Trans and the Media – Some Observations

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.

How Not To Engage With Government

As Twitter followers will know, I spent today in London at an event run by the Government Equalities Office. They wanted to hear from trans activists about our thoughts on the media. Interesting, you would have thought.

Of course the event was in London, and started early enough in the morning to ensure that anyone coming from outside the city either had to pay a fortune in peak hour fares or get a hotel room for the previous night. Even then the fares aren’t cheap. I wouldn’t have been able to go if I wasn’t able to stay with friends (thanks Karo & Tommi), and if LGBT Bristol hadn’t offered to help with the cost. Now I’m feeling guilty about putting in an expenses claim, because the event was a total waste of my time.

That wasn’t because of the government people, who spent the morning either listening respectfully or asking useful questions. Nor was it the fault of Vicky from the LGBT Consortium who organized the meeting. Rather it was because of the relentlessly negative attitude of some of the other attendees.

OK, I know I don’t have much experience of talking to national government. But here are a few things I would think are obvious.

1. If you are asked to provide some positive suggestions of ways forward, don’t spent the entire time moaning about things that don’t work, especially if the things you are moaning about are things that the civil servants you are talking to can’t do much about.

2. If other people put forward positive suggestions, don’t immediately jump on them and dismiss those suggestions.

3. If you are lucky enough to have a local authority offering significant amounts of money for trans people to take a role in local decision-making, don’t tell the national government people that the initiative in question is a waste of time because trans people don’t come forward to take part.

The first half of the morning was actually quite good. We went through the really quite heartwarming amount of media coverage of trans people that is going on. Only yesterday it was announced that a trans actor was being cast in a trans part in Eastenders. That’s huge. Of course there are always things that can be done better, but the improvement over the last few years (basically since My Transsexual Summer aired) has been dramatic.

There were good points made by people like Jane Fae that the national media isn’t making programs for trans people, it is making them for cis people. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t tweak the language, and the narratives, to present trans people in a better light. Sense8 did this very well, and Jane herself came up with some great ideas for how trans characters in soaps could be involved in trans-related plots without everything having to be a transition story.

I was also pleased to see that some people had noticed that the US media do a rather better job on diversity than the UK does, rather than just assume that British is Best. More of this later.

The second half of the morning was where Vicky wanted us to come up with some ideas for going forward, and it was moan, moan, moan, moan, moan, moan, moan, moan, moan.

Sometimes that’s the only thing you can do. Meetings with the NHS tend to go that way. That’s partly because we are talking directly to the people responsible for treating us appallingly, and partly because there’s nothing much we can do to work around the issue. The media situation is different.

I quite understand that people like Helen Belcher and Jane Fae are sick and tired of beating their heads against the national newspapers and getting nowhere. The regulatory regime that we have now is, if anything, worse than we had before the Leveson inquiry. But that’s not just us. Even the Prime Minister can’t stop the Daily Mail writing malicious articles about him. What chance do we have?

In any case, complaining doesn’t work. These days any company or public body worth its salt employs teams of people to ensure than customer complaints are deflected. That’s either passively through endless bureaucracy, or aggressively through legal threats. Again, that’s not just us. Everyone has this problem. There’s not much that anyone in the Civil Service can do to fix it.

Equally we are not going to have much luck with the national TV companies, or with Hollywood, unless we have money (like the Wachowskis) or can pitch them ideas they find attractive.

The reason that the Americans do much better than we do on diversity is that they have a bigger market, and can make money with diverse programming. We don’t have that in the UK. We have local media. The problem is that they can’t make money. Community radio, community TV, operations like Bristol 24/7, all rely to a large extent on volunteer labor. It is the same in publishing. The big multi-nationals are obsessed with finding the next best seller, while small presses do a much better job on diversity.

By working with community media we can get trans people involved in program creation, and even presenting programs. We can also get stories that are much more trans-positive. It’s not sexy. It’s not glamorous. But it makes a difference, and it can be done for comparatively small sums of money. Frankly, most community media companies are so strapped for cash that if they government were to offer small grants for diversity-related programming they’d find people queuing up to apply for them.

However, if I want to make that happen it is pretty clear that I’ll have to do it my myself, or with the help of supportive cis people.

Me on Choice Feminism at Bristol 24/7

I have a new feminism column up at Bristol 24/7. This one is a bit theoretical, but basically it is all about one of the was in which white media feminists try to police the behavior of other women. So it would be “Up Yours, New Statesman” again. You can find the column here. Do please at least click through. As far as I know, I’m the only trans person in the country who gets to write a regular column on feminism. That sort of thing needs to be encouraged.

Talking of ever trans person’s least favorite newspaper, Amanda & Neil have an interesting blog post up about the process of editing their special edition. The whole thing appears to have been a little fraught, but at least they did print Roz’s poem, and they let Roz perform it live at the Hackney Empire gig last Thursday. I suspect that one or two people chocked on their lobster & Bolly over that.

Trans Kids Wrap-Up

The media onslaught on the trans kids issue continued for a few days after my last post on the subject. I had intended to say more about it at the time, but other things got in the way. I’m coming back to it now because there are a couple of important points I wanted to make.

First up, when you are reading any of these “debate” articles in which a journalist presents what appears to be two sides of the argument, always look for who gets the last word, because that is almost certainly the side that the journalist wants you to think “won” the “debate”. The article will probably be structured to lead you to that conclusion.

As an example, check out this piece from the Telegraph which purports to give advice to parents whose kids exhibit gender-variant behavior. The articles talks to Mermaids and a gender specialist, but gives a lot of space, and the last word, to one Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist, who encourages parents not to “overreact” — the journalist’s word, not hers.

As I noted in my post on the Victoria Derbyshire program, around 75% of the kids who see doctors for gender variance issues do indeed “grow out of it”. However, that leaves 25% who do not. Slowly but surely, the gender specialists are learning to tell who needs more help and who doesn’t, but the kids’ own testimony is found to be a strong indicator of behavior. The more insistent a child is that they are the “wrong” gender, the more likely they are to need to transition later in life.

The article states (without quote marks so I am assuming these are the words of the journalist, Radhika Sanghani):

However, the most important thing for parents to remember is that there are no real ‘warning signs’ their child will become transgender or transsexual.

This is flat out wrong.

Furthermore, consider this scenario: suppose your child exhibited possible signs of a dangerous disease. There’s a 75% chance that it is a false alarm, but a 25% chance that there is something seriously wrong which, if it is not treated in time, could lead to death, and at best lifelong disfigurement. What would you think of someone who advised you not to overreact, and to wait and see if the child recovered on their own?

The other piece of coverage I wanted to point you at is an episode of BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. It is probably gone from iPlayer by now, but there is a transcript available here.

Before reading that, however, you might want to check out this blog post by CN Lester which explains how the Woman’s Hour staff tried to recruit CN to be the anti-trans person in a debate on the validity of treating trans kids. There’s little doubt that Woman’s Hour intended to run a “debate” show, and that they wanted the anti-trans side to win.

And if you need further evidence, go and read the transcript and pay close attention to the questions that Jenni Murray poses.

The eventual show had the anti side taken by Finn MacKay, who happens to have just written a book on radical feminism. Because there’s nothing quite like arguing against someone’s right to exist when you have a book to promote, right? Finn is a lecturer at the University of the West of England in Bristol. Doubtless our paths will cross at some point.

Actually, almost everything that Finn says on the program is stuff I agree with. Jenni Murray is much more obviously anti-trans. However, the program is presented in such a way as to suggest that parents who take their kids to a gender clinic are obsessed with a need for those kids to conform to the gender binary. Michelle Bridgman of Gendered Intelligence does her best to counter this idea, but she isn’t allowed much space to explain.

The truth of the matter is that trans people have waged a long and exhausting campaign against the medical establishment to try to prevent them from forcing gender-normative behavior upon us. Being trans isn’t about sexuality, and it isn’t about gender performance either. If all someone wants to do is wear pretty dresses, that person will be happy to go through life as a cross-dresser. They don’t need medical transition, and they should not be encouraged to seek it. Nor is someone who does transition medically required to be gender-stereotypical in their behavior afterwards. Presenting trans people as being obsessed with being gender conformant is just one of the lies that radical feminists tell about us.

As for kids, it can be hard to tell which way they will go, but gender specialists are getting better at recognizing who needs help. In the meantime treatment is carefully staged so as to give the kids every opportunity to back out. For those that don’t, there is increasing clinical evidence that the use of hormone blockers provides significant benefits.

The medical evidence is very clear. And yet journalists persist in scare-mongering and arguing that trans people should be denied treatment. What’s worse is that they do this for “entertainment”.

And Now Radio 4 Does Trans Kids

Yesterday afternoon BBC Radio 4’s PM program ran a short segment on trans kids. It is available on iPlayer, and the trans coverage is about 22 minutes in.

Once again the program seems fairly positive on the surface, but is let down by careless (or possibly deliberate) framing. Helen Belcher’s son is utterly charming in his brief interview on life as the child of a trans parent, and the head teacher of the school interviewed is clearly trying hard to do the right thing. The young trans girl they are talking about appears to have had a positive experience of transitioning at school (at least thus far).

But look at this tweet from the journalist who did the interview.

The key phrase there is “boy who wants to be a girl”. As with Victoria Derbyshire’s show, this is framing the narrative as someone who is “really” a boy and who is making some sort of lifestyle choice to live a fantasy.

Things go pear-shaped at the end of the segment as well when Helena Lee talks about government guidance. I guess she’s probably just quoting the Department of Education, but if you use the term “sexuality” in the context of trans kids you are either pushing the idea that being trans is somehow a sexual preference (and therefore not an appropriate matter for pre-pubescent children to learn about), or you are saying that your LGBT policy is in fact an LGB policy and nothing will actually be done for trans people. In the case of the Department of Education it probably means both.

I know I’m harping on a lot about this, but it is really important. It is great that trans folk and their allies are getting to speak for themselves rather the being judged by experts, but if the presenters of this programs insist on always putting forward an anti-trans line, either for “balance” or “controversy” then most cis listeners will still come away thinking that the anti-trans line is correct.

And that whole thing about trans people being “really” their assigned-at-birth gender, and therefore people who are living a lie; we know what that leads to, don’t we. It leads to murder.

Get Your Diversity Here

One of the best online news sources around at the moment is the Media Diversified website (which tweets as @WritersOfColour). The great thing about it is that all of the articles are written by actual people of color, so when it is talking about PoC lives, PoC politics, and what is happening in countries inhabited largely by PoC it tends to be far better informed, and far more accurate, than the pontifications of the white chattering classes who infest British and American newspapers.

You would have thought that if newspapers editors wanted informed comment on something like the Ebola epidemic, or attitudes amongst Muslim girls in the UK, or the controversy over gang rapes in India, that they would go to someone who actually knew what they were talking about. But no, they almost always trot out some well known white columnist who is allowed to pontificate on the issue without any requirement to have knowledge of anything other than their own ill-formed opinion.

However, understanding their own culture, and things that go on in countries to which they have close ties, is not the only area where people of color can add knowledge. They may be doctors, or physicists, or linguists, or psychologists, or literary critics. Sadly the chances of their being called upon to provide expert commentary on such subjects is vanishingly small. The media almost always looks for a white man to be their chosen expert.

According to the latest Creative Skillset 2012 Employment Census, employment in the creative media industries grew by more than 4,000 between 2009 and 2012. However, during this same period the number of BAME people in the industry fell by 2,000.

Not to be deterred, the Media Diversified folks have set up a Directory of Experts where non-white people can register their skills and media organizations can look for a suitable expert. The Directory was officially launched today. I haven’t been able to test it — I’m not eligible to be listed and I can’t afford the fees to access it — but I understand that it has been getting tested by people from major news outlets, and there’s a quote from someone from Sky News in the press release.

“News channels have become increasingly aware of the importance of hearing from a diverse range of contributors. There have been visible improvements in getting more women onto news programmes, but more work needs to be done to cover other types of diversity. Having a directory of experts is a valuable tool in alerting producers to a wider pool of contributors.” — Tami Hoffman, Sky News, Interviews Editor

If any of you folks are in search of expert opinion, you can find out more here.

Now, when are we going to have a directory of expert trans people, eh?

Free Speech Becomes Newspeak

Issues of freedom of speech are all the rage in traditional and social media these days. As this is a political question, there is invariably a lot of subtext surrounding what is actually said. People say loudly that they are in favour of “free speech”, but what they mean by that can vary considerably, and it is wise to understand the issues before offering immediate support to such a call.

This particular post was prompted by a letter in The Observer on Saturday (it is dated Sunday, but it went online on Saturday morning) in which a posse of the great and good decried what they view as a creeping atmosphere of censorship in British universities. This in turn led to lots of people getting very angry on social media, and people getting very upset as a result.

Much of this involves the issue of “no-platforming”, by which student unions say that certain people whom they view as purveyors of hate speech and other objectionable views are not allowed to speak on union premises. This sort of thing has been common in student unions for decades — certainly since I was at university, which is so long ago that we called the study of dinosaurs agricultural economics. I am pretty sure that some of the people who signed that letter will have happily marched around their campuses chanting “no platform for racists and fascists”. The difference these days is that the people potentially being no-platformed are people with a track record of spreading hatred against trans people and sex workers.

It is worth noting that no-platforming is not censorship. It does not say that the people concerned have no right to their opinions, or to express those opinions, it simply says that they should not have the right to express those views on university premises. There are plenty of places where one can spread vile views about trans people and sex workers, the Guardian/Observer being one of them.

Also, of course, one’s access to platforms increases dramatically if one is white, middle-class, cisgendered, Oxbridge educated and so on. If you want to see how British society effectively no-platforms people of color I recommend that you follow @WritersOfColour on Twitter. They publish some really good articles.

Let’s now deal with the substance of the complaints. Sarah Brown has a comprehensive take-down of the various issues it raises here, but I’ll go through them briefly here.

The comedian, Kate Smurthwhaite, was not no-platformed. Her gig was cancelled because only 8 tickets had been sold.

Germaine Greer was not no-platformed at Cambridge. There was discussion between the Cambridge Union (which is a debating society, not the Student’s Union) and student feminists about whether she should be invited to speak. In the event she was. The students organized a rival event, which they have a perfect right to do. Greer used her platform to abuse trans people, which rather proves the point as to why the students didn’t want her to be invited in the first place.

Then there is Rupert Read, the Green Party candidate for Cambridge. He hasn’t been no-platformed either. What did happen is that a bunch of trans activists protested against his views, and some demanded that he be de-selected by the Greens. This happened because of views about trans people that he expressed publicly. I got told on Saturday night that these views were “not transphobic”, and yet what Read was effectively doing was calling for the repeal of the Gender Recognition Act.

The key point about the GRA is that it gives (some) trans people the right to be legally recognized in our preferred gender. Read’s position was that we should not have that right, and that “women” (a group he clearly felt not to include me) should have the right to exclude trans women from female-only spaces if they so wished, specifically bathrooms. How that can be construed as not transphobic is beyond me.

Support for trans people has long been a prominent feature of Green politics, and to see one of their candidates expressing firmly anti-trans views was very worrying. What happened with Read is that the leadership of the Greens took him aside and explained that what he was saying was against party policy. He has since apologized and retracted his remarks. If that is censorship, then so is all party politics. Suggesting, as the Observer letter does, that trans people should not be allowed to challenge political parties on their support for issues directly pertaining to us is very worrying and deeply undemocratic.

Of course there has long been a view amongst prominent left-wing activists that they have fulfilled their moral obligation to trans people by allowing us to dress as we please and have medical assistance to look the way we want. They will then insist that this doesn’t mean that trans women are “really” women, or that trans men exist, and that holding such views does not make them in any way transphobic. My opinion of such sophistry is not printable. We have not forgotten that the one piece of UK legislation that makes discrimination against trans people legal was authored by the Labour Party.

The only actual case of no-platforming I know of involving the people mentioned by the letter is a single incident in which Julie Bindel was banned from speaking at Sheffield University. This is hardly a tidal wave of totalitarianism, deserving of a mass letter to the national media.

Of course the Sheffield students are perfectly within their rights to deny Bindel a platform if they wish. Student politics is not a dictatorship, and if the actual student body disagrees they can vote the current leadership out. Nor has Bindel been prevented from holding a meeting elsewhere in Sheffield, or writing about the situation in national newspapers, who seem only to keen to pay her for her opinions, no matter how vile they are.

I don’t know why Sheffield decided to deny Bindel a platform, but I suspect that it is something to do with her support for “reparative therapy” for trans people — the sort of psychological bullying that caused Leelah Alcorn to take her own life. The letter, very disingenuously, says that none of the people no-platformed have ever advocated violence against trans people. The only one of those people that was actually no-platformed is someone who has indeed advocated grossly inhuman treatment of trans people. I understand that some of those mentioned advocate things that are deeply dangerous to sex workers as well.

To understand why the letter unleashed a Twitter storm you also have to understand the subtext that it contains, and why trans people will have seen it as saying much more than it actually did.

The point here is that trans activists are for the most part fed up of being asked to debate our right to exist, our right to be considered sane, our right not to be labelled “rapists” simply because we are trans women, and our right not to have to respond to accusations that we are can never be “real” women because our vaginas are too smelly (the Jeffreys position) or not smelly enough (the Greer position). Frankly we have better things to do with our lives.

Nevertheless, people do love a good bust-up. We don’t throw people to the lions any more, but we do what are known as “ambush debates”. What happens here is that you invite someone from a minority group along to talk about their experiences, and when they get there they discover that they will be expected to “debate” against someone who hates people like them, and that they will have to spend the entire “debate” responding to lies and insults from the professional hater.

Of course if you decline to be part of such a “debate” then the people organizing it will probably cancel, because they will be deprived of their entertainment. Trans people have discovered that if you use this tactic, and the event is indeed cancelled, then we will be accused of having “no-platformed” or “censored” the person lined up to insult us. This happened to Sarah Brown when she declined to be on a panel with Julie Bindel (something which turned into an appalling example of real world as well as online bullying of Sarah); and it happened to Paris Lees when she declined to be on a Newsnight “debate”.

So when someone says that they are against “no-platforming”, what trans people tend to hear is that they are in favor of having us put in metaphorical stocks while someone like Bindel or Greer throws insults at us. To the trans community, saying that you are against “no-platforming” comes across in the same way as saying that you are concerned about ethics in games journalism.

Next up there is the way that Twitter storms work. Soon after the whole thing blew up I was starting to hear stories that trans activists had unleashed a storm of hate messages against those who had signed the letter, and that this somehow proved what awful creatures trans people are.

It doesn’t work like that.

