Some Important Lessons for the Tabloid Journalists Treating Trans People as Punching Bags

Seeing as you don't seem to understand some very basic facts, I'll explain them for you.

by Paris Lees
03 November 2016, 10:29am

Illustration by Sam Taylor

(Illustration: Sam Taylor)

Transgender feminazis have joined forces with BBC communists to force innocent kids into sex change operations. Or so said last week's Mail on Sunday. "FURY AT BBC SEX CHANGE SHOW FOR 6-YEAR-OLDS" screamed the headline. The Sun and The Mirror repeated the story almost word for furious word.

The big deal? A CBBC film called Just a Girl, about an 11-year-old trans girl who takes puberty blockers. It's not an advert for gender transition; it just describes what her life is like. It's educational.

But we can't be having that, can we? Not when there are papers to sell, misinformation to be spread and a public broadcaster to bash. The Mail quotes Tory MP Peter Bone, who says: "It beggars belief that the BBC is making this programme freely available to children as young as six... It is completely inappropriate for such material to be on the CBBC website and I shall be writing to BBC bosses to demand they take it down as soon as possible."

What the fuck does Peter Bone know about kids who are questioning their gender? I was one of those kids once. I was bullied violently at school and at home by my father for "acting like a girl". Do you really think Bonehead gives a shit about kids like me? I'd have loved to have had a supportive family and school as a kid, and being able to access information about trans people would have really helped me through a tough time in my life.

Yet this fabricated row marks a weird sort of victory for the trans community. Ten years ago, the press was obsessed with the myth of transition regret: people who regret changing gender. They are vanishingly rare. Between 2003 and 2007, Guardian journalist David Batty wrote several articles on the subject, including one entitled "Sex changes are not effective, say researchers"; a couple in which he reported on a psychiatrist who was found to have not provided proper care to his trans patients, who later regretted their surgery; and another in which he spoke to four transgender people who regretted having surgery and felt "trapped in 'gender limbo'". Meanwhile, Julie Bindel warned against the "operation that can ruin your life". Fast-forward to 2016 and referrals to gender identity clinics are through the roof, and study after study shows that genital reconstruction surgery leaves patients overwhelmingly happier. In terms of patient satisfaction, it has one of the highest success rates of almost any operation on the NHS. God knows why anyone wanted to question us in the first place – it's a private decision and no one else's business, frankly – but trans people won the argument.

So now the "debate" has moved on to kids.

We've been here before. In the 1980s, homophobes had essentially given up their efforts to stop adult gay people doing what they want with their own bodies. So haters found a new way to hate gay people: by dressing up homophobia as a child protection issue. Tabloids routinely linked gay rights with paedophilia and the spreading of HIV – and they were all at it. In 1984 The Sun called gay rights "sick nonsense" and, two year later, The News of the World said Labour councils were encouraging AIDS by "telling children that homosexuals living together are as stable as married couples". In 1986, Tories handed out leaflets in Haringey that said: "You do not want your child to be educated to be a homosexual or lesbian" and "We do not believe in prejudicing young minds. AIDS is a killer." The Telegraph warned readers about "a deliberate attempt to molest the sexual education of children" (note the loaded use of "molest"), while The Times condemned the "malignant cause" of "extremists" promoting "sexual propaganda".

The message was clear: gay people were a threat to children.

Soon after, Section 28 was passed – which effectively banned the "promotion of homosexuality" in schools. The law was intentionally vague and frightened teachers out of even discussing homophobia, meaning that many failed to act when pupils – like me – suffered homophobic bullying. I spent ten years of my childhood being called a poofter every day. Section 28 became a symbol of homophobia and galvanised the gay rights movement until it was finally repealed in 2003. A couple of years ago, David Cameron even apologised for it, telling a gay pride rally, "We got it wrong." They really did. They all did.

But what, exactly, started all the media fear-mongering that lead to Section 28? Well, in 1983 The Mail got its knickers in a twist over "Jenny lives with Eric and Martin", a storybook about a girl who lives with her father and his boyfriend. Just like Peter Bone, bigots like Jill Knight were concerned that these educational materials could be accessed by "children as young as five or six". Because we can't possibly inform children about the existence of people we don't like...

Sadly, this is not the only way in which hateful history is repeating itself. On Saturday, The Mail launched a vicious attack on Mermaids, the UK's only charity for families with kids who are trans or questioning their gender. They do fantastic work and I wish my family had known about them back in the day. Gay charities were similarly targeted in the 80s and accused of corrupting impressionable young minds – right when gay kids needed support most. Matthew Todd describes growing up surrounded by media homophobia in his brilliant book Straight Jacket: How to be Gay and Happy: "On a sunny spring day in 1983, standing outside the school hall next to a peeling climbing frame, the biggest realisation of my life hit me like the sky crashing down: the way that I was different and these bad words I kept hearing were linked. Gay. Queer. Poof. Pansy. I suddenly understood: that was me. That was what I was." He was ten.

I'm deeply concerned that the press, emboldened by this post-Brexit atmosphere of normalised xenophobia, seems to be ramping up its attacks against trans people. So let's clear up some of their bullshit:

1. You can't force kids to change gender any more than you can force a child to be gay. Just like the imagined fears of "sick" homosexuals "recruiting" impressionable kids in the 80s, it's bullshit. From the age of four until I was 18, every single person I knew told me I couldn't be a girl. I'm a girl now. You simply cannot force people to be something they're not.

2. There is no such thing as a "child sex change" or "child sex change drugs". Genital reconstruction surgery isn't offered to trans people below the age of 18. In reality, people are generally forced to wait until they're much older for surgery. Puberty blockers delay puberty so that kids have time to think about what they want. Hormone blockers aren't sex change drugs at all. They are "Don't rush into anything, darling" drugs.

3. Why don't newspapers run headlines on the hundreds of people who took hormone blockers as teens and are now doing just fine as adults? If The Mail really cares about kids, they should write about the bullying, family rejection and mental health issues many gay and trans kids suffer. Study after study reveals that young trans people are highly vulnerable – 48 percent have attempted suicide in Britain. Not "thought about". Attempted. Why? Well, there is growing evidence that stigma is a major cause of poor mental health and morbidity. Stigma isn't just a bitch; it's a killer. I guess that song about sticks and stones got it wrong.

4. And could that, I wonder, be the very same sort of stigma whipped up by prejudicial media coverage??? The day after it reported the "fury" over Just a Girl, The Mirror ran a story about a 25-year-old trans woman who was hacked to death in Russia. Hacked. To. Fucking. Death. As The Mirror wrote: "The killing took place after the 25-year-old's father Alimshaikh Aliev had told a TV station: 'Let him be killed, I don't want to see him. Bring him here and kill him in front of my eyes.'" Do the journalists at The Mirror realise that the violence and family rejection many trans people still face is PRECISELY why educating people is so important?

5. Radical feminists who exclude trans people don't like being called Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, so I'll refer to them here as "wankers". Wankers keep lying on the news and saying that 80 percent of trans kids grow out of it at puberty. That statistic is false and based on bad science, as Brynn Tannehill explains here. It's one of many ways in which wankers exploit fabricated "debates" to spread dangerous misinformation that your average member of the public wouldn't even think to question. Much like their wild, paranoid claims that trans women are potential rapists, based on pure stereotype and zero evidence – but I digress.

READ: Why I Won't Shut Up About Sex Just Because I'm Trans

I'm going to end by throwing down a gauntlet to every journalist in Britain: find me one young adult who completed the blockers programme and then went on to transition who has a single regret about it. It's precisely the same way I ended a similar article for VICE two years ago. Blockers have been prescribed for precocious puberty since the 1970s and are completely safe. They've been prescribed to trans kids in the Netherlands for 30 years with 100 percent positive outcomes. If there were really any cases of young people who regretted it, the tabloids would have splashed them across every front page by now. Still, don't be shy if you've got evidence!

Schoolteacher Lucy Meadows took her own life in 2013. In the months before her suicide, The Mail's Richard Littlejohn bullied her and suggested she was not "suitable" as a teacher – because she was trans. Journalists hounded her for weeks. She was an innocent member of the public and much loved by her pupils. At her inquest, the coroner told the press, "Shame on you." Lawyer David Allen Green truly nailed it, though, when he tweeted that: "The way the tabloids treated Lucy Meadows is how they would treat anyone, if they could get away with it."

It is. They demonised gay people in the 80s and now they're doing it to trans folk. I invite gay people, Muslims, refugees – anyone who's been lied about and treated like shit by the press – and, indeed, all decent people to stand up for trans people, stand up to press bullies and take a stand for justice. Now more than ever we all need to pull together in solidarity. It may sound corny, but it's better than living in the right-wing mob rule nightmare we're currently headed towards.

We must not let them get away with it – again.

@ParisLees / @SptSam

UPDATE 15/11/16: A reference to David Batty "bending over backwards" to find transgender regretters was removed. A further reference to David Batty turning up "inconclusive cases" was also removed.

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