All the world’s The Stage

There’s been a thoroughly predictable outcry against The Old Vic theatre’s move to gender-neutral toilets, and trade magazine The Stage invited two cisgender women to write about it. A Twitter storm ensued and the articles were both taken down again, but it’s been reported on social media and on the BBC as the silencing of critics. That isn’t true; the supportive article was taken down too.

That one was by writer and arts producer Amber Massie-Blomfield, who has published the piece on her website.

When I tweeted a pretty innocuous comment in response to the Old Vic’s announcement – ‘This is fantastic, thank you for making this important change to help those of all genders feel welcome at your venue’ – I found my notifications inundated with aggressive responses calling me ‘an idiot’ and asking ‘why do you want women to be assaulted?’. As a cis woman, it was an unwelcome reminder of the levels of intimidation and harassment faced by trans* people every day. Many of those attacking me were apparently, like me, privileged, cis women – and it has made me more committed than ever to use my own privilege to stand alongside the trans community.

Besides, it’s not only trans* people who benefit from these changes. It’s carers looking after someone of another gender to them, parents, and any woman who has ever stood in a long queue waiting for a cubicle to become available, watching men sailing freely in and out of the toilets designated exclusively for them.

These orchestrated pile-ons – and yes, some trans people do it too, albeit not in the massive numbers that anti-trans pile-ons attract– are making it impossible to have any sensible discussions about anything. People take the most extreme positions (eg. thinking gender neutral toilets are a good idea means you want women to be sexually assaulted) and just scream them endlessly.

And some of that screaming is being done deliberately by people who know better.

Here’s Ruth Pearce, whose expertise is in trans healthcare.

One of the most frustrating things about being a trans researcher on Twitter is seeing lies and misrepresentations which are *demonstratably* wrong propagated by journalists and commentators. Anti-trans activists call for “debate” but there is literally not enough time in the day.

Debating trans issues online feels like banging your head against a brick wall. You can produce evidence, appeal to human decency, point out logical inconsistencies – to absolutely no avail. If you manage to bring around one person, others have been spreading the lie elsewhere.

Part of the problem here is that “debate” rarely works to persuade – it’s more frequently a form of political theatre… it’s hard not to feel massively disheartened when I’ve spent days, months, years interviewing people, reading publications, visiting clinics etc, and meanwhile people are running around the internet propagating myths because they read a thinkpiece and all their mates agree.

How a lie can travel halfway around the world

I mentioned recently that there was yet another junk science story doing the rounds about trans people: it claimed that thousands of deaths were linked to puberty blockers, when the actual number of deaths from puberty blocking were zero. The figures were based on the fact that the same drug is prescribed to help terminally ill people, and those people die.

I assumed that it came from the usual religious extremists, but it didn’t. It came from the Daily Mail, and was then amplified.

Media Matters:

On August 25, right-wing U.K. outlet the Daily Mail published an article that misleadingly claimed that England’s National Health Service (NHS) “is investigating issues around hormone-blocking drugs.” Also known as puberty blockers, hormone-blocking drugs “are medicines that prevent puberty from happening” to help transgender youths’ bodies “better reflect who [they] are.”

The article referenced comments Jackie Doyle-Price, parliamentary under-secretary for health and social care, made to the U.K. House of Commons on July 23, which did not specify that the NHS was investigating any drug or raise alarm about puberty blockers. In fact, she said that “the treatments available on the NHS, particularly for children, are appropriate.”

The article wasn’t successful by Daily Mail standards; fewer than 500 people interacted with it online because it was a non-story. But that was before the religious lot got involved.

The piece was picked up by the National Catholic Register, a kind of Fox News for Catholics, which decided to spice it up a bit. It inserted the claims of “thousands” of deaths and “41,000 adverse events”. This got much more traction: 8,400 Facebook interactions.

The same story was also picked up and spiced up by LifeSiteNews, another right-wing evangelical outlet. It got over 15,000 Facebook interactions. Other evangelical sites got in on the act too.

Then the hard right got involved:

Right-wing outlet The Daily Wire published a misleading September 26 article about puberty blockers which was shared by Facebook pages of other Daily Wire figures, including that of founder Ben Shapiro and podcaster Michael Knowles. The article began by misleadingly claiming, “More than 6,300 adults have died from reactions to a drug that is used as a puberty blocker in gender-confused children, Food & Drug Administration data shows.”

For the next two days, Facebook pages of several anti-trans figures associated with The Daily Wire shared the article in posts that earned more than 135,000 total interactions. The Daily Wire’s anti-trans pundits Shapiro, Knowles, and Matt Walsh posted the article on Facebook several times each, each occurring within several minutes of one another

It becomes a who’s who of pricks: Shapiro, Knowles and Walsh posted to millions of online followers, as did the Daily Wire’s facebook account, and other hard-right sites joined in: TheBlaze, PragerU, WND, InfoWars and a favourite of Donald Trump, OANN.

Collectively these outlets reached tens of millions of people with a story that wasn’t true.

This stuff has consequences. The story has now been used by anti-trans activist groups to lobby against (safe) healthcare for trans kids, and it’s already become a “fact” that anti-trans activists use online.

All from a single, badly written attempt at scaremongering.

Sadly this is nothing new. As the Holy Bullies and Headless Monsters blog notes,

…some of the same parties used this tactic to attack gays and lesbian community – junk science mixed with cherry-picked science and amplified. I’ve covered this “formula” on several occasions and thus have many examples of it.

And he does. Malicious misrepresentation of domestic abuse statistics to claim that lesbians are more violent in their relationships than straight people (they aren’t); gay people are promiscuous and don’t have lasting relationships (the research was from 50 years ago when equal marriage didn’t exist and gay people couldn’t be openly in relationships; the study’s own authors said it it wasn’t likely to be representative of all people); that being gay sends you to an early grave (it doesn’t).

But of course if you tell a lie often enough and confidently enough, people believe it.

HB&HM:

Things have definitely changed. Not the lies, mind you, but the amplification of the lies. The ability of conservatives and the religious right to amplify these lies via their networks give their reach more power. It also makes it more difficult for us to refute the lies before they do our community major damage.

…the religious right and their conservative allies can’t rely on the truth to attack the LGBTQ community. So, unfortunately, they are relying on amplification and repetition of lies to beat us down.

That’s entertainment

Image by Martin WeFail. You can buy his disturbing prints at wefail.art.

(Content warning: slurs)

If it were possible to bet on the public pronouncements of terrible people, you could make a ton of money with a very simple rule: if someone has awful opinions on trans people, sooner or later you’ll discover that they have lots of other awful opinions too.

Here’s just one day’s trawl.

First, SNP MSP John Mason lodged a Holyrood motion calling for the Scottish Parliament to restrict abortion. Trans people were shocked – shocked! – by the news that someone who is a vocal critic of trans women’s rights and bodily autonomy would also like to restrict the rights and bodily autonomy of other women.

“This is our shocked face,” we said.

Then, tiresome contrarian Brendan O’Neill of climate-denying, right wing billionaire-funded Spiked incited violence on a current affairs programme. Trans people were shocked – shocked! – by the news that someone whose publication repeatedly incites hatred against minority groups might also incite hatred against other groups.

“No, really, this is our shocked face,” we said. “We’re shocked. So, so shocked.”

What’s almost as tiresome as these tedious arseholes is the fact that a significant number of people couldn’t care less about any of it until and unless their own particular group is suddenly in the firing line.

Mason’s anti-trans stuff merited barely a squeak, but now he’s targeting cisgender women there’s finally talk on whether the SNP’s broad church should be a little less broad, and whether a modern, supposedly progressive political party should accommodate creationists with regressive views. There’s an irony to that, of course: two very high-profile SNP politicians are science deniers too, but because the science they deny is about trans people that’s apparently okay.

And then there’s Spiked, which rose from the ashes of the Balkan holocaust-denying LM and whose writers are reliably on the wrong side of everything.

