Why is the UK media so transphobic?
...Why wouldn't it be?
If you google ‘why is the UK media so anti-trans?’ around 8 big think pieces pop up with more or less that same title. I’m not sure any of them have quite pinned it down yet, as it’s still one of the first questions we get asked by trans people in the United States. To be honest, a better question might be: why wouldn’t the UK media be so anti-trans? Or, to put it another way, who exactly invented the current concept of gender and enforced it across the world? (It’s the British Empire btw). Shout out to Sophie Lewis, who clocked this back in February 2019.
We are going to make a distinction here: when we say Britain, we are talking about the British colonial project of its empire. When we say England, we are talking about a country which is the centre of the British colonial project. Britain as a country does not exist, and we do not wish to flatten the experiences of Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh people or assume the trans experience for people in those places.
The UK, the former seat of a vast colonial power which enforced anti-homosexuality laws, erased non-western gender expressions, and exported binary gender across the world, isn’t just going to sit back and let all that hard work go to waste as trannies invade water aerobics classes from Saffron Walden to Tunbridge Wells. It seems odd to us that people are shocked about the transphobia saturating England. It reeks of British Superiority to have any idea that things really should be better than they actually are, and better than who, exactly? This notion draws from an idea of British civility and common sense as defined by the ruling class, which are in themselves one of the main causes of England’s rampant transphobia. Being trans is an affront to agreed social decency. Gender transgression is a crime. More than that, it’s impolite.
We see in other writings that sceptics and Mumsnet are pointed to as roots of the TERF chokehold, these ideologies in turn originating from eugenics and white-supremacist science invented by the British ruling class and maintained by the middle class. We cannot talk about the presence of TERFs without talking about the English class system. The Karens of Mumsnet are a gender in themselves: a gender of whiteness, a gender of the absurd and rigid English class system. Transphobia is a sense-making process of gender for and by the upper middle classes. Transphobia, posing as feminism filtered through family values, is a perfect potion to split solidarity between the middle and working classes and push social conservatism.
While it does seem bizarre that the TERFs are still banging on about trans women during a global pandemic, this actually makes a lot of sense given their class position: it’s not like they’ve got anything more pressing to get on with. They will be working from home in their secure housing, either with salaried positions, or gleefully churning up outrage to get a few more extra freelance writing gigs, live-tweeting bigotry in the corner of a ZOOM conference call. Meanwhile many trans people are quarantined with unsupportive families, our surgeries cancelled and medications delayed.
England never got round to guillotining our aristocracy (they just married into the merchant class), and then Tony Blair tried to pretend everyone became middle class in 1997 (we didn’t). Every now and then, a survey will claim that there’s 7 classes now (and 100 genders!!!!! *froths at mouth*). I’m not sure how useful this is as a model, but it does explain the tendency of the English class system to link taste and morality to class. We are going to try and stick to a Marxist understanding of class because we want to flex on new knowledge gained from our trans discord das capital reading group (nearly finished chapter 1, comrades!). In England, as in the world, there is the working class who exchange their labour for a wage, the middle class who have claim to the means of production (ownership, being a landlord, employing other people, generational wealth etc.) and the ruling class controlling it all (those fuckers). England does a great job at both obscuring the material conditions of class and enforcing it through a complex matrix of codes and rituals which often masquerade as cultures, a situation which partly arises out of the bourgeois obsession to simulate the culture of the landed gentry. Safe to say, though, that the majority of people in England are working class because that’s, um, how capitalism works. If anything the ‘true’ middle class has shrunk and might better be defined as ‘class traitors’. There is, however, a certain truth to ‘social capital’ in the UK, in that ‘social capital’ has far less to do with intelligence and is rather just another vague asset that is difficult to obtain. Nowhere is this more apparent than in journalism.
The media landscape in England is an historic ally of the ruling class, mainly because almost all of the successful papers were founded by capitalists in the 1800s (the Guardian was founded by cotton merchants, the Times was set up by a coal merchant). Many self-styled left-wing UK commentators and journalists came up in the 80s and 90s during the time of Thatcher, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the birth of neoliberalism. They survived this era through their complicity in the destruction of the left wing of the Labour party: both in the media praise for the formation of the centrist Social Democratic Party formed to split votes from the ‘too left’ Michael Foot Labour party, and participation in the witchhunt and subsequent expulsion of the trotskyist Militant Tendency which had been a player in both the miner’s strike solidarity movement and the anti-poll tax movement. These voices gain authenticity by reminiscing about that one time they went to an Anti Nazi League demo, and that time they were working-class in 1972 when university was free and the dole was abundant. The ‘feminist’ voices from this era who now peddle transphobia in the press were given their platforms because they posed no real threat to the media-owning class. They are a safe, centrist, middle-class parody of leftism for faux-left liberal papers. Those feminists who did work in some ways against the state (e.g. Julie Bindel's campaigns to free survivors of domestic violence from prison) often found themselves naturally allied with right wing anti-government forces, and are now given platforms to spew conservative morals posing as feminism (e.g. Julie Bindel's pro-prison, anti sex work and anti trans stances) by more classically right wing papers.
Those who struggled up under neoliberalism entered journalism as it is more precarious, less well paid and yet harder to get into. They enter in an era after the Leveson Inquiry and ‘journalist’ being synonymous with scum. They enter, nonetheless, either through family connection, hacking away for years with rent paid by daddy, or if from more humble beginnings - adopting the voice of the middle classes to then in turn become a proxy of this class, even with a paltry paycheck: through those aforementioned trappings of prestige, faux-intellect, civility and honour which cloud the material base of English class and make it so hard for outsiders to decipher.
All the people who wrote articles about why UK media is transphobic are likely middle class - because pretty much everyone in UK media is at a minimum middle class - which is why the class dynamic of transphobia doesn’t always get the investigation it needs. The middle classes absorb transphobic ‘common sense’ as much as men absorb how to hate women, although we don’t question how men know how to hate women, and we still seem to question how the middle class can hate trans people. There are attempts to seperate transphobia from other bigotries, as if it doesn't stem from the same source as homophobia, or racism - an ownership by a group of people over specific bodies and what they are allowed to do. As Juliet Jacques pointed out in her article on the subject, transphobia is an acceptably genteel form of bigotry. In fact the very idea and image of both transphobia and transness have been gentrified.
Transness has gone from something written about ludely in the Sun, to the Trans Tipping Point, to a backlash. For what is visibility except the process of being recognised by power, categorised, and what then? Sometimes power doesn’t like what it sees. Power is struggling with the decision to assimilate or exterminate trans people, and it’s easy enough to guess which trans people will get which option. The ‘trans voices’ that have any illusion of power fit easily within the UK media landscape. They too are from a specific class, white, professional and with the right kind of flexible moderate politics (if they want to keep their jobs), a few ‘exceptional' people of colour sprinkled in. This is largely applicable to any member of an oppressed group chosen to be a representative by those in power, and we can see how it does not really protect them. Trans people in media are exceptionalised either as tragic voiceless victims (suicide stats) as reactionary figureheads, or as platitude spouting celebrities platformed to solidify ideas of what a trans person is (trans influencers who rarely talk about material conditions beyond pronouns). Visibility was an experiment to see if trans people would be useful to capital, and now that we're out there are many who'd rather we go back into the shadows or die. They will point to the seemingly sudden burst of inclusion as evidence that we're taking over, and that we really need to be taken down a peg or two. It is useful to develop an equilibrium which keeps trans people floating in the privileged/abject contradiction space, because we are both neutralised by the threat of death and utilised as a sign to point towards the progressive nature of our democracy. It’s also useful, in an uncertain industry leaning towards content generation, to generate outrage as a valuable commodity. Hence, as outlined in CN Lester’s Trans Like Me, we get a weekly trans panic followed by flippantly framed and piecemeal trans visibility, followed by more trans panic, hence, sabotage Labour so the Guardian et al get to be the #resistance during another Tory government. Terfdom is championed by the same liberal centrist white feminists who, in the States, would be Team Warren, saying trans rights, saying Bernie Sanders yells, saying healthcare for some. This is why it is necessary to understand how transphobia has become such a widespread accepted bigotry, because the very same tactics can easily be used in other places too.
The UK media made us famous, then started the pile on - just like they do with all their once favoured celebrities. There is, it must be said, a predictable English bitterness to it all: a small mindedness that the media tries to keep us in, a sense of resentment that leads to calling the cops on joggers. This snideness is aspirational. It's allying yourself with the winning team.
The trans backlash doubles as a useful slander against feminism. It’s an attack on and an erasure of trans-inclusive grassroots feminist organisations like Sisters Uncut and Women’s Strike who fight for material demands such as expanding the domestic violence support and women’s shelters that TERF organisations try to block trans women from using. The TERFs are fighting a turf war to grab back the label of feminism from those working class, black, brown, trans, queer, disabled and migrant women doing the actual work: those who see the feminism in worker’s rights and the fight against austerity, those who talk about issues that affect women worst but also the not-women of the working class too. The repeat platforming of TERFs is just the governement, the capitalists they serve, and the far-right funders getting a group of white middle-class academic cis women to do their dirty work for them in exchange for a few scraps from the table in the form of tenures, columns, slots on Question Time, roles on the boards of charitable trusts. The dirty work of gender policing, but also the dirty work of suppressing and containing feminism in the hands of a toxic few lest it slip out and contaminate the proles.
It’s hardly the first time this class of white women have sold out their movement in order to block the rights of a more marginalised group. It's much more helpful to recognise this transphobia as systemic and something we've seen before, than as a weird conspiracy - a freaky side effect of Mumsnet use, something that’s been put in the water supplies of the Home Counties. When we analyse the material conditions which caused this it all makes a lot of sense, and part of terfery’s aim is to confuse us to the point where we fall into their logic (again a very English cultural thing that far predates ‘fake news’ - this is the colonial project that invented The White Man’s Burden, remember). It’s senseless to see transphobia as the sole preserve of ‘TERFs’, which is what TERFs want - in order to maintain branding - and what the mostly men in power want - to avoid accountability. To imagine that a niche offshoot of second wave radical feminists invented the idea of the predatory man in a dress ignores how deeply ingrained this trope is in English society, which is how TERFs were able to exploit people’s fears to gain traction. They adapted a classic and ran with it.
Everyone is transphobic, as they are racist and so on, because they are conditioned to be so - people think that trans people (especially trans women) are a bit freaky and weird. It's no deeper than that, but TERFs have to pretend it is in order to form a politics around it, and they are given a platform to do so in order to make other transphobes feel justified in their squicky feelings. Middle-class people can't admit to base desires and feelings, far less the sickness of bigotry running through the heart of English culture, so they have to tie their bigotry to rationality.
Tbh being trans is a bit weird - we both had to admit that and then get over it in order to discover our identities. Transness is an otherness in our capitalist society, but we don’t get to really talk about that from any kind of public platform. We are trapped arguing in the middle class logic of the media for a validity that some of us don’t even subscribe to, so that we can convince the general public that TERFs, chasers and parents shouldn’t be allowed to kill us. They will never let us have a real voice on their contemporary freak shows. At least as the bearded lady we got some respect. There's no rehabilitation for this media and we should divest, as many trans people have done already. Divest, not just as a simplistic boycott of the Guardian but as a complete rejection of its logic. If this seems difficult or unappealing, I posit that our inclusion was never real to begin with and the trans people we really need to hear from were never given a seat at the table.
The noise from the press is made to isolate trans people, to make us feel like deviants and freaks because when many of us are first coming to terms with our transness that's already how we feel. It's also made to confuse cis people as to what a trans person actually is, convince them that they could never be trans, and generate hostility. This content is churned out to stop us coming out, and if we are out it wants to make us die: either from suicide, from poverty or from transphobic violence. It is cynical and purposeful. But if we are brave enough to seek out small pockets of community, we can find so much support and solidarity from our siblings. The NHS wait feels insurmountable and gatekeeping doctors scare many trans people even off the list, but amongst our community medication is shared, and self medding tips given. Many trans people in the UK know far more about which t blockers work how, and what amount of estrogen you want to take than our doctors do. It feels hard, but it can allow a certain level of self sustainability and autonomy to grow which is best practise for a trans liberation that cannot rely on any state or corporation to save us. The media is one small part of a greater system that runs from denying trans people the right to self identify to a broken healthcare system that drives us to self-med. End the media, end the system itself.