Gayle Smith: The media needs to understand the consequences of its words for trans people

Activist Gayle Smith calls for more media responsibility when covering trans identity and related issues

AS the trans community paused this week to remember those who've been murdered due to hate crimes in the past year, I wanted to reflect on the impact words can and do have on both individuals and communities. This is particularly true with regard to those communities who are perceived for whatever reason as, shall we say, different.

As a trans woman who happens to be both a poet and political activist, I know the power of language as a tool which can be used to persuade or prejudice the opinions of others. This is why I want to look at the language of the media, both print and visual, in relation to trans identity and explain why some phrases are specifically designed to create an unnecessary moral panic about the trans community, which can and does cause prejudice and has the potential to fuel a rise in hate crimes both internationally and in the UK .

It has to be said that some of the terminology used against trans people by certain sections of the media in this country effectively paints trans lives not only as different, but also as wrong. This, when combined with social and cultural conservatism, sets a tone of fear which, if acted upon, can sow the seeds of anger and even hatred against us. 

Some of the terminology used against trans people by certain sections of the media in this country effectively paints trans lives not only as different, but also as wrong.

Examples of this kind of sensationalism include headlines like: "Man found in ladies room."

Obviously on reading a headline like this, people would be alarmed at such a development and ask how it could have taken place. This would see those of an anti-trans disposition venting their anger on every social platform on which they were given the space to do so. 

If, however, on further investigation the reader saw that the person concerned was actually living full time as a woman, had started on hormone treatment and had only done what all women do in the toilet - which is whatever we need, wash our hands and possibly check our make up - it wouldn't even be a story worthy of comment.

This makes the wording of the story of paramount importance as to whether the trans person is reported in a balanced or negative way and that could have a potentially serious impact on public peception of trans people. 

I feel it is important to make this point as many people who have no immediate contact with a trans person can and do have their opinions shaped by those in the press and media.

I feel it is important to make this point as many people who have no immediate contact with a trans person can and do have their opinions shaped by those in the press and media.

Another phrase which is popular among those with reactionary tendencies is "the vocal trans lobby". Personally I've never come accross such a lobby and I doubt if it even exists outside the minds of rightwing conservatives and those who hold the most envangelical or fundamentalist of religious beliefs. 

What I have found is a new, younger generation of transwomen, and indeed transmen, who believe that all people including trans people should be treated with fairness and equality and will actively campaign for their rights in a way which many of us of a slightly older demographic were afraid to do back in our dancing years of the 1980s or 1990s. 

If that makes them vocal then so be it, but in my opinion it just makes them social justice campaigners - they are certainly not a lobby and have no powerful or influential friends in the media of the kind their opponents are likely to have access to.

Indeed, if you look at the way the phrase is constructed, you will see that by starting with the word "vocal" there is an imeadiate implication of both noise and, more importantly, anger. This fuels the idea that trans people are wrong to protest against the status quo, and that what they perceive to be discrimination is actually normality which they need to accept and get over themselves. 

It is therefore not too difficult to see how this kind of language can ramp up not only blatant transphobia, but also more subtle forms of anti-trans prejudice.

The implication that trans identity is a choice is also wrong and misguided. Believe me, being trans is no picnic and on many occassions a long and difficult road to travel.

The use of the word "lobby" is also significant as it implies an organised campaign by those in positions of power when in reality no campaign of this nature has ever actually existed. This, however, will not stop those who fear change claiming that to be trans is wrong, and that to accept the existence of transgender people is political correctness gone mad.

One of the main reasons for anti-trans hate crimes is that we are falsely accused of being a danger to children because of what is perceived to be our lifestyle choice. Headlines like "children allowed to choose their gender" show either a lack of awareness of, or a delibetate ignorance to trans people. 

This kind of attitude is particularly nasty as it attempts to link an already vulnerable community to the kind of deviant behaviour which more than any other would outrage the ordinary man and woman in the street. The fact that this is more often than not done with no more than hearsay and unsubstantiated rumours provided as evidence is absolutely ououtrageous, as the trans community are no more or less likely to behave in this way than any other group within society.

The implication that trans identity is a choice is also wrong and misguided. Believe me, being trans is no picnic and on many occassions a long and difficult road to travel. It is, however, a road we must travel and many of us, including yours truly, knew that fact long before we were ever able to do anything about it. 

This was due to the social and cultural climate of the time we grew up in being much more conservative than is the case now. The idea that being transgender is a choice is not only offensive, it is also completely and totally ludicrous.

As a mature trans woman who is both politically and culturally active I realise I have a duty to promote a positive image not only of myself but of the community of which I am part.

As a mature trans woman who is both politically and culturally active I realise I have a duty to promote a positive image not only of myself but of the community of which I am part, and I take my responsibility very seriously, trying as much as a transwoman can to be a positive role model as and when required. 

This would be a hard enough task for someone in my position, but when you add in the fact that I am a trans Christian who attends my local Church of Scotland almost every week it can make an already challenging road even more so. 

However, I will say in defence of what must be the best wee parish in the country that my gender identity is not an issue, and I get a much harder time for being a Celtic-supporting Yes voter than I ever have for being trans. Apart from the odd misgendering, usually from males of an older demographic and never remotely intentional, I have never had any problems in my place of worship. 

In fact, to be honest, the women and girls in particular have been absolutely brilliant. This is all the more remarkable when you consider that at least 80 per cent of the congregation are of an even more mature vintage than this 50-something blogger.

On the subject of age, I have to say I was very flattered when I was recently told by a younger transwoman not yet out of her teens that I was a trailblazer for trans rights. While I was delighted to receive such a compliment from a girl who, if I had been born in my acquired gender, would be young enough to have been my youngest daughter, I'm not ebtirely sure if it's accurate. 

What is accurate, however, is that language is important as a tool not only for communication but also for understanding others. To do that we must stop sensationalising difference or we run the very real risk of an increase in hate crimes both globally and locally. 

Finally, to mark this week's World Transgender Remembrance Day, here is a poem of mine to pay my respects.

Sometimes it's the little things 

Sometimes it's the little things that matter

little things like an older person

getting your gender correct 

a young guy treating you with respect

a teenage girl's smile on remembrance day

these are memories no one can take away 

sometimes it's the little things that matter 

Sometimes it's the little things that count 

like a stranger complimenting you

as you enjoy a night out with friends

or that time a neighbour called you hen and not son

sometimes it's the small battles won 

Sometimes it's the little things that count 

Sometimes it's the little things that scare you 

when you hear how those like you 

are treated in other countries

in Brazil, Colombia, Honduras and Turkey things can and do turn ugly 

for people like you and I 

we are often condemned to die 

lying slaughtered like discarded rags on empty streets 

you weep with sorrow and fear 

you worry it could happen here 

Sometimes it's the little things that scare you 

Sometimes it's the little things that make you angry

the causal but deliberate misgendering 

the spiteful use of words like tranny 

the unwanted comments the cat calls the stares 

the threat of passing skinheads' glares 

sometimes it's the little things that make you angry 

Sometimes it's the little things that make you remember 

where you once were

and the journey you've taken 

and with each little victory 

see the progress your making 

sometimes in silence on days of remembrance

we commemorate the fallen in our thoughts and our prayers 

Sometimes it's the little things so often unnoticed 

we recall with most fondness when our stories are shared 

Sometimes It's the little things that matter 

Sometimes it's the little things that count 

Sometimes it really is the little things

that make a difference to us all 

Picture courtesy of Ronan

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