British media, ‘your bigotry is killing trans people’
Trans people and allies gathered outside the BBC’s London headquarters to challenge its anti-trans ‘agenda of hate and discrimination’
“When the trans community is discussed in the British media, there is a particular word that crops up again and again,” said Niamh Simpson, a trans illustrator and community organiser from Oxford. “That word is ‘debate’.
“Trans people cannot simply exist. We must justify our existence in the public arena – in a format that is inherently dehumanising because it assumes that a fundamental aspect of our personhood is up for discussion.”
Simpson was one of more than a dozen speakers who addressed a crowd of trans people and allies outside the BBC’s London headquarters on Saturday (8 January), protesting against the broadcaster’s “agenda of hate and discrimination”.
Rain fell steadily for three hours as writers and activists spoke about “the precarity of existing while trans” in the UK, where the “repulsive coverage” of trans issues by major media outlets perpetuates violence and harassment.
So-called ‘debates’ about trans rights take place at the expense of trans people’s safety, Simpson said. “To present our right to exist as a mere difference in philosophy, as though the stakes are even for both parties, is to wilfully ignore and actively contribute to the concrete threats trans people face every day.”
Backlash against BBC article
The publicly funded broadcaster continues to face backlash following the publication on its website last autumn of an article by Caroline Lowbridge – claiming that lesbians are “being pressured into sex by some trans women”.
The story relies on a self-selecting survey of 80 people – and initially platformed porn performer Lily Cade, who has been accused of sexual assault by multiple women.
Following the article’s publication, Trans Activism UK (the trans-led group that organised Saturday’s protest) sent an open letter to the BBC signed by more than 20,000 people – demanding an apology and amendments to the article “to clarify the falsehoods and damage within”.
The BBC removed any mention of Cade after she called for the “lynching” of trans women, but has refused to take down the story or issue an apology. Instead, the broadcaster defended the piece, insisting that the article underwent “our rigorous editorial processes”.
“The BBC is here to ensure debate and to make sure a wide range of voices are heard,” it said – although the article did not include any opposing views.
“Media in all its forms will forever be a means of mass education,” said Lewis Ranger, a trans neuroscience student, and another speaker at the protest. “It has the power to make people more knowledgeable about marginalised groups […] to humanise communities. Instead, they choose to further ostracise those groups.”
“I am proud to be a gay trans man. But I am also deeply afraid,” he continued. Articles such as the one written by Lowbridge “add to people’s fears of trans folk” and “contribute to the harassment and violence our community faces”. Addressing the BBC, Ranger said: “Your bigotry is killing trans people.”
Sophia McAllister, who also spoke at the protest, described how they “broke down in tears” when they read the article: “This is the culmination of daily constant attacks that people like me face: interrogation of our lives, speculation over our genitals, guessing whether we are a threat to others. It never stops; it is constant.”
Trans Activism UK called the BBC’s article “outright dangerous” and just one example of “a continuous downward spiral of problematic coverage of marginalised groups”. Referencing the broadcaster’s famous commitment to impartiality, it declared: “Platforming hate is not impartial.”
The BBC has been frequently criticised for its coverage of trans issues. In 2020, LGBTQ+ activists and senior MPs signed a letter condemning the organisation for being “institutionally transphobic”. Last year, an open letter organised by a former employee condemned the BBC for its poor coverage of LGBTQ+ issues, particularly trans rights, and for “uncritically platforming” groups such as the LGB Alliance, which has been criticised for being “anti-trans” . (The LGB Alliance has denied that it is transphobic.)
A BBC spokesperson said: “We don’t agree with this characterisation of our output. There are many articles on the BBC website about transgender people that reflect a range of views and perspectives. We do not condone or support discrimination in any form.”
2021 was the deadliest year on record for trans people: at least 375 trans, non-binary or gender nonconforming people were murdered worldwide, most of them trans women or transfeminine people of colour. At least 125 of these murders took place in Brazil – where the BBC published Lowbridge’s article in Brazilian Portuguese.
A 2021 survey by trans-led group TransActual found the UK a “hostile environment” for trans and non-binary people, particularly trans people of colour. They experience elevated rates of homelessness, unemployment and housing discrimination; transphobic bullying online and in the workplace; and street harassment – all reinforced by a media landscape that is often hostile to trans people.
An overwhelming majority of survey respondents said that transphobic rhetoric in the media “impacted” their experiences of transphobia from strangers on the street, as well as their treatment by family, friends and colleagues. More than 70% said that media transphobia had impacted their mental health.
Speakers at the protest condemned the lack of trans voices and perspectives in British media. They explained that when media outlets publish stories that “sensationalise rather than humanise” trans people, they eclipse conversations about the urgent structural problems facing the trans community.
Such stories also sideline queer joy. “The media is trying to tell you that every speck of the UK is like this; they are lying to you,” said Shaira Choudhury, a South-Asian Muslim woman who described the wonderful queer and trans people of colour they have met since coming out.
“Look around and see the trans joy,” they continued. “For every mindless article and bigoted opinion they churn out, there are thousands of trans voices: our expression, our art, our words. Don’t let them tell our narratives for us.”
“I want [the public] to know about trans joy,” McAllister agreed, “how wondrous an experience it is, finding the person that you were always supposed to be and becoming them.”
Demonstrations against BBC transphobia took place in several UK cities at the end of last year, including Bristol, Brighton and Cardiff. A “solidarity protest” was also held in Manchester on 8 January.
“To those of you standing here today: you are seen, you are sacred, you are loved,” Simpson told the crowd. “Whenever the headlines have made my heart sink, it has been lifted by the everyday acts of solidarity that we show to one another. If they will not give us a platform, we must make one. We must organise. We must advocate for ourselves. And we must not lose hope.”
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