Deny and distract

Grief is a horrendous thing, and it’s something we all process in different ways. And Brianna Ghey’s mum, Esther, is grieving something no parent should have to go through: the death of her child, a death whose brutality and ferocity are beyond most people’s understanding.

With grief comes guilt, an endless parade of what-ifs and if-onlys that come to torture you in the hours where you can’t sleep. And I think Esther Ghey is feeling that acutely right now, because any parent would: of course you’d spend endless hours wondering what you missed, what you could have done differently, what single thing would have prevented this terrible thing from happening. Trying to make sense of the senseless is what we humans do.

The latest reports suggest that Ghey thinks that social media may have played a part in the death of her daughter. And the way in which this is being reported is starting to look like victim blaming. If Brianna hadn’t been so active online maybe she wouldn’t have been so isolated in real life, and maybe that would mean she wouldn’t have been picked for her vulnerability, and maybe…

I don’t agree with her, although I understand why Brianna’s mum is on a mission: for many years I’ve been delivering lectures about the regulation of the internet and social media, and sadly every year there are new calls for regulation from yet another grieving parent of yet another kid who should still be here and who is trying to make some sense of a senseless tragedy and ensure no other child experiences what their child experienced. But with this particular horror the press has a vested interest in the internet-did-it narrative, because it lets the real guilty parties off the hook.

Newspapers blaming the internet for Brianna’s murder have spent six or seven years demanding the institutionalised bullying of trans kids in schools, have fought tooth and nail against hate crime legislation, have portrayed anti-trans hatred as acceptable “debate” and have continually platformed people and organisations who say that trans people are monsters to be hated and feared and eliminated from society.

As one of the people I follow on social media put it: if you think social media’s bad, you should see what they put in the papers.

LGBTQ+ people and advocates have been trying to raise the alarm for years, and again and again their warnings have been ignored or even ridiculed. And now that the very thing they feared and tried to prevent is happening, the press, politicians and public figures are doing their very best to deny or distract.

I’m writing this the day after it emerged that a non-binary kid in the US died after a savage beating by multiple teenagers in the school toilets, a beating that appears to be because of their gender identity; they lived in Oklahoma, whose schools are run by one of the most viciously anti-trans bigots around. Earlier this month, it emerged that a trans teen was stabbed multiple times in North London, an attempted murder apparently because others took exception to seeing a trans person. And despite the best efforts of the press to play it down, the murder of Brianna was in part because one of her killers was repulsed by the fact she was trans.

I have enormous sympathy for Brianna’s mum. But I think that in her grief and in her pain, in her attempts to make sense of something so senseless, she’s unaware that others are seeking to exploit her, to turn the focus away from the press, the politicians and the public figures who’ve spent six-plus years trying to make the world more lethal for trans and non-binary people.

I got a call from the BBC last week asking me to come on air regarding Brianna; not to talk about her murder, or the climate of hatred that makes so many of us genuinely afraid, but whether we should ban kids from having phones. I declined, of course. But the framing is telling. There’s no interest in investigating what’s really contributing to the hatred that led to the murder of a young woman, the attempted murder of another and the attack that appears to have killed a third teen. Because that would mean asking questions whose answers are far too uncomfortable, and far too close to home.




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