Transgender people have been almost totally absent from Western media for most of its history.
For centuries, we were only ever mentioned to report on our arrests, or shock readers with the revelation of our “true sex” – often both. Finally, this is beginning to change.
We’ve seen more and more coverage of trans issues in mainstream media in the last few years. But if that coverage isn’t done responsibly and respectfully, it risks doing more harm than good.
Our culture holds so many damaging beliefs about trans people, particularly trans women, and writers need to keep this in mind when covering our stories.
For a lot of cisgender people, this media coverage is the only exposure they get to trans identities and experiences. That makes it incredibly harmful when our stories are presented by cis people who – intentionally or not – often echo society’s transphobia.
The Q&A episodes, on February 29 and April 11, both discussed trans issues without allowing trans people to participate.
First, Lyle Shelton was allowed to blatantly misrepresent research (later refuted by a group of transgender health specialists) to attack trans youth, with no trans people allowed to challenge him. Not only did the ABC not include a transgender panellist, they didn’t allow any of the trans people in the audience to speak.
This past week on Q&A, Germaine Greer was given yet another platform to say that she doesn’t believe trans women are really women. Again, no trans people were invited into the discussion. Lane Sainty at Buzzfeed has covered the Q&A episodes in some detail, so I won’t dwell on them further.
The ABC also published an online article by Dr Graham Willett, “Australia’s secret history of sexual fluidity”, on April 9. In it Willett, the president of the Australian Gay and Lesbian Archives, discusses LGBT+ subcultures in Australian history, from gay male relationships in early colonial Australia to lesbian romance in the wake of first-wave feminism.
Unfortunately, he also perpetuates harmful misconceptions about trans people† when writing about Edward de Lacy Evans, Bill Edwards, and Ellen Maguire. They’re introduced with the term “cross-dressing”, echoing a long tradition of pathologising trans people as fetishists playing dress-up.
After brief descriptions of each of their lives, Willett reveals their “true sex”: “he [Evans] was a woman”, “Maguire was a man”. This kind of narrative plays into the transphobic assumption that trans people are faking their genders and hiding their “true sex”.
Willett contributes to the exact fear that motivates scaremongering and violence against trans women using women’s bathrooms, whether in Australia with the attacks on Safe Schools, or elsewhere, such as in North Carolina.
His discussion of Ellen Maguire, a trans woman and sex worker, is particularly egregious. Demonstrating an incredible lack of compassion, Willett calls her death, while serving a sentence of hard labour, “an interesting moment in our history”. He then asks whether the men who paid Maguire for sex could have been unaware of her “true sex”, repeating the transmisogynistic trope of the trans woman who “tricks” unsuspecting men into sleeping with her. This literally gets trans women killed – one every 29 hours, as of February 2015.
Most of these women were sex workers, like Maguire.
In 2014 Jennifer Laude, a Filipina sex worker, was murdered by a U.S. Marine after he discovered she was trans. Her killer was sentenced to six to twelve years’ imprisonment for homicide, a hugely reduced charge and sentence from the usual twenty to forty years for murder. Like the “gay panic” defence, the narrative of trans women deceiving men authorises violence against them, and Willett’s article perpetuates that narrative.
I spoke to Graham Willett about his article and the harm it could cause on Monday.
He defended his transphobic language, saying he was using the “historical terms” – never mind that “cross-dressing” only entered the English language in 1911, after the events he writes about, and wasn’t in popular use until the mid-20th century.
Willett also has no problem using modern terminology for cis people: one section of his article is titled “same-sex marriage in colonial days”. His writing about trans people contributes to our oppression, and is neither historically accurate nor internally consistent.
Transgender issues are a relatively new presence in Western media, and I understand that a lot of the people writing about them haven’t had much exposure to them.
But when you have social and institutional privilege over a marginalised group, you have a responsibility to be aware of it and act in a way that doesn’t harm them further. Journalists and academics need to listen when trans people call them out, and be accountable for the damage their words can do.
† I am aware that it’s impossible to know how these historical people identified. However, modern readers are likely to read them as trans, and the article has consequences for today’s trans community regardless.
Isaac Hamann is a 19-year-old undergraduate student at the University of Melbourne. They are an agender transfeminine person, and their pronouns are they/them/their.