I know you are probably getting fed up with this stuff by now, but this story does illustrate very clearly just how manipulative the press can be if they want to be, openly spreading ideas that they must know to be false when there’s a minority group that they want to pillory. I noticed yesterday some discussion on Twitter about how applications from students from South Asia wishing to study in the UK were down sharply in the past year — a 25% drop from India, 13% down from Pakistan. This was blamed squarely on the Daily Malice stirring up hatred against foreign visitors and immigrants, which in turn leads the immigration service to impose ever more draconian policies.
I’ll bring this back to Leveson at the end, but first lets look at some of the press coverage.
First up, here’s Ed West in the Telegraph, claiming that there is no medical evidence that gender reassignment improves trans people’s lives for the better, and that academics who try to prove this are being hounded out of academia. On the face of it the article sounds quite sympathetic towards trans people, but anyone who knows a bit about the subject can quickly see that it is all founded on lies and distortions.
A key feature of West’s argument is the story of J. Michael Bailey and his book, The Man Who Would Be Queen. Bailey claims that there are only two types of trans people. There are “homosexual transsexuals”, by which he means trans women who are sexually attracted to men, and there are “autogynophiliacs”, by which he means trans women who are sexually attracted to women. Like most people who make a living from publicly abusing trans people, Bailey largely ignores the existence of trans men. They don’t rate anywhere near the same amount of column inches in the media. You’ll note also that Bailey’s terminology clearly implies that trans women are, and can only ever be, men.
According to Bailey’s theory, “homosexual transsexuals” change gender primarily so that they can have sex with as many men as possible. It’s not clear what evidence he has for this, but he notes, “Nearly all the homosexual transsexuals I know work as escorts after they have their surgery” and “Prostitution is the single most common occupation that homosexual transsexuals in our study admitted to”. It doesn’t occur to Bailey that these people might be working as prostitutes because they can’t get jobs thanks to endemic discrimination against trans people in the labor market. Instead he notes that they “might be especially suited to prostitution”. Remember, this is people like me that Bailey is talking about.
As for the autogynophiliacs, I’ve written about this strange, made-up condition before. Basically Bailey is suggesting that people change gender because they are sexually obsessed with the image of themselves when cross-dressed. It would be laughable if the idea wasn’t treated with such seriousness by the American Psychiatric Association.
The publication of Bailey’s book was accompanied by a publicity campaign trumpeting its challenging and ground-breaking science, and on the basis of that it was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. The Lammys, remember, are for books which promote LGBT people. There then followed an outbreak of outrage amongst the trans community, and several complaints against Bailey by people who had been his research subjects. Amongst other things, we learned that, as part of his research, Bailey had had sex with at least one of his subjects. Great devotion to science there!
West claims that Bailey was “effectively hounded out of academia”, but in fact his college ignored or dismissed all of the complaints against him. All that happened is that a book that vast numbers of trans people regarded as offensive and defamatory was dropped from the nominees list for an award intended to promote positive images of LGBT people. You can read more about the story from trans academics, Lynn Conway and Joan Roughgarden.
As to the absence of medical evidence for the efficacy of gender reassignment, well, I’ll admit that searching for academic papers can be hard, but I had a go. It took me about 10 minutes to find this. It is a review of NHS gender treatment produced by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. It includes references to a number of academic studies looking at outcomes of treatment. Here are some of the results:
Charing Cross is a very large clinic with a long-standing reputation in the field; in twenty years of practice, they have only had three patients who reverted to their original gender – Shirzaker et al. (2006) Oxfordshire Priorities Forum – Minutes of Meeting 27/09/06
in over 80 qualitatively different case studies and reviews from 12 countries, it has been demonstrated during the last 30 years that the treatment that includes the whole process of gender reassignment is effective – Pfafflin & Junge. (1998) Sex Reassignment. Thirty Years of International Follow-up Studies After Sex Reassignment Surgery: A Comprehensive Review, 1961-1991; English Ed. by Jacobson & Meier
no patient was actually dissatisfied, 91.6 per cent were satisfied with their overall appearance and the remaining 8.4 per cent were neutral – Smith, YLS. Van Goozen, SHM. Kuiper, AJ & Cohen-Kettenis, PT. (2005) Sex reassignment: outcomes and predictors of treatment for adolescent and adult transsexuals, Psychological Medicine 35:88-99.
A survey in the UK also reported a high level of satisfaction of 98 per cent following genital surgery – Schonfield, S. (2008) Audit, Information and Analysis Unit: audit of patient satisfaction with transgender services.
A further study on outcomes in trans women shows that they function well on a physical, emotional, psychological and social level – Weyers, S. Elaut, E. De Sutter, P. Gerris, J. T’Sjoen, G. Heylens, G. De Cuypere, G. & Verstraelen, H. (2009) Long-term assessment of the physical, mental and sexual health among transsexual women, Journal of Sexual Medicine 6:752-760.
Now of course the Telegraph is the sort of publication that is likely to claim that there is no scientific evidence for climate change, evolution or heliocentrism, so I’m not surprised at West’s claims, but if you look the evidence for the value of gender treatments isn’t hard to find.
Gay Star News also covered the Richard Curtis story, and as you might expect it did a rather better job, but it also did it’s best to cover it’s backside by supplying what journalists euphemistically call “balance”. It notes a Facebook campaign in support of Dr. Curtis, and gives almost equal space to someone who has spoken out against it. Now of course there is an actual complaint from a real patient here, and that needs to be investigated. But it should not be “investigated” by means of articles in national newspapers that throw in a whole lot of spurious additional accusations of malpractice and attempt to cast doubt on the wisdom of providing anyone with treatment. Also there are currently 259 people in the Facebook group. I’ve only noticed two complaining. Journalists know that the amount of space you give to an opinion is critical in determining how much credence readers give to that opinion. By giving almost equal space to the contrary view, Gay Star News is suggesting that the trans community is equally divided on the issue. That’s not what I’m seeing at all.
They are very careful to describe the stories being related on the #TransDocFail hashtag as “alleged”. That’s often journalist code for “probably made up”. And the examples they pick to showcase are mainly name-calling. The much more serious incidents are ignored. You can get a much better idea of the level of abuse by looking at this useful list of lowlights from the hashtag.
The Guardian tried to add a little balance of their own by accepting this article by Jane Fae which does a pretty good job of covering the issue. Spectacularly it also makes a first appearance in The Guardian for my vagina. Not a picture, of course, but definitely a mention. I’m going to count that as an almost Amanda Palmer level of awesomeness, though I’m sure that Amanda herself has done far better.
Unfortunately The Guardian also chose yesterday to publish an article by Suzanne Moore in which she argued that trans women should put up with being abused and ridiculed by her because of the need for feminist solidarity. She also repeats the classic Janice Raymond and Julie Bindel line about trans people reinforcing the gender binary (and so are anti-feminist). You can find a more nuanced (by which I mean not written by Moore herself) view of the whole furor over at The F-Word.
Finally in this round-up of links I’d like to give credit again to Sarah Brown for starting the whole thing. Here she is talking about it. Her article also includes a link to a 5-minute slot on BBC Radio Cambridge in which she and Christine Burns discuss the issue with a very supportive interviewer.
Now, I promised you a link back to Leveson. Thanks to my pal Eugene Byrne, I discovered this blog post by the Met Office complaining about lies and distortions being spread about their service by the Daily Malice. Incredibly, the Malice article even contained a lie that had been the subject of a successful complaint to the Press Complaints Commission when it first appeared in the Telegraph. So not only does the Malice feel free to print lies, it will do so even when another newspaper has already been censured for doing so. And this is not some despised minority we are talking about here, this is a matter of the accuracy of scientific work. So next time someone tells you that British newspapers can be trusted to self-regulate, I recommend asking for a balanced assessment.