Despite its origins as a far-left publication, LM quickly tacked rightwards and was beloved of far-right thinktanks. It was against the anti-apartheid sanctions on South Africa, claimed straight people didn’t need to worry about AIDS, attacked environmentalism (the greens were “Hitler-loving imperialists”), told its readers that whaling bans were “cultural imperialism”, was against the no-platforming of the National Front and (as Wikipedia puts it) “engaged in a sustained campaign of denial of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.” They were memorably described by one old socialist as “media pranksters and disco fascists.”

To borrow a phrase from Douglas Adams, LM were a bunch of mindless jerks who’ll be first against the wall when the revolution comes. And yet they’ve carved out an important niche in the UK media.

Despite the obvious fact that you shouldn’t trust any of them to tell you the time, Spiked writers and O’Neill especially have been on the BBC’s speed-dial list for years to rail against feminism, LGBT+ rights, Muslims and of course trans people with very little opprobrium; it’s only when the hateful rhetoric finally extended to “ordinary” people that there seems to have been any sign of surprise, let alone a backlash.

As the Best For Britain Twitter account put it:

Sorry, but if you invite someone who has written pieces like:

Why I’m Sick of Gay Pride
Now It’s The Tranny State
Angelina Jolie’s Mastectomy; When It’s Trendy to Be Ill

and

Breivik: A Monster Made by Multiculturalism

you can’t legitimately feign shock when he talks crap.

But it’s not just talking crap. It’s sowing division and in some cases, hatred. By the time “ordinary” people start to pay attention, those bitter seeds have already been sown.

And the media has played a huge part in it. In much the same way it ignored the danger of Trump because he was good for ratings, it treated genuinely dangerous people like Nigel Farage – who yesterday told the Brexit Party faithful that the people would “take the knife to the pen-pushers in Whitehall” – as ratings fodder. Spiked’s BBC presence has long been massively out of proportion to its UK readership because its writers can be relied upon to say “controversial” things on cue. And thanks in a large part to the state broadcaster, we’ve been encouraged to see hateful, unethical and amoral people such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson as hilarious comic figures.

It’s been really strange to see so many people’s reaction to the Prime Minister’s furious, frightening posturing this week. Boris – BoJo – is bad? But he’s the funny man from the TV!

Because of course, for most of us Boris is the funny man from TV – a character the media continued to push, despite the reality being much darker. This is of course the man who as a journalist, falsified stories; the man who as a more junior politician conspired to have a journalist beaten up; the man who as a schoolboy was part of a group famous for destroying restaurants and humiliating homeless people.

It’s the same with Rees-Mogg, another hilarious rich man from the TV. His unlawful machinations around Brexit are entirely in keeping with his record. Suzanne Moore in The Guardian:

Rees-Mogg is a class warrior (for his class alone) who has a track record of voting down every socially progressive policy. Far from being “eccentric” or “freethinking”, as the extreme right likes to characterise itself, he embodies their tick-box views: anti-gay marriage; anti-abortion; doesn’t believe in climate-change legislation, votes against any rise in benefits, even for disabled people; supports zero-hours contracts and tuition fees. He supported Trump, although he has since distanced himself. This is pure neocon territory.

He’s like a walking version of Spiked. And inevitably, where one lot of intolerance exists, more is just around the corner.

…When the Tory party was pushing for more ethnic-minority candidates, he warned against having too high a proportion of them. “Ninety-five per cent of this country is white. The list can’t be totally different from the country at large,” he said. In 2013, he was “guest of honour” at – and gave a speech to – the annual dinner of Traditional Britain Group (TBG), which describes itself as “the home of the disillusioned patriot”. It wants to return black people to “their natural homelands”.

Can you believe that a man with terrible right-wing views seems to be racist too? This is my shocked face.

I don’t need to start quoting Martin Niemöller to remind you that when you tolerate the mob, sooner or later the mob will come for you. Here’s Marina Hyde in today’s Guardian on the current UK political landscape:

the “big thinkers” who pander to these instincts are never going to be the ones getting hurt.

