My latest Transgender Journey column prompted an interesting response from @foibey, raising several issues about the ethics of the project. As this moved the discussion off topic, I suggested that we continue elsewhere: she expanded in this considerate blog post, and I’d like to respond here.
One of Phoebe’s questions was ‘Are you aware of the way the media encourages the public to treat trans people?’ Of course: I wouldn’t have taken on this project if I wasn't outraged by this, and if I didn’t feel that my particular project was not the most expedient way of countering it. I feel that this blog post, from August, covers that issue. So I’ll tackle what I believe to be the fundamental question. Phoebe writes: ‘I am curious about what your aims are in writing …
My aim was to provide a visible, accessible, explication of some issues faced by transsexual people, without claiming to represent anyone besides myself, with space made for others, trans or non-trans, to provide their perspectives. I aim for a wide audience but primarily young people struggling with their gender identities, and those who know trans people, who can use it as a platform to discuss issues they might otherwise have struggled to raise.
Regarding younger people trying to find themselves, I wanted to provide an extensive transsexual narrative in a mainstream context as a counterpoint to transphobic journalists who reduce our lives and experiences to stereotype (cf Greer’s ‘pantomine dames’), because I could see nobody trying to unpack or counter those stereotypes within similar contexts. I hope that my writing means that they won’t struggle as I did in the Nineties – unaware of how much I was internalising this transphobia, the weight of which was so strong that it prevented me from even seeing the problem of the argument being so one-sided.
Phoebe asks ‘Does it help or hinder transsexual people?’ Individually, I think yes – evidenced by the commenters who’ve said so, and those who’ve contacted me via Facebook or Twitter because they’ve found my writing useful. I don’t know many find it helpful, but to help even one would be an achievement (Phoebe says herself that ‘I know a lot of other trans people who love what you’ve been doing’).
More generally, I think the blog, and the comments, help to show trans people as a varied group with their own concerns, and the same concerns as cis people – some complicated by being trans, some not. Phoebe raised her concern that my articles reinforce a problematic ‘sympathetic’ portrayal of trans people as ‘tragic but brave’ (intriguingly, she posted in response to a piece opening by asserting that transitioning has opened creative possibilities) and that our lives are public ‘entertainment’ to be turned into ‘narrow archetypes’.
The media can only do this when it prevents us from making those archetypes unsustainable – which is what I intended, both in what I write and in providing a space for trans people to offer comments, or links to their blogs or articles. And of my main points is that, actually, transitioning at this stage in time may not be as difficult as it looks – I personally feel that, as far as possible, the articles have refused the ‘tragic but brave’ narrative, and I was touched by one commenter who said that what came across in the series was the sense that I was a strong-minded person who wanted to reach a specific goal.
‘How much does the wider (non-trans) public need to know about our experiences, the difficult decisions we make, the issues we have with our bodies, and so on?’ As most media prejudice rests upon ignorance of what our lives actually entail, I would far more than it has in recent years. Given how much conservative anti-trans argument in Britain centres around whether or not gender services should be funded by the NHS, I think it’s vital to explain exactly what those services are and why I need them,
Of course, using the ‘transitional journey’ trope presented some hard ethical choices (outlined in my blog post above). But I felt that if I used it well enough, aware of its historical role in the media’s framing of trans people and seeking to redefine that, I might close the door on it: if the process was explicated intelligently and thoroughly enough, then there would be no need for the media to pursue it. Time will tell how successful that is – it’s going to be a long process, and I don’t imagine that my writing alone will change it (certainly not immediately) but hopefully it’s an important step.
I’ve seen two changes already. The first is this Guardian Open Door column, outlining the paper’s intention to improve its trans representation, after community feedback. My presence as a freelancer meant that Chris Elliott had someone to contact to discuss how the paper might start addressing their mistakes – I offered as much as I could, then pointed him towards Trans Media Watch for further advice.
The second is that no resultant media work I’ve been offered has sought to explore the ‘bodyshock’ aspects of transition – primarily, I think, because my pieces have concentrated on the social elements, and have, in the piece on gamete storage, very explicitly refused to ‘indulge voyeurism’. The ‘passing’ piece demands the reader to consider how they look at trans people, and the negative consequences that treating people as ‘entertainment’ has for those on the end of the gaze. On a wider level, it becomes harder for people to ‘project narratives’ onto my life because I’m in control of its telling. People recognise this: I’m being asked to discuss the history of trans people in the media (by the EHRC and the CUSU for LGBT History Month, for example), and what should change – rewarding, as it shows that people outside the trans community see my underlying intentions.
Eventually, the argument about refusing to operate within spaces whose track record isn’t perfect can become its opposite – about visibility and the possible problem of preaching to the converted. Autonomous spaces are invaluable, and I’ve tried to lead younger people who might not know where to start looking towards them (e.g. referencing the Clare Project and Wotever World, and Julia Serano, Kate Bornstein, Leslie Feinberg and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore), but trans issues are undeniably being discussed in mainstream media, according to misguided or hostile agendas. If we refuse to make any compromises in setting our own, who will fill the void? We already know, as they already do: certain types of feminists, reactionary conservatives and faux-alternative comedians ridicule us. Why leave it to them?