Twitter is an ideal vehicle for spontaneous mass protest by people normally denied a voice. You don’t have to organize a Twitter storm, and unless you have vastly more followers than any trans activist you probably can’t. They happen quite naturally, because lots of people have access. I have no idea who was the first person to tweet about that letter, but it is entirely likely that it was just the first trans person to look at the Guardian website that day. I heard about it from some young trans people I follow. They are not particularly activists, but they do get angry. One of them, I know, has been thrown out of her family home by her parents because she is trans. People like that get angry easily.

Once a storm gets going, of course, everyone joins in. I’m sure that a few trans activists will have said some fairly vile things. But our cause will have been adopted by people with a grudge against some of the people who signed the letter, by people doing it “for the lols”, and by sock-puppet accounts set up by the TERFS for the purpose of discrediting us. That’s the way that Twitter works.

In addition, prominent trans activists will have been targeted with abusive tweets. That too is part of the way Twitter works. But apparently that doesn’t matter, because it is only the feelings of white, middle-class media celebrities that are important.

The solution to all of this is not to blame the minority group that is seen to be sending abusive tweets, but to demand that Twitter become better at dealing with abuse. And in the meantime to use the “block” button.

Social media has made modern politics rather complicated to navigate. I can quite understand how some older people have difficulty with it. However, it is part of the way we live these days. If you want to carry on having a political voice, you have to understand it. And if you are going to sign up to a high profile statement that is deeply critical of a minority group, you have to understand what that statement is saying.

I don’t expect that everyone who signed that letter in the Observer will be aware of this subtlety, and indeed there has been some suggestion that what they were asked to sign is very different from what finally appeared in the paper. So hopefully some of them will be thinking, not just about how they have been abused online, but how they have been used, and why.

Less of the Freak Show, Please

It is fairly rare that I get absolutely furious with someone on Twitter, but if I do it is almost always with the LGBT History Month account (@LGBTHM). They have a poor track record of insensitive posts about trans people. Today’s tweet was a classic:

Stunning Before And After Photos Depict The Journey Of Gender Confirmation Surgery

I don’t know what that says to you, but to me it screams loud and clear, “FREAK SHOW! COME AND GAWP!!!”

There was a link in that tweet to an article in the Huffington Post. This one. It is the sort of coverage of trans issues that makes me want to beat my head on my desk until it bleeds.

Ostensibly, of course, it is all very sensitive. The article talks about “respect”, “ambition” and “empowerment”. Practically it is all about click bait, and the aforementioned freak show.

It is entirely plausible, of course, that the people in those photos are proud of what they have done and empowered by it. I know that other trans people are very comfortable with “before” photos being displayed (and see the footnote about genderfluid people). But I tend to view such material with some suspicion when it is framed using a narrative written by the person making the pictures rather than the trans people themselves.

For example, think back to My Transsexual Summer. Most people agree that the series did great things for the trans community. It was certainly far less exploitative than most television about trans people. But the series was by no means a bed of roses for the stars. Check out this interview with Fox, in which he explains some of the awful things that were done to him by the production crew.

The people photographed for that HuffPo article are all from Cuba, which is not the most affluent place in the world. My first question on seeing the article was to ask how many of them posed for those pictures willingly, and how many did it because they were being offered a lot of money to do so.

Even if some people are willing to pose for such photos, however, it doesn’t mean that making them, and posting them in that way, is a sensible thing to do. The “before and after” photo is a staple of tabloid coverage of trans issues. They do that because of the freak show aspect of it, and also because it panders to transphobes by giving them an image of what the trans person “really” looks like. The “after” photo is seen, if not always presented, as a picture of a person in disguise.

Huffington Post knows this, and for all their weasel words about respect and empowerment, the headline makes it very clear that this is a freak show article.

Much of this comes back to issues I covered in the article I wrote for Holdfast recently. Cis people are fascinated by the transformation aspect of trans people. If they write about us, if they make films or photos of us, what they want to show is the change. That’s not treating us as people, it is treating us as objects for their entertainment. There’s far more to trans people than that, but who cares, right? The fact that we are ordinary people is not news, the fact that we can be presented as freaks is.

In any case, many trans people are deeply traumatised by images of themselves pre-transition. That’s what Gender Dysphoria means: you are distressed by your body. I understand that some people might be proud of their transition, but those people need to be aware that by encouraging “before and after” photos they are putting pressure on everyone else to do the same thing. The very first things most journalists ask for when doing a trans article are your “real” name and a photo of what you “really” look like. Except of course they’ll say your “former” name and a “before” photo, so it doesn’t sound quite as exploitative.

Don’t encourage them, please.

Even if all is well with that article, however, and all of the people pictured are delighted with what was done, nothing excuses the headline. “Stunning Before And After Photos”? That’s pure, exploitative click bait. That much at least should be obvious to anyone.

On Twitter, of course, we are limited to 140 characters. There may be a link as part of that, but by no means everyone who reads your tweet will click through. On Twitter, therefore, we have to be very careful about repeating click bait headlines. If you are going to link to a problematic article, using that article’s exceedingly problematic headline as your tweet is not wise.

Footnote: someone is going to read this as say that it is deeply offensive to genderfluid people. That’s not the intention. If an important part of your identity is your ability to manifest more than one type of gendered appearance, by all means go for it. But that HuffPo article was very specifically about people who had undergone gender confirmation surgery. I did consider using “transsexual” in place of “trans” to make this clear, but it’s not a very good word and I try to avoid it these days.

A Little Civil Rights Campaigning

If you listened to last week’s Women’s Outlook show you will have heard from a very articulate young man called David McLeod. David is something of a legend in the Bristol Afro-Caribbean community, having successfully won a racial discrimination case against his then employers, a large local school. The short version is that David, having been doing a job very well for some time, was passed over for promotion in favor of a white person with fewer qualifications, for a job that was all about outreach to ethnic minority communities. The tribunal found evidence of other instances of racial discrimination at the school as well, and in the wake of this the head teacher, Gill Kelly, decided to look for alternative employment.

You will have heard me rant before about how anti-discrimination laws are often toothless. Sure David won his case, but it will be very difficult for him to get a new job. What HR department is going to recommend hiring someone who sued his former employer for discrimination? Ms. Kelly, on the other hand, was spared the indignity of being fired for the lapses that took place on her watch. And now we learn that she has been given a high profile consulting job by the City Council’s education department. That, dear readers, is what privilege is all about.

We talked about this with David after the show last week and Paulette, being Paulette, was immediately organizing a protest and phoning all of her media contacts. I volunteered to contact my colleagues at Bristol 24/7. I wasn’t sure what to expect as they are a relatively new outfit and I’ve not actually met any of them, but I was delighted to see them run a big story about David yesterday.

It gets better. The BBC picked up the story, even crediting us for breaking it. And today we ran a new article featuring legendary Bristol civil rights campaigner, Paul Stevenson.

I am very pleased. I don’t know whether anything concrete will come of all this. Institutional racism is a very hard thing to break down. But at least the city’s new media is taking a stand, and forcing some of the old media to take notice. The Post, of course, seems to have missed the story entirely.

I Talk Women in IT at Bristol 24/7

In what I expect to be the first in a series of monthly columns on women’s issues, I have done this year’s Ada Lovelace Day post (slightly late), at Bristol 24/7, a brand new magazine dedicated to life in Bristol. You can read it here.

Eyeballs are, naturally, appreciated. It is a new magazine that needs to establish credibility in the eyes of advertisers. Also I’m sure that my editor will be keeping a keen eye on whose columns draw the most traffic. I want to be able to do well without resorting to writing click bait.

Today on Ujima – Space Pirates!

Today I’m delighted to have Huw Powell (Gareth’s younger brother) in the studio to talk about his book, Spacejackers. There will be thrills, adventure, piracy! As scurvy a bunch of knaves as ever set foot in a radio studio.

Also on the show I have a massage therapist. I could probably do with taking him to Worldcon with me, because you sure need a massage after one of those.

I’m not 100% sure what’s on for the second hour. If we don’t have anyone in the studio, we might just talk a little about media harassment and the spurious “balance” arguments used by the BBC and others to justify broadcasting hate speech.

On Depression and Suicide

The desperately sad news about Robin Williams today has resulted in a flood of comment on social media. Much of it, inevitably, is foul. Much more, however, is well intentioned but simplistic. Depression, like so many things in life, is complicated. Neat maxims that fit into 140 characters cannot and will not be suitable for all cases.

One thing I’d like to note is that sometimes talking isn’t enough. Heck, I went through several days of being unable to talk. Drugs helped. It may well be that I would have got better without the drugs. I haven’t done a control experiment to find out, and I have no intention of doing so. But I was very grateful for the drugs at the time, and I did get better.

The other important point is that people are not always just depressed. They may well be depressed for a reason. A September 2012 study found that 48% of British trans people had attempted suicide (sample size, 889). A similar study from January this year found that the number for the USA was 41% (sample size, 6,456). Those people were probably depressed (though maybe not clinically so), but that wasn’t all that was wrong.

When trans people attempt suicide it is often because they are facing being homeless and unemployed. It may be because they have been disowned by their family and abandoned by their friends. It may be because they have been bullied and humiliated by social services staff when they asked for help. It may be because they are afraid to leave home because of the harassment they get from their neighbors. And, for example in the case of Lucy Meadows, it may be because of vile things that have been said about them in the national media.

This is why what the BBC is up to at the moment is utterly reprehensible. Last week on Woman’s Hour they gave a lot of air time to a notorious “radical feminist”. Sure they had a trans women on as well for “balance”, but it is hard to get your point across when what your opponent says is full of lies and distortions; and doubly hard when what you say is constantly called into question by suggestions that you are dishonest, dangerously violent and mentally ill.

Last night Newsnight tried to pull a similar ambush. The trans people involved (including Paris Lees) declined to participate once they realized that they were being set up for the modern equivalent of bear baiting. This is now apparently being spun by media “feminists” as “intolerant”, censorship and even “aggression” on behalf of Paris and her fellow intended victim.

So yeah, sometimes people do commit suicide because they are clinically depressed, and they can be helped by drugs and psychiatry. Sometimes, though, they commit suicide because their simple right to exist is constantly under question in the national media, which quickly leads to harassment in daily life. There is no point telling such people that they are wasting their lives, and that things will get better, unless you actually do something to ensure that their lives are likely to get better.

The good news is that things actually have got better. My life, since transition, has been far happier and more successful than I ever expected. Social change has been rapid. Change, however, inevitably brings backlash. If we don’t want trans people to kill themselves, we need the media to stop using them as punch bags for entertainment.

Today on Ujima – Vicars, Media, Arms Trade & Mayfest

Very briefly as I’m on the road in Oxford and have a work conference to attend tomorrow.

First half hour: Caroline Symcox talking about God, being a trainee vicar, her book and being married to Paul Cornell.

Second half hour: The Bristol Cable on their plans for independent local media.

Listen to those here.

Third half hour: Students from UWE protesting against having arms fairs held on their campus.

Fourth half hour: Sarah Thorp from Room 212 talking about the Gloucester Road community’s Mayfest celebrations, including Jack-in-the-Green and various other pagan survivals.

Listen to those here.

Remembering The Missing

Jordan Howe drawing

One of the things I always make a point of emphasizing when I host a Trans Day of Remembrance ceremony is that while the statistics we have represent actual killings, we have no idea how many trans people take their own lives because they are unable to face the bullying and discrimination that is a daily part of their lives. In the UK, suicides are likely to outnumber murders. Last year we all heard of the case of Lucy Meadows. Today I received another tragic piece of news.

Jordan Howe was just 19 years old when she ended her life. She was from Northern Ireland, a huge Lady Gaga fan and a talented DJ. The picture above was drawn by her to try to express her feelings about being a trans girl, and is taken from this Tumblr memorial by one of her friends. The Lady Gaga fan community has also rallied round.

According to my source, an Irish activist, the local paper misgendered Jordan in reporting her death, and repeated some of the slurs flung at her by bullies.

And people wonder why trans folk are so angry all of the time…

Introducing The Bristol Cable

After the show yesterday I had a meeting with a couple of young lads from a very promising alternative media initiative. The Bristol Cable bills itself as a citizen media co-op. That is, it will be local news, by local people, for local people. That is as opposed to local-ish news largely content-farmed by a national organization that owns many “local” newspapers and is itself part-owned by the Daily Mail, which is what we (and many other British cities) currently have. Alon and Adam turned out to be very personable and full of big ideas. You’ll get to hear more from them on April 23rd when I have them on the radio show, and there’s an in-depth article about them today on, but I wanted to write about them now because they have a crowdfunding initiative going that had a deadline at the end of next week. The money is being used in part to fund a series of free workshops for local people that will help teach them journalism skills. It all sounds very promising.

One of the things I like about the Bristol Cable team is that they are not all white. Around 94% of UK journalists are white and, as Christina Zaba said on the radio show last week, the increasing cost of education is making that situation worse rather than better. Media Diversified, the organization behind the excellent Writers of Colour Twitter feed, is also running a crowdfunding campaign, in this case to help create a directory of minority ethnic experts who can be made available to the media. If you don’t feel that supporting a Bristol initiative is appropriate for you, maybe that one will appeal.

Today on Ujima: Media Diversity & Airships

I’m delighted to report that the Women’s Outlook show has been back on air today. That was a great relief to all concerned.

Today’s show was mainly about media diversity issues. That was specifically with respect to women, but we did also cover race issues and trans & intersex issues. A whole hour and a half was devoted to this, with a rotating list of guests in the studio:

  • Darryl Bullock, owner of The Spark
  • Christina Zaba from the National Union of Journalists
  • Mike Jempson from Mediawise
  • Tim Pemberton, Managing Editor of BBC Radio Bristol (who is black – yay Bristol!)
  • Paul Hassan, one of the Ujima Directors

Paulette hosted the first hour, and I did the final half hour of this bit. We covered a lot of different issues. Here are a few things worthy of note.

One of the best points made all show was when Christina noted that with access to education getting so much more expensive media diversity is likely to go down, not up.

