Trans people are dying, and the media is making it worse

One in eight of us have been attacked by colleagues or customers in the last year. One in four have experienced homelessness. Two-thirds of us have been discriminated against, and over a third avoid physically expressing our gender identity for fear of violence, harassment, or ostracisation. Eighty-four percent have thought about suicide. Half have attempted it. We’re also significantly more likely to be HIV positive than the general population. Things may be getting better, but life for trans people in the UK is no picnic. If these statistics surprise you, you’re far from alone — while trans and gender-nonconforming people have been on the fringes of people’s awareness for millennia, over the past few centuries portrayal in our society has been incredibly poor — we’re either the punchline or the disturbed villain. Awareness is growing, but even the most well-intentioned people are often still shockingly under-informed.

I recently participated in the government’s consultation on reform to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act. The twenty-two question survey lets people affected by the laws (and the public at large) have their say. They’ll then use the comments — alongside evidence from experts, and from other countries who have changed to more modern systems — to update the system trans people go through to change their legal gender. This can’t come soon enough — the current system is a disgrace.

At the moment, trans people wanting legal recognition of their gender have to pay to apply, prove they’ve been living in their “acquired gender” for two years, battle their way through an underfunded NHS for a gender dysphoria diagnosis — often having to negotiate transphobic or undereducated staff — and then submit their plea to a panel of predominately cis strangers, who can decide that the evidence isn’t enough, and knock them back to square one. Most disturbingly, married trans people need written consent from their spouse to legally transition — a veto that could only ever be used maliciously, or with the misguided belief that their partner is just confused. It’s an outdated, expensive, Kafkaesque process, and it’s in desperate need of reform.

Not everyone with misgivings about reform is transphobic, but transphobes are seizing upon these concerns and fanning the flames with misinformation.

Happily, that reform is on the horizon. In one of the few actions from this government that I approve of, they are finally beginning the process of bringing the UK into line with countries like Ireland, Malta, Norway, and Argentina and reforming the process — implementing a streamlined system of self-declaration which will make legal transition immeasurably easier for trans people.

Examples of the horrific coverage of trans people, including Richard Littlejohn’s tormenting column in the Daily Mail on Lucy Meadows, whom he misgenders throughout.

Unfortunately, not everyone sees it that way. Mumsnet threads on the reform have become hives of transphobia and misinformation, hate crime rates are astronomical, and just this month anti-trans protesters hijacked Pride in London, brandishing signs claiming that trans activists are “coercing lesbians to have sex with men”. However, most troubling is the unbelievable glut of disgraceful, sensationalist coverage of trans people and trans rights over the last few months in many of the mainstream papers, published to misinform, mislead, and stoke a misplaced opposition to these reforms. Some of these articles do stem from a genuine place of misguided concern, but a great many more come from a media with transphobic ideologues in powerful positions, which places more importance on readership than on responsible journalism. And it has killed people. In a particularly perturbing case, Lucy Meadows — a transgender schoolteacher from Lancashire — killed herself after months of torment being hounded by the press. Naomi Hersi — a trans woman in North London — was found stabbed to death in her hotel room. Her last tweet shared an article on the epidemic of violence against trans people.

This irresponsibility from the press fuels the depressing statistics I opened this article with. While there are very good pieces out there (Shon Faye and Owen Jones have written some fantastic pieces, for example), the media at large don’t seem interested in informing people about trans issues. They’re more interested in pandering to prejudice and making trans people out to be either exotic or dangerous.

Below, we have two article excerpts from the mainstream British press. The first is from The Telegraph on Monday 6 October 1986 — a year and a half before the introduction of Section 28, and during a period of hysteria in the media spurred on by the AIDS crisis. The second is from The Times earlier this year, during another period of hysteria from some sections of the media, this time about trans people.

Twenty-two years apart, both explain the dangerous, potentially calamitous consequences of making life easier for LGBT people in Britain, and both go about it in an eerily similar way. It’s very hard to attack queer people directly because we live in a liberal society with an ostensibly “live and let live” attitude. It’s far easier to set up a false dichotomy: you can provide LGBT children with support and role-models, but it will lead to children “being cheated of a sound start in life”; you can advance transgender rights, but only at the cost of women’s rights.

Of course, it was nonsense then and it’s nonsense now. Opponents of trans rights claim that if people can change their gender without the drawn out, medicalised process, changing their legal gender will be “trivial”, predatory men will abuse the system to get access to female public toilets and abuse women with impunity, and places such as women’s shelters would be unable to refuse “biological males” employment, endangering women. They’ve even (falsely) claimed that almost half of all trans prisoners are sex offenders and that self-ID would endanger female prisoners, completely ignoring the very real and far more common sexual abuse female prisoners suffer, at the hands of male guards. I’m certainly not saying that everyone with misgivings about reform is transphobic, but transphobes are seizing upon these concerns and fanning the flames with misinformation. These concerns, while understandable, are simply not backed up by evidence. Like changing a name, changing your gender is making a legal statement. If you lie, you are committing perjury, and can face up to two years in jail. More to the point, you can already change your gender on ID without going through any process — anyone trying to blag their way into a changing room or toilet isn’t going to bother getting a birth certificate. Furthermore, abuse is still illegal, no matter where it takes place. The law certainly isn’t providing the sort of protection it needs to, but when seven in 10 rapes are committed by somebody the victim knows, there are plenty of ways to address this without punishing trans people. As for employment in shelters, the Equality Act of 2010 allows discrimination if it’s a “proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”, which the government has already said would include women’s shelters that wanted to exclude trans women. This scaremongering from the press is over complete non-issues: they are knowingly and deliberately stoking transphobia during the consultation.

The press can and must do better. Instead of trying to sensationalise and misinform, they have a responsibility to spread awareness of these issues. If almost half of any other group in Britain had attempted suicide, the media would be falling over themselves to decry this epidemic, and to implore politicians to find solutions. However, the ideology of powerful figures in the media, and the fact that sensationalism sells, means that trans people are robbed of a fair hearing. Rather than reporting the major difficulties our community faces, our media is fuelling them. History will condemn them for it. We must too.

Featured image: Sumofus on Flickr, creative commons, cropped

About Sam Wareham

I'm a student at the University of Manchester, in the second year of a Physics with Philosophy course, and both the Arts & Culture Editor and LGBTQ+ Editor at The Slant. In my spare time, I'm trying to write more often (with mixed results), and am learning Spanish.

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