Bella's Blog

It’s time for the media to become trans friendly

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My friend Nell is transgender and I have no interest in seeing what she looked like before she transitioned. It is none of my business and it shouldn’t be the business of any media reporting on the abuse she suffered.

Last weekend my friend Nell celebrated two years of living publically as a woman. Nell is transgender and although many congratulated her as she proudly announced this milestone in her life on Facebook, she has suffered a great deal of abuse in the neighbourhood where she lives.

The Daily Mail recently reported on how thugs have been assaulting Nell and her transgender housemate both verbally and physically and how they’ve had to install CCTV in order to gather evidence. I was pleased to see that the article was written in a fairly well-measured way (at least there was no mention of “sex change”, a term which is nothing but misleading) and that most comments on the DM piece were in support of Nell. What didn’t please me, however, was that the editor had insisted on including a “before” picture of her. This, I think is extremely unhelpful, if not irresponsible.

Nell gave them a baby picture and in a way it serves a good purpose; how can you say what gender that child is? You can’t. But why is this image necessary in the first place? Why does an editor in 2015 choose to include a “before” picture of a transgender person when they are (and they must be) well aware that transgender people worldwide suffer horrific abuse because people won’t accept their true gender is different to the one they have previously presented as?

A “before” picture doesn’t show who Nell is but instead only perpetuates the dangerous idea of her being dressed up, or fake, when presenting the way she does now, adding further fuel to the fire that these transphobic thugs are creating. It has a direct impact on her life and ultimately, as this choice is made by editors over and over again, transgender people around the world.

It’s no wonder 70% of transgender people (pdf) feel that media portrayals of people like them are negative.

The Barnsley Chronicle also covered Nell's story. They didn't ask for a "before" picture.

The Barnsley Chronicle also covered Nell’s story. They didn’t ask for a “before” picture.

The Daily Mail is of course not the only publication to have asked for “before” images, and this is of course not the only instance; the tendency to turn the lives of transgender people into sensationalist gossip fodder is well established in the UK. All too many trans people have suffered abuse because their lives were portrayed in a negative way and sometimes, such as in the very sad case of Lucy Meadows, this has led to people taking their own lives.

A “before” picture might not necessarily have that effect, but it certainly doesn’t help make a case for people to accept the person for who they truly are, as how they wish to be seen. The press coverage, which the coroner at Meadows’ inquest accepted as one of the factors leading to her death, contained before pictures of her, with constant references to her as male.

Trans Media Watch is a charity that aims to improve media coverage of trans and intersex issues and they advice trans people to be careful when supplying media with images.

“Remember that, if you have transitioned, you don’t have to submit a ‘before’ picture unless you are comfortable about doing so. If you want to supply one as part of telling your story, consider using a childhood picture. This will give you a little more privacy and will help to send the message that children don’t have to grow up the way society expects,” they say.

Award-winning journalist and transgender woman Paris Lees has revealed how she turned down several media appearances after they asked her for “before” pictures. Once she was even dropped from a morning TV show because she refused. – “Must I be reduced to shock, surgery and before-and-after shots?” she asked.

At the time she was unsure about whether she was doing the right thing (would she get another chance to speak?) but ultimately she says she’s glad she chose to wait for respect. Not everyone might feel like they can do that and whilst more trans people are demanding respect, the media needs to start showing it.

This week we celebrated Transgender Day of Visibility, a day to applaud the trans people who dare be visible, to educate society about the trans community (a few ideas here) and to erase the many misconceptions that surround the trans* umbrella. I think this is a fitting time to ask editors around the world to stop using “before” pictures when illustrating transgender stories, to say that we don’t want them.

Transphobic crime is on the rise and rather than playing into the hands of bullies we need to start being trans allies.

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