The news that trans blogger Juliet Jacques has made the prestigious Orwell Prize longlist for her Guardian blog A Transgender Journey may not at first sight seem headline news … Congratulations to a talented young journalist making her mark. However perhaps this event is more significant.
Juliet’s blog came out under the imprimatur of The Guardian. I’m not aware how much editorial input she was subject to. However blogs generally are a much more direct way for a writer to frame their own arguments than is the case with traditional print media and the Orwell Prize is an important indicator of their worth. There were in fact two trans entrants this year out of a total 205 … Zoe O’Connell of Complicity being the other.
Some in the trans community might ask: Why so few? Almost since it’s inception the world wide web has hosted blogs by trans individuals. In fact the online autobiography might be considered a right of passage for many trans-people … a catharsis, a useful exercise in therapy … getting all that baggage out there before moving on.
And yet, as Christine Burns observed recently, many trans people seem to suffer from a version of Stockholm syndrome (described in Wikipedia as “a paradoxical psychological phenomenon wherein hostages express adulation and have positive feelings towards their captors”). You only have to dip into any trans forum to see evidence of this on a daily basis – the huge importance placed on not offending the non-trans majority. The questions so many trans people seem obsessed with answering are the questions which have been framed by the non-trans majority. The acceptable narrative … from realization of being different in childhood to the ‘mystical’ experience of genital surgery … is invariably and mind-numbingly familiar. The journey is a quest with rings to be gathered along the way. The surgical ending as artificial an ending as the wedding in a fairy tale. Non-trans people are not really interested in what happens next unless it’s disastrous, which fortunately is extremely rare. Ordinary life is what happens.
In the introduction to her groundbreaking book, Whipping Girl, Julia Serano pins down the content of these blogs brilliantly:
“When I first told people that I was working on a book based on my experiences and perspectives as a transsexual woman, many of them immediately assumed that I was writing an autobiography … Perhaps they imagined that I would write one of those confessional tell-alls that non-trans people seem to constantly want to hear from transsexual women, one that begins with my insistence that I have always been a “woman trapped inside a man’s body”; one that distorts my desire to be female into a quest for feminine pursuits; one that explains the ins and outs of sex reassignment surgery and hormones in gory detail.”
The fact that, despite her blog being autobiographical, Juliet Jacques so singularly managed to avoid most of these traps is highly significant. Juliet framed her own story. It was not the one ‘non-trans people seem to constantly want to hear’ and … surprise, surprise … as a result it was far more interesting. The most frequently repeated comment I noticed beneath her pieces was to the effect: “My eyes were really opened by this.”
Last week Channel 4’s 4thought.tv ran a series of slots around the issue of transgender. The question they chose to ask was: “Is it wrong to change gender?” There was no consultation with the trans community about asking such a question. It was a debate a non-trans programme-maker at some point during the production process had unilaterally decided was ‘obvious’ and needed to happen. If they had consulted they might have realised how transphobic such a question is … akin to asking if it’s wrong for a left-handed person to be allowed to change from being forced to use their right hand. One trans participant in the series, Paris Lees, simply ignored the question and forthrightly demanded an end to transphobia. To be fair @4thought.tv have since been drawing attention in tweets to Christine Burn’s blog Just Plain Sense and Natacha Kennedy’s Uncommon Sense which raised a number of awkward points about the way the series had been conceived.
Paris Lees, who is a trustee of Trans Media Watch, also wrote a piece about Channel 4 on her blog lastofthecleanbohemians. A couple of weeks ago, Channel 4 signed a Memorandum of Understanding with TMW. “It’s going to take time” said Paris. Channel 4 may still be trying to frame trans issues in a way they unilaterally decide that they should be framed, from their overwhelmingly non-trans perspective. The Guardian may still have editors who decide on content and which bloggers to allow to blog under their banner. However this is something new. They are only now taking the first steps to creating opportunities for a new generation of trans people, like Juliet Jacques and Paris Lees, to frame the argument unfiltered and undistorted … in short something very different to the same old Trans Documentary Drinking Game …. again and again and again. After all, if you are a traditional liberal media organization and there is an area where you have virtually no insider knowledge whatever, what else can you do than create spaces where those voices can be heard directly? And inevitably you are going to start out by getting the framing of those spaces wrong. We can only learn by talking to each other and some of these organisations are realising they need to listen.
Undoubtedly the Daily Mail will continue to rehash the same old narrative with different names because the last thing their readers want to read is something new and original … unless it’s horrifyingly scary and safely foreign. But perhaps a few buds are emerging and a credible challenge is beginning. Could it be as the old movie trailer blurb goes: “At last the true story can be told!”?
Excellent blogs to look for, which frequently cover trans issues, are: