Published on February 15, 2013 | by Leanne Addison, Video: Sarah Mona2
Transgender issues are not something normally written about in the daily tabloids. There has been the rare documentary, such as Channel 4’s My Transsexual Summer, aired last year, but these only offer a glimpse into what is a notoriously under-reported topic.
However, last month journalist Julie Burchill brought the issue to the forefront of public discussion, causing a media storm by criticising the trans community, in a defence of fellow columnist Suzanne Moore.
In a book of essays called Red: The Waterstones Anthology, Moore wrote a piece claiming that women were angry about, “not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.”
The essay led to Moore being hounded on Twitter by trans-people prompting her to answer her critics by tweeting, “People can just fuck off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me. Good for them,” after which Moore deleted her Twitter account.
In defence of Moore
Friend and fellow columnist Burchill then responded in an article published on The Observer and Guardian websites. In her defence of Moore, Burchill described transgender people as, “a bunch of dicks in chicks clothing.”
Going on to write, “Shims, shemales, whatever you’re calling yourselves these days – don’t threaten or bully we lowly natural-born women, I warn you. We may not have as many lovely big swinging PhDs as you, but we’ve experienced a lifetime of PMT and sexual harassment…
“We may not have as many lovely big swinging Phds as you, but we’ve experienced a lifetime of PMT and sexual harassment.” Julie Burchill
“Trust me you ain’t seen nothing yet. You really won’t like us when we’re angry.”
The opinion piece created a bigger reaction than Moore’s original essay did. The Observer took the article down from its website.
Editor, John Mulholland later explained: “We have decided to withdraw from publication the Julie Burchill comment piece Transsexuals should cut it out. The piece was an attempt to explore contentious issues within what had become a highly charged debate.
“The Observer is a paper that prides itself on ventilating difficult debates and airing challenging views. On this occasion we got it wrong and in light of the hurt and offence caused I apologise and have made the decision to withdraw the piece.”
Transgender people have a long history of being victims of prejudice, and have fought for rights that most of us take for granted.
In 1885 the Criminal Law Act was passed in the UK, which made all homosexual behaviour illegal. Those suspected of it were imprisoned and forced into hard labour.
People who cross-dressed were often thought of as ‘early transgenders’ and became easy targets because they were associated with the homosexual subculture that existed at the time.
The first public trial was that of Ernest (Stella) Boulton and Fred (Fanny) Park who were arrested in 1870 for indecent behaviour. The authorities based the prosecution on their transvestism and their soliciting of men while dressed as women.
Some 50 years later, the first sex-change operations were performed during the 1920s and early 1930s, though surgery was far from simple and many died from complications.
In the 1940s Michael (Laura) Dillon obtained gender reassignment – even having a penis constructed. Dillon worked as a ship’s doctor until he was ‘outed’ by the Sunday People in 1958.
As transgender people were reported more widely, it became clear that there existed a number of people who were not happy because their gender role did not match their body.
By the time the first major text on the subject; The Transsexual Phenomenon had been published in 1966 the majority of the general public was aware of the condition. However gender reassignment was still the subject of social stigma.
“All the transsexuals I know are very smart looking and have good jobs.” April Ashley
One of the first transsexual women to be ‘outed’ was model April Ashley in 1961.
Although she has not worked as a model since, she has campaigned for transgender rights, and was awarded the MBE in 2012.
Talking to The Guardian about Burchill’s column, Ashley said: “I don’t know where Miss Burchill goes to see people with crappy wigs on their heads.
“All the transsexuals I know are very smart looking and have good jobs.”
No official data
Obviously there have been changing attitudes towards transgender people since Ashley’s transformation 50 years ago. However, a lot of the stigma that existed is alive today. There are still huge changes to be made in the way transgender people are treated and represented.
There is no official data on how many people are living as a different gender as many live in fear, trying to ‘pass off’ their chosen gender. But it is estimated that there are 10,000 people who have had gender reassignment surgery, although many chose to live as a different gender without undergoing any surgery.
The Beaumont Society is the oldest established transgender support group in the UK, helping transgender people and their families since 1966.
Their aim is to promote a better understanding of transgenderism, transvestism and gender dysphoria in society, and to improve tolerance and acceptance from the wider public.
Janett Scott of the Beaumont Society says, “I hear more and more positive stories about how many trans people are accepted by their work colleagues and local community, but as always, there will always be family members who are less than accepting and some members of the public on the grounds of ignorance.”
Only recently have trans people been given basic human rights. Britain was one of the last countries in Europe to recognise a person’s right to change their gender and access to gender reassignment treatment has only been available on the NHS since 1999.
Until 1997, it was legal to sack someone who planned or had changed his or her gender. A study of 2,600 transgender people in the EU in 2008 found that 79 per cent suffered transphobic abuse, ranging from verbal, physical or sexual violence.
There have also been 265 reports of murdered trans people in Europe from November 2011 to November 2012, including one in Britain.
In 1999, Katie Glover set up The Gender Society, which has become one of the largest online communities for transgender people in the world today, with members right across the globe.
“Julie Burchill has a history of ridiculing trans people in British newspapers.” Katie Glover
She is also editor of Frock, a bi-monthly magazine, and has reported extensively on the Burchill saga.
“We were appalled by Julie Burchill’s attack on our community and it’s not the first time. She has a history of ridiculing trans people in British newspapers.” says Glover.
“In the UK media we are also usually shown in a detrimental way. Nearly every time I hear the words ‘transgender’ or ‘transsexual’ it is in relation to something bad.
“There are bad people in every community and ours is no exception but the vast majority of transgender folk are decent, honest and law abiding human beings who just want to be left alone.”
Since Burchill’s column, The Press Complaints Commission has announced that it will launch an inquiry over the article after transgender rights campaigners’ protested outside The Guardian Media Group’s offices.
The protest was organised by transsexual blogger Sarah Savage who was unsatisfied with the newspaper’s apology.
The Facebook page for the protest stated: “We seek a full apology from the paper, and reassurance that they will take steps to ensure the Guardian Media Group’s publications will never again be used as a platform for hate speech.”
The campaign goes on to state: “We are aware of The Observer’s withdrawal of Burchill’s article from their website, but feel that this response does not give adequate reassurance that the paper will not publish transphobic content in the future.”
Writing on her blog Savage says that she wants actual commitment from leading members of the media, hoping they will never publish transphobic views again, “I want the media to stop devaluing and undermining trans people.”
Negative media portrayal
Katie Glover comments: “Julie Burchill will have felt the sharp end of our tongues over the last few weeks and there will be more heat to come with thousands of complaints to her paper and the Press Complaints Commission.
“A number of trans people have also made official complaints to the police who are now considering how to proceed against the alleged perpetrator of what may have been a ‘hate crime’.
“If they decide not to go ahead with that then there is no point having laws in this country to protect us from the hate-filled mouths of people like Ms Burchill.”
“I’d say we are currently on par with the black community of the 1960’s.” Katie Glover
“Today’s media would never dream of saying anything bad about the black community but it’s open season on trans people. I’d say we are currently on par with the black community of the 1960s,”says Glover.
“The Jerry Springer Show has been a constant thorn in our sides, constantly portraying trans people as sex workers, drug addicts, criminals and suchlike. In the UK media we are also usually shown in a detrimental way.“
But it is not just the transgender community that has issues with widespread prejudice, indeed the article that Burchill wrote attracted more than 800 complaints, prompting the Press Complaints Commission to investigate, although it does not usually act on third party objections.
Author Paul Martinovic suggested that the language Burchill used to describe transgender people falls under the commission’s definition of “misleading or distorted terminology.
“A clause in the editors’ code of practice states that writers must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or any physical or mental illness or disability.”
The Observer is also conducting its own internal inquiry into how the column was published.
MPs have now got involved in the row with Liberal Democrat Lynne Featherstone condemning Burchill over her comments that transgender people were “bed-wetter’s in bad wigs.”
In the piece Burchill claimed that trans people were all middle-class and overeducated. Posting on Twitter, Featherstone wrote, “Julie Burchill’s rant against transgender community is absolutely disgusting – a bigoted vomit for which The Observer should sack her.”
The decision to remove the article from the website has prompted further debate as to whether the newspaper is restricting its columnists rights to free speech by removing and apologising for Burchill’s piece.
The ‘overreaction’ argument
Some have argued that people are confusing personal opinion with matters of public morality to persuade a Twitter mob to agree with their point of view.
Many have argued that Moore’s original comment was not intended to be inflammatory, that it is both unnecessary and damaging to imply differently, and that it is petty to complain about the use of language when there are bigger inequalities facing transgender people.
“The ever-present knowledge that trans-people are objects of ridicule in public life.” Paris Lees
It has also been suggested that such an overreaction antagonises and alienates potential supporters. However, it is important not to excuse deliberate hate-mongering.
In an open letter to Suzanne Moore, transgender journalist Paris Lees spoke about, “the ever-present knowledge that trans people are objects of ridicule in public life – things to be referred to and smirked at – not real, valid, living human beings.”
Lees went on to write, “Freedom of speech is a noble and beautiful idea and to use its name for ugly purposes is not only abhorrent but an attack on true free speech.
“Question my beliefs, but don’t ridicule me for looking a certain way because the only person who looks bad then is you. And freedom of speech suffers too.”