Trans seminars

I’m going to be speaking at ‘Trans’ in Popular Representation at the University of Warwick on Thursday. It promises to be a really interesting event and I’m excited to be presenting alongside such cool people! I’ll be talking about the media representation of Lucy Meadows, and focusing on pronouns in particular. It’s something new for me and very much a pilot study of the “is there something worth investigating here?” kind. Anyway, here’s a brief summary of what I’ll be talking about.

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Response and responsibility: mainstream media and Lucy Meadows

In March 2013, Lucy Meadows was found dead at her home. Meadows, a primary school teacher, was transitioning from male to female; the school announced her decision to return to work after the Christmas break as Miss Meadows. This was reported in the local press and quickly picked up by the national press. Her death prompted discussions of responsible media reporting, press freedom and the contributions of trans* people to society.

I collected two corpora of newspaper articles: one of articles mentioning Lucy Meadows and a larger one of general news articles. These corpora are used to identify keywords – words that occur more frequently in the Lucy Meadows texts than might be expected from examining the collection of general news texts. The female pronouns she and her emerged as key; in this paper I look at these more closely using approaches drawn from corpus linguistics and critical discourse analysis (Baker 2006; Baker et al 2008).

References
Baker, P. (2006). Using Corpora in Discourse Analysis. London: Continuum.
Baker, P., Gabrielatos, C., Khosravinik, M., Krzyzanowski, M., McEnery, T., & Wodak, R. (2008). “A useful methodological synergy? Combining critical discourse analysis and corpus linguistics to examine discourses of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK press”. Discourse and Society, 19(3), 273.
Scott, M. (2012). WordSmith Tools version 6. Liverpool: Lexical Analysis Software.

The gap between experiences and (media) representation

On Sunday, the Guardian published an article reporting that “Dr Richard Curtis is under investigation following complaints over treatment of patients seeking gender reassignment”. Zoe O’Connell offers important context and I urge anyone who reads the Guardian article to also read her response.

Mainstream media pounces on anything with a whiff of malpractice or trans regret but I don’t think I’ve ever seen an article in the mainstream media about the everyday struggles trans* people experience in trying to access care. Sarah Brown playfully demonstrated how eager the media is for stories about trans regret by referring to an operation she regretted – unfortunately for the newspaper that phoned her within minutes of her tweets, the operation in question was on her hand.

Stories framed as “trans regret” are not harmless, but are used to deny trans* people necessary treatment. Trans* people must undergo months and years of psychological assessment and “Real Life Experience” tests (without hormones or surgery, thus placing them at risk of transphobic abuse and attacks) to test if they really want to transition. It is apparently better to make thousands of trans* people suffer than to allow a consenting but mistaken cis person access to hormones and surgery.

On Tuesday, Sarah Brown highlighted this discrepency in media attention and urged trans* people to tweet about their experiences using the #TransDocFail hashtag. The response was incredible – thousands of tweets and hundreds of participants – but the stories were depressingly similar. Zoe has collected the lowlights, grouping them under the headings “The NHS doesn’t do that!” (GPs’ insistence that specifically trans* care is not offered by the NHS), “The long wait”, “At least delays are not outright refusal to give treatment or right letters”, “The Transsexual broken arm” (every medical condition will be related to your gender), “Pointless abuse”, “Doctor knows best”, “Administrative errors and misgendering”, “Jumping through hoops” and “Non-binary genders don’t exist”. There are clear patterns to this data – at best, medical professionals are ignorant of trans* issues, at a bit worse they directly and deliberately put obstacles in the way trans* people’s attempts to find health and happiness, and at their very worst they abuse people both physically and mentally.

The following comment pieces have been published:
New Statesmen: As the #transdocfail hashtag showed, many trans people are afraid of their doctors
Guardian: The real trans scandal is not the failings of one doctor but cruelty by many

On the same Tuesday, Suzanne Moore’s piece on female anger was published on the New Statesman. It included the observation that

We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.

This observation is all the more crass for the sheer number of Brazilian trans people who are murdered each year. As this articles notes,

On the last Transgender Day of Remembrance, out of the 265 reported cases of murdered trans people between 15th November 2011 and 14th November 2012, 126 of them were from Brazil.

Moore’s response on twitter was shameful: among other things, she declared that transphobia and Islamophobia simply did not exist, stated that she doesn’t “prioritise this fucking lopping bits of your body over all else that is happening to women” and that “People can just fuck off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me”. She then followed this twitter rant with a Guardian comment piece. Stavvers has an excellent response, as does leftytgirl.

Bear in mind that Moore’s twitter rant was concurrent with #TransDocFail. Had she wanted, she could have easily found tales of horrifying medical abuse perpetuated against women.

What I find so interesting about this is how difficult it is to publish things that don’t fit a desired media narrative of trans* experiences, but how apparently easy it is to publish problematic things if you’re a noted feminist. There’s a lot to say here about access to platforms – Suzanne Moore, as an established writer, has built up a network of contacts which many trans* people don’t have. She can pitch things to them, or is invited to comment on issues or write response pieces.

However, there is something else going on here. Trans* writers and journalists have pitched articles on the difficulties of accessing treatment. It is something that clearly affects a lot of people, perhaps everyone who has been under the care of a Gender Identity Clinic. If this was happening in another NHS department there’d be outrage – not just that treatment is inadequate, but that gatekeeping is built into the system and the patient is forced to prove that they want the treatment enough before it is offered to them. And yet this goes unreported. Instead, what are the media narratives of trans* people? This is something I hope to explore in my next research project, but a quick survey of the articles @TransMediaWatch links to, I’d suggest that as well as medical malpractice, there’s interest in personal, “unusual” transitions. I pulled the two most recent transition-related stories from @TransMediaWatch’s timeline and they’re pretty typical:

Dame of two halves: I was a 24-stone football hooligan but now I’m going to be a woman
‘Having Harry Styles as a role model has helped’: Transgender girl reveals on This Morning why she wants surgery on NHS to look like One Direction star

Note how, in the last article, the person is referred to as a “transgender girl” and the article consistently uses the wrong pronouns. Best is presented as being superficial and transitioning only to resemble a pop singer when his quoted speech suggests something different. In both, the individual is foregrounded and their current situation is emphasised. Focus on the individual, not the system. Focus on the surgery, not the hoops jumped to get it. Focus on surgery as the moment when you “become a woman” rather than the years spent worrying, thinking, shifting, unfurling yourself within a wrong, alien body. This difficult, lengthy process and a system that gatekeeps and denies is not a news story and the media does not, apparently, want to hear it.

As I write this on Friday afternoon, “the Left” is busily shutting down valid criticism of Moore’s transphobia – another reminder that there are some experiences that no one, apparently, wants to hear.

Nottinghamshire Pride

Last year, I wrote about my slightly complicated feelings about Pride. As a result of some rather unpleasant transphobic incidents last year, this year the Pride organising committee offered the trans* group I help run our own tent and a bit of money to start us off. This was tremendously exciting – we’d never had a dedicated trans* area and we were determined to showcase the talented, diverse and creative trans* performers in our community, offer a space to our allies to perform in a friendly place where the complexities of their identities were welcomed, be a visible trans* presence at Pride and, perhaps most importantly, reaching out to people and making them feel a little less alone.

Photo of Ruth of Not Right

Ruth of Not Right. Photo by Eriw Erif

There’s an excellent review of the day by Ruth of Not Right and one of our members has a write-up and some photos on the group site.

Single Bass
El Dia (Sisters of Resistance)
Jase Redfield
Elaine O’Neill
Lashings of Ginger Beer Time
Dr Carmilla
Roz Kaveney
Sally Outen
George Hadden
Nat Titman
Troxin Cherry
Jessie Holder (of Better Strangers Opera)
Not Right

Every single one of them was fantastic, bringing their words and music and loves and lives to the stage. Whether this was furious-but-fun punk, elegantly coiled poetry about the acronyms one must acquaint oneself with as a trans* person, sweetly tender songs about growth and uncertainty, bawdily defiant poetry, eloquent fierceness about femme identity or subversively genderqueer readings of opera, our performers were both affirming and challenging. It was an honour to be able to thank so many amazing people at the end of the day, from the performers to Jess who organised the majority of the day, our stage manager and our fantastic sound guy.

As an activist, I think about spaces. I think about the spaces that I challenge and create, and as I watched and applauded and ran around trying to locate performers I thought about the space that I’d helped open up in Pride. The spaces I am talking about are both physical – like the tent – but also more abstract. Space is also about what is given voice, what is allowed to flourish, the possibilities that can be articulated. Much of my annoyance at last year’s Pride was that it was a gay man, and possibly a lesbian, space. This is important, and I’m not disputing the significance of a space where people can hold hands with their same-sex partners and not feel that tiny prickle of concern even at the best of times – that anyone, anywhere, could suddenly take it upon themselves to vocally – and perhaps physically – object to that simple, unobtrusive affection. Other queer identities were less or not acknowledged however, and I found that really problematic. The LGBTQA community is a huge, diverse community and it’s really important to acknowledge and welcome that diversity. When that diversity is not embraced, it’s not simply an issue of our experiences not being given a voice, as isolating and unwelcoming as that is. A lack of trans* awareness contributed to some really upsetting incidents and the Pride organising committee were keen to avoid that happening this year.

