Today there’s a piece by me on the trans moral panic of 2017 in The Conversation. You can read that article here, as well as an interview with me on the same topic in The Independent here. I’ve also included a longer version of the same argument, with more detail and links, below…
Three years ago 2014 was hailed ‘the transgender tipping point’. The American Psychiatric Association had just changed their category of ‘Gender Identity Disorder’ to ‘Gender Dysphoria’ removing much of the stigma of mental illness which had been attached to being trans. Trans actors finally played trans characters in popular shows like Transparent and Orange is the New Black, moving away from old tragic/evil stereotypes. Laverne Cox made the cover of Time Magazine and Janet Mock’s memoir Redefining Realness became a New York Times bestseller. The first trans pride march in Europe took place. Two major non-binary websites appeared, recognising the many trans people who don’t experience themselves as men or women. The Facebook ‘gender revolution’ offered over fifty possible gender identity categories, as well as a gender neutral ‘they’ pronoun option. Trans was becoming more visible and better understood.
If 2014 was the year of the transgender tipping point, then 2017 was surely the year of the transgender moral panic. Earlier this year each month brought a new story: we had two BBC documentaries, Trump’s attempted ban on trans people in the military, moves towards gender neutral school uniforms, bathroom bills in the US, Piers Morgan’s repeated dismissal of non-binary gender, and many more. Trans communities had only just dealt with the impact of one report when the next one hit.
However the last few months of the year made the rest of 2017 feel relatively spacious. There were trans-related headlines virtually every day, and even several days when one paper published two or three separate articles on the topic. The reports also became increasingly negative.
One reason for this media onslaught is the coming revision of the Gender Recognition Act. Currently trans people who want to be legally recognised in their gender have to pay to submit paperwork – including a medical diagnosis – to a committee who make that decision. The proposed changes – in line with several other countries – would allow people to self-determine their gender, de-medicalising the process, and hopefully making it possible for non-binary people as well as for men and women.
As a trans person myself I’ve noticed the impact of this tsunami of negative press on my own mental health, so I’m deeply concerned about the toll it’s taken on younger trans folk who already have alarmingly high levels of distress and suicidal thoughts. This moral panic will likely bolster existing high levels of trans-related bullying, which eight out of ten of young trans people experience, with one in ten receiving death threats. I also fear a background of heightened cultural transphobia as article after article across broadsheets and tabloids alike give the sense that there are sensible reasons to be concerned about trans people.
Is this a moral panic?
There are many reasons to label this current wave of trans-negative media a moral panic: a process where social concern is aroused over an issue by mass media and others. These include:
- The scattergun nature of the content. There’s no one coherent narrative here which could be sensibly discussed, but rather multiple concerns which become unhelpfully intertwined, such as the treatment of trans and gender-questioning kids, trans people as perpetrators – rather than victims – of violence, the changing nature of gendered language, access to rape and domestic violence services, and whether boys should be allowed to wear clothing currently associated with girls. When you trace back the history of the stories, several turn out to be years old rather than current ‘news’, or based on wilful misinterpretation of what somebody has said.
- The contradictory nature of the concerns. Trans people are currently being blamed both for dismantling the current gender system and for reinforcing it. Trans-related media calls for both the relaxing and tightening of gender roles for children. Trans women’s status as women is questioned due to their biology in some pieces and their socialisation in others.
- The misinformation within the reporting. One of the most concerning features of the media onslaught is the staggering lack of fact-checking that’s going on. For example, many pundits – who should know better – expressed anxiety around young people being given hormones and surgeries when even a cursory online search would inform them this never happens on the NHS. The most adolescents are given are blockers to pause puberty until they reach the age of consent, and even this is relatively rare and only done after full consideration by a multidisciplinary team. Similarly the ludicrously unsubstantiated claim that a large proportion of convicted sex offenders are trans was gleefully reported with zero critical evaluation, as are amplified statistics about people regretting surgeries.
- The similarity of the current panic to past panics. Several people have pointed out how similar this wave of reporting is to the media treatment of gay men back in the 1980s during the AIDS epidemic and the introduction of Section 28 – which banned teaching about sexual diversity in schools. Gay men then, like trans people now, were branded as paedophiles, and any mention of homosexuality was regarded as having the potential to turn children gay, just as there is now a concern that young people will be ‘turned trans’ by ‘social contagion’ if they learn about gender diversity.
- The lack of positive news stories or inclusion of trans experts. There are so many positive trans-related stories we could be hearing about, and so many wise, knowledgeable, and engaging trans experts we could be hearing from, so why this huge skew to the negative and the focus on celebrities with no expertise or experience around trans issues?
Why the moral panic?
I suspect, as with anything, there are multiple complex reasons behind this moral panic. Certainly the current uncomfortable alliance between some men’s rights activists, some feminists, some religious spokespeople, and various left and right wing campaigners and journalists, suggests a plethora of motivations which could usefully be explored. For now I’ll focus on one reason which may underlie much of what’s going on.
