Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Debating my right to exist

Newsnight and Woman's Hour, two BBC stalwart programmes have, in the last seven days, let down trans people badly. Their idea of 'balance' appears to be to let someone who is transphobic, to the extent that they oppose trans people's right to exist, debate with someone who is transgender. This seems to be such a simplistic concept of "balance" that it is almost one for Toytown.

Perhaps, if we put it in context; would they invite a homophobe onto Newnight to debate with a gay man, or a lesbophobe onto Women's Hour to debate with a lesbian? If Michael Cashman or Seb Dance were interviewed would they invite the Westboro Baptist Church along for "balance"? Would they suggest that every time a black or Asian person gets into the news, any feature about them should include a member of the BNP?

The format used by Women's Hour is now familiar fare for the BBC; fanatical transphobe Sheila Jeffreys was effectively allowed to ambush a trans woman, to set the agenda, get all her points across with no intervention from the presenter. A similar thing happened when Julie Burchill ambushed Paris Lees, whose calm and reasoned defence, in this instance, resulted in Burchill throwing her toys out of the pram and hanging up the phone. This isn't "balanced" reporting it is the modern equivalent of throwing Christians to the lions in ancient Rome.

Most of what we know we have never learned from personal experience. We only know what we know from books, the internet or the media. In a recent survey only 13% of the UK population said they were acquainted, in any way, with a trans person. as such it is important that trans people are fairly represented in the media; the media is the only way most people will ever get to learn about trans people. That is why the games Newsnight and Woman's Hour are playing are dangerous and that is why it is important that they are taken to task about them.

The desire, on the part of editors to set up a dramatic clashing argument with fur flying may make for a gripping few minutes of entertainment but it fails to educate anyone about the issues. It is as if these programmes now consider themselves to be entertainment like dramas or soap operas, rather than current affairs programmes. Well I'm not prepared to allow my life to be treated as entertainment by programmes that are supposed to educate and inform. Trans people are people, not your entertainment, not your performing seals. We are not here to be some relief from "serious" news articles about Iraq.

Trans people have to live with abuse from trans haters like Jeffreys all the time. Dealing with the abuse, harassment and emotional violence transphobes cause to us is difficult at the best of times, having to do it live on radio or TV can only be described as torture. Putting people through that sort of mental stress is both unfair and unacceptable. The BBC needs to start taking its responsibilities to trans people seriously firstly by properly training all its staff in trans diversity issues and then not giving the equivalents of the Westboro Baptists Church or the BNP the right to argue with us about our right to exist.

1 comment:

  1. One of the wrinkles is that the 'other' view that Newsnight invited on to the programme was herself a transwoman (I gather). Though there is an ongoing issue with the BBC here - the belief in the moral equivalence of all views without any sort of compass. But who sets the compass? That's the issue they run in fear from - frightened of causing offense all the time, and thus causing more. That's why they had that horrific guy from the Christian Institute on to be the 'counter' to the Elton/David adoption story etc. Someone who, I understand, had called for 'gays to be executed'. That was one of the most jaw dropping moments of tv in recent times.

    This is particular issue is a profoundly difficult one, and I see the pain people have been, and are being, caused. I have been on the end of it too. But there's a problem. It's clarifying the line that divides legitimate debate from abuse. Burchill is in my view an adolescent self publicist who trades in polemical abuse. Some may feel they can engage with her though? Jeffreys is, in my view an unreconstructed nightmare who tries to deny me the right to even exist. In my view, there's no point discussing with them - until there is real evidence that they are prepared to operate in a genuinely discursive space, mutually consented to. Neither will, in effect, do that.

    But there are others out there. Not everybody is a Jeffreys or a Burchill. In fact plenty aren't, despite the increasingly (and worryingly) simple characterisation of them. I have no idea what the interlocutor on Newsnight would have said, because it didn't happen. I do however think that the only way that anything can really change is through debate and through conversation. This is what Trans Media Watch and now All About Trans have been doing with the media - after years of us just refusing to 'sleep with the enemy'. Sure they are not looking for 'haters', and would try and avoid those who are actively hostile...but they are being brave and trying to engage - believing in the possibilities of that. AAT has been into The Sun (Paris even writes for it now) and The Daily Mail - a few years ago such things would have been literally unthinkable.

    My line in the sand on this is, to be clear, around abuse. Burchill is profoundly abusive. So you can put your view, and I will listen, but you must listen to me in good faith too and without trying to call into question my basic right to exist or to define myself. If you cross this line, it ends. Right there. It's interesting how far you can get if you define some ground rules?

    In other words, I would never, ever, take the stage with the Westboro Baptists. But not everybody is the Westboro Baptists. I have had conversations with some who are seen as TERFs (btw there are unquestionably some very unpleasant RadFem views out there, and some genuine hate - on both sides I'd add, some trans people are completely out of control in how they are dishing it out including threats of violence too, and we absolutely need to face up to that) in which I have NOT had my right to exist called into question, nor my right to define myself as female actually. We'll see if they subsequently do - but until then I will try and hang in there.

    With respect to tv appearances...should anyone ask me into a tv studio (!), I suspect my take might be to put some ground rules in place, and if these were ignored, or if I suffered abuse, to simply walk off the set. Not theatrically, angrily, but quietly and purposefully. Or perhaps to continue the rest of the piece in complete silence?