Heresy: say what you see

I know this is not going to win friends in some quarters. On the other hand, some things do need saying.

I am in the business of change. More precisely, campaigning to bring about real lasting change across a number of issues. That means a lot of things, with different tactics applied to different situations. Sometimes direct action. Sometimes using the courts. Sometimes lobbying politicians.

Crucially, it means two other things: having a clear understanding of what the issue is that I am taking exception to…and having a clear idea of what I’d like to see happen instead.

Evidence is key. Not knee-jerk reaction.

So I am not terribly happy to read the froth following on from last week’s sad incident involving the trans individual – David Burgess, aka Sonia – meeting their death under the wheels of a tube train.

To read some commenters, one would almost imagine that the press staged the whole episode for the purposes of having a pop at transgender. Huh?

Everything the press has done has been “wrong”. Its also, according to some, deliberate falsehood. Huh? Really?

Let’s pass on the fact that there isn’t much point to making up facts in this case, given the wealth of stuff already out about it. Let’s pass on wondering why editors and journalists would risk destroying their careers to make up stuff that is nasty about us poor down-trodden trans men and women.

Nothing works. From the earliest reports that a “man in a dress” had been pushed under the wheels of a train, to the more recent outing of same as someone who advertised sexual services for money.

Which leaves me wondering what people would have liked instead. No publicity at all? Ah, but then the press would be colluding in the murder of a trans woman by refusing to publicise the case.

And “man in a dress”? Yes? My partner asked me if I’d be upset if the press wrote about me in such terms. Darn right I would be. I’d be on the line instantly to the paper concerned or, if it was my obituary, I’d hope that relatives would be doing the same.

But if I’d just been subject to what might have been a violent attack by a transphobic individual and the safety of other trans women depended on information getting out quickly, I think I could live with that.

So say what you see. That particular report came directly from police statements, in turn circulated to drum up info. Often, the real issue with what gets reported starts well before journalists get involved – with police statements that are themselves confused, transphobic even.

What were the police meant to do? Say nothing? No way. As a community we’d have howled in rage if they’d done that. Report the death of “a man”? Of “a woman”? And again risk failing to elicit interest amongst those most likely to be directly affected by this incident.

Then there’s the subsequent gendering. Personally, I am still not clear what the victim would have chosen, if asked. They weren’t, as far as can be told, transitioning fully. They lived a double life, with many of their closest colleagues not having an idea about their gender identity. They achieved significant things in the legal field as “David”: so should we discount that? Should we assume that they did identify as female unless we KNOW?

One poster suggested that journalists should have done their own digging…not relying on the police. Really? Apasrt from the fact that such digging might turn up unsavoury stuff (as below), is that honestly what we want? On a major news story, 40 or 50 journalists all hammering round to the front door of bereaved relatives, shouting questions, phoning up, taking pics…grabbing pics of the deceased from wherever they can get them?

Or would it be better if the media respected the grief, took a prepared statement, and reported that – rather like the way they do now?

And what about the escort angle? Sadly – and I think I have more than a little right to have a go at this, given that I have been lobbying on these issues for years – this IS a story. It shouldn’t be. Its prurient. Sniggering. Irrelevant. But it IS a story. Would be whether the individual was straight or gay, male or female, trans or cis.

If its untrue, then papers publishing it deserve to be exposed. But why would it be? I write about sex and sexuality. I have spoken to many, many individuals in similar situations: people who indulge in various activities in their spare time – including taking money that they don’t need for services (because that payment aspect fuels a particular fantasy) – and who would lose pretty much everything, including their job, if exposed.

This case highlights the failure of the recent ruling in respect of Max Mosley, in which a judge slammed the News of the World for an exposé that lacked any public interest merit. I said at the time that ruling was only slightly helpful to those with “interesting” private lives…since it left wide open the possibility of stories exposing people with public roles.

Here we have a top lawyer, whose work has been influential in changing the law in some key areas, discovered to have been doing something that was possibly unlawful, almost certainly considered improper according to the standards of the legal profession. And its titillating.

Are we saying that the law, as it stands, regards that as a private matter? Of no public interest? Bollocks!

I repeat, I absolutely think it should be off limits. But to claim – to pretend – that printing such a story is primarily motivated by transphobia is stretching the bounds of credulity.

