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What is the real story behind today’s tabloid transphobic headlines?

What is the real story behind today’s tabloid transphobic headlines?

What's the real story?

’50 KIDS A WEEK SENT TO SEX CHANGE CLINICS’ screams today’s Daily Mirror’s front page headline. It seems designed to prompt concern.

The term ‘sex change’ doesn’t appear anywhere in the supporting article, instead being a fairly measured piece about growing acceptance meaning more demand, and also recognizing that some of the children referred to the Tavistock and Portman clinic may not be trans.

The only negative part in the piece is someone who seems to have self-medicated now regrets it, and has, as a result, decided that children can’t possibly know they’re trans. As a medic, she ought to be aware of the flaws of extrapolating from anecdotal evidence.

But the headline sets the tone – and is what will be read by most people. They won’t read the underlying story, and are likely to go away muttering about the decay of British society.

That’s not all. ‘DON’T CALL MUMS WOMEN’ is shouted from the front page of today’s Sun. Despite featuring Britain’s first pregnant man on more than one occasion (different people each time) you’d have thought that they, of all papers, would have understood that trans men can and do give birth – and some people might have problems calling them ‘mothers’.

Yes, the NHS did produce a paper a few months ago where, on the grounds of inclusivity, they suggested gender neutral terms be used. However, I can’t find any evidence that this was driven by trans people calling for it.

When you’re finding it hard to get or keep a job, dealing with petty bureaucracy driven by people who don’t understand their own processes, and possibly being beaten up on a regular basis – inclusive language, while nice, is some way down the list of important issues.


Nearly eight years ago a group of five of us set up Trans Media Watch, after years of corrosive and inaccurate reporting across the British media. Our submission to the Leveson Inquiry in 2012 contained numerous examples of awful coverage, prompting Lord Justice Leveson to recommend the press raised its game significantly in this area.

It was only in 2013, after a trans person they had targeted took her own life, the media stopped to think about what they were doing to real people.

Relative silence for a year, then ‘supportive outings’, then some mainstreaming, and now we suddenly find ourselves in the spotlight once again, repeatedly forced to justify ourselves against allegations and questions that show little understanding.

‘And do you have anything to prove that [you’re a woman]’, asked John Humphries of Stonewall’s Bex Stinson on last week’s BBC Radio 4 – followed up by the legally questionable ‘but you don’t have a certificate’. This was early on in 25 minutes of a feature where trans peoples’ identities were, once again, subject for debate on the national media.

One of the programme’s researchers emailed me this morning in some bafflement about what bits were transphobic. Between conflating sexuality and gender identity, including someone who is politically opposed to trans people, and highlighting the same self-medicating medic reported in the Mirror – I genuinely do not know where to start.

I know journalists and editors are under a huge amount of pressure. But, surely, the clauses in all the relevant codes insisting on accuracy mean they really ought to get some of their facts right, and spend some time researching and understanding the issue rather than leaping for clickbait headlines.

It’s not a coincidence that trans people are coming under such intense media scrutiny.

Opposition to trans rights

In July, the UK Government announced it wanted to revise the Gender Recognition Act, recognizing that it’s an overly bureaucratic and costly system which hasn’t been taken up by many people. They were thinking about revising it in line with the recommendations of the House of Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee’s 2016 report into trans issues. The Prime Minister repeated her intention to amend this Act just last week.

Most people agree the Act needs changing. It’s costly for trans people to apply and to assemble the evidence that’s needed, including two medical reports. You send the paperwork off and wait for a decision. You never meet the Panel, and you have no right of appeal. It’s dehumanizing and slow, and it’s not clear on what basis the Panel makes their decisions. (Yes, you read that right – you never meet the Panel and have no right of appeal.)

Western countries are now implementing self-declaration systems, where you make a statutory declaration about your gender, and the state simply recognizes it. No fuss, and very little cost. And, to date, no abuse either.

That hasn’t stopped the opposition to review. Conflating gender recognition with access to healthcare, creating alarm about ‘men’ in women’s spaces – surely maliciously-minded men would find easier ways to invade women’s spaces than go through a streamlined gender recognition process – and, won’t anyone think of the children?

Include trans people in the conversation

What’s missing in all this manufactured alarm is the actual life experiences of trans people? A study a few years ago showed a majority of trans people knew they were ‘different’ by the time they were 7.

It’s recognized that gender dysphoria can be disabling if not recognized or treated – so what do the opposition suggest we do for those children who simply cannot face school, or life? This is another set of examples where trans people are not seen as people, but simply as problems or theoretical issues.

We don’t expect people with physical or mental disabilities or religious beliefs to grow out of it – so why do we persist in doing this to trans people?

The past few weeks of media coverage, with all of its subtle tones and weaselly ways of staying just inside the Editors Code, should surely show that it’s now time for the wider LGB community to get behind trans people.

We’re not ‘erasing the gay experience’ or calling everyone transgender. We are simply making our constant demand, the right to be recognized as ourselves without question. And we need your support.

Helen Belcher works with Trans Media Watch to fight for better representations of transgender people on TV, radio and in the news. You can find her on Twitter.