Yesterday’s broad welcome by the transgender community for a Home Office initiative on trans rights today lost a little of its sparkle, as activists noted that the language in which this initiative was announced was itself guilty of some of the bad practice believed to underpin transphobic prejudice.
Concerns were raised over a press release announcing the initiative, which described April Ashley as “the first Briton to undergo sex-change surgery”.
A media style guide published by the widely respected Trans Media Watch in March 2011 points out that terms such as “sex change” and “sex swap” are considered offensive to many in the trans community.
They add that terminology used in medicine and UK law includes “Sex reassignment surgery (SRS)” and “Gender reassignment surgery (GRS)”.
A spokesman for the Home Office was unrepentant. Describing the issue as “merely semantic”, he declined to comment further. Rather, he suggested, if the Press Office reacted to every individual criticism, nothing would ever get done.
Trans activist, Liz Church has written to the Home Office asking that this be amended.
A spokesperson for TMW said: “It is unfortunate that this very important initaitive has been clouded by a poor choice of words in some instances, but we still feel that there is positive intent behind it”.
This may all sound like nit-picking: dog in manger stuff, given that the Home Office initiative itself is very positive – and the trans community has nothing but respect for Equalities Minister, Lynne Featherstone.
But it isn’t. Central to the arguments advanced by TMW over the last few years has been the way in which the language used in the press and beyond contributes directly to transphobia: when the press use words like “tranny”, or “gender-bender” in respect of a trans person those then pop up in playground bullying.
That’s why they have been working with the Press Complaints COmmission and other media bodies on use of language: that is also why they are putting in a significant submission to the Leveson Inquiry into Press Standards.
Concerns over the term “sex change” are slightly more nuanced: speak with any trans man or woman and chances are that the majority will tell you that they are not channging anything: at least not anything to do with their gender. They always were the gender they identify as: and surgery is no more than aligning the external form to the inner reality.
In that sense, talking of “change” is profoundly unhelpful – and plays into the hands of those who aregue that “change” is not possible (for reasons of genetics or religion).
The press release is therefore unfortunate, and gives rise to two concerns – quite apart from the fact that it gives license to every other tabloid to use the phrase with impunity. First, it suggests a touch of laziness back at the Home Office: they are aware of TMW, and should be aware of the Media Guide, which has been distributed widely. That a press office should fail to take cognisance of such a document when writing up a release is not clever.
But there is also a degree of arrogance here. To amend the official release would take less than a minute’s work. But they won’t because this is mere “semantics”. In that refusal, they both miss the point and fall into the very same trap of ultra-defensiveness over the published word as the rest of the press.
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