Getting down with The Guardian

The Guardian has suddenly started to cover trans issues on a regular basis. A quick peek at their archives shows a massive increase in articles which profile trans people or explore trans issues: we’re talking about an article every few days as opposed to one every month or two or – before 2009 – one or two per year.

It does make me wonder what’s sparked this. It can’t be a coincidence: there must have been some decision amongst editors to commission more pieces on trans issues and report trans news stories more often. It seems likely that this trend has been deliberately planned to tie in with Juliet Jacques’ excellent series of articles about transition, but that itself wouldn’t be a root cause. Maybe it’s a response to the growing contributions of openly trans people within the Guardian’s comment threads (such as Natacha Kennedy, who has had the opportunity to write a number of fine articles herself). Maybe it’s a deliberate move away from offering a platform to transphobic voices from within the feminist movement, although I’m sure we’ll see another horrific article from Julie Bindel again at some point.

Still, I’m happy to see this spate of trans-friendly articles, regardless of how it happened to come about. The Guardian is well-known for its centre-left approach but hasn’t always portrayed trans issues in the most positive light (see: aforementioned voices from within the feminist movement!). The newspaper’s website is widely-read, so it’s a great way to reach out to people who otherwise might not come across decent articles about trans people.

The problem is…well, the problems are basically many of those I outlined in my previous entry. Where’s the diversity? What we’ve got is a series of excellent articles by and about white trans women (except this one by none other than…Stephen Whittle, who seems to unintentionally vie with Thomas Beatie for the crown of the One Trans Man In The World). Where are the trans men, the non-white trans people, the cross-dressers, the genderqueers, the androgynes? I’m not asking for diversity for the sake of diversity: it’s just that this current level of homogeneity really is somewhat bizarre.

To be fair to The Guardian, it hasn’t been actively erasing the accounts of those it offers a platform to, so kudos to them for going against the trend and allowing individuals such as lesbian goth comedian Bethany Black to tell her story. Moreover, Juliet Jacques has been doing an impressive job of slipping in references to non-binary identities, referencing trans feminism and rubbishing the typical idea that trans people aim to “deceive” others by trying to pass. Still, this particular piece has been coupled with the picture of a woman applying make-up, and there are articles appearing in which terms like “sex change” are thrown about and transsexed people’s old names are mentioned as a matter of course.

What we’re seeing then is a strange mixture of some genuinely progressive pieces alongside the same old transphobic tropes. It seems likely that comments and complaints from trans readers have got us this far…who knows where we might end up if we keep pushing and they keep listening?

12 thoughts on “Getting down with The Guardian

  1. Reading the comments about each article though is enough to bring me to tears…

    Same old tansphobic BS, quite a bit of Trannier than thou, ect.

    It’s an odd mix, but an interesting mix. Maybe they’ve got a clue, maybe they’ve realised they can’t let one of their contributors rant and rave about transsexuals unapposed.

    Maybe they’ve been bought out by a secrect cabal of transgender cultists seeking to de-cis-ify the world. 😛

  2. I think there’s another thing to be noted probably. I think a greater number of media savvy trans people (including trans journalists) have started going to the Guardian for work and stories to tell. One who does the odd story has been followed by the other who does semi regular stuff, has been followed by 2 or three more with varying output. Sometimes getting out there and pitching copy to editors works, and regardless of the Guardian’s ties to certain reactionary feminists (Burchill previously, Bindel, Greer, Sheila Jeffries occasionally), they’ve still got room for other Copy They Think People’ll Read.

    It may not be a particularly political decision. Although it is probably a good thing nonetheless.

  3. I stumbled across this article a week or two and found it very interesting (not to mention flattering!).

    Just to explain a bit about how the Transgender Journey blog came about: I contacted the (then) editor of the Life & Style section, Rachel Dixon, proposing to document my journey, starting with the intellectual/social process that led me to visit my GP and ask to enter the NHS pathway.

    This was met enthusiastically and in a brief email exchange, Rachel suggested placing the blog alongside other articles and general info about transgenderism – I should emphasise here that at no point did either of us discuss the paper/website’s previous record on trans issues, nor any reader response to it. Rachel stated that she’d like this ‘to be a good resource for the transgender community, and to raise awareness’ – precisely the reason why I proposed it to her.

    She also said that while she would research other trans writers to feature alongside me, it would help if I suggested contributors, and all the trans authors who’ve featured thus far have been put forward by me – although the nature of their articles has been formulated between them and commissioners at The Guardian (not necessarily Rachel). Again, for the record, I should state that throughout, I’ve been

    As for the point about diversity: it has been noted, and I’m continuing to liaise with The Guardian about other trans contributors to go alongside future blog pieces. Since reading this article, I’ve put forward two trans men, one of whom is from a non-white background: I won’t divulge their names as they’re not confirmed as yet (and besides, it would spoil the surprise!) but your point is a valid one.

    Of course there are wider sociological reasons why the trans voices you’re hearing at this point are mostly white, middle-class, male-to-female voices: the ‘white’ and ‘middle-class’ because of the extra pressures and difficulties people outside of those groups face in formulating their voices and negotiating the structures necessary to get them heard, and ‘male-to-female’ because – rightly or wrongly – that grabs a lot more attention amongst the wider (cisgender) public.

    Hopefully we can start to change that, but it’s a long process – it’s really only now that trans people are being allowed to discuss their own experiences from their own viewpoint in mainstream media contexts, counter-acting the way in which cisgender people dehumanise us in their theories of gender in these mainstream contexts, after years of discussing the need to do so in our own publications. (I’ll be covering this issue of the gradual move of the trans debate into the mainstream in a podcast soon – keep your ears open!)

