This is the article I wrote for my dissertation project during my MA. Many months of blood, sweat and tears but it was worth it. Enjoy.
Fed up of being reduced to tabloid fodder, the transgender community are taking matters in to their own hands. Sofia Farelli looks at how attitudes and perceptions are changing for the better.
“Did neither of my kids ever notice the complete absence of male underwear on the washing line all their lives?”
Andie Davidson, 55, was born male but became convinced as a teenager that her real identity was female. This was during the 1970s, a time when transgender simply wasn’t a currency, people didn’t talk about it and was something you “just didn’t do.” It took a long time before she realised she wasn’t alone. Like many transgender people, Andie could only express her identity by wearing women’s underwear – though her family remained oblivious.
After living as a man her entire life it all got too much for Andie and with a weekend to herself, went shopping for women’s clothing. This was the beginning of 18 months of self-discovery, what she calls ‘the silent scream.’ Andie says; “shopping for outerwear was more of a release than anything and having freedom to buy things I really wanted – not my normal shopping experience for yet more grey trousers.”
Not wishing to project the image of a transvestite, Andie stuck to wearing women’s underwear. This was something her wife was had always been aware of and agreed it was harmless fun and even a bit sexy. What she didn’t realise was Andie was also trying on her clothes in private.
After 40 years of secrecy Andie realised that “being a woman fit” and came to understand that she had never felt like a man.
“A lot of trans people feel that what they are ‘not’ is a stronger conviction than what they ‘are’,” she adds.
…gender identity is what the person perceives themselves to be.
Medically, being ‘transgender’ is known as gender dysphoria: a mismatch between a person’s biological sex and their gender identity. A person’s biological sex is determined by genitalia at birth but gender identity is what the person perceives themselves to be. So someone can have the anatomy of a woman but feel innately that they are male. And vice versa.
The NHS estimates that 1 in 4,000 people in the UK are receiving medical help for gender dysphoria. However, the number could be larger based on those who have yet to seek help. On average men are diagnosed with gender dysphoria five times more often than women. Awareness of the condition is growing, consequently, so is diagnosis.
People wishing to live as their gender identity can seek treatment so that their physical appearance is more consistent with their identity. But the condition is still mired in prejudice and, in some cases, can attract real venom.
“Being the girl with the dad who is a ‘tranny’ is something she doesn’t want to understand, let alone explain or defend.”
While Andie now lives with a sense of confidence and freedom as a woman, the experience has certainly had lower points, she says. “My daughter has to all intents divorced me. Since seeing me in a skirt last August she will not speak to or even acknowledge me. Her transphobia – an irrational fear and or hostility towards, people who are transgender or who otherwise appear beyond traditional gender norms – is extreme but also more complex in that it’s to do with how it reflects on her. Being the girl with the dad who is a ‘tranny’ is something she doesn’t want to understand, let alone explain or defend.”
Similarly, while Andie’s wife understood the nature of gender dysphoria, she could not accept suddenly being in a relationship with another woman.
“My wife does not ‘become a lesbian’ by sleeping with me, but everything she has learned tells her this. But we have to remember we are conditioned by our lives thus far, in school, in social groups, the media. It protects us from uncertainties about ourselves to distinguish this from that and to know what we are to other people.”
According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, publicly collected data on trans people is virtually non-existent. Last year’s UK census did not ask people if they identify as trans and there are no plans to ask about it in the future. In 2009, a study from the Gender Identity Research and Education Society (GIRES) estimated there were between 300,000 – 500,000 people who experience some degree of gender variance – that is gender behaviour that does not conform to dominant societal norms of male and female.
Laura*, 20, a student and part time care assistant, identifies as ‘gender fluid’, a group who take their gender to be free of specific pronouns and not something to be constrained in to one of two simple tick boxes. Laura initially adopted a male identity in 2009, intending to acquire hormones from the NHS in an attempt to appear ‘more male’ to society.
Laura says: “I was coming to the final stage of getting hormones but was told I would need to officially change my name by deed poll. I wasn’t out to my family at the time and didn’t want to change my name. I wanted to be able to pick and choose what parts of transitioning I wanted, rather than follow a subscribed path laid out by the NHS.”
It was a dilemma. Laura was terrified of not being “trans enough” but believed that living exclusively as a man was making life no happier than identifying exclusively as female. Laura opted to become gender fluid and now asks to be recognised with gender neutral pronouns.
“You get little kids asking if you’re a boy or a girl and you say ‘I’m neither!’ and you can see their minds are blown.”
“It no longer felt like I was trying to trick the NHS system but also because I was being more honest with myself,” Laura adds.
Sky Yarlett, 24, is a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans (LGBT) officer for the National Union of Students (NUS) and identifies as gender fluid. Sky is “lucky to not have experienced the extreme side of transphobia”, adding: “You get little kids asking if you’re a boy or a girl and you say ‘I’m neither!’ and you can see their minds are blown.”
Sky hopes by identifying as gender fluid they’re slowly challenging people’s perceptions of gender, simultaneously the lack of understanding around the idea of being gender neutral can be frustrating.
Sky says, “depending on who I’m with sometimes I just won’t talk about it and move on. Sometimes I do feel a bit isolated but I’m lucky there’s a massive support group online with people who do understand and will take the time to listen, especially in the student movement.”
