If we are to hold a debate on how we reform gender recognition, newspapers need to deal in facts not falsehoods.
Gender recognition has proved to be a controversial topic. Personal and emotive issues are considered to be at stake: transgender peoples’ self-determination, and the safety and security of non-trans women.
So it is no surprise that proposals from a UK Parliamentary Select Committee to reform the law in this area – and a subsequent Government consultation – have resulted in significant disagreement over the last few years, which has cut across liberal/conservative divides.
It is tragic, then, that that debate has been reduced to misinformation, distortion, and occasionally, bare-faced abuse of transgender people in the coverage of some British national newspapers.
Hacked Off report into UK newspapers and trans coverage
A Hacked Off report has found dozens of articles published over the last few years which get the facts wildly wrong on transgender equality.
They range from coverage so profoundly wrong as to be laughable – if it didn’t have such dangerous effects – to the more subtle drip-drip of disinformation appearing in apparently more reasonable opinion pieces.
On the more absurd side is a Lord Tebbit article in The Telegraph, which appeared to mistake transgender people for people who are intersex. Lord Tebbit queries the rise in transgender people since he was younger, given that he could not ‘recollect any such individuals among my fellow pupils at school, nor in my intake for National Service in 1949.’
He goes on to wonder what role air pollution may have played in this ‘evolutionary change.’
Far more worrying, in many ways, are the relentless errors in newspapers’ coverage of proposed reforms to the law on gender recognition.
The two most controversial proposals are to reform the process by which transgender people can apply for and receive a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC), and to guarantee the rights of transgender people to access appropriate single-sex services in cases where they have obtained a GRC.
An often repeated inaccuracy is that the proposed change to the process of obtaining a GRC – which replaces a requirement to wait two years and obtain the consent of medical professionals with a speedier, more efficient, individual-focused approach – would lead to people switching gender overnight.
As anyone would be able to transition so rapidly, society would be unable to cope. Newly transitioned men and women, who had taken the decision to transition without due process, would be queuing up at different toilets, changing rooms, and other facilities.
The reality is that passport details, NHS records and similar, can all be changed overnight (or near enough) already. People can choose how they present to the world on a daily basis (and the fears raised have, largely, not come to pass). Many trans people don’t bother with the lengthy and dehumanizing process for getting hold of a GRC.
Myths and fearmongers
Then there is the proposal to ensure trans people have access to single-sex services and spaces if they have a GRC. In fact, the Committee found that in most cases, it is likeley that trans people with a GRC have a legal right to access these services already (and plenty do so).
But some newspapers have alleged that this proposed reform would jeopardize single-sex spaces, and open up single-sex services to abuse.
But many transgender people use single-sex facilities already. There is no gender test one must submit to before using a gendered toilet or changing room. Routinely, there is no requirement to prove one’s gender before accessing a single-sex service.
Then there has been the fearmongering about transgender prison and hospital wards. But authorities retain some discretion on where people are placed on these wards which is irrespective of gender. The process for obtaining a GRC would not dispense with that discretion.
Where there is an overriding suspected risk to the safety of other residents, it is always possible to place people in private accommodation.
These are complex issues. Nobody – proponents and opponents alike – wants to see loopholes appear in any new legislation, which could pave the way for new laws to be exploited or abused.
A wide-ranging debate is essential to expose those loopholes and shut them before its too late – while at the same time, ensuring that legislation does its job of increasing equality for transgender people.
The likes of The Times, and other newspapers’ coverage, undermines this important debate for both sides.
Lies and misinformation
Those arguing for reform see their position under attack from wave after wave of lies and misinformation in the press. Those who object to reform, or detect potential loopholes in proposed legislation, see their position undermined by the extent of distortion and falsehood propagated on behalf of the position they endorse.
And that is not to mention the explicit transphobia peddled by some elements of the press.
The Sun’s ‘Tran and Wife’ headline. The Times’ description of the activism of transgender people as ‘McCarthyism in bad wigs and fishnets.’ The Sunday Times’ misgendering of transgender people, and abusive description of them expressing their concerns with ‘feather boas and petulantly stamped stilettos.’
The need for an independent regulator
So what’s the solution? First and foremostly, it is essential to bring these newspapers into an independent regulator. The Times and most other national newspapers presently sit outside the UK’s independent regulatory system.
Instead, they are members of the press-controlled body ‘IPSO.’ As IPSO is controlled by the newspapers, there is no meaningful prospect of sanctioning newspapers for publishing inaccuracies – and abuse – effectively.
Once national newspapers join an independent regulator standards and quality in the national press will rise, because those newspapers will be made accountable for what they publish.
Until then, there is no incentive for newspapers to get their facts right, or to put an end to abuse from their columnists and commentators.
For the sake of protecting the public, and to ensure healthy, robust debates on public policy, it is essential that newspapers are independently regulated.
Kyle Taylor is the Director of Hacked Off, a campaign group lobbying for a free and accountable press in the UK.