It all seems so chillingly familiar. As gay and bisexual men and women were making limited strides in the struggle for equality not so long ago, a furious backlash followed. Today’s media-driven moral panic over trans people and their rights seems like history repeating itself. Over the past few weeks, there have been almost daily articles in the press targeting trans rights and trans people. The tropes are the same. Back then, gay people were sexual predators; a “gay lobby” was brainwashing children; being gay was a mental illness or just a phase and gay rights was political correctness gone mad. Replace “gay” with “trans”, and that’s the state of the British press in 2017.
In 1986 the press united in outrage at a picture book called Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, about a five-year-old girl who lived with her father and his partner. It was falsely claimed that the book was being distributed to children – a single copy had been purchased for the use of teachers – but the point of the exercise was clear: children were being corrupted by the gay agenda, and could even be turned gay simply by discussing homosexuality.
And so history repeats itself. Consider these recent headlines. “The transgender zealots are destroying truth itself”, screeched the Mail on Sunday. “The skirt on the drag queen goes swish swish swish”, wailed the Sun, adding “Trans classes for kids age 2” for good measure. “Church: let little boys wear tiaras”, howled the Daily Mail, describing “New advice on transgender bullying for C of E schoolteachers”.
It’s worth considering the impact of this. Media anti-gay onslaughts helped legitimise and reinforce a hostile environment for gay and bisexual people. This had two consequences: it made a minority already disproportionately affected by mental distress feel even more misery, knowing that they were widely detested, feared and ridiculed; and it emboldened homophobic bigots who felt their hatred had official sanction.
In today’s Britain, eight in 10 trans young people report self-harm and nearly half have tried to kill themselves. How is a minority so afflicted with transphobia-induced mental distress supposed to feel with this relentless media campaign? Note that 64% of trans school pupils have been bullied for their gender identity; and 38% of trans people have suffered physical intimidation. Are their persecutors likely to feel more, or less, empowered by this media offensive?
“Children sacrificed to appease trans lobby” was the headline on an opinion piece in the Times, conjuring up both the image of child sacrifice, and implying that trans people – one of the most marginalised minorities in Britain – wield sinister, disproportionate power. The pejorative use of “the gay lobby” is now widely accepted to be a statement of bigotry – how then is “the trans lobby” any different?
The object of the article’s ire was the rise in referrals of teenagers to gender clinics; it claimed that “butch” lesbians were being pressured to transition to men. But as Ruth Hunt – chief executive of Stonewall, a champion of trans rights and a self-identifying butch lesbian – puts it, “very few people who access support go on to transition”. The increase was down to more young people discussing gender identity, as attitudes become more accepting. Undoubtedly, though, more are coming out as trans: the same happened with gay and bisexual young people.
This month the Australian MP Bob Katter preposterously claimed that gay people had only existed for 60 years: the reality is that, as homophobia began to be rolled back, more men and women felt able to come out.
A 19-year-old trans woman, Lily Madigan, was hounded after being elected women’s officer at her local Labour party. Online trolls were spurred on by the media coverage: “I’ve had people hoping I commit suicide and calling me horrid things like dickhead and freak.” This should shame the media; it probably won’t.
In the US, opposition to trans rights has been spearheaded by the Republican right, who in many states have introduced “bathroom bills” to ban trans people from using toilets that match their gender identity.
At the same time, though a new wave of feminism stresses its trans inclusivity, there are self-described progressives who claim that support for trans rights is driven by misogyny. Women feel threatened by trans women using female toilets, goes the argument. Yet, according to the British Social Attitudes survey, 58% of women say prejudice against trans people is “always wrong”, 12 points higher than for men; and 72% of women say they are “very” or “quite” comfortable with a trans woman using a female toilet – compared with 64% of men who feel similarly about trans men in male toilets. Transphobia is, disproportionately, a male problem.
The main driver for the current backlash is the government’s proposals – backed by Labour – to reform the Gender Recognition Act, which currently imposes a degrading, bureaucratic, medicalised two-year process on trans people before a panel can grant a gender recognition certificate.
The plan is to move in line with countries, such as Ireland, that have a process of self-identification. But, goes the argument, this will mean men falsely declaring themselves as women to invade women’s spaces and harass women – even though in countries that have adopted this system, such as Argentina (where it has been in place for years), such cases have simply not materialised.
Opponents of trans rights are losing, and they know it, hence the viciousness. There are brilliant trans voices emerging – like Shon Faye, Paris Lees and Munroe Bergdorf – but the media surely have a responsibility to provide a greater platform. And just as gay rights was once seen as the preserve of the “loony left”, trans people are desperately lacking in influential media allies.
History is a savage judge of those who resisted the onward march of gay rights. I doubt it will be less damning of those who bitterly fight trans rights.
• Owen Jones is a Guardian writer
This Guardian article, proffered by Owen Jones, gives evidence of Press bias on matters of Gender and Sexuality at a crucial time in the world’s history when such matters are being reviewed – in the light of new understanding by professional social, medical and psychiatric authorities on the social implications of gender fluidity.
I am currently reading a book from our local library, here in Christchurch, New Zealand: “Raising My Rainbow – Adventures in Raising a Fabulous, Gender Creative Son” – by U.S. author, Lori Duron (with a foreword by Neil Patrick Harris and David Burkta), published by Broadway Books.Com.
Knowing, personally, a transgender woman, a former World Bank executive, whose own transition from male to female has taken place only since retirement; I was glad to be able to welcome her into an Anglican congregation with whom I was involved as an interim priest-in-charge over 10 years ago. Bonnie is now a member of her diocesan Synod and is accepted by her peers in the parish and the Diocese as a fellow member of the body of Christ and co-worker in the mission of the Church.
Reading Lori’s book (mentioned in my first paragraph), I have imbibed more valuable information about the social problems involved in raising a child – in this case, a boy – in a society (Orange County, California) not prone to accepting gender differentiation and normally hostile to anything different from the binary sexual ‘norm’ that characterises the majority.
What the Church of England is now doing – in advising Church Schools to accept the fact of gender/sexual differentiation among their school staff and children – has raised a climate of press criticism which questions the social and moral implications of what has been brought into the daylight that was formerly hidden from view.
For anyone opposed to – or suspicious of – the reality of Gender/Sexuality differentiation that is now recognised in a significant minority of our young children, and the necessary accommodation of such a phenomenon; I would suggest they read this book.
To close one’s eyes to the facts that have been discovered on this important subject is to ignore the concomitant responsibility of both Church and society to recognise and come to terms with the need to cater for those whose lives are involved in a natural process of human development that has for too long been hidden behind a cloak of moral and social taboos that are no longer sustainable, or indeed, acceptable.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand