June 22, 2009
Transphobia: 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.
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?
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.’”
ASL Gotye “Somebody I Used to Know” (HiDef)
This video is an ASL interpretation of Gotye’s “Somebody I Used To Know.” An expression of ASL music composed by a team of Deaf and CODA (Child of Deaf Adult) members, including the crew and cast members.
July 28, 2012