The media was one of the institutions identified in the UK government’s 2016 report, ‘Transgender Equality’, as having culpability for perpetuating transphobic prejudice – along with marriage, sport, schools, prisons and healthcare. The Women and Equalities Select Committee called for greater regulation of the way transgender people are portrayed in the media and on-line; for it to made easier for people to complain when they feel this treatment is biased or distasteful; and for complainants to feel as if the issues they raise are taken seriously. An overview of the media over the last half-decade, however, reveals a disparity in the way transgender people from different backgrounds are treated and portrayed: whilst ordinary transgender folk are demonised as outcasts and weirdos, transgender celebrities are steeped in adoration and awe. In this posting, I subject this discrepancy to the further exploration I think it warrants. Oh – and I also reveal what connects Caitlyn Jenner with the South Dakota Bathroom Bill.
The attention paid to transgender people by the media falls into two contradictory categories. On the one hand, there is a lurid fascination with people’s habits and peccadilloes that manifests itself as a captivated revulsion from the lifestyles of members of the transgender community; an outspoken, taken-for-granted disapproval of the effect someone’s transition has had on the lives of their colleagues, families and friends. Simultaneously, however, an hysterical, star-struck adoration of transgender celebrities exists side-by-side with this urge towards judgemental puritanism. Whilst ordinary transgender people are censured and condemned, the popular press can barely satisfy its vicarious addiction to glamour and red-carpet walking sexuality. At the same time as right-wing commentators are hounding transsexuals away from their families and out of their jobs, gossip columnists maintain a feverish, unsavoury obsession with what Caitlyn Jenner is wearing on the cover of Vanity Fair, or which designer made the frock that Laverne Cox had on at yesterday’s Emmy Awards dinner. The two types of coverage are utterly incompatible, but both do their own unique brand of damage to media-consumers’ perceptions of – and attitudes towards – the transgender population.
Thirty-two year-old Nathan Upton stepped into the shoes of Lucy Meadows at the end of 2012, and, after the Christmas holidays, returned to the Lancashire primary school where she was a teacher with the approval of the principal and the support of the parents of the children in her class. Meadows had sacrificed a great deal to become the woman she wanted to be; distancing herself from her parents, acquiring a sizeable financial debt, and estranging herself from her wife and daughter. That December, Meadows had contacted the Press Complaints Commission over a column about her that had been printed in the Daily Mail newspaper. The PCC upheld Meadows’ complaint, and the Daily Mail was found guilty of inaccuracy, harassment and breaches of privacy.
The column in question was penned by inane cultural tumour, Richard Littlejohn. Beneath the headline, He’s Not Only in the Wrong Body; He’s in the Wrong Job, Littlejohn opens munificently by stating, “I don’t… have any problem with sex-change operations being carried out on the NHS”, before proceeding to print a litany of irrelevant and intrusive facts about Lucy Meadows’ family, place of work and gender history, along with a photograph of her sitting beside her wife at their wedding in 2009. Littlejohn’s next discursive move is to infantilise Meadows – to make her appear ridiculous – by writing (with a crassly conspicuous lack of respect for Meadows’ choice of pronoun), “He started turning up for class wearing pink nail varnish and sparkly headbands.”
Littlejohn’s main beef about Lucy Meadows’ decision to come to work in female role is that the announcement of her transition was made with insufficient fuss and fanfare. The head-teacher of Meadows’ school chose to break the news quietly in the Christmas newsletter that was sent home to parents; to squirrel it away discreetly amongst the notices of other staff changes at the school. Evidently, this was not enough for Littlejohn, who buttonholes a hysterical parent in pursuit of proving how “worried and confused” children at the school were by Meadows’ decision:
“ ‘My middle boy thinks that he might wake up with a girl’s brain because he was told that Mr Upton, as he got older, got a girl’s brains.’ ”
For his money-shot, Littlejohn asserts that young children should not be forced to confront any non-typical lifestyle choices, and, accordingly, be shielded from anyone whose gender does not conform to old-fashioned, binary norms. The climax he works himself up to is the insistence that a transgender teacher “is putting [their] own selfish needs ahead of the well-being of the children [they have] taught”. According to Littlejohn, Meadows should have moved schools at the same time as making her professional transition – to “disappear quietly” to “the other side of town” where “No-one would have been any the wiser”. A school, according to Littlejohn, should not “be allowed to elevate its ‘commitment to diversity and equality’ above its duty of care to its pupils”: instead, “It should be protecting pupils from some of the more, er, challenging realities of adult life, not forcing them down their throats.”
Whilst continuing to deny Lucy Meadows even the dignity of using her preferred name, Littlejohn asserts that, whilst Nathan Upton has every right to undergo gender reassignment surgery, “he isn’t entitled to project his personal problems on to impressionable young children.” At the risk of sounding like a PhD sociologist, I feel obliged to observe that Littlejohn’s apparently innocuous use of the phrase ‘personal problems’ in this closing paragraph is a strategic act of discursive hegemony. This semantic choice is an attempt to construe events at the small Lancashire school in a negative way in order to persuade his readership to accept Littlejohn’s parochial, narrow-minded version of reality. In this case, Littlejohn hopes to convince his audience to take it for granted that transgenderism is, ipso facto, a problem, and that it is a common-sense assumption that gender nonconformity has no place in primary schools:
“These are primary school children, for heaven’s sake. Most of them still believe in Father Christmas. Let them enjoy their childhood. They will lose their innocence soon enough.”
Lucy Meadows committed suicide by carbon-monoxide poisoning in March, 2013.
The obsequious, almost masturbatory manner in which the press fawn over celebrity transsexuals like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, meanwhile, seems so utterly incongruent with the sneering (but at the same time salacious) moralising that contributed to the death of Lucy Meadows, that it would be difficult to believe they could happen in the same media universe, if the hypocrisy encapsulated in this duality wasn’t so tiresomely predictable.
Casual consumers of the fame-obsessed media are encouraged to view Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, and a host less-familiar others, as role-models of stoicism and courage in the face of abuse and rejection; of “the way we tackle ignorance” (Huffington Post, June 2014); “raise awareness about the transgender community” (Daily Mail – somewhat disingenuously – July 2015); and of “all of us accepting one another”, especially “the thousands of kids out there coming to terms with being true to who they are” (Daily Mail – again – July 2015). The trouble with offering up celebrities as role-models, however, is that their lifestyles are so far removed from most transgender people’s everyday experience that the lessons they teach us have no transferable value. When I was being made redundant – shortly after transitioning – from the high school at which I had worked for five years, how much solace was I able to gain by reflecting on the nerves of republican and ex-Olympic athlete, Caitlyn Jenner, as she waited for her TV show, ‘I am Cait’, to air? And, as I walked away from yet another unsuccessful job interview, what consolation could I glean by contemplating the successful career of the millionaire performer, Laverne Cox?
As I am not eight years old, I am immune to the charms of celebrity role-models. Because I can discern no meaningful parallels between their lives and my own, the examples of Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox seem remote and irrelevant to me. When their contribution to the profile of the transgender community amounts to little more than what colour gown they were wearing at a particular Hollywood ball last Friday night, I struggle to find anything we have in common. Jenner, Cox, et al., may regale interviewers with tales of how they were bullied at school, or how they had to overcome familial disapproval as they were growing up, but if all they subsequently do with their notoriety is encourage glossy magazines to gush over how gorgeous they look, then solidarity and empathy is not what they are promoting. On the contrary: their media profile fuels envy, vanity, and an unattainable ideal of body image, sexuality, and the obsession of male-to-female transsexuals with ‘passing’. The effect isn’t an emboldening sense of strength in numbers: it’s a hollow melancholy amongst those who will never be rich or famous enough to be as elegant as a Hollywood superstar.
Anohni (formerly Anthony Hegarty) is an artist, composer, and lead singer of the band Anthony and the Johnsons. She is only the second transgender person ever to be nominated for an Academy Award (the first was Angela Morley, who was shortlisted for best original score in 1974 and 1978), but, on her website in February, 2016, Anohni announced that she would not be travelling to Los Angeles to attend the ceremony because the Academy had not invited her to perform on the night.
This decision is not as vain as it initially appears. At first glance, the very fact of Anohni’s nomination seems encouragingly symbolic of Hollywood’s readiness to accept difference and embrace diversity, but in subsequently denying Anohni the opportunity to perform, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is showing that its commitment to diversity is cosmetic, and that it doesn’t have the moral courage to sacrifice commercial considerations in favour of exemplifying social change. Given that Anohni has earned critical recognition for her hard work and talent (rather than, say, for just wearing a dress and looking pretty), by appearing at the Oscars, she could have played a small but significant part in elevating transgender role-models. Instead, the Academy sought to use her to make a superficial concession to diversity, before it gave centre stage to more bankable performers:
“The producers seemed to have decided to stage performances only by the singers who were deemed commercially viable. Composer David Lang’s song ‘Simple Song #3’ performed by South Korean soprano Sumi Jo was also omitted. It was degrading to watch the articles in Variety, The Daily Telegraph, Pitchfork, Stereogum, etc., start to appear. Eclipsing earlier notices of congratulations, now the papers were naming me as one of two artists to have been ‘cut’ by the Academy due to ‘time constraints’. In the next sentence it was announced that Dave Grohl, not nominated in any category, had been added to the list of performers.”
As mercenary as ever, the Academy sought to curry further approval by listing the fact that Anohni was transgender in the trivia section of its website. Then, satisfied it had wrung every last drop of exoticism from Anohni in order to enhance the appearance of its own magnanimity and inclusiveness, the Oscars cut her loose. Anohni had been used; “paid to do a little tap-dance” in service of the Academy’s attempt “to try to convince us that they have our best interests at heart by waving flags for identity politics and fake moral issues”. According to her website, Anohni had got as far as the airport before she “slowly realised that the positive implication of [her] nomination was being retracted”, and turned around and went home, “feeling a sting of shame that reminded me of America’s earliest affirmations of my inadequacy as a transperson.”
The moral of the promotion of a particular brand of transgenderism by the culture of celebrity is as depressing as it is straightforward: it is okay to be transgender, provided you are rich, beautiful, glamorous, likely to make someone a lot of money, or a combination of all four. If you’re ordinary, plain, or just trying to make an honest living, at best, the media will ignore you; at worst, they will hound you out of your job and drive you to the brink of suicide. To declare yourself transgender is to proclaim yourself different. This may not be terrifying for an actor, model or ex-decathlete whose family has an indefinable and perplexing media presence, but if you depend on everyday social and professional institutions to pay your bills or achieve self-efficacy, then exchanging depression for isolation and rejection can be very, very hard indeed.
Having said all that, however, there is one facet to Caitlyn Jenner’s celebrity status that has earned my grudging respect. In February 2016, the senates in the US states of Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and, most famously, South Dakota, discussed legislation concerning access to school restrooms, locker-rooms and sports teams. For reasons that are difficult to fathom, a clutch of regional assemblies has suddenly decided that transgender boys and girls need humiliating over where they get changed and go to the toilet. The proposed South Dakota Bathroom Bill, to pick an especially baffling example, is accordingly drafted in a language so comically tortuous – so painstakingly convoluted – that, whilst it doesn’t say so explicitly, its only conceivable purpose must be to impose misery on transgender teenagers by compelling them feel even more isolated and alienated than they already do:
“Every restroom, locker room, and shower room located in a public elementary or secondary school that is designated for student use and is accessible by multiple students at the same time shall be designated for and used only by students of the same biological sex. In addition, any public school student participating in a school sponsored activity off school premises which includes being in a state of undress in the presence of other students shall use those rooms designated for and used only by students of the same biological sex.”
The bill offers an elaborately byzantine definition of biological sex as “the physical condition of being male or female as determined by a person’s chromosomes and anatomy as identified at birth”. For students for whom HB1008 would constitute a barrier to being able to get changed or go to the toilet at school, principals are required to make “reasonable accommodation” of bathroom facilities for transgender pupils (which “may include a single-occupancy restroom, a unisex restroom, or the controlled use of a restroom, locker room, or shower room that is designated for use by faculty”) on the proviso that this does not cause “undue hardship” to a school district (by which, I assume, is meant ‘does not cost any more money’).
If, in a country that has state legislatures obsessed with imposing binary distinctions on its citizens based on their infant chromosome count or the contents of their diapers – and has senators who call transgender students “twisted” and “unfortunate” – Caitlyn Jenner can seize the right to be called ‘female’, and have herself proclaimed a ‘2015 Woman of the Year’ by Glamour magazine, then, for that, she has my admiration.
The report by the UK parliamentary committee, ‘Transgender Equality’ (January 2016), awaits your attention like a jilted lover here…http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmselect/cmwomeq/390/390.pdf
The news about the suicide of Lucy Meadows as it was published in her local newspaper can be read here… http://www.lancashiretelegraph.co.uk/news/10448625.Tragic_suicide_note_left_by_Accrington_transgender_teacher_Lucy_Meadows/
Whilst the Daily Mail’s readiness to publish it leaves you unsure whether to be depressed or angry, Richard Littlejohn’s toe-curlingly unpleasant, intrusive, and wholly unwarranted column about Lucy Meadows can be studied here…http://web.archive.org/web/20121226073921/http:/www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2251347/Nathan-Uptons-wrong-body–hes-wrong-job.html
Anohni’s explanation of why she did not attend this year’s Academy Award ceremony can be read on her website (under the entry for February 25th, 2016) here… http://www.antonyandthejohnsons.com/news/news.html
Anohni’s Oscar-nominated song, ‘Manta Wray’, can be heard here… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f1JiJhWkM9M
You may laugh along with South Dakota’s darkly hilarious HB1008 (the ‘Bathroom Bill’ of 2016) here… https://legiscan.com/SD/text/HB1008/id/1340969/South_Dakota-2016-HB1008-Enrolled.pdf