17 Jan 2013

Transsexual awareness ‘at tipping point’

Is the furore which has followed Julie Burchill’s column on transsexual people a “tipping point” for awareness and acceptance? Watch the Channel 4 News online debate.

First Suzanne Moore caused outrage with a piece in the New Statesman in which she wrote that women were angry with themselves for “not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.”

Then writer Julie Bindel accused the “trans-cabal” of “running a witch hunt every time they get offended”.

Then – most inflammatory of all – Observer columnist Julie Burchill wrote a column called “Transexuals should cut it out” in Sunday’s paper which many considered close to hate speech about members of the transsexual community. The paper’s editor John Mulholland later took the online version down and apologised.

Ever since then, the issue has dominated headlines and social media. But at Channel 4 News we wanted to move beyond the mudslinging and onto a real debate over the issues in our Google+ Hangout. What is it like to live and work as a transsexual person in the digital age?

Sarah Savage, who apppeared on Channel 4’s My Transsexual Summer last year, said it was still a struggle, although things were improving.

“People don’t see the fact we struggle with transphobia … and to get jobs and to get medical help,” she said. However, she said she felt that there had been a vast change from twenty years ago.

Paris Lees, editor of transgender and gender magazine META, said she was still angry about how transsexual people are represented in the media and the establishment, as well as how they are treated in the wider world – but she said she felt things had reached a “tipping point.”

We just want dignity, respect and privacy. If I meet someone with one eye – I don’t expect to know why. Paris Lees, META magazine

“We just want dignity, respect and privacy. If I meet someone with one eye – I don’t expect to know why,” she said.

“I think this is a tipping point, similar to the changes in attitude to gay and lesbian people we saw in the 80s … and the Paralympics and disability last summer.”

Dr Sally Hines, a transgender expert and director of the Centre of Interdisciplinary Gender Studies at Leeds University, agreed that things were changing.

“There is already a very vocal trans movement which has been arguing for years for rights and recognition. Paris is talking about a tipping point – and she’s right. The numbers in the past have been very small – that’s not the case anymore,” she said.

And while social media can lead to online bullying, even trolling – the likes of which forced Suzanne Moore off Twitter following her column – social media expert Gary Ennis said he felt it definitely had a role in giving groups like the transsexual community a voice.

“Social media gives everyone a voice,” he said.