…To adapt that phrase of the alt-right to whom you tack closer every day: mobs don’t care about your feelings. If I had to come up with an adjective to help you understand mobs, it would probably be mob-like. Very mobby. Mobtastic. If you go to the country in a people v parliament election, you may indeed get elected and be part of a triumphant Tory majority. But when you have been elected, and when you’ve “got Brexit done” – which is to say, when you’ve either taken the UK off the no-deal cliff, or opened up the next however many painful years of trade negotiations fuckery-pokery, which is never going to solve the problems it is magically supposed to – you, then, are “parliament”.

The even angrier people are then versus YOU. That’s when they come for you, because you asked them to. You invited them in. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this line “the revolution devours its children”? That’s you, babe.

There is a well-worn path between demonising minorities and advocating violence – whether literal violence or metaphorical violence such as a “hostile environment” that treats some people as lesser humans, or a state that deprives humans of their rights. But again and again we ignore that and put terrible people on TV because they’re good for ratings. We give them publicity, and a presence. And by doing so we give them terrible power.

In 1984, the educator Neil Postman suggested that in the age of show business, we were “amusing ourselves to death”: that the future would look less like 1984 and more like Brave New World.

As Postman wrote, Huxley’s vision was that the people in power wouldn’t need to seize our rights because we would be persuaded to hand them over voluntarily.

in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.

At the very end of his book, Postman concluded:

What I suggest here as a solution is what Aldous Huxley suggested, as well. And I can do no better than he. He believed with H. G. Wells that we are in a race between education and disaster, and he wrote continuously about the necessity of our understanding the politics and epistemology of media. For in the end, he was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.

Free speech (but not for my critics)

Jessica Valenti, a consistently superb writer, describes a Twitter spat that went out of control. It’s about a New York Times columnist called Bret Stephens, a fierce advocate of unfettered freedom of speech.

When a university professor made a mild joke about him, he attempted to get the professor sacked and then wrote a column in a national newspaper comparing the experience to the Holocaust.

This is someone who mocked sexual assault survivors for wanting a break room with counselors during a debate on rape culture, a writer who questioned the “moral proportion” of firing sexual harassers. Is targeting a professor’s job for a barely seen quip morally proportional? Are high-profile columnists more deserving of a “safe space?”

This is not in any way unusual. For example, Piers Morgan frequently rails against touchy “snowflakes” who apparently can’t take criticism. If you criticise Morgan on social media, he’ll immediately block you. Other high profile free speech defenders such as millionaire comedians take a similar approach, often orchestrating social media pile-ons against anybody who dares question their great wisdom.

The Venn diagram of successful men who rail against “the woke left”, “snowflakes” and “safe spaces” vs men who bully others online or in print is a near-perfect circle.

What these men – and it’s mainly men – advocate isn’t freedom of speech. It’s the protection of their own status and privilege. They want to punch down without anyone of lesser status being able to punch up.

Valenti:

The real snowflakes aren’t rape survivors who request trigger warnings or students who’d like that we use their correct pronouns — they’re people with power who can’t abide even the slightest criticism without using their influence to demand consequences.

Everybody needs good neighbours

Georgie Stone, who approached Neighbours with the idea for her character.

The Australian edition of The Guardian continues to embarrass the UK arm by covering trans issues without scaremongering or platforming bigots. Here’s Alison Gallagher on the news that popular soap opera Neighbours will feature its very first trans character.

…at a time when politicians and publications (including, on occasion, the UK arm of this one) have made trans people’s – and in particular young trans people’s – existence a target for “debate”, there is some nice, uncomplicated good in a young trans person playing a young trans character on a beloved, long-running program.

If longstanding viewers couldn’t think of a single trans person before, now they can.

If a young trans person has never seen someone they could relate to onscreen, now they will.

And to that one young person, it could mean an awful lot.

#Don’tBuyTheSun

FT.com:

A long-running boycott of The Sun newspaper on Merseyside reduced Euroscepticism in the area and had a positive influence on its Remain vote in the Brexit referendum, university researchers have concluded.