This reason occurred to me when comparing reporting around trans and intersex issues. We hear a huge amount about the former and relatively little about the latter, despite the similar numbers of people in each group. If a major concern about trans is really that children might be subject to non-consensual irreversible surgeries, then why are the same commentators not making serious noise about the continued medical treatment of intersex children? Many intersex people are operated on as babies in ways that are medically unnecessary and frequently lead to adverse effects such as the impairment of sexual sensation in later life, not to mention the potential impact of such early trauma which is often kept a secret from the person concerned.
One reason that springs to my mind for the silence around intersex surgeries, and the deafening roar around trans surgeries, is that the concern is not about physical interventions, nor is it about irreversibility, nor is it about capacity to consent. It’s about normativity. Genital surgeries take intersex babies closer to our current gender norm of two and only two genders which remain fixed throughout life, whereas surgeries on trans people potentially take them away from it.
One key outcome of the moral panic is that it helpfully distracts our attention from this current gender system which we’re all implicated in, and which is bad for everybody whether trans or cisgender, whether intersex or not, and whether woman, man, or non-binary.
We don’t need to look far for evidence of this: it’s been all around us all year as well. The BBC documentary No More Boys and Girls demonstrated the distressing impact of rigid binary gender roles on kids. Viewers saw how seven-year-old girls virtually all aspired to grow up to be nothing but ‘pretty’. Boys lacked the capacity to express – or even find words for – emotions other than anger. All the kids agreed that boys were obviously ‘better’ than girls. When I tweeted about this show, many respondents accused it of ‘social engineering’ or ‘child abuse’ in endeavouring to shift such gender stereotypes. But how are those phrases any less applicable to the current situation of rigidly enforced gender roles?
Earlier this year Robert Webb’s memoir How Not to be a Boy helpfully drew attention to the troubling impact of norms of masculinity on the wellbeing of boys and men, a group with a frighteningly high suicide rate. The current gender system can also be implicated in continued pay inequalities between men and women. The acceptance of toxic gender roles and a ‘boys will be boys’ mentality are a huge part of the cultural normalising of sexual harassment and violence which the recent #metoo campaign so helpfully highlighted.
Shifting the conversation
The conversation I believe we need to be having about gender is one which encourages everyone – young people included – to critically engage with current cultural stereotypes and media representations. This involves opening up our understanding of gender diversity rather than closing it down.
I’m in agreement with those who argue against the replacement of one rigid gender system with another which is equally rigid: for example one in which we assume that any kid who doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes must be a trans man or woman and must therefore follow one of only two very specific pathways of hormones and surgeries. However it cannot be emphasised enough that this is not what any gender-affirmative practitioners, activists, or educators I’m aware of are trying to do. Rather we’re endeavouring to open up understandings so that everybody can find more comfortable, consensual ways to be in relation to gender.
We want girls and boys to be free to express their genders however best fits them, without bullying or coercion, and for that to be able change over time – as it inevitably does for all of us. We want the third or so of people who experience themselves as to some extent between or beyond the gender binary to be able to identify and express that in whatever way feels right. And we want those people – trans and cisgender – for whom some form of social or physical gender-related change will vastly improve their physical and/or mental health to be able to follow whichever pathway suits them in well-informed, well-supported, and consensual ways.
Let’s make 2018 a year when, instead of attacking trans and non-binary people, we listen to what they have to teach us: about the way gender works in our culture; about the diversity of possible identities, expressions and experiences; and about how shifting rigid social scripts and policies can improve things for everybody. Let’s make it a year when we return to celebrating trans voices – as we began to do in 2014 – instead of dismissing them: I’ve listed just some of the amazing people, groups, and projects we could be celebrating and learning from in below.
All the ideas in this article are explored, in more depth, in my book with Alex Iantaffi: How to Understand Your Gender (a book aimed at everybody). If you’re a practitioner of any kind, you might find my Gender, Sexual and Relationship Diversity BACP resource helpful as an overview of how gender works, and how to work with gender (and other) diverse people: GSRD resource
Find out more…
For guidance and support about covering trans in the media, check out:
There have been many other excellent publications, performances, and events on this topic in the last year or so. Here are just a few of my favourites.
- Trans Like Me – CN Lester
- Before (I) You Step Outside. (Love) (Me) – Travis Alabanza
- Trans Britain – Christine Burns edited collection
- Brown, trans, queer, Muslim and proud – Sabah Choudrey
- Trans: A Memoir – Juliet Jacques
- Man Alive – Thomas Page McBee
- Transpose (ongoing event)
- Trans Pride
- My Genderation films
- I am They film – Fox Fisher and Owl
For more information check out these websites:
- Gendered Intelligence
- Gender construction kit
- Tranz wiki
- Beyond the Binary
- Non-Binary Inclusion Project
If you want to improve things for trans people in your workplace, then this is an excellent book: