Free Speech or Life and Death?

In her Pressing Matters books, Christine Burns writes eloquently about all the work that a small group of trans campaigners did to achieve a legislative landmark. The Gender Recognition Act took at least 10 years of work as well as a series of court cases. It also took its toll. Most of the Press for Change team stepped back from front-line campaigning shortly after the Act was passed.

It’s been left to a new generation of campaigners to pick up the slack. I was one of a small number who formed the charity Trans Media Watch back in 2009, with the aim of improving the representation of trans and intersex people across the British media. What we found was largely ignorance. Senior executives would ask questions without any idea of their insensitivity. It took some thick skins to educate rather than retaliate.

In March 2015 we seemingly reached the trans tipping point. Caitlyn Jenner was across the world’s media, still largely an object of fascination. How could an Olympic decathlete, the epitome of masculinity, really be a woman? To be honest, that question says more about those who ask it than those who can answer it.

The world seemed to have changed for trans people. The UK House of Commons did a far-reaching inquiry into trans equality. What they uncovered was shocking for parliamentarians, but routine for trans people. Government was spurred into action and proposed to reform the quasi-judicial gender recognition process, the one thing it could easily do without money.

But a parallel stream was emerging in the media. After Leveson had reported, the narrative that free speech was under threat in the UK was spreading, across the press at least. The careful explanation to media professionals about why certain language was harmful and should be avoided was recast as censoring or silencing. At the same time, a debate was initiated about what a “real woman” was, and why trans women couldn’t be one of them.

The consideration of reform of a largely unknown act became the springboard for what turned out to be wave after wave of misleading attacks. The process of “self-declaration” was going to completely undermine what it meant to be a woman. I guess if you have the attitude that trans women cannot be “real women”, then there’s a certain sense to that argument, if you ignore the fact that the law already changed on that front in 2004.

Worse still, apparently it would undermine the Equality Act’s provisions for single-sex services, again placing vulnerable women and girls at risk from predatory men who would have to only declare themselves as female in order to be immune from prosecution.

Rape is an abhorrent, violent act. No trans woman I know would condone it, let alone perpetrate it. I have no more idea about what goes through the minds of predatory men than any other woman, but I strongly suspect that gaining gender recognition is not really on their radar. Nor would it give them any legal protection. To rape requires a penis, not a gender recognition certificate however won.

As far as the media is concerned, being generous you could understand why they don’t understand the distinction between the Equality Act and the Gender Recognition Act. But it isn’t as though trans people or Government have made it difficult to find out. The media’s lack of interest in asking experts, preferring a good old dust-up behind the bike sheds, is starting to be alarming. Maybe they’ve taken Michael Gove’s Brexit “we’ve had enough of experts” uncritically as government policy.

Certain papers make a habit of publishing one or two articles a week which perpetuate this misunderstanding. Most of the other nationals have regularly fallen into this trap.

When a debate is about the rights of a group of people, and one side of that debate consists almost entirely of people who have nothing to lose, you don’t have equity. The side which is in danger of losing rights will fight fiercely. The issue for trans women in this fight is, if we do so, we are then simply labelled as men. Again, if you have the skewed view that all violence stems from masculinity, then this line of defence is unsurprising, even if it is itself violent.

There is a theory that exposing abhorrent views disinfects them in some way. But disinfectant requires applying chemicals. Sunlight simply whitens things. Scrutiny of these published viewpoints is severely lacking. The end result is that hate against trans people reverberates around the media with no substantive or effective challenge.

Yesterday the Sunday Times called campaigners like me “trans twerps”. Today the Times published a piece which said that trans campaigners have been “hijacked by bullies and trolls”, “a form of McCarthyism in bad wigs and fishnets”. Well, thanks. I’ve not worn a wig for years, nor fishnets. This reminds those of us who have memories of the “bedwetters and bad wigs” statement from Julie Burchill at the start of 2013 in a piece that the Observer pulled within 24 hours, only to be republished on the Telegraph’s website because “free speech”.

What this shows is that the current campaign around “free speech” is misnamed. The protagonists are actually after “speech with no consequences”, and are currently picking on trans people because there actually do seem to be no consequences because of toothless regulators and ignorant editors. You could view this as malicious.

I thought that, when Government capitulated on Leveson 2, we are now waiting for another press outrage for the cycle to repeat itself. I am beginning to have a hunch that trans people might be the target of that press outrage.

The opponents have tried to neutralise the trans suicides line. Imagine how heartless you have to be to say that people don’t really take their own lives but it’s just emotional manipulation. Anyone who’s been campaigning for trans rights for more than a few years knows suicide victims – I know a handful, and each memory is painful. I came perilously close to this myself – something my then church-leader suddenly realised when I told him about the thought process I went through. Denying that is one of the most callous acts anyone could do.

Lest this be misinterpreted, being trans is not in itself a mental illness. What causes stress, depression and suicidality for trans people is the reactions and behaviours of others. Constantly being demanded to justify yourself, protect yourself against abuse and being targeted, even if by proxy, in front of tens of thousands of readers, is immensely stressful. When you feel you have no control over your life, suicide seems a logical way out.

Any debate about a person’s lived experience and reality can always end badly. When that debate is so one-sided and perpetuated across the national media for over a year, it’s both depressing and unsurprising that the reports of trans people taking their own lives are on the up again.

To the media, this is just another debate pulling in audiences and generating advertising revenue. To trans people, the debate is not just manufactured controversy. It is life and death.

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One comment

  1. […] 10. Free speech or life and death by Helen Belcher on Challenging Journeys, Phase 2. The treatment of trans rights in the media is not consequence free. […]

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