June 22, 2009

IconTransphobia: the prejudice it's still ok to laugh at?

There’s only so much homophobia the media can get away with these days without having to issue a hasty apology, writes Cate Simpson.

But when it comes to reporting on trans issues, stories about ‘sex swaps’ and ‘pregnant men’ are still depressingly mainstream. What effect does this kind of attention have on a minority that is already contending with higher than average rates of violence, unemployment and street harassment?

If you haven’t had a long wait at the dentist lately, you might have missed a story in tabloid magazine Closer from June 2009 titled ‘Sex Swap Shock: “I was a hunky Becks lookalike but I starved to become Posh”’.

The article describes 29 year-old Chrisie Edkins’ transition from male to female, and the title sets the tone for what follows. Edkins is referred to throughout by male pronouns and by her male birth name, which she no longer goes by.

“They said, ‘We think before you looked a bit like Beckham and now you’re a bit like Posh, and we’d like to get some photos and have you tell your heartwarming story,’” says Edkins, who agreed to be interviewed for the piece because she hoped her story would inspire to other trans women.

“But they’ve insulted me every three lines and made me look like an idiot and like Victoria Beckham is my idol.”

The article’s author, Suzanne Finney, declined to comment – except to say she “strongly stands by” what was printed.

Widespread prejudice

Edkins is only the most recent victim of media sensationalism around trans issues.

Last year, American trans man Thomas Beatie was heavily covered in the British media when he became pregnant.

An article by Natalie Clarke for the Daily Mail about Beatie is revealing: “a child will be born of a bearded man and his lesbian wife from donor sperm taken from goodness knows who, conceived in a DIY operation at home using a syringe that vets use on animals,” she wrote.

That’s a lot of prejudice to pack into a single sentence, especially when you consider that nothing it describes is actually unusual. Home insemination (the ‘turkey baster’ method) is a common choice for women who use donor sperm.

Even leftist publications like the Guardian have been guilty of anti-trans sentiment. Guardian columnist Julie Bindel has spoken out against sexual reassignment surgery several times.

Five years ago Bindel – who has been vocal on the issue of lesbian and gay rights – wrote a column in which she dismissed a male-to-female transsexual as a “man in a dress”.

In a 2007 column she apologised for some of the comments she had made in her earlier article, but was apparently not too embarrassed by her joke about a world consisting entirely of transsexuals looking like “the set of Grease” to repeat it in its entirety.

And then in November 2008 Bindel told how trans people were supposedly polluting the movement for gay and lesbian rights by forcing all people with “odd sexual practices” into “an unholy alliance”.

Articles like this are almost reminiscent of those about lesbian and gay people in the dark days immediately before the Section 28 repeal. As recently as two years ago, Julie Bindel called transsexualism “a psychological problem”. Where have we heard that before?

Widespread discrimination

Why do media portrayals matter? Because they feed the culture of violence and prejudice against trans people that exists in Britain.

A study of trans people in Brighton and Hove by Brighton’s Spectrum LGBT Forum, released in December 2008, reported that 64% of trans respondents had experienced domestic violence, and nearly 90% reported experiencing hate crime on the street.

The same study also found that only 26% of respondents were in full-time employment (likely in part because of the difficulty transsexuals experience finding work while mid-transition), and that over half felt marginalised because of their trans identity – in both straight and queer venues.

Another study, released last year and commissioned by Equality for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People in Europe, reported that trans people routinely avoid seeking medical assistance for health issues unrelated to their transition, because of the discrimination they expect to experience.

Despite these issues, trans people lack the advocacy and support that other vulnerable groups can count on.

Amnesty UK excluded trans people from their 1:10 campaign against violence against women in February, and Stonewall UK has resisted calls from trans groups to include them in its remit – as Stonewall Scotland does already.

Stonewall UK’s Communications Officer Gary Nunn says that the decision to focus on LGB issues was made because “laws around gender equality are very different in nature to those around lesbian and gay equality.”

The upshot of all this is that trans people are left largely to fend for themselves. Accepted and supported neither as queer nor as heterosexuals of their chosen gender, they are included in the mainstream media as curiosities as best, and at worst freaks. No wonder many feel forced to hide their trans identity.

“We just don’t want to be noticed,” says Chrisie Edkins. “It’s a joke to society. When I first watched MASH on television, there was this transvestite and I remember seeing this transvestite and it all being a joke.

“I must have been under 10 years old, and remember thinking to myself, ‘That’s wrong, you’re not allowed to do that obviously.’”

4 Responses to Transphobia: the prejudice it's still ok to laugh at?

  1. Bexb says:

    Yes, out of all social minorities, transgender people definately have it worst. Regularly I will hear LGB friends use the words ‘tranny’ in a derogative context, and it makes me very uneasy. Transgender people, like everyone else in the LGB scene, defy society’s norms for gender and sexual relations, and suffer for it. Trans people are a part of our community therefore, and I deplore Stonewall for their exclusion of them.

  2. K says:

    The trashing of Chaz Bono on lesbian sites and blogs when he recently came out as trans really distressed me. AfterEllen.com’s comments thread was largely supportive, but there were still lesbians talking about him being a self-loathing lesbian who was betraying butches, saying that people who wish to transition from one gender identity to another by means of hormones and/or surgery were just not dealing with their orientation and were “unnatural”, etc.

    Thank goodness for the women who talked about it being a catalyst for wanting to understand and be allies to trans people, and those who were already clued up and ready to explain the issues and why being trans allies is important to them.

  3. Brock says:

    I am a lesbian woman in a civil partnership with a transexual woman (born male). Whilst the majority of prejudice we’ve had has been from heterosexual “Christians”, I am always shocked to get negative reactions from lesbians and gays. Perhaps the most hurtful is when I am considered heterosexual because of my partner’s birth gender (she is legally female), or when people treat us as sexually deviants. Having come out in my 30s it is difficult enough to make LGB friends, but with my partner, I sometimes feel I’ve swapped once closet for another: the closet for partners of transpeople. I wish we could just be open about who we are, but we daren’t. And the media don’t help.

  4. EkB says:

    Brighton and Hove are full of uncivilized young hetero males who really have nothing else better to do than pick on the minority. I am a Canadian living in the land of the free…and when i was there recently i was appalled at the caveman like grunts and yells being thrown across streets. Violence is a huge problem in the UK….under education maybe??

Milly Shaw

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