30 December 2010

Comment is Free

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?

19 December 2010

JUST PLAIN SENSE: Extra material


On 17 December, I recorded an edition of Just Plain Sense, hosted by Christine Burns, instrumental in the passing of the Gender Recognition Act 2004. Christine’s Equality and Diversity podcast has featured guests such as Calpernia Addams, Gerald Kaufman, Peter Tatchell and Julie Bindel, and I was honoured when Christine agreed to feature me. The podcast itself is here, but there were many things that we did not have time to discuss further. Christine gave me her script, so more extensive answers are below.

CB: What are your recollections of trans people in the media when you were at school? Did those affect you?
JJ: As a teenager in the mid-Nineties, I encountered trans people in varying media: tabloid newspapers, television and film and the women’s magazines that my mother bought. The overall sense these initially gave was it would be safer not to disclose my transgender status, as society would not support me if I did.

I grew up with the Daily Mail: their trans coverage was particularly problematic. They stereotyped trans women – never trans men – as burly, stubbly freaks in dowdy dresses, accompanied by a weedy (often Jewish-looking) lawyer who facilitated their Byzantine demands of the state. Usually, they would misgender them, too – as would similar articles in The Sun and other tabloids. I dismissed these, though, as the papers seemed horrific in general, and realised my moral superiority over them long before I left school.

I’d hunt for TV chat shows that might discuss transgender behaviour, from cross-dressing to transsexuality. I’d avoid Jerry Springer and watch Ricki Lake, who was generally kinder to the trans women on her show, helping them to express themselves: this often focused on appearances, marvelling at how pretty they looked en femme. This wasn’t worthless, but it provided little fundamental understanding of ‘gender dysphoria’ (a term I didn’t have then).

More sympathetic pieces – single articles or documentaries that covered a person’s entire life – relied on the phrase “I was trapped in the wrong body”, which felt clichéd even then. Those articles (again, always on trans women) would often obsess over the person’s clothes and former names – the lives would appear relentlessly tragic, focusing more on what had been lost than gained, which I think accurately portrayed the effects of transphobia at the time but offered little hope. Sometimes the sympathetic pieces in women’s magazines would explore transsexual lives that worked, but only very occasionally.

The most helpful things tailgated the breakthrough of gay and lesbian people into mainstream television (on BBC2 and Channel 4 in particular) during the Nineties. The British drag queens on the fringes, particularly Lily Savage, weren’t overly helpful. I preferred RuPaul, whose core message was “Express yourself, whatever anyone says”; you were laughing with her, not at her. Unlike the self-deprecating British queens, she looked amazing and carried herself with panache.

Films broadcast on TV such as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, I Shot Andy Warhol and Stonewall placed trans people within gay culture (as did serials such as ITV’s Funny Girls), but showed their identities rather than told them, allowing me to define myself with or against them without having the terms dictated. These led me to counter-cultural trans women – Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, Jayne County – who became my heroines.

I discovered Candy Darling through The Smiths, who put her on one of their single covers. Morrissey’s sexual ambiguity and the cross-dressing of the Manic Street Preachers appealed, but they retained their mystique by keeping their gender undefined. More ‘alternative’ circles seemed as sceptical as mainstream ones about transsexual people, believing them to conform to conservative gender concepts without question: Kate Bornstein, Leslie Feinberg and excellent work went largely unnoticed at the time. Eddie Izzard was important, explaining being a ‘transvestite’ with such verve that it became acceptable to alternative comedy fans – the opposite to stereotypes of right-wing businessmen secretly wearing their wives’ frocks.

One thing I noticed was that there were few visible transsexual role models, except April Ashley and Julia Grant from the Change of Sex documentary, repeated and updated in 1996. Ashley was most prominent around 1970 and Grant ten years later – where were the younger transsexual people?

How would you sum up the way that trans people have been represented? Can you give some examples?
Further to the above, the point is that trans people have always been objects rather than subjects – mainstream media has rarely allowed us to portray ourselves. This has generally meant that people covering us sympathetically have often done so under terms set by our detractors, excluding the possibility of us setting them ourselves.

The casual transphobia in certain comedy programmes is a big problem, too. Seemingly off-hand remarks, even in credible panel shows such as QI and Have I Got News For You (two programmes I like, generally) reinforce the perception that it’s okay to ridicule us as much as Love Thy Neighbour and Mind Your Language did the idea that foreigners are funny. That’s before considering travesties like BBC Three’s failed Mrs Inbetweeny or Little Britain, whose characters have been used as sticks for reactionaries to beat minorities.

