What the media gets wrong about trans people, how misinformation is perpetuated, and what we can do about it. The first chapter of Trans Like Me: A Journey for All of Us – in all good bookstores now.
Daily Express, January 2011: ‘“Half Man” gets new breasts (and guess who’s paying £78k).’
Courier Mail, October 2014: ‘Monster Chef and the She Male.’
The Times, February 2016: ‘I’m just a bloke, says sex-change soldier.’
Daily Mail, October 2015: ‘Children as young as FOUR being given transgender lessons.’
We’re often the butt of the joke: The Sun’s 2011 game ‘Tran or woman?’. There’s an air of the freak show about us, an invitation to peer into the bizarre realities of our lives: ‘Transsexual, 44, elects to die by euthanasia after botched sex-change operation turned him into a “monster”.’ Even when the intent is celebratory, we are marked out as different and strange: CNN’s list of the most influential people of 2014 described actress and advocate Laverne Cox as ‘The Gender Bender’.
Here are a few of the things the media shows, and has shown, trans people to be: confused, deceitful, delusional, damaged, predatory, brave (sometimes), pitiable, pathetic. A punchline, a warning, a mistake.
Here are a few of the things I am: a singer, a teacher of music, a good (if forgetful) friend, a loving child and grand- child, a loved and loving partner. I am a doctoral student, a decent cook, too ambitious, too anxious, a composer of all kinds, and someone who tries, at least, to be better than my worries would have me be. And I’m also transgender.
Rarely has that disconnect between trans reality and its interpretation been so clearly shown as with the publication of British journalist Richard Littlejohn’s 2012 ‘character assassination’ of primary school teacher Lucy Meadows. Meadows was not a public figure. She hadn’t contacted the press to sell her story, hadn’t issued a release, hadn’t promoted herself via social media. It didn’t matter. ‘He’s not only in the wrong body . . . he’s in the wrong job’ the headline announced, accompanied by a photo of Meadows on her wedding day, back before she had transitioned. Referring to her as ‘he’, Littlejohn warned that Meadows’ mere presence would have a ‘devastating effect’ on her young pupils. ‘[Meadow’s previous name] is entitled to his gender reassignment surgery, but he isn’t entitled to project his personal problems on to impressionable young children.’
As a teacher of students ranging in age from five years old to fifty, this was the first I had heard about projecting my personal issues onto my pupils. My lesson plans focus mostly on technique, creativity and personal growth, with a side order of self-confidence boosting and chatting about musical history. My private life doesn’t come into it. I don’t hide who I am with my students and their families, and neither do I dwell on it; the fact that I am trans is as fundamental as any other part of me, but far less important in this context than my knowledge of vocal production and how best to play staccato. I teach for many reasons, but most of all because my own music teachers gave me so much, and I have a debt to repay through sharing the joy of making music. It makes no sense to me that my support of my young students would somehow rob them of their innocence, nor can I interpret the work I put into others’ learning as ‘selfish’.
In the end, Littlejohn need not have worried. Lucy Meadows did not remain in her job for long. Three months after transitioning, in March 2013, she killed herself.
Ascribing a single cause to any suicide is both dangerous and disingenuous. Lucy Meadows, like many of us, struggled under multiple burdens. But it is also true that the coroner who investigated her death, Michael Singleton, believed that the press had played a role. Speaking at the inquest, he said: ‘Lucy Meadows was not somebody who had thrust herself into the public limelight. She was not a celebrity. She had done nothing wrong. Her only crime was to be different. Not by choice but by some trick of nature. And yet the press saw fit to treat her in the way that they did.’ Finishing his state- ment, he turned to the gathered reporters and said: ‘And to you the press, I say shame, shame on all of you.’
How can it be that both trans people and the journalists who write about us believe ourselves to be talking about the same subject, and yet have such wildly different beliefs, words and ways of speaking? Differences so vast that the same life can be deemed both worthy of respect and worthy of public ridicule, an inspiration and also a disgusting threat? Differences that play out not just in the media, but in how wider society treats trans people?
These writers are recording the trans ‘debate’ in one language, and trans people like me are speaking the realities of our lives in a totally different tongue.
How are we meant to reach the people who are not trans, when they are primed to believe the opposite of how trans people live our actual lives? How much longer must we mis- understand each other, trapped in the falsehoods created by the production of ignorance?
I was first introduced to the concept of ‘the production of ignorance’ at an early music conference in 2015. The focus of the day was on women composers and music-makers in Western history, and of particular interest to me was the question why, after celebration and acceptance in their own eras, after decades of careful research, re-evaluation and performance, so many people, even musicians, believe that there were no women composers before the twentieth century. In one of the question and answer sessions musicologist Melanie Marshall put forward an answer that clarified not only this problem, but which also explained to me so much about popular knowledge and general confusion over gender issues. Referencing the work of Nancy Tuana, Marshall described the concept and process of the production of ignorance: it is not just the absence of knowledge that keeps a truth from being widely known and accepted, it is also the active production of ignorance that suppresses that truth. It is not only that we are unaware of the many women composers throughout history: we are actively taught that there were none, or certainly none worth bothering about.
Similarly, it is not that trans people are ignored entirely, but that what we are taught as fact can often obscure and distort the truth in a way that even silence could not.
Not that silence is the solution, even if it were still possible. Much has been made of the ‘trans tipping point’, from the front cover of Time magazine to the daily, twice daily, articles in English-language media throughout the world. It is unde- niable that the media is having a trans moment. Interviews with trans adults, features on trans children, possible changes in legislation that would help trans people, definite changes in legislation that will hurt us, another trans death in prison, another trans person in custody, a gender fluid celebrity, a charity campaign. Some of this content is incredibly good, and some is just incredible. In an age of declining sales of offline media, the end of physical newsprint and the importance of clickbait ad revenue, there’s a particular winning formula when it comes to trans issues: anti-trans opinion piece (as shocking as possible), report on the hurt caused by said piece (search Twitter), pro-trans rebuttal (in the same paper). Rinse and repeat on a regular basis. It doesn’t matter why people are reading – agreement, rage or the hope of titillation – so long as it sells. And, right now, trans sells.
When we apply the concept of the production of ignorance to this cycle we can see why and how it plays out.
To learn how to learn about trans people, about the ways in which what we know about gender is shifting and growing, we first must unlearn.
The question I am most often asked about being trans – on the internet, in the pub, on the bus, at work – is the one I most dread answering. Sometimes it’s delivered through euphemism, sometimes crudely, and worst of all by a groping, uninvited hand. ‘Have you . . . you know?’ or ‘so you’re . . . post- or pre-op?’. It’s colleagues I barely know asking me what kind of genitals I have and whether I’m going to change them – and, if so, how – and strangers recoiling in horror, because ‘I don’t know what you have down there’. This, for them, is the defining point of being trans: the ‘sex change’, the ‘op’. Never mind that there are many different kinds of medical treatments that trans people may undergo, if it’s right for us, if we have the money, if our medical systems allow it. In the popular imagination there’s a singular operation, and a violent, last-option one at that. Various forms of detailed, sensitive reconstruction work become ‘lop your tits off’ and ‘cut your cock off’. It’s the supposed proof of being trans and, more than that, it’s everybody else’s business.
What we experience on a day-to-day basis we see mod- elled by the media: documentaries, interviews, movies, TV shows. It’s the triumphant finale of 2005 film TransAmerica: Felicity Huffman sliding her hands between her legs in relief at the absence of her (much publicised prosthetic) penis. In 2015 documentary Girls to Men, the film-makers framed the stories of their young trans masculine protagonists in terms of their journey towards genital surgery. Gory surgical footage and close-up cock shots; that the audience should become a voyeur is a given, because they, somehow, have not only the right to know but the right to gawp. Even when a trans person has not volunteered the information, the topic is considered fair game – more than that, essential. Watch the 2014 interview of Carmen Carerra and Laverne Cox by Katie Couric: the ease with which Couric asks about her interviewees’ genitals, and her confusion at being denied an answer.
For many of the people who ask, the fact that a ready answer might not be forthcoming is baffling. After all, isn’t that how being trans is meant to work? Someone realises that they’re ‘trapped in the wrong body’, then gets that body overhauled and emerges a new person. It’s everything we’ve been taught from the earliest ages: women have vaginas and men have penises. If we, trans people, want public acknowledgement of who we are then, the argument goes, we should accept the public judgement of our genitals.