It’s a single study and isn’t peer-reviewed, but it’s worth considering alongside the fact that Northern Ireland and Scotland, where The Sun has different editorial teams and much smaller circulations, are also significantly less eurosceptic than England.

As Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy rapped about TV: “Is it the reflector or the director? Does it imitate us or do we imitate it?”

Sympathy for these devils

I’ve just been to see the documentary Hail Satan? at Glasgow’s Film City, formerly Govan Town Hall. It’s a fascinating place, and Hail Satan? is a fascinating film.

The film is about The Satanic Temple, a group of merry pranksters with a very serious purpose: they draw attention to and sometimes battle the US religious right’s attempts to impose theocratic legislation under the guise of religious freedom. For example, if the Christian Right can have the Ten Commandments outside government buildings, shouldn’t Satanists have a statue of Baphomet?

It’s funny, often hilariously so, but it’s also deadly serious. As Variety notes:

The Satanic Temple’s combination of shock tactics and anti-discrimination lawsuits is check-and-mate against America creeping towards a Christian theocracy.

…Satanists can be women in tattoos or geeky men with bowties. There’s hair colors of all shades and people who wouldn’t get a double-take at the grocery store.

There are also quite a few gender non-conforming people: I think I saw more trans women in Hail Satan? than I have in the last ten years of watching TV and movies. And that’s part of the point. The Satanic Temple is comprised of, and speaks for, the people demonised (pun fully intended) by religious extremists: the women, the people who don’t want to be pregnant, the trans folks and anybody else who doesn’t fit a very narrow, politicised interpretation of God’s will. The documentary essentially asks: when the fundamentalists and the extremists have the power and the money and the government and the TV stations and the newspapers on their side, how do you fight back?

The trailer’s here. The film’s on limited UK release just now and is also available to stream online.

“False balance is a serious problem”

The UK has lost its measles-free status, which is deeply worrying.

In response the BBC asks, “why are some children not being vaccinated?”

Dr David Robert Grimes may have part of the answer. On Twitter this morning he posted this:

Asked by regional BBC station to discuss falling vaccination rates – grand, except they wanted me on against someone claiming vaccines are dangerous. Explained this was textbook false balance, unethical, & against BBC trust guidelines. They wouldn’t budge, so I’m not doing it.

Grimes isn’t bashing the BBC here. As he says, it’s a problem across the entire mainstream media.

There is no debate on vaccination. There are not two sides. There is one side, which is where all the facts are, and then there are cranks. To pretend that both sides have equal value costs lives.

The BBC knows this, because it’s reported on it.

Vaccines against preventable illnesses like measles, tetanus, mumps and rubella are safe and effective, but healthcare professionals still find themselves having to push back against vocal anti-vaccination campaigns.

…The problem facing medicine is global, where disinformation about vaccines is readily accepted as having equal or greater value than the work of scientists who have spent their careers fighting disease.

As Grimes wrote previously in The Guardian:

This is the crux of the issue with false balance – no matter how noble the intention of media outlets, presenting science and pseudoscience in an adversarial format gives a false impression that an issue is scientifically contentious. Worse again, it gives free rein for dubious motivations to masquerade as scientific opinion. Whether the issue is vaccination, climate-change, alt-med or anything else, presenting an evidence-free belief as being on equal footing with an established scientific understanding is corrosive to public understanding.

I’ve encountered this too, and refused to go on air with people who flatly deny established facts, or who – often wilfully and maliciously – attempt to mislead listeners about science or the law.

I’ve made this joke before, but: imagine if there was a news story about owls, and the programme demanded the RSPB debate someone who refused to accept that owls exist. We’d be appalled, and yet the only damage that “debate” would do is waste a bunch of people’s time. When people deny settled science, when they scaremonger about things (or people) that are perfectly safe, these so-called debates can lead to very serious consequences. In the case of vaccination, they can kill.

