50.50: Opinion

Why, as an American transgender woman, I don’t feel it’s safe to visit the UK

The BBC prides itself on its impartiality. But its new podcast about Stonewall is another example of the UK media’s bias against trans people

Chrissy Stroop
Chrissy Stroop
3 November 2021, 11.13am

A friend of mine has taken to referring to the UK as “TERF Island”. Sadly, she has a point.

‘Trans-exclusionary radical feminists’ (TERFs) may be a minority, but they are more vocal and influential in the UK than anywhere else in western Europe. Their influence is felt not only at home, but also here across the pond and, I’m sure, in much of the world.

And the major British media outlets are only making matters worse.

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As an American, I don’t follow everything in the British media. I dip into The Guardian frequently, and I find value in much BBC programming.

Lately, however, circumstances have compelled me to look closely at swirling controversies in the British press and left me with less respect for the BBC than I had before.

After all, I’m not just an American; I’m also a transgender woman.

I spent a term studying at Oxford University’s Harris Manchester College in 2002 – and I’ve been back to the UK on a number of occasions since. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time in the country, from sightseeing trips around England and Scotland, to meeting friends, visiting museums, seeing a show in London’s West End, and – of course – spending time in pubs. I especially like those with ties to famous historical figures, and nothing beats a traditional English breakfast in the morning and a pint in the evening.

And yet, since coming out as transgender and beginning my medical transition in 2019, I’m not sure I would feel safe visiting England now.

Nolan Investigates

A case in point is the BBC Radio’s Nolan Investigates podcast, a Northern Ireland-based programme hosted by Stephen Nolan.

A new ten-part series, Nolan Investigates Stonewall, was released in mid-October. It billed itself as a serious exposé of ostensibly overly cosy ties between Stonewall – the UK’s leading LGBTQ+ rights advocacy group, which the podcast unrelentingly characterised as a “lobbying organisation” – and various government and public entities. Including the BBC itself.

The heavy-handed conspiratorial tone of the podcast immediately struck me as more reminiscent of the notorious Alex Jones (a prominent far-Right radio show host in the US) than any serious journalistic investigation.

And I think that any fair-minded listener would soon realise that the podcast is a transparent attempt to undermine the influence of Stonewall, thereby dividing trans people from the rest of the LGBTQ community and making all queer people in the UK – but especially trans people – more vulnerable.

Divide and conquer is a classic authoritarian strategy, and right-wingers hope to weaken the LGBTQ community by scapegoating trans individuals in order to turn cisgender lesbians, gay men and bisexual people against us. Unfortunately, some supposed leftists, many of them queer, are willing to play this game.

In the UK, for example, the LGB Alliance, an organisation much smaller than Stonewall, and with much less public support, has nevertheless been effectively lobbying politicians to turn against both Stonewall and trans rights. The two have become largely conflated since Stonewall, admirably, refuses to bow to the pressure to dump the trans community.

The Nolan Investigates podcast plays up the same old transphobic talking points seen elsewhere, representing problems that do not exist – that familiar trope of ‘men in dresses’ using women’s spaces to commit violence against women, for example – as serious concerns.

It attempts to make transgender people look ridiculous by stoking fear of “hundreds of genders that don’t have legal definitions”. Representatives of pro-LGBTQ organisations are put on the spot and found unable to immediately provide satisfying definitions of terms such as ‘non-binary’ or ‘two-spirit’.

The clearly racist exploitation of the latter term is particularly offensive. The show pointedly did not reach out to Indigenous Americans or Canadians to learn what the expression means to people from the particular First Nations cultures in which it is found.

Only one side is taken seriously – the side that wants to restrict the rights of transgender individuals

It quickly becomes clear that the podcast has made no serious effort to listen to ‘both sides’. Instead, only one side is taken seriously – the side that wants to restrict the rights of transgender individuals. The other side is represented as somehow being both an incompetent punching bag and a cunning threat – at the same time.

Stonewall comes across as some deeply secretive, Illuminati-like institution extending its tentacles throughout the halls of power. In fact, Stonewall is losing influence precisely as a result of these kinds of attacks.

The UK government’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has withdrawn from Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme, an initiative that promotes equality and inclusion for LGBTQ people in the workplace. Media watchdog Ofcom has also withdrawn from the scheme, and the BBC itself is expected to follow suit.

‘Frightened to speak out’

Of course, I’m not the only one to have noticed how one-sided the Nolan Investigates series on Stonewall and trans rights is.

As Vic Parsons from Pink News observed: “A former BBC journalist was quoted as saying that she thinks some remaining employees ‘are frightened to speak out to say what they really think about Stonewall’; there is no mention of the BBC staff who, as reported by Vice recently, feel the BBC has become ‘hostile’ for trans people and those who support trans rights.”

Bullies always play the victim, and that’s exactly what Nolan Investigates has done here. A recent BBC article that paints trans women as sexually predatory “biological men”, attacks Stonewall and gives undue deference to the LGB Alliance also illustrates this pattern.

The impact of such media manipulation is bad for the trans community in Britain, and, because of the UK’s considerable international influence, it’s bad for us in the US and in the rest of the world too.

I’m comforted by the numerous British public figures who have expressed solidarity with Stonewall through the use of the Twitter hashtag #IStandWithStonewall. But what I really want is for the British media establishment to stop taking bad-faith transphobic arguments at face value and, instead, make more space for trans voices on trans issues.

Sadly, it’s looking like it may be a good long while before I feel safe spending my tourist dollars in the UK again – but damn if I don’t miss those English fry-ups.

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