If we were to take another example, and apply the same rules, it becomes obvious just how inappropriate and harm- ful this trope is. For some (not all) trans people, one element of being trans is the physical process of transition. It can be joyful, it can be painful, it can be messy and it can involve surgery. The same could be said of parenthood. Conception, pregnancy and childbirth are necessary parts of making a family for the majority of people. Like medical transition, it is vital that we’re educated about these processes if there’s a chance we’ll find ourselves personally affected. And luckily, in both of these cases, the medical information is freely and easily available online, through public health initiatives, in libraries, and from the relevant medical authorities.
But it would never be appropriate to approach a new mother in a café and say: ‘so did you rip your vagina giving birth to that one?’ When greeting a colleague returning to the office after maternity leave we don’t ask if we can examine the stretch marks and possible scars, or ask about haemorrhaging and post-natal incontinence. If we’re close friends or family, we might well talk about the most personal physical aspects of creating and delivering a baby – the same is true of transition. But the need to be honest and close with our loved ones doesn’t make the intrusion of strangers okay.
The second problem is that of language. Obvious trans- phobic language in the media – and in the wider world – is hard to ignore. Even those people who are themselves trans- phobic could hardly pretend that Julie Burchill’s infamous 2013 column was inoffensive, with her descriptions of trans women as ‘bedwetters in bad wigs’ and ‘dicks in chicks cloth- ing’. You don’t need to know anything about trans people to know that referring to us with insults is cruel.
What worries me more is the trend to describe all trans- related language as somehow ‘made up’, difficult and too PC to be allowed.
When I’m asked to give a talk, write an article or deliver training on trans issues, I’m well aware of the fact that the words I use won’t be familiar to everyone, and am happy to explain. ‘Trans’ is the word I favour, as it has the broadest and most flexible definition: any person who, in some way or combinations of ways, has found that how they experi- ence their gendered self does not fit with the gender and sex they were assigned at birth. ‘Cis’ is the antonym of trans; just as we cannot describe being gay without having a word for straight, we need a word to describe experiences which are not trans, as well as experiences which are. These words are blunt instruments, designed to give a rough understand- ing of the ever-changing world we find ourselves in; tools to help us to understand and challenge the ignorance and prejudice between us. They will change with time, and new words will take their place: humans are quite remarkable in their capacity to learn new words. For example, we now use the word ‘you’ in both the singular and the plural: not so in Early Modern English. In the past twenty years the word ‘internet’ and all its related terms and add-ons (including the term ‘add-on’) have entered into daily, unremarked usage. As a teacher, I’m constantly introducing words that are new to my students: rubato, cantabile, légèrement. When new words can bring us closer to something we want to say then we are all too happy to learn them. And this is why I’m suspicious of the claim that trans-related words are too much, too hard and of no use.
Even when a word has been in usage for a long time, those who are suspicious of what that means in terms of gender are quick to claim that the change is too fast. ‘They’ has been used as a singular pronoun in English for hundreds of years; we find examples of the singular they in the works of Shakespeare, Austen and Swift. But trans people like me, who use the pronoun ‘they’ as a gender-neutral alternative to ‘he’ or ‘she’, are often mislabelled in the media by editors who struggle with its usage. By implying that trans people are faddish and difficult about words, writers can cast asper- sions on the validity of our language – and of our selves. By claiming that our words are too hard to understand, the media perpetuates the idea that we are too hard to under- stand, and suggests that there’s no point in trying.
Learning how to talk about trans people is not difficult, and doesn’t require any specialist knowledge. Just as you would in any other situation, you just have to reflect back the words a person uses about themselves. Wanting to be referred to in an accurate and respectful way isn’t a trans- specific thing, but a cornerstone of polite society. I don’t call my Jewish friends Buddhist. It’s the same with trans people. Use the right names, use the right pronouns, and don’t fall for the line that we’re too difficult for our own good. I know many cis people who are so nervous about getting it wrong that they’re scared to try to get it right, but it’s okay to ask. I would far rather someone asked me what pronoun I use than tried, out of embarrassment, to guess, and got it wrong. The final problem of the framing of trans lives so often recycled by the media is perhaps the hardest one to see. So often it is the only way in which trans people are included in the media at all. Less obviously pernicious, but still dangerous, is the way in which trans people are only featured when being trans is the story.
The most obvious, and most egregious, example in recent years must surely be in the press treatment of scientist Kate Stone. Dr Stone was gored by a stag in a freak accident in late 2013; as someone who had not sold her story, who was not in the public eye, she had no reason to suspect that her accident would hit the news. And yet she, and her family and friends, were confronted with headlines such as ‘Sex swap scientist in fight for life’ and ‘Deer spears sex-swap Kate’. Speaking to the Guardian, Stone explained: ‘I have no regrets about the accident. I have never for one moment thought, “Why me?” But some of the reporting was horrendous. The media door- stepped my family, my friends and colleagues. On radio, one ‘expert’ was asked, ‘Was Kate gored by a stag because she was transgender?’‘
This is an extreme example, for sure. Most of us will never experience this kind of treatment, although more trans people have experienced door-stepping than you might expect. Stone sought help from the Press Complaints Commission and, eventually, the intrusive stories were withdrawn. But the broader point – that being trans is, in its own right newsworthy – impacts on the way all trans rights are framed.
When I was first starting out as a performer, I was shocked by the number of people in the media who were more than happy to write about me, but not as a musician: only as a trans sob story. I refused to provide ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures, to give away the personal details of my life: most of the press interest disappeared. We’re forced into a double bind; if we’re to speak honestly about who we are then we must have the freedom to talk about being trans, but we cannot be reported honestly if being trans is the only aspect of our lives discussed.
I know many trans people who have spoken to the media about what it is that they do – their professional expertise, their artistic ventures, their latest projects – and are later con- fronted with a final copy that cuts out all of that detail for a clichéd trans narrative that has nothing to do with the actual life of person featured. Through this framing we are made to look like attention seekers and oddities. If we don’t mention being trans, we risk one of two options. If, like me, we are visibly different, then we are usually pressed to talk about it. If we are not seen as trans, we run the risk of accusations of deception, of a scandalous ‘reveal’, if we don’t announce that we are trans from the get-go.
As in the media, as in everyday life. Without being able to talk about being trans, I can’t speak about how I have been made to suffer for it, and also what I have learnt through those experiences. I can’t make things better by being silent. But neither can I speak about every other part of my life – live every other part of my life – if other people focus only on my transness as something shocking and different.
It has to be our choice to talk or not talk about being trans, and – whether we talk about it or not – we still need to be recognised as whole, complex people. Our lives are truncated when we are seen only through the stereotypes of others, and we waste so much time struggling against those constraints. Whether it’s on the front pages or in the workplace, ‘being trans’ is never the most interesting thing about us. Accept it as one crucial part and then, please, keep listening.
If these aren’t the part of trans life trans people themselves would like you to know, then how have these stories become so prevalent?
Because we, as trans people, are not the ones in control of the trans news story.
In 2014, American scholar Jamie Collette Capuzza pub- lished a study analysing sourcing patterns of trans stories in the US media. Looking at data from the preceding four years, Capuzza found evidence to support what has long been noted within our trans communities: trans people are far more likely to be written about as an ‘issue’ than we are to be recording our experiences and insights as equal participants. Just as often as not, the cis journalists writing an article or putting together a news segment would fail to include even a single quote from a trans person. Of the trans people who were quoted, the vast majority were white, the vast majority were trans women, and trans people who don’t fit into the gender binary were hardly present at all.
Beyond that, Capuzza found a distinct skewering of focus: trans people were far more likely to be written and talked about in the entertainment, beauty and lifestyle sections of the media than in the ‘hard news’ categories of political, legal, economic and medical reporting.
Trans people are not always – not even often – approached by the press for comment or explanation when trans topics come up. When we are allowed to speak for ourselves, our answers are usually trimmed to fit a script written by others. And when that script is offered up as the truth of what trans people are, used as the foundation for future script writers, then we end up with a trans ‘reality’ created and maintained by those who aren’t: a perfect trans chimera than mutates into the snake swallowing its own tail.
This isn’t just a trans thing, of course; all kinds of people and subjects are distorted by reporting. The ‘news’ is a funny combination of playing to a known audience, keeping ad revenue on side, trying to attract attention in a crowded mar- ketplace and appealing to the political sensibilities of editors and stakeholders. Sometimes there’s some great journalism thrown in as well, if we’re lucky. But when not all that many cis people know a trans person in real life – or don’t think that they do – that understanding of the margin of difference between the media spin and the everyday reality can slip down to nothing at all.