No. The press is far from brilliant when it comes to covering trans issues. But the criticism I am hearing in this case seems to go far deeper: to be almost as absolute as implying that if the press write about transgender at all, it is to be condemned.

That, I would suggest, is just plain bonkers – and likely to rebound big time.

Meanwhile, there are things in the coverage of the present case I’d like not to see. But so far, I haven’t seen much that is much worse than the general run of the mill issues – certainly no conspiracy

We shall see. This case has some way to run. It may yet transpire that someone somewhere has fibbed, in which case they should be hung, drawn and quartered for it.

But leaping up and down, calling names, and having not the faintest what we’d like to see instead is the fast track to sounding like cranks and not being listened to at all.


About janefae

On my way from here to there
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12 Responses to Heresy: say what you see

  1. Phoebe says:

    I think you’ve brought me around a bit on this one.

    In liability terms it would seem fairly ridiculous, potentially dangerous for media to report something other than the official (ie: Police or other legal body) version of what is happening, partly because their version of things is the legally somewhat official one, and anything they find from other sources is going to be treated as hearsay and giving it their weight runs the risk of getting in trouble.

    There are also a few questionable issues around a tendancy of appropriating victims into “our” own image, either within the transsexual community or bits of the wider transgender community, which means that at each point that a victim doesn’t fit each of the finer details of the accepted “transsexual” or “transgender” model the disconnection is branded some sort of erasure of their true identity, rather than it being recognised that in fact there are many ways gender variant people live and are known, which frequently don’t fully fit the accepted “categories” and frequently don’t have their own specific subminority label, or where the person in question doesn’t particularly identify with such a label and would potentially reject it themselves.

    It’s obviously important to try and make sure that trans people’s identities and histories aren’t erased or rewritten after death (by the police, by the media, even by their families sometimes). But challenging those phenomena by enforcing another erasing model on unknown or barely known or barely understood situations is deeply unhelpful.

  2. chrissie says:

    “But to claim – to pretend – that printing such a story is primarily motivated by transphobia is stretching the bounds of credulity.”

    Not sure what your point is, Jane.

    It is not the printing of the story that is the problem. It is how the story is PRESENTED by some (not all) papers.

    Of course the LTP and Met Pol provided the details. But the decision on how to present the story was made by the various journalists and editors concerned, and it is THEY who present the facts in a way that dove-tails with their paper’s “personal” and political views.

    I think in the case of the Mail and the Sun, transphobia certainly played a part in how they chose to present the story as a whole, especially the prurient follow-up revelations about Sonia’s private life.

    There were several aspects of Sonia’s life that probably played a large role in the Mail’s decision to attack her memory. She was transgendered, and we know what the Mail thinks of us. She was a Human Eights lawyer, and we know what the Mail thinks about such folk. She worked in immigration case law, and again we know what the Mail thinks about immigrants. The Mail found that Sonia ticked three of its “daily hate” boxes, and that was manna from heaven to them.

    “Are we saying that the law, as it stands, regards that as a private matter? Of no public interest? Bollocks!”

    In some cases it is indeed a private matter. That is for the courts, and not you or I, to decide. But does the Mail investigate every death in such detail? Do they always go into the background of every person killed and investigate for possible criminal behaviour? No, they do not. So why did they do so in this case?

    Would they have done that if the woman concerned was “just” another lawyer, or a secretary, or a shop worker? Of course not. They dug further because Sonia was transgendered and the death attracted their attention and then, in their eyes, they found they had hit paydirt.

    “I repeat, I absolutely think it should be off limits. ”

    But you earlier seemed to be stating that you thought those revelations WERE in the public interest.

    “certainly no conspiracy”

    Who has suggested such a thing? The fact that one or two papers displayed their traditional bigotry, in the way they dealt with the story, does not amount to any press-wide conspiracy, nor do I know anyone who has claimed that to be the case.

    “But the criticism I am hearing in this case seems to go far deeper: to be almost as absolute as implying that if the press write about transgender at all, it is to be condemned.”

    Again, I have read a fair few blog entries and comments on the handling of this story, and not read one which criticises the press as a whole. The criticisms I have read, and made myself, are aimed where they are deserved.

    Having said that, the way this story has been treated by some papers certainly highlights the obvious problems with the idea of self-regulation, and in that context it ties in with the wider matter of the need for independent oversight of press standards.


    • janefae says:

      “Not sure what your point is, Jane.”

      That over-reaction by many in the trans communioty is deeply unhelpful and will get us nowhere.

      “It is not the printing of the story that is the problem. It is how the story is PRESENTED by some (not all) papers.

      “I think in the case of the Mail and the Sun, transphobia certainly played a part in how they chose to present the story as a whole, especially the prurient follow-up revelations about Sonia’s private life.

      “There were several aspects of Sonia’s life that probably played a large role in the Mail’s decision to attack her memory. She was transgendered, and we know what the Mail thinks of us. She was a Human Eights lawyer, and we know what the Mail thinks about such folk. She worked in immigration case law, and again we know what the Mail thinks about immigrants. The Mail found that Sonia ticked three of its “daily hate” boxes, and that was manna from heaven to them.”

      Sorry, but no, no (and thrice no). You ask later where I see people suggesting conspiracy: it is precisely in this idea that it is done “in order to further an agenda”.

      The idea that you “know” what the Mail thinks about such folk is seriously worrying. It means you don’t actually need to go out and find evidence, since the assertion becomes enough.

      You ask: “Do they always go into the background of every person killed and investigate for possible criminal behaviour?” er, yes, actually. Or rather, a small army of researchers, hangers-on and the like tend to do that for them.

      I very much doubt that any reporter at the Mail (though incidentally, it wasn’t the Mail that turned up the escort angle) did any research on this story beyond reading the story as written in This is London, and giving it a minor tweak for copyright purposes. (That’s also why the Mail story is given as by a Staff Reporter, not a named hack).

      Where did that come from? Probably from someone on one of the forums, picking up £500 for feeding that tidbit in to the Mail.

      And no: the escort stuff is NOT legally a private matter. That’s not an assertion on my part. That is pretty much existing case law following the Eady judgment and several commentaries on same that followed by lawyers of the rank of QC and upward.

      The idea that the Mail “dug further” because David/Sonia was transgendered just doesn’t match how the paper works – and isn’t borne out by the fact that the report isn’t by a named reporter. It’s a newsdesk cut-and-paste job. Of course its far more of a story than it would have been had the victim been A N Other lawyer or secretary or shop worker…because there is a sliding scale.

      Shop worker does something a bit iffy is minor news (in most cases). Major legal figure does ditto is always going to be news until we change attitudes big time.

      And no: I’m not being contradictory in asserting this IS story whilst also believing it should be off limits. It is a story because the public laps it up. It is a story because despite recent advances in privacy law, a top lawyer engaged in activity that may be unlwaful, almost certainly attracts accusations of impropriety, is newsworthy.

      I repeat – again and again – it shouldn’t be. It is.

      As for this stuff about all the criticism being deserved? Really?

      Seems to me there are about three issues here. Original reporting of case, which was based on police reports, which themselves were run past “community representatives” before being put out there. If anyone is to “blame” then maybe its our own community?

      Second is the froth that has followed – and the worst that seems to be going on is utter confusion over gendering…which even permeates your comment here. I didn’t know the victim. Reports suggest not a single identity being forged at great personal risk, but a double life being led. That is sad, for loads of reasons: but it also makes me very unsure as to what identity was uppermost or claimed.

      Third is the escort story. Which for loads of bad reasons IS news. But if Sonia was really doing that, they ran a daily risk they must have been well aware of.

      Enough: I knew this wouldn’t be popular.. but you don’t change things by taking potshots at the wrong target – as Prof David Nutt was so eloquently explaining today.


      • Phoebe says:

        RE: Community representatives, with trans community politics being of the degree of disorganisation it finds itself in, “community representatives” could potentially be anyone, maybe not even from the trans community (I’m assuming that it’s not impossible that many cop shops might have just the one LGBT liaison rubberstamper covering all LGBT issues as a ), although “pick a random token trans person to rubberstamp press releases” isn’t impossible and would be plenty unreliable in the absence of any decent* well established trans community group for them to recruit through.

        This inability to collectively sort our shit out and build some sort of broad united(ish) group probably is at fault for these issues though.

        *By which I mean featuring broad involvement of and dedication to supporting issues facing a diverse range of trans people rather than transsexual or transvestite groups posing as “all trans issue” groups.

  3. Paris Lees says:

    Jane I couldn’t agree more. Though I truly believe the sensational aspect of this story clearly owes much to the trans aspect, I don’t believe the story in an attack on transgender per se.

    I had an awful experience on Saturday night; I overheard some people, some gay men and female friends, joking about a woman in the kebab shop opposite the queue we were standing in. I didn’t actually hear them say anything transphobic but I did catch the line ‘Maybe it is. Ha – maybe it’s that one that got pushed under the train at Kings Cross”. Though I hadn’t heard enough to be 100% sure I was right, I was inwardly LIVID. They are very lucky I didn’t earwig on them sooner. Needless to say they did not get their place back in the queue after leaving for a bit.

  4. chrissie says:


    I “know” that the Mail is transphobic because I have read the evidence of it, scores of times.

    Are you seriously suggesting that it is not?

    Are you seriously suggesting that papers do not spin a story in order to suit their political and social agenda?

    “Enough: I knew this wouldn’t be popular.. ”

    Oh, come off it, Jane.

    You set up a “straw-man” argument in that blog post, misrepresented others words and views, and then posted it in Trans Media Watch with a tag line “Lighting the blue touchpaper and standing back”.

    That gave away the fact that you intended to start a row.

    Why do you bother with us and our views, when you seem to enjoy fighting your own battles so much, to the extent of seemingly starting wars in order to do so?


    • andrea says:

      the ‘intention to start a row’ is your perception.

      I would imagine knowing Jane her intention was to open up debate by making a very valid point.

      Knowing that reaction to her piece wouldn’t be all positive and writing it regardless isn’t the same as intentionally starting a row.

    • Phoebe says:

      Chrissie: Jane might be being a bit daft lighting the blue touch paper and stepping back, but I think (from this, but also having discussed a lot of this stuff with her at length) that she is primarily trying to bring her fairly broad journalistic experience to the trans community for us to make use of it, rather than to stir up shit. She’s more likely to be stepping back from the lit touch paper out of being uncomfortable with conflict than out of not caring that there’s going to be some backfire over challenging the way the trans community deals with the media.

      Personally I think it probably is about time we look at the way the interwebactivist trans community deals with the media. We’ve taken many broad ideas, and a few tactics/resources and simplified them to a point where they’re not useful any more. Personally it’s one reason why I’m not on-board with TransMediaWatch — I think studying the media for bad examples (and crying out about them) is a pretty unhelpful way of going about the project of liberation. That’s not to say that it’s not worth studying transphobia in society and then media to help better understand the problem of transphobia but developing and speaking out about the most perfect understanding of it will only continue to underline it, it will never end it.

      Whilst it’s fair to say that the Mail is a very right wing newspaper on the whole it’s also fair to say that all the mainstream newspapers are pretty unpleasant on occasion about trans people. The daily mail bash doesn’t make sense outside of putting it in context with the Guardian (who have recently started publishing trans activists outright MAKING SHIT UP, which doesn’t do us a lot of good in terms of long term credibility, and previously ran a long series of explicitly transphobic rants from various “feminists”), or many other papers left and right wing (who screw up on posthumous pronouning quite frequently following police documentation, and squeeze a bit of innuendo out of it if they can get away with it).

      It *is* important to get a better understanding of how the media industry turns source material into copy and where the information issues are happening. It is also important to re-examine our own assumptions about transgender victims (expecially the way that they are frequently put into a fulltime transitioning transsexual mould where many may have had more complicated lives and identities than that).

      Check out this article for a fairly in depth look at how we (as a trans community) handle the memory of trans victims, it’s pretty good:

      As a community who have long in the absence of good information about victims, good information about what’s happening to us, good information about why bodies act around us the way they do, good information about so many things that affect us we’ve gotten used to drawing assumptions from probabilities, guesses, anecdotes, and using the soft evidence we have, testimonies of how we feel about our situations and so on, to demand better treatment. We have a shared knowledge comprising of a disorganised community of individualised experiences without a wider understanding of systems and contexts.

      The answer to gaining better information isn’t to resent it’s challenge to previous feelings based politics around “knowing” what the Daily Mail is “like” and similar “facts”, it’s for us to grow up and use it to make us stronger. There is a growth of politicised trans journalists right now who will prove useful in understanding why the media does what it does the way it does. I disagree with Jane about politics of a number of different issues but we don’t have to agree on everything for me to accept her expertise about the structure of the media information chain and where the problems are happening.

    • janefae says:


      maybe worth calming dwn. You are reading a lot into various bits of phraseology…which is good knock about stuff, but i am sure you’d hate it if i did the same back at you.
      Like: the assertion that the Mail must have researched this piece, which is so unlikely as to be close to nonsense.

      Of course I’m not suggesting that papers DON’T spin stories. Oh. Wait a minute, though. Now you are spinning just a bit! And setting up a “straw man” about what I may or may not be thinking or doing.

      Let’s just pause.

      The reason for writing this post is I am sick to death of what I see as the near wholly counter-productive attitude by many in the trans community towards the press. It mirrors a similar trend I hit elsewhere, where myself and about half a dozen other journalists absolutely favourable to a particular issue on a certain board were constantly enduring jibes about untruthful journalists. Was that helpful? Did it win friends for the activists?

      Not really.

      My blue touchpaper comment was because I know full well that this issue is a sensitive one. But what on earth do you mean by my setting out to “cause a row”? I could as well lay that one at the door of posters who write stuff about the press that is uninformed about the way the press works. People who persistently post untruths about the media could as easily be represented as causing a row.

      At base, I think the fuss about David/Sonia does our community a disservice…because it serves to trivialise and to create enemies. I am absolutely out there when it comes to the story about Nina this morning: I’ve been on the phone pretty persistently to all manner of bods for the last couple of hours…and I am absolutely with you in doing something about the issue – and also the appalling PA piece that started the rot.

      Once more: don’t blame the Mail. As far as I can see, they’ve just rehashed the PA piece plus previous stories.

      Yes. I tend to be out on my own a bit. But then, that’s because I have a 30-year track record of successfully taking on organisations on behalf of others, and frequently winning…and I find the mess of petty politicking mostly slows that down. That is not to say I am seeking confrontation with the trans community: rather, I AM looking to ask that people take a more measured view of things, because the unmeasured view out there right now is starting to get in the way and create barriers.


  5. Tam says:

    It’s refreshing to observe someone openly provoking public debate and independently chasing up org’s as an advocate and reporter on gender-non-conforming people being pummelled thru the either/or male/female binary systems.

    I have been confused by the end-game of Trans Media Watch and other closed groups who are not open or transparent or distracted by self-serving careerism and politicking.

    I also wanted to raise the unresolved issue of confirming the assigned gender of a gendervariant individual via GRA/GRC policies, as some of the commentary regarding this case has been very uncharitable and almost relishing in the ‘failure’ of individuals to go thru XYZ to confirm their status as ‘real transsexuals’ and therefore not deserving of any legal protections or privacy.

    This case certainly reveals a lot about how transphobia works in our society and where the “trans community” is at with regards to solidarity and support and transparency, you don’t need permission from on-high to write to trans prisoners or get involved with advocacy or volunteer for homeless shelter or publish your own experiences and stories honestly.

    Tam x

  6. Paris Lees says:

    Tam – I think you are being incredibly unfair to Trans Media Watch, and I can assure no one in TMW is in it for career-serving and politicking. We’re just a group of people, some media-savvy, who don’t like the way trans people are portrayed in the media, and who try, with no funding, to do what we can about the situation. It’s not closed. That’s why we have a facebook group so everyone can debate media portrayals. And lack of tranparancy is because we fear the tabloid journalists who may wish to dig dirt on us and cause trouble. Let’s face it, these fears are quite reasonable.

    If you would like to talk more about what TMW is trying to achieve ‘behind the scenes’ then I’d be happy to talk about projects which the revealing of wouldn’t jeapordise their success. And FYI, lots of organisation, including GIRES, and the Gender Trust of which I am a trustee, work behind the scenes all the time. The Gender Trust is actually on an advisory panel trying to reform the current situation of what to do with trans prisoners. Perhaps we are to blame for not publicising what we actually do more, but I suggest you judge people who are trying to do good work for the cause a little less harshly in future.

  7. Tam says:

    See Phoebe’s post above and google Queer Beograd, to clarify it is a valid critique of the individual model VS social model as oppression is multi-layered, its not just a surface of tabloid headlines and ignorant journalists.

    With regards to silencing critiques and activism, well we all know that censorship, burning books and one-size-fits-all leads to some rather unpleasant ideologies.

    I’m not a celebrity but I have contributed to numerous research projects and educational resources over the years and I’m glad Jane Fae can see the bigger picture, if anyone wants to ask me about the status of my genitalia in relation to my human rights or certification of gender feel free, although it doesn’t change the validity of this ongoing critique and feedback.

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