Grimes again:

it’s irresponsible and lazy to contrive a debate over something that has a real human cost.

 

 

Trans Guardian staff quit over transphobic reporting and “face to face rows”

Buzzfeed news:

Two Transgender Employees Of The Guardian Have Quit Over Its “Transphobic” Reporting

…Her resignation marks a flashpoint in what multiple sources at the Guardian have described to BuzzFeed News as a deepening internal war over the rights of transgender people – and how the organisation reports on them. Staff members across several departments accused the paper of “institutional transphobia”, peddling transphobic tropes, and allowing a bitter schism to develop between pro- and anti-trans journalists.

…Many at the paper who share her concerns told BuzzFeed News that the internal divisions over trans rights have resulted in face-to-face rows in the office, a widening rift between the UK and US offices (which is largely populated by pro-trans writers), and moves against staff who protest against transphobia. All of which, sources said, is affecting morale.

As the story notes, the paper’s editorial stance has also persuaded high-profile trans columnists to refuse further commissions and moved staff to make formal complaints about the framing and language used in coverage of trans-related issues.

The Guardian and [sister title] Observer have in previous years run opinion columns using language such as “trannies”, “shemales”, “man in a dress”, “dicks in chicks’ clothing” and articles that have argued that “sex change surgery is modern-day aversion therapy” – equating transition, which is elective and saves lives, to electric shocks to “cure” homosexuality, which is state-sponsored torture.

The Guardian is quick to condemn other newspapers’ shameful coverage of minorities, but it appears to be throwing stones from inside a glass house.

Playing video games

In the Mass Effect series, players can customise Jane (or John) Shepard (left). The version here is from the launch trailer; my Jane looked very different.

Writing in Metro, Owl Stefania writes about the importance of video games in her coming out process: “Growing up, video games were my escape, providing an avenue where I could explore who I was.”

I’ve written about this too, and a version of the following article was originally published in 404 Ink magazine in late 2017.

Video games have a special appeal for trans people. In addition to the usual escapism from the everyday, some of them enable you to play as the gender you feel you should be, not the one you’ve been assigned.

For many trans people the first such games were MMORPGs, massively multiplayer online role-playing games. Many of those games enabled you to play as all kinds of characters from humans to hobbits and space aliens). As many trans people discovered, when you communicate with other players in an MMORPG they’re quite happy to stay in character, so if your character is female you’ll be addressed as such. That isn’t always a good thing — there’s plenty of misogyny, homophobia and transphobia online, and online games aren’t immune to that — but as trans gamer Rissa Trent writes on MMOGames.com, being able to present as a female character is incredibly powerful. “To some people, it might just be pixels, but to those of us who want to break free from everyday life, and our own skins, it’s everything.”

I never really got into MMORPGs, but I fell hard for a sci-fi series called Mass Effect. In the first three Mass Effect games you play Commander Shepard, and that commander can be John or Jane. Not only is Jane Shepard better company — she’s voiced by the wonderful Jennifer Hale, who makes even the daftest dialogue breathe — but you can completely customise the character’s appearance in the game. Hair colour, facial structure, eye shape, jawline, hair, makeup… given enough time, and believe me I gave myself enough time, you could create a Jane Shepard who was an idealised version of your feminine self. 

To then have the game offer romantic options beyond the usual straight man/woman binary — something that caused controversy at the time, because while gamers had no problem with interspecies alliances (the same man-with-sexy-space-chick trope that goes back to Star Trek), same-sex attraction couldn’t possibly be a thing in the far future — was the cherry on top. Sadly the game wouldn’t let my character have a relationship with the character I really liked, the gorgeous, kick-ass soldier Miranda Lawson, and I clearly wasn’t the only one disappointed: the internet is packed with fan fiction where Jane and Miranda are an item.

Mass Effect and MMORPGs (and other games where you can be a girl, such as Dishonored 2 or Destiny) are very different games, but they both offer trans people something really important: the opportunity to inhabit your preferred gender, if only for a while. And as games get more realistic and immersive, that’s going to become even more powerful.