We can be misinterpreted through lack of representation – but also through the particular prejudices of popular writers. The denial of reality, the cutting of a story to fit a particular narrative, and presenting uninformed opinion as fact: on a weekly basis, these are the ways in which trans people are represented to the wider world by those who know nothing about our lives.
What would someone who has never met a trans person – never worked alongside a trans colleague, had a beer with a trans friend, watched a movie with a trans sibling – think of Jeremy Clarkson’s recent op-ed in The Times, ‘Transgender Issues are Driving Me Nuts’? If you know Clarkson, you’ll know that this is the kind of piece he made his fortune with: reactionary, cutting, the kind of thing described as ‘not politically correct’. He writes: ‘[Children] dream impossible dreams. You don’t actually take them seriously. You don’t take them to a hospital when they’re 10 and say, “He wants to be a girl, so can you lop his todger off?”’ Anyone who knows anything about medical transition and the treatment of trans youth knows that genital reconstruction surgery is only avail- able for adults. But those people are not who this article is written for – and the people for whom it is written now have another piece of proof that trans people are deranged, delusional and not to be trusted with children.
On a much subtler note is New York magazine’s article on the removal of Kenneth Zucker from the Child Youth and Family Gender Identity Clinic in Toronto. A long-form read on the debate around the treatment of gender non-conforming children and teenagers, the reporting appears unbiased, nuanced – that suspect word, ‘objective’ – the kind of piece that requires time and attention from a reader, and rewards you for your efforts with the sense that you have learnt something concrete. But the article suffers from a number of omissions that would have given a more balanced picture of the current debate around treatment options for young people. Only a fraction of the research that contradicts Zucker’s approach is mentioned: notable absences include an American Psychological Association award-winning paper from Y. Gavriel Ansara and Peter Hegarty. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health, the global leader in standards of trans-related healthcare, has condemned reparative therapy – the kind of therapy Zucker is alleged to have practiced – as unethical. This vital detail is missing from New York magazine’s article. The leading trans researcher consulted by the author on the historical, psychological and academic context for Zucker’s work was not quoted, and more time is given to the trans activists who have protested Zucker’s work than to the trans psychologists and researchers who have criticized his methods from within the field. The risk with articles such as this is that readers may be left with the impression that trans people are hypersensitive fanatics unable to function in the ‘real world’, most particularly that most logical of real worlds, that of scientific research and development. Researching the full detail of all the issues would take a full day and access to an academic library. It’s heartbreaking.
And the most popular error of framing is, as ever, asking a non-expert to weigh in on a sensitive issue requiring expert knowledge. Before the publication of the results of the first-ever UK Trans Inquiry, a cross-party parliamentary investigation into the current state of trans rights and experiences in the UK, the Evening Standard published a piece entitled ‘Changing Sex is Not to Be Done Just on a Whim’. Written with the kind of hyperbolic humour frequently found in newsprint editorials, the arguments contained within went beyond opinion and into the realm of misinformation. Following decades worth of campaigning from trans activists and extensive consultation from experts and laypeople from across the country, the inquiry recommended reforming the current confusing, time-consuming process of legal gender recognition, instead allowing UK trans people to update their documents with a simple online form. That update has already enjoyed great success in Ireland, with no sign of com- plications or dire societal fallout. But instead of focusing on these facts, and the genuine debate around them, the author instead weighed in against ‘gender as a choice issue’ and misrepresented the concerns of trans campaigners and our supporters as displaying ‘a worrying indifference to a basic question of what makes us ourselves’. It is not a furious or hateful piece, but it mattered. The Evening Standard, given away free every evening throughout London, is impossible to escape. Its message carries. And that line – that trans people ‘change sex on a whim’ – was one that I had heard again and again in political discussions leading up the publication of said inquiry. Despite its lack of foundation, it is used as an excuse by lawmakers, civil servants and politicians to reject calls for a simplified change of legal gender. Even when the person spouting it claims that they don’t personally believe it, they put that phrase in the mouth of ‘the public’, ‘the electorate’, and use it as a reason why trans people cannot be allowed to have equal rights. And while I might have read four or five excellent takedowns of this piece, of that idea, online, I’d be willing to bet that the people who were already primed to believe that trans people are fickle and confused read only that piece – and agreed with it.