The clichés and pitfalls that pervade sympathetic coverage will take time to dissipate, despite Trans Media Watch’s vigilance – this recent article in The Independent, written (I believe) with thoroughly good will, uses ‘transsexual’ as a noun, as if it’s the only thing that defines the subject, with her former name and the phrase “I was trapped in the wrong body” in its headline. It could have been written in the Seventies.

Is it just a question of factual accuracy?
No, it’s about perspective: the bare facts of these articles and documentaries are not always inaccurate. More important than what you see is what you don’t: transsexual people who lead happy lives, accepted by those around them, with interests besides their transitions.

How is it that journalists and programme makers get things so wrong?
Sometimes, it’s deliberate: for example, people using the wrong pronouns, fully aware that trans women wish to be addressed as ‘she’ and ‘her’. Mostly, though, as Napoleon said, we should not ascribe to malice what can be explained by incompetence. There are under 10,000 transsexual people in Britain (half the population of my home town, which was not large) so plenty have not, I imagine, met any transsexual people.

I think that given the lack of visible transsexual voices, journalists and programme makers feel that the effort needed to find, let alone understand those perspectives is too great, and with less invested in the subject, just turn back to what they know – the media – hence perpetuating the same mistakes, especially with deadlines preventing further consideration of the issues at hand.

Add this country’s attitude towards ‘free speech’ – the belief that anyone has the right to say whatever they like, with the idea of attached responsibility to be fair decried as ‘political correctness gone mad’ – and there is a situation where, even if they see a problem, certain journalists and programme makers feel comfortable in not addressing it.

If it’s only lack of knowledge, though, is this easy to remedy?
Yes – easier than some think. After the Guardian ran this piece on transsexual woman Mikki Nicholson, who won the national Scrabble championship, Kate Carter, my editor, asked if someone there could speak to me: they’d had numerous complaints about their misgendering Ms Nicholson, which they corrected, and using ‘transsexual’ as a noun, which they didn’t. (I should point out that the Press Association release used the wrong pronouns, which the Guardian journalist copied.) There was another, much more serious story in the news, which they had to get right, so they were grateful for someone to consult.

I said it was quite simple: if someone wears female clothes and uses a female name, call her ‘she’ (as with anyone else). If you’re unsure, ask – people who rather you did this than got it wrong. I think that’s been the crucial problem: sympathetic journalists have been afraid to ask for fear of offending. If you can’t ask, I said, use gendered pronouns as little as possible but use the principle above when you must. After talking to Trans Media Watch and me, this formed the basis of readers’ editor Chris Elliott’s Open Door column, which apologised for mistakes and stated the paper’s intention to get things right, introducing a section on trans people into their Style Guide.

This matters: it means that our terms have become enshrined in the paper’s constitution. No longer will those terms be dictated by those hostile to us: our critics can still denigrate us, but they can no longer set the agenda.

There has been plenty of autobiography. So surely editors didn’t imagine that trans people can’t write?
Perhaps, rather, that editors thought trans people could only write about themselves. They were happy to let trans people describe themselves in one-off features, but might not trust them to cover anything else – even though Jan Morris, for example, wrote a transitional autobiography and then returned to her famous travel writing.

If trans people didn’t want to be forced into a position where they were expected to focus on their transgenderism, they had to remain in ‘stealth’, which was fine for them but didn’t change wider perceptions. What’s surprising is that something like A Transgender Journey didn’t happen before – Carol Riddell wrote in her answer to Janice Raymond’s abominable Transsexual Empire in 1980 that the most valuable thing we could do was tell our life stories in order to counter our use as pawns in non-trans people’s gender theories, but it took thirty years for this to happen even in Britain’s most progressive publication.

How did the Guardian column come about? Wasn’t it a departure for them?
I think this blog post is fairly comprehensive.

What strikes me about your writing is the way you combine the very personal account with the political and analytical. The personal account, in real time, is a brave thing for a writer. Do you ever think “I shouldn’t write about this”?
The Guardian wanted something that was primarily personal. I submitted the first piece, on my youthful gender issues, to acting Life & Style editor Rachel Dixon, who commissioned the series, and she really liked it. The second covered my discovery of transgender subculture: the original copy explored, at length, splits with the LGBT communities, and Rachel asked me to focus on the personal. Initially, this annoyed me – I wanted to be a theorist, like those in the Transgender Studies Reader – but it worked far better when I used politics as subtext.