There was something magical about being in a tent and being able to listen and watch people who articulated some of my fears and anxieties and desires. There were trans* people speaking and singing and playing about trans* experiences, and cis performers adapting and selecting their work to speak to us. Not us trying to eke out a trans* interpretation of a song or a poem, but them finding the points where we could understand each other. It was people exploring gender and all that came with it; negotiating the NHS, the harsh realities of genital surgery, the misery and joy we find in our bodies. When we started planning our tent, we were determined to bring a radical queer feminist perspective to Pride – something that we treasured in our communities but which we rarely found represented at Pride. In this tent we were able to do something special, and create a space that was visible and proud and joyful and intersectional and defiant.

Jase Redfield of Mental Gellar

Jase Redfield of Mental Gellar. Photo by Eriw Erif.

Obviously things went wrong (technical hitches, delays, transport issues for some of our performers) and I can only thank our performers for being so patient with us. I learnt a lot about managing an event like this, even though the learning curve was so steep it felt more like a ski slope.

I found it an interesting mixture of some of my academic interests and my activist interests. While as an academic I am interested in silences and space, this was an opportunity to put some of the things I’ve been thinking about into practice. Not just thinking about what trans* positive spaces might look like, but trying to actually create one and working out what needs to be done so it is a safe(r) and welcoming space. Theoretically, I want such a space to acknowledge the different and complex ways people identify, encourage exploration of intersectional identities and recognise that there is No One True Way of being trans*. I want this space to provide information and offer solace, to be able to engage with people. What this meant was looking carefully at who we’d invited to perform, having some basic guidelines for behaviour displayed in the tent, making information from a range of different organisations and about different issues available, and ensuring that the people covered in our trans* history information were from a variety of backgrounds and reflected some of the ambiguities of posthumously assigning a trans* identity to a historical figure.

It wasn’t the most academic way to spend a weekend – I’m pretty sure most academics don’t need to hire drumkits the day before an event – but it had impact. Not just in a research sense, although I do hope to work in areas of language and gender identity, but in the way we saw people come in to say hello or out of curiosity or seeking information, and leave feeling affirmed, moved, comforted. A trans* space was political for all the reasons I’ve discussed, but it wasn’t until the day itself that I realised how very personal it would be too.

Trans media representation

Perhaps unexpectedly, My Transsexual Summer has focused some of my thoughts about representation, power and self-representation.

There are well-worn tropes in trans documentaries – so well-worn that there is more than one drinking game out there, with invitations to drink for things such as “any reference to genital surgery that refers to “becoming a woman” or “finally a woman””, a “close up of dotted lines in magic marker on pale fleshy body parts”, “if anyone uses the phrase “a man trapped in a woman’s body,” or vice versa”, or to just to down the whole bottle for a camera in an operating theatre. This is the kind of representation the trans community is used to.

My Transsexual Summer was greeted with nervous but hopeful anticipation from the trans community. Channel 4 had signed Trans Media Watch’s Memorandum of Understanding, agreeing to treat trans issues sensitively and accurately. Trans Media Watch was consulted while making the show. These things are a step forward in ensuring that trans people are not just the subjects of a documentary, but have a say in how they are presented in the programme.

Trans people have also written about the My Transsexual Summer series. Juliet Jacques appraised the show and Paris Lees, who was consulted as part of Trans Media Watch, also wrote about the show. Again, I think this is positive – it’s important that specialist documentaries aren’t just reviewed by non-specialists, but that people who know about the area write about them.

from http://www.thegenderbook.com / @thegenderbook


I don’t want to review the show, but instead want to focus on the representation part.

One of the issues with representation is that it simplifies and silences identities in favour of identities constructed by those in power. This is very relevant for the trans community which encompasses a multitude of genders, both binary and non-binary. These identities can be complex and difficult to understand for people who don’t experience them first hand, and are often poorly understood outside the trans community and gender activists. The illustration (click for a larger image) shows this in a playful way – while there are gender identities that roughly map onto “man” and “woman”, there are different ways of expressing manliness and womanliness. Some people are born in one place and move to another. There are identities that aren’t “man” or “woman” and there are also identities that are fluid and don’t stay in one place. This is a pretty simple explanation but it’s a huge area. I hope you can see how complicated gender identity can get.

There were hints that some of the My Transsexual Summer participants identified or had identified outside the gender binary – that they didn’t identify as totally male or female – but there was little to go on because it simply wasn’t discussed or really raised as a possibility.

Max, one of the participants, writes about his dissatisfaction about how they were portrayed:

Now I am watching the show and I see myself, and Fox reduced to bit parts and supporting roles, I see Karen’s story reduced to her anatomy and I see Donna portrayed as a caricature of her real, intelligent self. I see narratives that focus on boobs, unemployment and surgeries and make up and phallus’ privileged over narratives that deal with achievement, employment, happy families, and diversity of gender, race and belief.

He suggests that this was deliberate – that the complicated bits that didn’t fit a simple narrative were edited out, and instead the documentary focused on the kinds of issues satirised in the drinking games.

There are some complicated issues here about who and what gets presented to a largely non-trans audience as trans, and the relationship of trans people to mainstream media producers. Trans people are effectively in a bind – on one hand it’s important to be in mainstream programmes for several reasons. Mainstream programming reaches audiences who don’t read trans-produced media. It can be a useful resource to direct parents, friends, colleagues and supportive others to. It can be incredibly useful and validating for people only just realising they’re trans to see trans people on TV. In a world where trans stories are often ignored or treated as a freak show, My Transsexual Summer did a lot to humanise the people who appeared in it – it showed people who were trying to make a life for themselves, sometimes in the face of outrageous discrimination. Simply appearing in mainstream media demonstrates that you exist to people who were previously unaware of your presence.

However, on the other hand, there is an unequal power dynamic at work. Trans people are rarely the ones producing, directing or scripting these programmes – on board as consultants, but not the ones who make the decisions about what should and should not be included. Trans narratives and experiences are filtered and mediated by non-trans people – there are probably hundreds of hours of footage filmed for My Transsexual Summer but only four hours were actually shown. As Max suggests, the bits left on the cutting room floor suggest something more complicated but ultimately, that reflected the participants more closely. As Fox notes, “not nearly enough people picked up on the fact that most of the airtime was spent highlighting gender binaries and not exploring the how gender is much more fluid than that”; part of the problem here is that an audience unfamiliar with the trans community wouldn’t know what issues are being avoided or elided. Trans people end up having to make difficult decisions about whether it’s more important to have their experiences presented accurately or whether it’s more important to have a trans voice, albeit a mediated trans voice, visible in mainstream media.

There is resistance to this. Trans people started affectionately mocking the disparity between My Transsexual Summer and their own experiences of the trans community under the twitter hashtag #DIYTransSummer (the @DIYTransSummer account started collecting these). Some of the participants in My Transsexual Summer discussed what wasn’t addressed in the TV programmes more extensively on their blogs, in vlogs and on twitter but the problem there is one of audience numbers: far more people watched My Transsexual Summer than read Max’s blog.

Work to address transphobia and inaccuracies in media coverage of trans people is ongoing. Trans Media Action recently held Trans Camp, a workshop that identified five major issues to work on. Two of these issues specially concern media representation of trans issues; a third concerns “mak[ing] producers of comedy aware of who they are making comedy about”. Trans Media Watch submitted a 31 page document to the Leveson Inquiry arguing that “the highly adverse treatment of transgender and intersex people by parts of the press is a stark and instructive example of what newspapers (often but not exclusively tabloid) will seek to get away with when no effective formal or internal restraints are in place” and offering case studies and detailed recommendations.

As well as challenging the representation of trans people in mainstream media, trans people are also producing their own media. META magazine, a new magazine “for T-people by T-people” has just been launched.

As Juliet Jacques notes, “there’s a sense that the excuses that gatekeepers of mainstream liberal and left-wing spaces have previously used to keep out transgender perspectives — that the issues are too complicated, or that transsexual people somehow undermine feminist or socialist politics — are finally becoming untenable”. I hope this is the case and that trans people can look forward to better media representation but due to the nature of the power dynamic and how it manifests itself, I’m unconvinced it will happen unless trans people are in positions where we have more independence and control over media output. We’re getting there, but it’s a potentially slow process.

How to erase identities and make everyone bad guys

A couple of months ago, I posted about the politics of representation. I found the observation that representation in the media can involve “crushing difference in favour of identities constructed by those in positions of power” particularly striking. What you see here is me trying to work out the process of how it happened in the suffrage movement.

