBC News and Current Affairs. Despite all the warm words in 2012 from the then Director-General, about how he didn’t need to sign Trans Media Watch’s Memorandum of Understanding because the Charter ensured that the BBC had to meet its obligations to marginalised communities, nothing very much has changed apart from the volume of coverage.

XXXXXXXXXX, I’m happy to discuss this at more length if you think it would be useful. I would dearly love to see the BBC News and Current Affairs start to cover the issues that really affect trans people – like access to healthcare and the massive delays together with GPs who don’t want to treat people; like issues with computer systems that treat gender as an immovable object; like discrimination when getting jobs or promotions, because it’s often so hard to prove; or like verbal and physical violence towards trans people, which increases considerably the stress they already feel; like the actual issues around gender recognition, such as a hostile divorcing spouse being able to delay interminably someone’s gender recognition, or the inability of many trans people to afford the medical reports required – and move away from these interminable debates about things that aren’t really issues, but tickle peoples’ tummies making them feel good about denying people equality.



  1. Sarah Bindel? Presumably Julie’s younger straighter sister?


  2. Thanks for writing this.

  3. […] 6. Today’s transphobia by Helen Belcher  on Challenging Journeys (Phase 2). Let’s hope the BBC learns from Helen’s feedback. […]

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