When writing purely about myself, I hold little back. My favourite piece so far was on my mental health problems. It meant laying bare what happened in my head, but it was worth it to discuss the insidious effects of transphobia, and offer a trans perspective on the ‘psychotic’ stereotype (possibly the longest-standing, in films from Psycho to Silence of the Lambs) and the double stigma for trans people with mental health problems. I hope those (even non-trans) people who encounter depression find it helpful.

I think “I shouldn’t write about this” when other people are involved. The most challenging articles were on my family and ‘Charing Cross’. Coming out to my parents was the hardest thing I’d ever done, and we all worked hard to keep our relationships functional. I didn’t want to undo that by publishing something that upset them, so I sent the article to my parents beforehand, promising to revise anything they thought unfair. They told me that they had no problems, and readers received it positively.

With ‘Charing Cross’ I had to cover its complex relationship with the community, as well as my own involvement, and worried about treading on toes – I didn’t want to prejudice my treatment. That worked two ways though: the clinicians knew I was writing, which meant that whilst they didn’t give me unrepresentative treatment, they probably made sure they handled me as well as possible. I write under a pseudonym, so they didn’t know it was me until I told them, at my second appointment. Again, the column was fairly even-handed, and I think the Clinic took it well.

Do you think there are risks to so much exposure?
I wrote about the tragedy of Mike Penner/Christine Daniels. My blog was commissioned in August 2009, before Penner’s death, but not published until June, by which time he’d committed suicide.

Penner’s problem, I think, was having no idea what kind of criticism to expect, let alone that varying communities would attack him differently. He seemed unprepared for trans people seeing him as an ambassador: if he’d understood the media issues, he may have avoided writng in a way that worried trans women, who felt he was reinforced unhelpful stereotypes. Penner’s core problem, though, was more personal – that his wife left him when he came out.

After much community engagement, theoretically and socially, my lines of both defence and attack were prepared. The paper’s decision not to use a photo of me has helped: people focus on my words rather than my gender presentation. The articles’ length and frequency allows me to hold back if necessary: I can outline my experiences before covering the wider significance, setting trans-friendly terms for discussion.

The comments below each blog can be rather terrifying. Are they a good or bad thing?
They’re the best thing! The day before the blog went online, Rachel asked if I wanted comments enabled. I’ve seen many columnists take a hammering, but saying no would have been cowardly. I’m glad I didn’t: a community soon grew around the column, suggesting that trans issues affect a lot of people. Offering trans people (men and women), family and friends that space to share experiences created dialogue and made the column more socially relevant.

I expected negative comments, but knowing the various lines of attack (from previous Comment Is Free pieces) I’ve been able to anticipate most and handle all – delightfully, people always argue on my behalf. Facing this level of determination, the transphobes and trolls tend to concede: this isn’t typical, but then neither are the articles.

The moderators are over-senstitive at times – they remove personal abuse, thankfully, but I’d rather the more theoretical anti-trans comments are contested than deleted. That said, they have to preserve the space’s integrity: so many CiF discussions end in “Why is this funded on the NHS?” Everyone who raises the subject thinks they are the first – I reckon the moderators delete these simply because they’re so tedious, and often irrelevant.

So what comes next? Is the Guardian series open ended or do you have an end in mind? Is there a book in the works? A documentary?
There’s an obvious end to the series – I hope to see it there. I have no plans to create anything else solely autobiographical in the near future, but I have been approached about other trans-related projects, although nothing is yet concrete.

What changes would you like to see in the media? Working for legal changes [with Press For Change] we had clearly identifiable goals. How will you recognise when trans people are fully mainstreamed?
There are several other trans writers contributing to the Guardian – such as Jane Fae, Roz Kaveney, CL Minou, Natacha Kennedy and Natasha Curson – but Roz aside, they’re used, infrequently, solely to cover trans issues, and aren’t appearing regularly in visible contexts. This does at least mean we’re moving towards varying perspectives being aired, which is good.

There are a number of relatively prominent gay men with differing outlooks writing novels and articles, fronting bands, making films, producing television and editing magazines, and not just about sexuality. Trans people haven’t yet had those opportunities: it would be great to have accessible television and magazines by and for the community, with a variety of people producing them. I think we’re making progress, although it’ll take time. We will only be fully mainstreamed, though, when there are a proportionate number of trans people working in the media who are not known primarily for being trans.

Where do you see yourself in that future? Still writing about your journey?
Absolutely not! The articles (and the discussions around them) say all I want to say about my transition – by the end of the series, I’ll have written thousands of words. I have one thing planned which will incorporate some of my experiences, but supporting another subject. I may work on fictional projects with a trans theme but ultimately I plan to write about entirely unrelated matters.