Transforming the Media

The media will always be one of the keenest advocates of the freedom of speech. However, it can play havoc with others’ freedom of expression. In December last year the UK tabloid press derided one of its citizen’s attempts to fast track their ‘male to female’ transition – because the health authorities were too slow to deal with their case. The episode had members of the European transgender community in uproar. Their forum at: resounded with frustration and anger, because it highlighted two very real challenges faced by our community. First; the generally unsupportive attitude of the media; and second; the need for health services that offer more timely transition-related care.

Addressing these concerns has never been more crucial today because according to a November 2010 report by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency, “79 percent of trans people in the EU experience some form of harassment in public, ranging from transphobic comments to physical or sexual abuse.”

Fortunately, there is progress. The UK-based volunteer group Trans Media Watch has prepared an agreement and set of guidelines that seeks to encourage broadcasters’ positive portrayal of transgender people on television.* In looking to combat prejudiced and inaccurate depictions, it has been circulated to all kinds of media outlets - including newspapers too. The UK’s Channel 4 has already agreed to sign up, while the BBC and ITV have shown interest. Thankfully Trans Media Watch today is in ongoing talks with a number of other print publications and journalists' organisations.

Part of the problem lies in a lack of understanding about the transgender issue, as Channel 4 admitted in the UK’s online theatre magazine, The Stage. The size of the transgender population in the UK is at least 1 to 2 percent of the general population, although this figure could easily be higher since, for the reasons stated above, transgender people tend to hide their true selves. This despite many positive signs that countries are now adapting legislation to recognize transgender persons and in turn ensure dignified and indiscriminate access to public services, such as education and healthcare (as the abovementioned report documents).

Richard Köhler, Co-chair of TransGender Europe (TGEU), Europe’s ‘Trans’ NGO network has called the agreement “a good source of inspiration for other countries.” My view is that the European and global transgender community needs to build on the momentum achieved by Trans Media Watch and extend this to other countries. There can be few greater allies than the media in reaching out to society, in helping to eliminate ‘transphobia’ and encouraging true gender expression. And there are myriad ways to achieve this, in addition to voluntary agreements. These range from capacity building and documenting good practice (and exchanging it) to networking and public awareness campaigns. I hope funding for such projects is the only barrier to realizing them.

The agreement prepared by Trans Media Watch is available for download here.

* A survey performed by Trans Media Watch in 2010 showed that 95 percent of transgender and intersex respondents felt the media did not care about them. See the full report here.