    As for the comments, they’ve been fascinating too. Rachel emailed me the day before the first episode of A Transgender Journey ran saying “Do you want the Comments to be open?” This was tough: I didn’t have long to think about it (and I was busy all day) so briefly discussed it with a friend and said Yes. Which was definitely the right decision.

    I’ve seen some Internet discussions of the blog criticise the nature of the comments, and had people ask me if anything in the comments has upset me personally – actually I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the level of support and of intelligent criticism/debate in the comments, and being well versed in theoretical arguments about trans issues (from Janice Raymond to Julia Serano), I’ve not seen any argument put forward on there that I’ve not encountered before. I think it’s important that these arguments are played out in a mainstream context – they’ve featured in the comments on Greer, Bindel etc but I think it’s crucial that they’re discussed again, this time prompted/informed by a transgender perspective.

    To return to an earlier point and round up, the only time I’ve been asked to significantly edit a piece was the second one, on finding a trans counter-culture (http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/jun/16/transgender-journey-trans-counter-culture). Originally I included some quite explicit theory about rifts within the LGBT community (particularly between the trans community and Stonewall) and was asked to make the piece less theoretical and more personal.

    Initially, this annoyed me: but the piece worked more better without the explicit theory – and it challenged me to find a way to show how the theoretical issues informed my thoughts and life choices – and I ended up with a much tighter, livelier piece.

    And actually, writing a highly personal set of articles is, politically speaking, the best thing I could have done: feminist/other opponents of transgender people have (as stated above) tended to reduce us to stereotypes and caricatures, ignoring our human experiences, knowing full well that this is the most effective way to make people hate us.

    Now, there are issues with this – the sad story of Mike Penner/Christine Daniels illustrates the pitfalls of publicly airing the intensely personal very well (http://www.laweekly.com/2010-08-19/news/mike-penner-christine-daniels-a-tragic-love-story/) – but nonetheless I consider it a genuinely important, if not radical act. I won’t say any more, though, as I don’t want to pre-empt a future blog piece too much!

    Finally (!) I just want to say thanks again for the feedback. People are always welcome to get in touch via Twitter (@julietjacques) or Facebook. The Guardian will soon be publishing a list of online trans resources that I’ve compiled for them: I’d be really pleased if you were to mention this blog in the open Comments section.

    J x

    • Yeah, that’s a good point – I’ve noticed a lot of activity from Trans Media Watch in recent months, so awesome work there. I occasionally check the Facebook group but unfortunately don’t have the time to get heavily involved myself.

  4. By the way, I should point out that pitching the blog to The Guardian was the idea of my good friend Joe Stretch – it hadn’t occurred to me at all (perhaps because I didn’t have such distance from my life to see this potential).

    Joe knew very little of the paper’s previous record on trans issues (he’s not trans, and for nearly all of the time I’ve been actively exploring transgenderism, either theoretically or practically, we’ve lived in different cities) but it just struck him as a really good idea – I think his exact words were “They’ll bite your hand off”!

    Perhaps shamelessly, I’m going to recommend that you read his novels, ‘Friction’ and ‘Wild Life’ (and his account of a day with the Ladyboys of Bangkok) – it’s the last I can do to thank him!

    @JJ: Trans Media Watch is indeed an invaluable project. I don’t know what dealings they’ve had with anyone in the Guardian’s editorial team, but as my blog came about quickly and organically, with the initial approach coming from my end, I’m not sure we’d necessarily have contacted the same people. Perhaps TMW could let us know?

    • Hi Juliet!

      Apologies for not replying sooner – I’ve been ridiculously busy recently.

      Thanks for the extensive response, I found it really interesting to read. I agree that the comment threads are a really positive thing to have in a place where more people are likely to read them – like you say, the issues are really familiar to us, but new to a lot of people. It’s a fantastic opportunity to educate others and share experiences.

      Much as I disagree with some of the stuff said by other trans individuals in the comment threads, it’s probably also positive to have a bunch of trans people having a debate within a public forum – what better way to demonstrate how diverse our opinions and approaches are?

  5. We at Trans Media Watch opened dialogue with the Guardian last year. We discussed a number of issues including those involving people outside the gender binary. A lot of our early work actually focused on the Caster Semenya case as we felt Ms Semenya was the victim of what were essentially transphobic slurs, and of confusion between sex and gender. The Guardian agreed to stop using the word ‘hermaphrodite’ in favour of ‘intersex’, and noted a general willingness to improve its representation of trans and intersex people.

    As some of you have noted above, this commitment hasn’t led to the paper getting everything right. We still have to pull them up on issues relating to problematic language. ‘Sex change’ is a term regarding which they are dragging their heels. Despite this, we’re pleased with the way their overall coverage has changed and with the way it has helped to normalise trans people and issues from the public’s perspective.

    As I understand it, Juliet’s column came about independently of all this because other staff at the paper were concerned that it might be providing insufficient coverage of trans issues. We were informed about it at an early stage and invited to comment. We have been very pleased by how well received it has been. Juliet, I agree that opening up the comments was the right decision, and I commend you for your bravery in doing so.

    Trans Media Watch is always looking for volunteers, so if you would like to help us in our work, please visit the website – http://www.transmediawatch.org.uk – and get in touch.

    • I’m busy as heck right now, but will happily write a quick post in a bit to pass on that call for volunteers.

  6. Pingback: Juliet Jacques: 'I was nervous about publishing intimate, traumatic moments' | Newslair

  7. Pingback: Juliet Jacques: 'I was nervous about publishing intimate, traumatic moments' - Online Afric

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