The mainstream British media’s hate of trans people has been sharply exposed in the last few weeks and the community is hitting back.
Sick of lazy media misrepresentation, vilification and outright hate speech, trans people and allies in the UK have, over the last two weeks, become visible.
Last night (18 January) over 150 activists gathered on a freezing, dark evening to protest transphobia at the Observer newspaper. They took to the streets in order to make their voices heard.
Standing with banners, megaphones, and woolly hats, the mood of the protest ranged from the enthused to the despairing.
The furore initially kicked off after columnist Suzanne Moore’s careless reference to a ‘Brazilian transsexual’ in an article otherwise focusing on the power of women’s anger. Her throwaway line sparked internet upset, but her following Twitter comments turned upset to outrage.
It may have died down if not for writer Julie Burchill, whose subsequent Observer column contained anti-trans hate speech, comparing trans women to ‘the Black and White Minstrels’ and using words such as ‘shims’ and ‘shemales’.
Around 800 complaints and a barrage of other comment pieces later, the Observer editor John Mulholland withdrew Burchill’s article. It was then reprinted by conservative blogger Toby Young at the Telegraph in the name of ‘free speech’.
Outside the Guardian Media Group’s offices last night (17 January), it was difficult to see the discriminatory representation of trans people in the media as an issue of ‘free speech’.
Protesters from across the UK spoke movingly about violence against trans people and about their personal experiences of transphobia.
Rachel Payne, 61, told Gay Star News: ‘The whole spectrum of the trans people are just regarded as non-people, in the same way that other groups, historically, have been regarded.
‘Hundreds of people, particularly in Brazil – Suzanne Moore mentioned Brazilian trans women – have been killed because of being trans and its still happening.
‘It happens here as well, that people are abused and treated with real transphobia and the media are encouraging that, and its just wrong. We have to speak up.’
Faizan, 40, who did not give a last name, said: ‘Julie Burchill has made some analogies with ethnic minorities and how they’re oppressed.
‘I myself am an ethnic minority, also a feminist. All of these people that she claims to represent… I disagree with her completely because I’m also transgendered.’
‘I don’t feel that her assertions support my political views as any of the identities or any of the causes that she purports to support.’
During the two hour demonstration, enthusiastic chants of ‘we’re here, we’re queer, we’re fabulous, don’t mess with us’ mingled with the more earnest ‘free speech not hate speech’.
There was also plenty of shouting featuring the words ‘Burchill’ and ‘scum’.
At the end of the working day, Guardian Media Group staff filed out of the glass doors, stepping hurriedly past the protest. But one or two sympathised, joining the protest and raising their hands in agreement.
Sarah Savage, 29, TV star and organizer of the protest at the Observer, told GSN: ‘I’ve spoken to… the deputy editor of the Observer, I had a meeting with him just before, and he said that he would agree to sit down and talk with us to ensure this would never happen again.’
‘Spreading hate speech is such a despicable thing to do… we need to get in place an agreement, an actual contract agreement, so that we never ever have to suffer discrimination ever again.’
American TV network Fox News was recently panned for using a mocking image of the fictional drag character Mrs Doubtfire to illustrate a serious report on healthcare provision for trans people.
The damage caused by clumsy media portrayals of trans people is very real. A 2009 survey by the UK charity Trans Media Watch found 21% of respondents had experienced verbal abuse that they believed was associated with media representations of trans people.
Around the world, 143 transgender people were reported murdered in 2009. But Trans Media Watch comment in many countries, pertinently including Brazil, the murders of trans people go unrecorded.
In a small, positive step, however, the BBC has launched a competition to find scripts which ‘promote a positive portrayal of transgender people in mainstream comedy’.
This has been just two weeks in trans politics, and another protest is planned outside the offices of The Telegraph tonight (18 January). Perhaps this is the start of a new wave of pro-transgender action.