The standard narratives:
Currently in news and documentary reporting on the transgender community tends all too often to fall into three main categories.
- The midlife Crisis: This is the predominant narrative. A middle aged man announces he has been ‘trapped in the wrong body’ and begins dressing as a woman. This is usually the subject of hilarity involving previous name, before and after photos and emphasizing the ‘inappropriateness’ of somebody with such a manly physique and occupation ‘pretending’ to be a woman. Prominent and prurient emphasis will be placed on very personal surgery which it is asserted will make him ‘become a woman’. In this transition stage many trans people are extremely vulnerable and may have lost their social support network. The media tend to take advantage of such vulnerability often in highly unethical ways.
- The deceiver: Again nearly always somebody born male but who in this case is able to ‘pass’ as an attractive woman. The focus will inevitably be on her hyper-femininity and how she has deceived men into believing ‘she is really a woman’ or has engaged in sex work. A double standard will usually be imposed which ignores the typical behaviour of other women.
- The trans child: Again nearly always a child born male. Great emphasis will be placed on the child’s preference for playing with Barbie dolls and wearing pink. Concern will be expressed that the child may be influenced in this behaviour … even suffering abuse from a manipulative mother. In almost every case, whether medical therapy is involved or not, there will be major inaccuracies in the article and ‘experts’ will be quoted whose work has been largely discredited within the medical community or who have a religious agenda which is not disclosed.
- The pregnant trans man: Until recently trans men have been almost invisible in the news and their rarity exagerrated despite the likelihood that those transitioning now will soon achieve parity in numbers with trans women. The narrative which has suddenly leapt to prominence is that of the trans men who, in the words of Ralph Fox, have ‘got creative with their bodies’ and born a child. The callously opportunistic fashion of most news reporting is starkly exposed in such cases. Unlike that of trans women who were born male, the gender identity of the protagonist is never questioned as this would invalidate the ‘MAN HAS BABY’ headline.
If trans people object to such narratives, asking for balance and for their own voices and experience to be heard, they are routinely accused of demanding censorship. Such narratives are characterized by assertions that trans people are demanding things which they are not, by setting up straw man arguments and by an assumption that the lives and medical histories of trans people are public property.
The narrative which is erased:
The trans deficit – As Thomas Hammarberg, Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, makes clear:
“The human rights situation of transgender persons has long been ignored and neglected, although the problems they face are serious and often specific to this group alone. Transgender people experience a high degree of discrimination, intolerance and outright violence. Their basic human rights are often violated, including the right to life, the right to physical integrity and the right to health.”
- The attitude of trans people – According to research by Trans Media Watch, 95% of trans people feel that the media do not care what transgender people think; 78% feel that the media portrayals are either inaccurate or highly inaccurate, 21.5% have experienced verbal abuse and 8% violence associated with representations of transgender people in the media.
- The reality of trans lives – Research commissioned by the Equalities Review reveals that 73% of respondents experienced harassment, with 10% being victims of threatening behaviour when out in public spaces; 47% of trans people do not use public social or leisure facilities for fear of discriminatory treatment; 64% of young trans men and 44% of young trans women will experience harassment or bullying at school. Over one third have attempted suicide at least once. Research in the US produced an even more shocking result: 41% had attempted suicide compared to 1.6 in the general population. Accurate figures are hard assess but it’s clear that around the world the risk to a transgender person of being murdered is very significantly greater than in the general population.
- Lack of balance:
- It is frequently assumed by those who cannot imagine undergoing gender reassignment themselves that those doing so will be likely to regret the surgical outcome. This is often accompanied by an assumption that transitioners must have been coerced into medical therapies by evil psychiatrists which ignores the well-documented origin of requests for therapy from transsexual people who have constantly battled with the psychiatric profession for the authenticity of their condition to be recognised. For many years the media have searched for such imagined regrettors. The handful they have found out of the tens of thousands who have undergone such surgery have invariably made front page headlines and the same few individuals periodically still do. Nothing could be further from the truth. Studies reveal that as high as 98% express no regret and that, in the case of those who do, regrets concern poor surgical result rather than any desire to detransition. For any other medical procedure this would be an astonishing success rate.
- Special concern rightly surrounds the treatment of trans children. In newspaper articles such children are frequently described as undergoing a ‘sex change’ while still pre-pubescent. Child psychologist, Diane Ehrensaft, highlights this problem well in a recent article When talking about children’s gender, words matter. The reality is that no child would be treated with anything other than puberty blockers before the age of 16. Blockers have a well-documented safe history in treating other conditions and they are totally reversible so that normal puberty can be resumed if the child changes their mind concerning their gender. In reality the children who are prescribed blockers will have been monitored over a period of years following careful and well tried guidelines and, in the two major clinics in the Netherlands and Boston, 100% of those who decide then to go on to oestrogen or testosterone at age 16 not only remain happy with their target gender but are likely to be higher achievers than their non-trans peers. In the UK gender reassignment surgery is currently not performed before age eighteen. There are now about two hundred children who have passed through these programmes. Some are now in their thirties. Again a 100% success rate as a result of any other medical therapy would be considered astonishingly successful.
- Statistical nonsense and inaccuracy:
- The trans population of the UK may either be portrayed as being so vanishingly small that it can be safely ignored or, if you read the Daily Mail, there is apparently a trans person lurking behind every lace curtain! Best estimates suggest that there are in fact at least half a million people in the UK who experience some degree of gender variance.
- Claims are frequently made in the media equating gender reassignment with cosmetic surgery and suggesting that those undergoing ‘sex-changes’ are costing the NHS a disproportionate amount of money. Figures are frequently inflated and no account is taken of how succesful the outcome is in combatting the depression and suicidality in individuals which has prevented them from leading fulfilling lives and making a full contribution to society.
- The Erasure of Trans History:
As Christine Burns MBE, a patron of LGBT History Month, has pointed out, since transgender people first began to make headlines as a result of prurience and sensationalism, activists have travelled a long and arduous road in pursuit of the basic human rights which should be enjoyed by every citizen. From early individual acts of courage to the campaigning which led eventually to the Gender Recognition Act to Trans Media Watch’s current submission to the Leveson Enquiry, the abuse and discrimination which trans people have faced has gone largely unnoticed and unreported by the mainstream media. This is apparently not a story they imagine their readers wish to hear.
It is long overdue that cisgender society turned a mirror on itself and its attitude towards trans people. Trans people have always existed, just as gay people and left-handed people have always existed. There is no history of trans people to be told … only the history of mainstream social attitudes and behaviour towards trans people which, as with other marginalised groups in the past and present, has been largely characterised by erasure, abuse and ridicule. Having no familiarity with the issues, those who write the news tend to lose perspective, feeding on the stereotypes created as dramatic devices by cis-gender writers of fiction and drama. Trans people are too frequently described in terms of being ‘other’, ridiculous or occupying a dangerous demi-monde on the fringes of society. We are seldom consulted about this. As with all people there are many human interest stories in the lives of trans people which do not involve either prurient personal detail or ridicule. All readers and viewers can perfectly empathise with such stories when told with respect and accuracy. Coronation Street, Hollyoaks and Waterloo Road have all featured popular storylines concerning trans characters. All of the UK soaps have discovered that diversity in storylines leads to increased viewing figures. In UK society diversity is the reality of most people’s lives. They wish to see this reflected in the news and to see examples of people living respectfully alongside others who may appear to be different but who in reality share the same wishes and desires, strengths and weaknesses as all people. It is time news items and stories reflected this in respect of trans people.