5 October 2016

Jane Fae: Things we did on our holiday – an interaction with BBC Newsnight

Blogged by Jane Fae, journalist and campaigner

(With apologies to my son, who reckons finding two pages to write on this is a most unreasonable demand).

“We visited Newsnight. There were lots of trans people. There were lots of Newsnight people. Everyone was very nice. There was no sushi.”

Yes, it was a good meeting, with a diverse range of people, and wide-ranging discussion. Like many such meetings we fluctuated between simple explanations of what being trans means and loftier stuff. Questions, including one on why people felt the need to transition reminded me how difficult it is to simply BE trans: because if you aren’t trans you don’t get it.

Discussing trans people's access to healthcare

Getting to know eachother

It’s like any other school-taught topic. What are trans people? What types of trans people are there? What is meant by transition? Why do they do it? And so on.

I have no answer to that. I know loads about energy policy and online regulation, which was gained by writing about and researching over many years. I talk with practised ease about transmission grids or the legal difference between obscenity and indecency, and, if I am careless, I forget, sometimes, that ordinary people – those who don’t write about the topic or work in the field – don’t have this expertise.

So, education is forever, and while I will always advocate tolerance, this is why trans people occasionally get a bit tetchy: we’ve told you that before. And before. And before: why are you asking the SAME questions?

We’ve been talking about a family, a family transitioning and what that’s been like and the impact it’s had… On the whole it’s been a positive experience. – Rachel Jupp, Deputy Editor BBC Newsnight

More pointedly: what gives you the right to ask that? We touched on the vexed question of what trans people keep in their knickers: thankfully not a Newsnight question; but, we explained, an issue and a source of irritation in its own right. Non-trans people have for the most part none-of-their business obsession with certain details of transness. Including the current state of genitals. That needs to stop.

Small group conversations during the interaction

Newsnight people would never stoop so low: but still, the obsession impacts back on discourse at every level. The expectation – the model within which grown-up journalists work – is one of rationalism and balance. As though every single issue is merely an academic debate.

Thus incomprehension, from the journo side, at how bloody bolshy trans people get when asked to discuss certain issues.

The problem is twofold, and Paris Lees outlined half of it very well. From the Newsnight perspective, open discussion rules: from the trans side, this sort of thing too often shades into justifying our very existence. And we are sick of having to do so. It is boring. Exhausting. And we doubt that Newsnight would take the same tack with other groups: gay people. Or Jews or Muslims.

Everyone seems genuinely interested in learning more and engaging more, in quite a respectful way. I feel really positive and think that it’s been a lovely, lively discussion today. We’re really grateful for your time. – Paris Lees, journalist and All About Trans co-founder

Group discussions at the BBC

Group discussions at the BBC

In the red corner, Peter Tatchell: in the blue corner, a fundamentalist arguing that Peter should undergo therapy in order to return to the heteronormative fold. Wouldn’t happen. Yet, it keeps happening to trans folk. Maybe not Newsnight: but the constant awareness of it happening elsewhere shades all our interactions.

At some point, we shifted onto how this might be considered an assault on free speech: the dreaded “no platforming” phrase was uttered, and I wished we had not a scant couple of hours, but several more. Because this is where I fear many journalists, Newsnight included, have it very wrong.

There is a massive, massive debate to be had about the rights and wrongs of free speech and censorship, and the tendency, in some quarters, to sweep it into two manichaean categories, labelled Platform and No Platform, represents serious over-simplification.

There are so many specific circumstances, so many issues, all different. Yet at times the mainstream press sounds like some sleazy Pick-up Artist: take off your headphones and speak to the weirdo jumping up and down, waving his arms in front of your face, else we’ll thumb our collective noses at you and accuse you of being anti-free speech. It needs more exploration. Much more.

And while you’re at it – and agreeing that there is more to trans than clichéd categorisation, could you please ask more trans people to talk about things NOT to do with trans?

To be fair, this was half the purpose of the meeting and it was brilliant to hear Evan Davis speak so positively about Paris’ recent Newsnight appearance which – horrors! – involved her talking about wider political issues with nary a mention of the T-word in sight.

My only difficulty with Evan’s enthusiasm: he believes that the future for trans is plain sailing. Whereas, as someone who is daily sourcing new stories about trans issues, I am less optimistic: sure, things are improving in the UK. In the US, however, we are in the middle of a massive backlash in the religious south, with proposals afoot for people to wear armbands identifying them as trans. I hope I do not have to draw the parallel to previous awful regimes.

In conversation

Murder of trans people in South America has achieved epic proportions, and elsewhere, in Africa and the Middle East, for instance, the imprisonment and state-endorsed murder of trans people is getting worse, not better. One could almost be nostalgic for the simple brutal oppression of Russia, where the worst that might happen to a trans woman was being beaten up and urinated on.

Let’s end, as I began with my son. He was there not just because of the holiday, but because unlike many children his age, he has seen trans bullying first hand – stood beside me and his mum when we were threatened with violence; attended a demo where a certain sub-sect of radical feminists shouted abuse at all present, trans and non-trans alike (an act that initially scared and then confirmed, in his young eyes, how silly feminism was); and he has personally endured bullying for the simple fact of being a trans person’s son.

He has seen more than a few recording studios: and sensibly, he rates them on the basis of the catering. The Today programme disappointed, partly because we arrived late and most of the grub was gone, partly because the last of the grapes were blatantly disappeared by a “very rude man” (who, I later explained to him, was an ex-cabinet minister). The Big Questions, where he met Nicky Campbell and was inspired to think about a career as a floor manager was somewhat better.

And despite the lack of sushi, Rafe enjoyed Newsnight: because it gave him a wider perspective on trans people; and because it re-affirmed his faith in human nature to understand that not every non-trans person has an issue with us.

I suspect he would happily return. Especially if lunch happened to have a more Japanese, even sushi-like, aspect to it!

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