I’m very pleased that Mediawise is producing a handbook on LGBTQI issues (I understand that Christine Burns is involved). Personally I’m prepared to allow journalists a fair amount of slack, and am happy to do education. (I have a lot of sympathy with this piece from today’s HuffPo, though I am sure that Piers Morgan, and even more so Caleb Hannan, knew exactly what they were doing). Of course it is often the people who think they are progressive who have the most to learn. Anyone care to tell me what Darryl got wrong?

I’m also very keen to learn more about The Bristol Cable. Their workshops look great.

Tim was very impressive. He’s very corporate, of course, but he knows the right things to say.

I got to mention things like the VIDA Count and the lack of SF&F by women in Waterstones.

For the final half hour I had Roz and Jo in the studio to talk about Airship Shape & Bristol Fashion. Fun was had.

Paulette’s not as keen on music as me, especially as we had so many high profile guests to talk to, but we did manage to get some in. Here’s the playlist.

  • Lady Gaga – Paparazzi
  • Michael Jackson – Leave Me Alone
  • Steely Dan – Barrytown
  • Don Henley – Dirty Laundry
  • Amanda Palmer – Leeds United (because I’m not allowed to play Map of Tasmania)
  • Led Zeppelin – Whole Lot of Love

You can listen to the show via our Listen Again feature. The first hour is here, and the second hour here.

Back On Air Monday @UjimaRadio

Ujima Radio chairman, Roger Griffith, has posted on Facebook that the station will be back on air on Monday (March 24th). Thanks are due to The Utilities Warehouse for being willing to work with us to get power restored as quickly as possible, to Mayor George Ferguson for his personal intervention in the case, and of course to all of you lot for asking George for help on our behalf. Well done, people!

Wednesday’s show will be mainly a Women And The Media special. Paulette has arranged for a number of special guests including Christina Zaba, who looks very interesting. For the final half hour, from 13:30 to 14:00, we’ll be joined by Jo Hall and Roz Clarke who will talk about Airship Shape and Bristol Fashion.

Secret Trans Cabal Denies Owning CNN

In a statement made from a hidden volcano base in the South Pacific, the Secret Trans Cabal has denied that it purchased a controlling share in CNN in order to have Piers Morgan’s show on the TV channel axed.

At a press conference in New York the tearful Morgan (14) had alleged that wealthy trans activists, angry about his treatment of Janet Mock, had bought up shares in the media company and bullied the board of CNN into dropping his show with terrorist threats, including the possible use of girl cooties against male board members.

Morgan (who was born a boy and is rumored to have remained one) angrily denied suggestions that he did not have the balls to go up against the MSNBC show hosted by lesbian anchor, Rachel Maddow. “Whether or not I have undergone puberty has no bearing on my ability to do my job,” said Morgan after several minutes sucking on a baby’s dummy to compose himself. “My private life should be allowed to remain private. It’s not fair that I should be treated in the same way that I treat my guests.”

Morgan also denied that his show had been cancelled because CNN was embarrassed by revelations that he had once been the editor of British tabloid newspaper. “I’m not ashamed of my past,” sobbed Morgan. “I did what I had to do because I needed the money. People have no idea how much lobster and bolly lunches cost these days. They should have more sympathy for oppressed minority groups such as me.”

In a separate statement the Secret Trans Cabal also denied 17 counts of having Julie Bindel dis-invited from feminist conferences.

How To Interview A Trans Woman #GirlsLikeUs

Last week you may have seen quite a lot of angry tweetage about Piers Morgan’s disrespectful ambushing of Janet Mock on his chat show. Morgan will doubtless claim that prurient sensationalism is the only way that trans issues can be covered in the media (because, ewwwwwww!, right?). Well he’s wrong, and here to prove the point is Marc Lamont Hill doing a magnificent job of getting the best out of his guest and educating his audience.

Do watch it all the way through. There’s a bit at the end that will cause Piers Morgan to blow his tiny little mind.

Oh, and to all those white trans activists in the States who are going after Janet and Laverne Cox, kindly STFU. Janet and Laverne are the best thing that has happened to trans advocacy in a long time. You’d think that we, of all people, could manage a little intersectionality, but there’s always someone more interested in their own position than getting the job done.

Saint Panti

If you follow anyone living in Ireland on Twitter you may have seen the hashtag #TeamPanti and wondered what it was all about. Well, here comes the explanation, courtesy of the most fabulous Panti Bliss herself.

As Panti says right up front, the problems of a gay white man being oppressed by straight white people in a relatively prosperous Western country are fairly minor in comparison to many other things. Nevertheless I think she does a great job of explaining how corrosive to live in a country where “respectable” people are forever commenting on how you should live your life. That applies to many more situations than hers.

I note in passing that Ireland has the worst record in the EU when it comes to transgender rights, according to this Amnesty International report issued last week.