13/12/2015 19:55 GMT | Updated 14/12/2016 05:12 GMT

The Media Must Ensure It Reflects the Full Diversity of Trans People


For many years before 2011, British broadcasters covered trans people as if they were earnest (and often slightly sad) scientific experiments or, more often, as targets of comedy. The British press was usually harsher, with trans as deviant, trans as undeserving or trans as comedy being the three main themes. Trans people were regularly outed "in the public interest" even if they were only lorry drivers or police officers. Trans people had learnt to distrust the media.

For a long time the media was fascinated by the transition narrative, meaning that the only trans people it covered were those who were about to or who had just transitioned. This ensured that the trans-ness of an individual became the primary newsworthy aspect of them, and also reinforced the flawed idea that trans was all about transition.

In 2010, I was involved in the creation of Trans Media Watch, a charity that aimed to work with the media to report trans and intersex issues with accuracy, dignity and respect. The three keywords indicate that we felt that, at the time, all were in short supply. We quickly found some open ears at Channel 4.

Their 2011 series My Transsexual Summer was the first time that trans people had spoken for themselves for quite a while. After the first stereotypical episode focusing on surgery got out of the way, viewers were treated to a ring-side view of the challenges facing trans people in their everyday lives: going to the pub, going shopping, getting a job or a flat - or, more accurately, not getting a job or a flat.

But then the media largely returned to type. It was shocked out of complacency firstly when Lord Justice Leveson was writing his report, then over outrage regarding a Julie Burchill piece and grief over the death of Lucy Meadows.

There is no doubt that Caitlyn Jenner's announcement of her transition in March 2015 was a substantial factor in changing the recent media narrative around trans and intersex people. Since Jenner, and the subsequent UK Parliamentary inquiry into trans rights, the media is starting to understand and relay the difficulties some trans people face, and also starting to understand the complexities behind the simple label of "trans".

Since its inception TMW has promoted making simply "being trans" incidental to stories, and we were pleased to see a government minister (Ed Vaizey MP) agreeing with this approach in front of the Parliamentary Inquiry. While visibility is important, that's very different to being subjected to the full glare of the media's focus.

In recent weeks we have had discussion about the shortage of appropriate treatment under the NHS, augmented by Jess Phillips MP's marvellous question "I wonder if you could tell me, clinically, what living like a woman or, alternatively, a man actually means"; outrage over trans women placed into men's prisons and then shock at the predictable result, sadly repeated again at the beginning of December; and shame over Germaine Greer's views on trans women. None of these were new issues for trans campaigners, but the media spotlight is now shining on them with some intensity for the first time.

The next challenge for the media will be to ensure that the full diversity of trans people (as well as intersex and non-binary people) is reflected in the media - that "being trans" doesn't get

shoehorned into one or two standard narratives. There's a danger that, in their busy-ness, journalists and editors will still rely on lazy and inaccurate tropes.

So, my summary of media coverage - some good progress and encouraging signs over recent months, with some occasional hiccups, but care is still needed for the future.