BBC Radio Bristol recently ran a couple of trans-themed interviews. I wasn’t on them, but my friend Dru Marland was and she had some thoughts about the process here. Dru makes a number of good points that I would like to follow up on.
The first thing worth noting is the “born in the wrong body” narrative. The BBC Bristol presenters made a lot of use of this but, as Dru says, it is often used unthinkingly, and inappropriately. By no means every trans person wants to modify their body, nor indeed has any issue with their body. If your definition of trans extends to include intersex folks then their point is often that they very much don’t want anything done to their bodies. Also the whole idea that trans people should hate their bodies acts to push people towards surgical options when they may not want them. We are trying to get away from that situation, not encourage it.
Then there’s the question of the upbeat message. The trouble with people only ever hearing about you as a victim is that they will only ever view you with pity, not with respect. Of course it is absolutely true that many trans people have terrible lives, and we want to make them better. But you have to believe that they can be better.
All too often trans people are portrayed as hapless victims who will always need help. And that tends to discourage people from seeking help. When I first came out to my family many of them were convinced that I was ruining my life and would soon be dead. To be honest, I wasn’t that confident myself. But my living happily and moderately successfully for two decades since then I have proved those fears wrong. There’s no doubt that I would be much better off had I been able to avoid transition, but had I tried I probably would have ended up a suicide statistic.
Which brings me neatly on to the “trans people are so brave” narrative. Really, we are not. As Dru says, that suggests that we go into this voluntarily. Trust me, we don’t. We do this because we have to, and because the alternative of not doing it is worse.
To a certain extent being trans in the media is a bit like being someone who has broken their leg, but is now fit again, being interviewed about what it is like to have a broken leg. You’d much rather say how nice it is to be able to walk again, but the interviewer only wants to talk about how horrible it was for you when you couldn’t.
Then again, as Dru also notes, transition is not an end to trans people’s problems. After transition we have a whole load of different issues to deal with. Most of us cope somehow, but these are things that could be solved if only other people would stop being so shitty to us. Interviewers don’t want to talk about that, they want to talk about being “in the wrong body” and about transition, because those are the things that fascinate cis folks, not boring old discrimination.
However, not all media people are just out to exploit us. I happen to know, Laura Rawlings, one of the presenters on BBC Bristol’s breakfast show. We’ve met each other at events in town, and chatted on Twitter when they are covering science fiction. We ended up having a long phone conversation earlier this week about how they had handled the trans interviews they did, and how they might have been doing better. Being in the media myself, I hope I was able to suggest ways in which their coverage could have been better, both for trans people, and as journalism. Laura, of course, can’t promise anything. She has to work with her producer, her co-presenter, and so on. But hopefully I have at least made a start.
That reminds me of something Paris Lees said on Twitter the other day. When she and her colleagues were setting up All About Trans, a group that seeks to actively encourage positive media coverage of trans issues, they asked their media contacts where they got their information about trans people. “From the media,” was the answer. Because there was no other quick and easy way for them to get it.
Here’s the thing, then. We need better stories about trans people in the media. We are not going to get them if we just sit back and wait for them to come and ask us questions. We need to be proactively involved. That can be behind the scenes, as is often the case with Fox & Lewis, or it can be in front of the camera, as is the case with Paris.
There’s a slogan being used by trans media activists these days: “Nothing about us without us.” I think that’s wise, but it means we have to put work in, and it means we have to produce good drama and journalism as a result. We also have to be aware of the need to at least acknowledge the wider trans community, even if we can’t represent it all, because our experiences and needs are so very different. These things are not easy.