This is the reason why it’s insufficient to respond with accusations of being ‘offended’, to say that anyone who dis- agrees with these pieces is not obliged to read them and can take their support elsewhere. Trans people may choose not to consume transphobic media; we have no choice about living in a world shaped by this misinformation.
A study from the University of Saskatchewan, in Canada, published in 2014, showed the real-world impact of such media. Looking at personally and culturally endorsed stereotypes of trans people and behaviours, the researchers found that, in the absence of real-life experience, cis people fell back on what they had learnt through the media. Overwhelmingly, what they had ‘learnt’ was that trans people are ‘confused’. Respondents, relying on images of trans people in films, in the news, on TV, described trans women as wig-wearing caricatures of femininity, who most likely had no ambitions beyond looking pretty and finding stereotypical feminine employment and male approval. Trans men, on the other hand, probably wanted to pursue typically masculine careers and hobbies – working on an oil rig, playing team sports – but were let down by their smaller, weaker bodies and inability to be accepted by ‘real’ men. Some choice words used to describe trans people were ‘odd’, ‘gross’ and ‘freaks’.
For all of these reasons, large numbers of trans people refuse to have anything to do with the mainstream media. We do have alternatives, after all. I’m a member of the first generation to have had internet access at home. Being able to research trans people, trans history, surgical options, was a lifeline for me, although it took some getting used to. Compared with how trans youth use the internet now, my experiences are already archaic. I still had to learn the language from the mainstream media, before I had enough information, and the courage, to enter those words into a Yahoo! search. What I found was limited to a handful of forums, a small list of books and an overwhelming amount of vitriol and anti-trans hate. For many teenagers now, main- stream media is no longer the first place they hear the words ‘transgender’; they already have the entire trans world, or an approximation of it, at their fingertips. They can follow the real-time transitions of popular vloggers, swap advice and support on Tumblr, learn the theory and practice of social justice through reading blog posts and online articles and catalogue their own transitions on Instagram. For trans adults, too, all that we can’t find in a newspaper, on TV, in a cinema, is available for us in the comfort of our own homes. I recently binge-watched Her Story, an Emmy-nominated web series created by trans and queer women, starring trans and queer women. I was in heaven just watching trans people – actual trans people like me and my friends, but with better outfits – navigating questions of friendship, love, societal pressures and internal doubts. I put my money in for the crowd fund- ing of Happy Birthday Marsha – a movie about the history of the Stonewall riots that is everything Roland Emmerich’s spectacular flop Stonewall was not. There are trans speakers on TED, funny but serious lists on Cracked and BuzzFeed, and a host of well-informed, well-researched bloggers and academics to follow. Complexity, nuance, a basic level of humanity: trans people speaking for ourselves.
The only problem is, is that the people we need to reach are not always – not even often – there with us. As much as we can assume that private internet access is universal, it is not. When we rely entirely on alternative media, we cut our- selves off from those who cannot afford to join us. Even with that access, there are hurdles to overcome. You need a magic word to get in – a search word, a recommendation, a click through – something that will open up your media options from the traditional to the new. You also need the will to seek out something different, the need to find something better. What I have found, in outreach and consultation and most specifically in political work, is that the people who have the greatest power to impact on trans people’s lives through legislation, employment, housing and environment are also the people most likely to accept traditional media portrayals of what trans people are, and not understand the need to look elsewhere for representation
So, as much as I would like to say ‘enough’ – to withdraw from the mainstream media altogether, as consumer, as spectacle and as participant – some of us stay. We stay in the hopes that, if at least one of our quotes makes it into a finished piece, then that quote will change one mind. We offer an interview, knowing that it will be cut and edited in ways we would not like, because we think of a young person without internet access, who might just pick up a paper copy because it’s there. We go on television, then try to protect ourselves from the inevitable abuse that follows, because we hope to be heard by the people who would never dream of watching an online news show produced by trans people. And we become complicit in the machine, knowing that if other people had not done the same for us, we would not be here today to keep the fight going.
But we can still expect more, work for more and ask for better.