Trans people discuss how the British press misrepresents their lived experience

Words by Rhys Mathers

CW: Transphobia, mention of sexual assault

“We’re being pressured into sex by some trans women” was the name of an article published by the BBC last year. The article claimed that cisgender lesbians were being widely coerced into having sex with transgender women, under threat of being labelled a transphobe. As “evidence” the author included a twitter poll of 80 accounts, in which 56% of respondents say they have been pressured into sex with a trans woman. The poll was anonymous, conducted on social media and posted by “Get the L out” – a group condemned by pride London as bigots. The author of the article even acknowledged the poll was not reliable or representative of the wider lesbian community, yet they repeatedly refer to its findings. The BBC later issued an apology, after it was revealed one of the women interviewed for the article had written violent transphobic tirades and is accused of sexual assault. Needless to say, this piece falls well short of journalistic standards – and begs a question. If the most prominent organization in British media feels comfortable vilifying trans people, is there any hope for trans representation in our press?

As a cis person I will never understand what its like to be trans, I will never feel the direct effects of anti-trans bigotry, and I do not claim to be an expert or authority on trans issues, which is why this piece focuses on the experiences and opinions of trans people. When discussing representation with trans people, a common theme emerged – they are constantly misrepresented by cisgender writers – who refuse to listen to trans voices. A trans woman I spoke with had this to say:

“Most stories I read about trans people are misrepresentations, like imo [in my opinion] the experiences of trans people are wide and varied, and its rare that the media has been able to capture this nuance…More over I’ve seen far too many comment pieces written by cis people voicing their concerns about trans people…And quite frankly I don’t understand why anyone listens to them, why should a cis person have any say over my body?”

Another trans person who wishes to remain anonymous had generally positive experiences interacting with German and Irish progressive news outlets, but again speaks poorly of the British press:

“They seem more interested in directly hearing trans people’s experiences than the UK press are”

She also talked of the political motivations underlying transphobic media portrayals and her hopes for the future:

“A useful start would be for the news to recognise that gender critical beliefs are socially conservative. Often gender critical beliefs are contrasted with a non-existent thing called ‘gender ideology’. For instance, the Daily Mail has a whole section on their website called ‘TRANSGENDER ISSUES – NEWS AND UPDATES ON GENDER IDEOLOGY’ where readers can have their regular Two Minutes Hate against whichever unfortunate person happens to be targeted today. I checked today and the article is ‘Transgender Army vet opens up about horrific ‘abuse’ she faced while serving in the military – as she reveals plans to further embrace her ‘femininity’ by increasing her size 42JJ boobs with a FOURTH implant surgery’. To say they are obsessed with trans people would be an understatement. Of course, gender ideology is just an imagined enemy, just as real as gay ideology when in fact trans people exist across the political spectrum from all walks of life. This framing of two competing ideologies obscures the lived realities of trans people in the UK who are trying to live their lives amongst a moral panic in the media about us. I hope that in future a more human dimension can be afforded news which includes a trans person as I would prefer my wish to live to not be a source of such controversy.”

It’s a uniquely cis privilege to view transphobes as laughable, irrational reactionaries who would launch a thousand ships for JK Rowling, but the reality is there are people that seek to savagely curtail trans rights, and the British media amplifies their voices. In an online discussion in June of this year Helen Joyce, a former executive editor at the economist, chillingly spoke of her desire to reduce the number of trans people, even those who are happily transitioned:

“we have to try to limit the harm and that means reducing or keeping down the number of people who transition….every one of those people is basically, you know, a huge problem to a sane world.”

This is extremist rhetoric and promotes bigotry against already marginalised people just trying to live their lives in peace. Yet, Helen Joyce has received broad support and publication from the British press since these comments. The Times, The Spectator and the Daily Mail all speak favourably of her, yet trans voices are so rarely given a platform to speak for themselves. Is it no wonder that anti-trans hysteria is on the rise when there is so little positive trans representation in our media? I spoke with Ashley, a trans woman, about whether she thought more trans representation would help to dispel unfair portrayals in the press:

“It would help with people’s general perception of trans people but it wouldn’t do much to change all the scaremongering, we’re basically a distraction from real issues”

This notion of anti-trans media being distraction politics was echoed by others and raises an important point – the transphobic scaremongering of the British press does not reflect the reality of public opinion. Stonewall reports that a YouGov poll of 16 issues saw trans people come in last place, with just 2% of the public placing them as their #1 concern. Similarly, research agency Opinium published a poll of 500 conservative party members who ranked a list of 28 ‘issues’, and trans participation in sport came 2nd from bottom at 27th.  

I spoke with my girlfriend about this, and she raised her concerns about what so much negative representation in the press is doing to public perception of trans issues:

“I think things will get worse before they better, cis people don’t comprehend the realities of being trans and its going to take dramatic examples to understand the need for solidarity”

She also went on to speak of her desire for broader trans representation – especially humanising portrayals of happy, successful trans people and her hopes that more cis allies would take an active role in combating transphobia:

“People are scared of things they don’t understand, and trans people being in the limelight will help with that. But I think that trans voices are so often ignored we need more cis people to educate their peers on these issues” 

Throughout our talk she spoke of the support offered by the trans community, how they felt like family and how she was constantly surrounded by wonderful trans representation – because trans people can articulate their struggles far better than middle-aged cis journalists, and that’s a thought I solemnly hope our media listens to.

Featured Image Courtesy of Brighton and Hove Council

Categories: Features

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