Here’s an admittedly simplistic table of differences between suffragists and suffragettes. Of course, it’s not that simple – see Sandra Holton (1986) for more – but for the purposes of this argument, let’s run with this.

Suffragists Suffragettes
considered the more inclusive term members of a militant organisation
constitutionalists challenged the constitutionalist approach
campaigned by lobbying Parliament prepared to engage in direct action

However, what I’ve found in the texts I’m working with looks a bit more like this:

Suffragists
members of a militant organisation
prepared to engage in direct action

I found that suffragette and suffragettes were comparatively low frequency terms and didn’t have many words associated with them. Instead, there were lots of words associated with suffragist and suffragists – even the direct action words like disturbance*, disorder, outrage*, violence and crime* which I then focused on. This seemed out of keeping with the historiography.

What seems to happen is that there’s a process where the two are conflated:

Suffragists
considered the more inclusive term
members of a militant organisation
constitutionalists
challenged the constitutionalist approach
campaigned by lobbying Parliament
prepared to engage in direct action

Galtung and Ruge (1965) work out a set of principles they call “news values”. These decide how likely it is that something will be reported as news, and include factors such as whether the incident forms part of a pre-existing narrative, how recent it was. how unusual it was and so on. Some of the relevant factors to this are conflict, negativity, personalisation and continuity: basically, well-known suffragettes scuffling with the police and getting arrested is more interesting to newspapers than a deputation of nice ladies handing in a petition to their MP.

Therefore, because of news values, the stuff about the constitutionalist approach gets erased:

Suffragists
considered the more inclusive term
members of a militant organisation
constitutionalists
challenged the constitutionalist approach
campaigned by lobbying Parliament
prepared to engage in direct action

Because we’re now not talking about constitutionalists, it doesn’t make sense to characterise a group by its opposition to constitutionalists, so that can go too:

Suffragists
considered the more inclusive term
members of a militant organisation
constitutionalists
challenged the constitutionalist approach
campaigned by lobbying Parliament
prepared to engage in direct action

Ta-da! You have now ended up with something like this:

Suffragists
members of a militant organisation
prepared to engage in direct action

This, if you’re in a position of power, is pretty awesome. If you can label everyone in the suffrage movement as violent and dangerous, you don’t need to listen to their concerns about equality, about welfare, about working conditions, about ill-treatment in prison and police brutality. Hurrah!

The suffrage movement is unusual because the term suffragist, in the Times at least, comes to mean something very different to how it was understood amongst those within the movement. However, I think the process – of conflating a range of motivations, organisations and individuals under one term, erasing the less newsworthy bits, using the term in such a way as to imply it still covers the full breadth of these motivations, organisations and individuals, then dismissing everyone as irresponsible and destructive – is still very relevant today.

As I write this, there are riots in Tottenham, Wood Green, Enfield, Brixton, Walthamstow, Hackney and possibly Peckham. The people involved are being described as looters, protesters and rioters. In light of what I’ve illustrated here, I wonder what’s being erased through using these descriptions. Obviously it’s in the interests of those in power to portray those involved as vandals, thieves and general undesirables – it stops them having to pay attention to legitimate concerns…about equality, about welfare, about working conditions, about police brutality.

References:
Galtung, J & Ruge, M. 1965. The Structure of Foreign News. The Presentation of the Congo, Cuba and Cyprus Crises in Four Norwegian Newspapers. Journal of Peace Research, vol 2, pp 64-91
Holton, S. 1986. Feminism and Democracy: Women’s suffrage and reform politics in Britain, 1900-1918. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

The politics of representation

Because I’m trying to clear some tabs, here’s a useful definition of representation I found and need to read more about:

As Gilles Deleuze […] has argued, the politics of representation which currently predominates is not interested in representing as the term is commonly understood; it is no process of ‘speaking on behalf of’, but rather one of silencing; one of crushing difference in favour of identities constructed by those in positions of power. In this instance, the diverse, plural and problematic identities of those marching have been collapsed into the creation of a majority which cannot speak for itself.

From Anarchists: ‘unemployable layabout scum’? at Ballots & Bullets

One of the difficult things about doing an interdisciplinary PhD is the amount of catchup in other areas you have to do. My background is in linguistics rather than history, politics or sociology. As such, it’s a joy to come across something like this – not only should it lead to a citable text for my thesis (gotta catch em all!), but it also shows that my thinking isn’t completely out of step with theorists in these different areas.