Sky adds, “Sometimes even talking to a councillor can make you nervous because they might not understand or worse. In these groups you know the people really ‘get’ you.” Sky took great pleasure in writing a dissertation on the self-representation of the transgender community in response to how they are perceived in the media. It was here Sky discovered the growing online presence of the community and was looking at the popularity of setting up personal websites and online community forums. Sky says, “There’s a few media outlets that show a lack of understanding and unfortunately what they don’t understand, they tend to mock. There’s a lot of naivety but also a lot of potential to make it better. Despite some lazy journalism there have been some good advents since I wrote about it.”
Pioneering transgender charity Trans Media Watch (TMW) conducted a study last year of 256 trans people and their perceptions of how trans issues are covered in the media. Some 70 per cent felt that media portrayals of transgender people were either negative or very negative and 78 per cent that these portrayals were either inaccurate or highly inaccurate. And – in a telling comment on the level of disconnection trans people feel – 95 per cent responded that they felt the media did not care what transgender people feel about this question.
In a landmark move for the transgender community, treasurer of TMW, Helen Belcher submitted evidence to the Leveson inquiry claiming the media had ‘created a climate of prejudice’ against trans people. Citing newspaper headlines – such as The Sun’s “Tran-o-saurus” story about a particularly tall trans person – as evidence that some media outlets had not changed their ways despite the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) code of conduct being amended to include protecting gender identity.
Belcher told the inquiry the “trans community has more or less walked away from the PCC” claiming “nothing ever changes” as a results of complaints made The PCC, the independent body dealing with complaints about magazine and newspaper content, including online material, currently has no guidelines for journalists when reporting on transgender issues. There is general guidance in the PCC code:
Clause 12 of the PCC code clarifies that journalists are to ‘avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability.’ It goes on to state that ‘details…must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.’ The clause was amended in 2005 after the passing of the Gender Recognition Act, allowing individuals undergoing – or who had undergone – gender reassignment to be protected from harmful reporting.
TMW has created guides for journalists when writing about trans issues and similarly one for transgender individuals for how to deal with the press.
Catherine Spiller, press officer for the PCC, says while there may be no guidelines in place, the clause is very clear. She says, “One of the strengths of the Editor’s Code of Practice is the protection it gives specifically to personal individuals.”
Spiller cites the example of a complaint upheld in 2009 when Keira McCormack objected to an article about her in Sunday Life headlined “TRANNY WORKED IN RAPE CENTRE.” Her suitability to her job as a rape counsellor was brought in to question owing to her being a male to female transgender. McCormack was referred to as a ‘tranny’ in the main text and was described as ‘strapping’ and ‘burly’ which she found “deeply insulting.”
Spiller adds, “This complaint was upheld and the PCC has used this case as a mean of making clear to the industry that the term is unacceptable to transgendered people and is a breach of Clause 12.” She says the PCC will continue to engage with representatives of the transgender community in the coming months.
Christine Burns, a leading figure in the transgender community and previously Press for Change (PFC) – a legal support organisation for trans people – remains positive that attitudes are shifting.
She says, “There have always been considerate and supportive people and there have always been the reverse. It appears that there are more people living their transitions openly and confidently now compared to when I was receiving pleas for help virtually every other day during my time at PFC. There’s certainly less excuse for ignorance.”
Away from the media, Laura’s experience tells a different story. “I honestly couldn’t tell you the number of times I’ve been laughed at or asked ‘are you a boy or a girl?’ I have been called things like ‘faggot’, ‘homo’, ‘gayboy’, ‘poof’, I’ve had drinks thrown at me in the street and been spat on. It’s degrading and humiliating but I’ve learnt to brush it off.”
Channel 4 has run many transgender documentaries including ‘My Transsexual Summer’ and ‘The Boy Who Was Born a Girl’ but they’ve been subject to severely mixed responses from the transgender community. Burns says it’s a difficult one to call, “Generally people place a lot of hope that each one will be transformative in attitudes. However, it depends entirely on the treatment and the audience. Some have been dreadful and others merely incompetent. There is still a great deal of exploitation and broken promises or outright lies by cynical producers.”
Sky highlights ‘My Transsexual Summer’ in particular for its honest coverage of trans people but feared gaps in knowledge for people who don’t understand transgender. “One of the people on the show called the group ‘tranny warriors’. Now, within the trans community some people really enjoy reclaiming this word and find it empowering but many also found it insulting because of how it can be used. I don’t feel comfortable with it, people have died whilst being called a ‘tranny’. It can make it difficult to explain to someone that it’s an offensive term but it’s ok for others to use it.”
Laura believes there is still some work to be done as transgender is such a large umbrella term these documentaries are still leaving gaps in knowledge. Laura says, “They can be positive because they portray trans people in a way that isn’t mocking or degrading. They are informative and certainly promote acceptance and understanding. However, they almost exclusively promote this idea of transitioning from ‘one’ gender to ‘the other.’ These shows aren’t perfect, they are helpful but can sometimes miss the point.”
The issues can stem from the focus being on a trans person’s medical history and their journey through transitioning surgically. An individual can become a spectacle rather than be seen as a real person with real, important lives and concerns. Laura feels that trans programmes made by and for non-trans people can be problematic because they can fetishize trans people almost akin to a wildlife documentary. Laura says, “What I would really like to see in the media is shows about trans people by trans people or, at least, created by trans people. We can then be free to share our experience free from whatever spin the TV companies put on us to sell our experiences.”
Andie believes the media can be forgiven for unfamiliarity, but only for a while. She says, “Sensationalism and sex sells, so gender and sex are a bundle. It’s not all bad but misuse of pronouns, derogatory treatment and sheer inaccuracy all hurt trans people everywhere. If they realised how ordinary it is to be me, there would be no story at all.”