Getting It Right
We realise that many people in the media already want to be fair and accurate when producing material about trans and intersex people, but worry that they may get it horribly wrong. Steer clear of the approaches listed here and you’ll be making a good start.
Inappropriate use of Inverted Commas
This can be highly undermining (e.g. ‘You could tell “she” was a guy’, ‘ “Caroline” came into the room’) as it implies from the outset that the subject’s understanding of their own identity is wrong (or even deluded).
Reference to demeaning portrayals of other trans or intersex people
Reference to demeaning portrayals of trans or intersex people elsewhere in the media which present them as a laughing stock or as mentally ill (typical of these has been Little Britain’s “I’m a laydee, Emily”. Such comedic shorthand is frequently used by journalists).
Gratuitous Focus on Appearance
Gratuitous focus on the appearance of a trans or intersex person which embarrasses them and is likely to hinder their attempts to be accepted in the gender in which they aim to live (“You can always tell them…look at their big hands!”). This is part of a process known as ‘othering’ – the deliberate marginalisation of certain groups by constant, irrelevant, reference to aspects of their lives, customs – or in this case their bodies – which are unusual and different versus the ‘norm’. The effect (and sometimes the aim, as in 1930s Germany) is to create alienation, distrust and isolation – and this makes the victims vulnerable.
Gratuitous Focus on Surgery
Trans and intersex people have the same right to privacy with respect to their medical histories as anybody else. For those who change their public gender role, the psychological and social processes involved are often a much bigger deal than physical changes, and not everybody can have or wants to have surgery. It is wrong to assume that intersex people will always be happier if their bodies can be made to look more ‘normal’.
Gratuitous use of an Individual’s Trans Status
Gratuitous use of an individual’s trans status when it has no bearing whatsoever on the issue or story. Sadly, there are many instances in the UK media of journalists seeking to ‘enliven’ a story by adding entirely unnecessary observations about a person’s gender history (‘Transsexual is convicted of shoplifting’, ‘Crossdresser wins lottery’, ‘Transvestite is murdered’.). In the majority of cases, the individual’s gender history has no connection with the subject matter, and the addition of this material serves only to publicly humiliate, disclosing private information which could put people in danger.
If the subject of your piece considers herself to be female, treat her as female. Use female pronouns. Likewise use male pronouns for someone who understands himself to be male. Deliberate, or unthinking, use of the ‘wrong’ pronoun makes a very clear statement – that you, writer, interviewer, programme maker – do not respect or believe in your subject’s experience. At best, this is implicit editorialisation. At worst, you will completely undermine the credibility and authenticity of your subject and hold them up to ridicule.
Defending Bigotry as ‘Humour’
Racist comedians used to defend their material by attempting to turn on the person or group they had insulted to claim they had ‘no sense of humour’ or ‘couldn’t take a joke’. Justifying such ‘comedy’ in this way is no longer acceptable – partly because it fuelled a climate of bigotry and prejudice in society, giving racists comfort, tacit support and language with which to marginalise black or Asian people. Trans and intersex people have as good a sense of humour as anyone, but become very disheartened by incessant, thoughtless humiliation in the name of ‘comedy’.
Use of Previous Names
It is rare for an article about a transsexual person not to reveal their previous name. This conveys the false impression that transsexual people are happy to have their previous names made public. A transsexual person takes a new name to reflect their public change of gender. They discard the old name in the process and the deed poll on change of name is quite emphatic about this. Under no circumstance is the old name retained.
Why should you avoid revealing a previous name?
When a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) is awarded, it becomes a criminal offence to reveal the owner’s transgender history. At present the fine is £5,000. It is the individual who reveals the name, not the organisation for which they work, who will face charges. There are no exemptions for journalism as there are with the Data Protection Act. Section 22 of the Gender Recognition Act was created with an “expectation of privacy” in mind.
It is important for a transgender person to be able to wipe the slate clean, to live a life free from persecution. Provided they have no outstanding debts, their credit history will be erased. They will be entitled to a new passport and driving licence. There is even a fresh birth certificate to help them through life. All of this is to no avail if their previous and current name are linked on a website. When this happens, such a person has no choice but to change their name again if they want the privacy to which they are entitled.
Whilst the legal position is not cut-and-dried, it is heavily weighted in favour of the transsexual person. Even colleagues discussing a post-transitional person may be in breach of this law. Even before the award of a GRC, charges of harassment may be applied if the person is reported about on separate occasions using their previous name. Any article remaining on the internet following the award of a GRC may expose its author and editor to risk of prosecution.
The award of a GRC is never publicly announced, of course. There have been no high-profile prosecutions under Section 22 but that situation is unlikely to last. It is best to respect the terms of the person’s deed poll and refer to them by their chosen name only.
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