© Illustration by Mister Samo (@mister.samo)
Let’s take a closer look at the ingrained transphobia in the country dubbed ‘TERF Island’ by the Internet.
England is known for many things; the gloomy weather, bright red phone boxes, the London Eye - and, it seems, transphobia. Transphobia, of course, is not a UK-specific issue, but it has become such an issue in the UK that many refer to the UK as ‘TERF Island’ (TERF being an acronym for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism). Transphobic violence is on the rise and is that any wonder when the British mainstream media consistently promotes transphobic viewpoints and trans voices are repeatedly silenced?
Walk past any newsstand, take a look at the headlines. Flick through the papers. It rarely takes long to find a sensationalist (and usually inaccurate) article about trans people. Whether they’re spreading misinformation about hormones or mocking non-binary individuals, you can bet that more often than not, the British mainstream press will find something cruel to say about trans lives. And it’s not only the printed news - the BBC has come under fire recently after talking with the LGB Alliance about transgender issues. Their claim was that they wanted to have a balanced debate surrounding these topics, but transgender people aren’t a political debate. They’re real people, with real lives, and shouldn’t have to be confronted with their existence being criticised and dissected on the morning news. For context, the missing T in the name ‘LGB Alliance’ is not a mistake - in fact, they are a group that ‘promotes the rights of lesbians, bisexuals and gay men, as recognised by biological sex’. This may seem like they consciously ignore and leave out transgender people, but it seems like their main mission is actually to spread hatred about trans people instead.
Shortly after the BBC faced controversy for talking to the LGB Alliance about transgender issues, they came under fire yet again when they withdrew from Stonewall’s diversity in the workplace scheme. Stonewall is one of the biggest UK LGBT+ charities and provides many schemes to encourage diversity in workplaces and education as they believe education leads to acceptance. Again, the BBC claim that their pulling out of the scheme has nothing to do with their views on trans rights and is instead about remaining impartial. The scheme, however, had nothing to do with the news stories and content that the BBC published, but rather focused on ensuring that the workplace at the BBC was fair and accepting of LGBT+ employees. Therefore the withdrawal from the scheme has resulted in the BBC workplace being a reportedly tough place to be if you happen to LGBT+; an anonymous source told Vice that they have ‘worked for the BBC for over 20 years, and [have] never known a worse time to be LGBT+ at the BBC’ … ‘There is deeply engrained institutional transphobia at the heart of the BBC, exacerbated by promotion of anti-LGBT+ views in the name of "balance". I no longer feel safe as an LGBT+ person within the organisation.’
Perhaps the BBC’s claim of ‘impartiality’ would hold more weight if they didn’t frequently give space to anti-trans voices. The BBC has an annual writing prize called the Russell Prize, and in 2020 J.K. Rowling was nominated for her infamous essay on sex and gender which belittled trans activism in the so-called name of women’s rights. The BBC claimed that her nomination was not necessarily an endorsement of her views, however, BBC media editor Amol Rajan said that the winner of the prize must have ‘an instinctive and visceral revulsion at injustice’. What is the injustice that Rowling is fighting against here? The injustice she feels at being called a TERF? Nominating Rowling for this award is a promotion of her writing, which is linked to her views, so is, therefore, a promotion of her hurtful rhetoric.
The extent of how deeply transphobia runs through the UK is not only shown through the media but also through politics. Liz Truss, the Minister for Women and Equalities, has opposed self-determination for transgender people who want to legally change their gender. Currently, the process of legally changing one’s gender in the UK is lengthy and expensive, with trans individuals having to prove to a panel with evidence and medical reports; self-determination would be a more financially viable and less emotionally exhausting way of declaring their identity. The current way is especially difficult as trans people must prove to the panel that they’ve lived as their ‘acquired’ gender for two years before applying for a gender recognition certificate. A lot of trans people, however, can’t or don’t start ‘living as’ their gender until later on in life - despite knowing for years that they’re trans - due to cisnormative and transphobic external pressures. Having to wait an extra two years unnecessarily prolongs an already fatiguing process.
Years ago, I attended an event run by Stonewall. Ruth Hunt, then the CEO, told us how the press at the time was especially cruel to trans people and to remember to be kind to our trans friends. This has stuck with me since because have things changed? Transphobic violence is on the rise. Comedians seem to be able to make a career out of standing on stage and disrespecting trans identities for forty minutes. The person whose job it is to literally ‘develop an equalities policy that is based on individual autonomy and dignity' doesn’t appear to have trans people’s best interests at heart.
It’s a scary time to be trans in the UK. Amidst all the scaremongering and politics, many seem to forget that transgender people are just that: people. Ordinary people with thoughts and feelings, who are constantly exposed to needless hate and vitriol. Trans people are our neighbours, our friends, our families. Trans identities are often turned into a joke or used to excuse horrific violence. A lot of the hatred towards trans people, however, is formed from ignorance and misinformation: that’s where organisations such as Stonewall come in to educate and inform. They have helpful guides, such as The Truth About Trans, that begin to answer some of the most common concerns.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and equality won’t be achieved overnight. Until then, however, we need to keep on ignoring the transphobic, scare-mongering headlines, and cisgender people need to work on not only being tolerant of trans identities but actively sticking up for and supporting trans rights.