Trans People and the British Media – 2018 snapshot

On Monday I gave a speech at the Westminster Social Forum, and my topic was on how trans people currently experience the British media. Here is the speech:


Trans people currently find ourselves at the centre of two debates rumbling around the British media. The first is whether trans women are women and should be allowed to use women-only single sex spaces. This has been prompted by Government’s proposals to reform the Gender Recognition Act. The second is around free speech.

Like the labels often used to describe trans people, these debates were not something asked for by trans people. Instead, they’ve been imposed upon us. And, because of this, the parameters of the debates are often wrong.

To give some sense of scale of the increase in media coverage, in the 8 weeks since 1 January 2012, Leveson time, Trans Media Watch found 73 pieces across the British media which referenced trans people. In the 8 weeks since 1 March 2018, we found 445, excluding those published in the LGBT press – more than a six-fold increase. While a number of those pieces were neutral, the more prominent ones tended to be those attacking existing rights under the guise of attacking Government proposals. Such hostile pieces now appear at least once a week in the press. Yesterday’s effort in the Sunday Times was headlined “Trans activist ‘bullies’ stop donations for schoolchildren”. This referenced a crowd funder for an anti-trans group, not for school children.

Overall the British media has become more intrusive, more intense and now appears to be more hostile towards trans people.

This media environment is giving the impression that trans people and feminism are at war, that you cannot be a feminist and support trans rights. Like so many impressions given by the media, this is wrong. Mainstream feminists in the UK are beginning to speak out in favour of trans rights. In Ireland, feminists condemned the debate in the UK, pointing out that trans women stood side by side with Irish feminists in the campaign to repeal the 8th amendment – while those opposed to trans rights in the UK did nothing.

However, what the media now routinely does is find two extremes and pitch them at each other, debate becomes spectator sport, and truth becomes subjective, losing objectivity and dependent upon the debating skills of the protagonist. This happens with all sorts of issues – Brexit, climate change, education.

Last month Channel 4 showed that when a debate is eventually held, despite many warnings and much resistance from those campaigning for trans equality, those anti-trans women descend to insults – for example shouting “penis” every time trans women Munroe Bergdorf spoke, and claiming it’s truth to call trans women men. Channel 4 did nothing, falling the wrong side of the distinction between argument and abuse in the name of balance.

When trans people attempt to put the record straight, immediately we are accused of silencing, censorship, being enemies of free speech. The tide of hate is expected to roll on unchallenged, without recognition of any consequences.

Just last week the BBC chose to run a story headlined “Twitter bans women against trans ideology, says feminists”. Twitter has no guidelines on trans ideology. It does, however, have rules about harassment and hate speech, and the few accounts that have been suspended, have been suspended on that basis. I don’t know why the nation’s broadcaster has fallen once again into the trap of following misleading press releases on Radio 4’s Today programme, apparently now having lower broadcast standards than Twitter.

Mind you, in February the BBC published a piece originally titled “Transgender Women in Womens Toilets?” I don’t know where Tunde and the BBC expect me to go, or even if BBC journalists have read the Equality Act.

And yet when complaints to the media are made, the most spurious of reasons are given why those complaints should not be upheld. The complaints process is no longer seen as an opportunity for organisations to learn. Instead complaints departments have become managers of a corporate defence exercise. Statements from BBC presenters about things happening – which didn’t actually happen – are defended on the grounds of context. Truth is, once again, a casualty.

Trans people want to live their lives, as everyone does, with the minimum of fuss and hassle. The proposed GRA reforms are administrative – they will make the lives of some trans people slightly easier, and will have no effect on access to or behaviour in single-sex spaces, as these are governed by the Equality Act and public order offences.

The impact of giving so much media space to a flawed and spurious argument is that thousands of people are suffering and our communities are losing lives to suicide once more.

Media defines what we thing about, what we see as problems, and the solutions we consider.

The central purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need to function in a free society.

Those last two quotes are not mine. But they show the power wielded and responsibility required by the media. At the moment, as far as trans issues are concerned, the only reasonable conclusion is that mainstream media is failing.


There were a few women who are campaigning against trans rights in the audience. I was challenged to withdraw my description of the group referenced as crowdfunding in the speech. I responded by reading a couple of paragraphs from Saturday’s Independent:

The fundraiser, set up by a group of parents calling themselves Transgender Trend, aimed to raise money to print and distribute a “resource pack” to schools that said being transgender is a “biologically impossible situation” and advised schools that creating new anti-discrimination policies to protect transgender children “may not be necessary”.

The guide suggested that to identify with a gender different to the one you were assigned at birth is “an indication of mental ill health” and that widely reported higher suicide statistics for transgender young people were “misleading”.

I have screenshots of Transgender Trend’s website which holds further gems, including in a Q and A session

But if kids are really trans shouldn’t we just help them?

We don’t have any evidence that children really are trans…

and

we feel [the ‘trans narrative’] needs to be balanced with research and scientific inquiry…

Given that the UK Government has consistently said that being trans is not a mental illness since 2002, that there is plenty of research that demonstrates that (a) trans peoples’ brains appear to more closely resemble the brains of their identified gender rather than the one assigned to them at birth and (b) treating trans people significantly reduces suicide ideation (otherwise the medics wouldn’t do it), I find it difficult to find any other appropriate description for the group.

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One comment

  1. […] 10. Trans people and the British media by Helen Belcher on Challenging Journeys (Phase 2). A look through the often inaccurate,  erroneous and insulting media coverage of transgender people […]

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