How the Media Bullies Trans People to Death
Lucy Meadows was a transgender schoolteacher outed in the national press and hounded by the media. Three years on, we ask advocates if there’s been any progress made in how the media reports on transgender people.
Illustration by Jennifer Kahn
In honor of the transgender men and women who lost their lives to extreme violence and suicide in 2016, we're taking an in-depth look at the social factors that contributed to their deaths. Read more of our coverage here.
Three years ago, transgender schoolteacher Lucy Meadows, 32, committed suicide. A local newspaper—the same paper that outed her—reported that she had been found dead in a cupboard under the stairs at her home.
Meadows had taught at a small primary school in the north west of England for a number of years, and was by all accounts a popular and well liked member of the community. When she transitioned, her school supported her—sending out a short note to parents in an end-of-term newsletter in December 2012 explaining her decision and informing them of her true gender identity.
After local newspaper the Accrington Observer published the newsletter, a number of British tabloid publications followed suit, effectively outing Meadows in the media. An accompanying column from writer Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail, titled "He's not only in the wrong body...he's in the wrong job" misgendered Meadows throughout and accused her of being "selfish" for returning to her position as a teacher after transitioning. (The Mail later removed the article from its website.)
A media storm ensued: Meadows complained to friends about reporters waiting for her outside her house; parents dropping off their children at her school were harassed for negative comments, and Meadows said that those trying to give positive remarks to journalists were turned away. "I know the press offered parents money if they could get a picture of me," she wrote in an email to a friend on New Year's Day in 2013.
Though Meadows' suicide note did not mention the press intrusion she had experienced, the coroner for the inquest into her death said that the media should have been ashamed of their treatment of Meadows. When summing up his verdict in March 2013, coroner Michael Singleton turned to the assembled press and said, "Shame on all of you."
Years on, negative media coverage of trans issues and trans people continues. Charities that work with trans children or children's TV shows featuring trans characters are attacked, replicating the demonization of gay people in the press in the 80s. Has there been any progress made towards fair and accurate media coverage of trans people and issues in the years since Meadows' death, or have we opened a trap door and fallen back in time?
"By and large, the press reporting of trans people has become more accurate. I wouldn't say it's completely accurate, but it's better than it was," says Helen Belcher. Belcher is the co-founder of Trans Media Watch and a longtime trans rights campaigner. She also gave evidence as part of the Leveson Inquiry into British press practices on behalf of Trans Media Watch in February 2012.
"When I gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, the media at that time tended to view trans people as either jokes or frauds. We were undeserving people, deviants." She tells me that shortly after she appeared at the inquiry, a trans child had their birth certificate printed in the press—leading to threats to burn down the minor's school. "Another angle the press liked to pursue were trans men with children or who were pregnant. They were being hounded, sometimes having their employment put at risk."
Belcher highlights how Meadows' death did help to catalyze some positive change. "When Lucy Meadows took her life, the press woke up for a minute and thought, 'Hang on, we are hounding people to death.' They did go quiet... Since her death things have got better—in part."
Nonetheless, problems remain, particularly when it comes to media attention around trans children. "In the UK, we saw this ugly side a few weeks ago with press attacks on Mermaids, a charity for transgender children." Belcher highlights how, with increasing awareness and acceptance of trans issues, the media have shifted their focus onto a narrative of "protecting children."
"The press likes to suggest that we're inflicting medical treatment on five-year-old children. That's not what happens," Belcher explains. "We're talking about hormone blockers, which are safe and totally reversible. It's like hitting a pause button. No one gets any genital surgery until they're 18. But that's not how it's described by the media."
"It's unhelpful and damaging when the media, and documentaries in particular, focus on medical procedures," agrees Rebecca Stinson, the head of trans inclusion at British LBGT charity Stonewall. "It is something limited to an individual's transition and not representative of the lived experiences of all trans and non-binary people."
Belcher argues we need to look beyond individual newspaper headlines to the cultures and practices of newsrooms and production offices. "There's a big editorial culture problem. A lot of journalists are trying to do the right thing, but then things get sexed up or sensationalized to sell copies."
She uses the example of when trans people are accused or linked to crimes. "My favorite example is of a newspaper that published a headline that said, 'Sex Change Passenger Didn't Pay Taxi Fare.' It's absurd. Gender identity shouldn't be mentioned unless it's relevant to the story, but the press still often makes being trans the story." And transgender people are consistently misgendered when the victims of crime: such as Goddess Diamond, the 14th trans person killed in the USA in 2016, who was misgendered male in press reports of her death.
I ask what drives transphobic media coverage."I think there are people in positions of power, publishing newspapers, who don't like trans people. We don't fit into this idyllic 1950s-style Britain that actually never existed. We're seen as enemies of that. And there's also misunderstanding. They think that people choose to be trans."
The solution? "Trans people need to be given a voice—not just trans people in the public eye—but trans people in the backrooms, in editorial meetings, behind the cameras. Right now, who makes the decision over what stories are being told? And where are trans people in the decision to tell trans stories? We're nowhere."
And trans representation isn't just about trans people covering trans stories—it's about trans people being featured in non-trans specific narratives. "It would be fantastic to see trans characters feature in stories that aren't inherently about their trans identity, as this will help audiences understand there is more to trans people than their gender identities," Stinson explains. "And we continue to be dehumanized by some media outlets, mocked, or even judged for not fitting into certain boxes."
Many other trans people endured and continue to endure the sort of harassment that contributed to Lucy Meadows' death. "Press intrusion turns people's lives upside down," Belcher warns. "It destroys families, it interrupts children's education, it causes huge amount of stress, it costs the taxpayer money—police sometimes have to put protective measures around trans people."
It's clear there's much work still to be done—even if a defensive press sometimes labels trans campaigners as opponents of free speech. "[They think] we're evil people who just want to silence everyone," Belcher sighs. "Which is wrong. All we want is responsible reporting. Not inaccurate or sensationalist.
"We're not opponents of a free press or free speech."