Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Loaded Weapon of Free Speech

Along with about 300 others on Monday evening, I stood in the cold outside the offices of The Daily Mail, to mark the death of Lucy Meadows.

We filled half the road. Mail staff, said some, peered from the windows in bafflement. I wouldn't be surprised if many of them had no idea why we were there. For all the lies written about the trans community, there is one thing which most get right - if they address us at all. We are are small in number. But we are growing. This was the biggest gathering of trans people and our supporters ever in the United Kingdom. And an astonishing 196,000 people have now signed a petition demanding the sacking of Richard Littlejohn

Six people spoke to the crowd on Monday. I was one of them. I had been asked to put a few words together, but others had said much of what I wanted to say before me, and powerfully, so I cut it short. I didn't know Lucy Meadows but I tried to focus on her as one of us - without labels - simply a human being - wanting what we all want. To be herself, and to be happy. And yet also doing something which marked her out. Not by being transgender. But by being a teacher. Lucy had expressed her hope that she could change attitudes, teach children about personal integrity, about honesty, about truth. She was denied that chance.

I asked whether those there wanted children to learn the lessons of Littlejohn, about fear, prejudice and hate, or those of Lucy Meadows. I believe it comes down to such a question - the future we want to create for our society. I was shaking by the time I'd finished, and spent much of Tuesday feeling raw with sadness for a woman who simply tried to claim a basic birthright and was possibly driven to her death for it.

Later I ran into journalist Jane Fae, who told me that she had been invited onto the radio to debate the 'free speech' argument, again. I shook my head. You'd be surprised who the invite is from... I'll leave that for her to share. But Burchill this person is not. It made me think that some of the 'middle ground' of the journalistic community, people who couldn't be described as polemicists and who don't make their living endlessly axe grinding, now feel that they should wake up and speak, post Leveson, lest their more thrusting colleagues question if they've Still Got It .

The sterile debate about free speech spins around and around, studded with cliche and empty thinking like bits of broken bottle in a puddle of mud. A few weeks ago, Julie Burchill broke new ground with a widely discussed piece wretched with hate, garnering support from 'libertarians' of various sorts who also enjoyed the chance for a bit of gratuitous ridicule of trans people along the way (as the excellent Marko Attila Hoare writes about here.) And since then we have had plenty of fruitless discussion all the way up to examination of the vindictive, doorstepping Accrington Observer and self appointed judge and jury that is Richard Littlejohn.

One club golfers, the 'free speech brigade' have just one assertion.

That in a 'free' society they should have the right to say or write anything. There's a lot of talk about the potential loss of this right, as if any exploration of its boundaries immediately jump cuts modern Britain into Stalin's Soviet Union circa 1936.

It is funny how this narrative always comes from a lucky, platform owning, largely white, middle class group of people? They have been called the 'Commentariat' - well resourced (financially, socially and culturally), they sit mostly protected from the consequences of the words of others should 'free speech' ever disagreeably come looking for them. Their salaries, their social positions, their access to libel lawyers...and cultural veneration of the platforms from which they are allowed to speak (often a newspaper or broadcaster) keep them safe. The Burchills, the Littlejohns, the Moirs, the Liddells...have privilege. They sit within a cultural fortress that protects them. The libel lawyers are to hand, and even if it doesn't come to that, their social, class or working status will ensure that they are never short of supporters to whom they can turn for nodding approval and a shared sense of vested interest.

It feels very different from another end of the spectrum. If 'freedom of speech' is used by the powerful to vilify the weak for no other reason that it can be used, sometimes destroying its target's right to other freedoms, then the effects can be devastating. The freedom to speak can be used to remove from another their freedom to live in peace, to find happiness, even to be who they are - and the weaker the target, the more likely this is to happen. It is often used this way by the tabloid press because the weak are of course easy pickings; reliable victims who find it hard to fight back. For many minority groups this is a serious problem, and for transgender people it can be literally life threatening. This is because words of hate fall on a group of people who are not protected against any of their potentially disastrous consequences by the social and cultural fortress on which their authors rely for themselves.

The gratuitous insult to a trans person in a newspaper might be read by a million people. Because the trans community is small, diverse, hidden, and until now, scared, few of those million are likely to be equipped with the knowledge to make an informed judgement about such an insult. The space of public understanding into which these (usually uninformed) opinions are fed is often pretty empty. It is thus possible, and routine, for such ideas to sink into consciousness and to shape attitude.

Sometimes the effect is simply direct...many trans people have been insulted publicly by others using language invented by tv comedians - David Walliam's 'Laydee' character for example, but there are plenty of others. Some have been physically attacked to the sound of it. And the poisonous drip of hostile attitude, based usually no knowledge of the issue at all in the mind of the author, takes its toll. Attempted suicide is common amongst people who have this stuff thrown at them day in day out in the name of 'free speech'. And sadly, for some, the attempt is successful - even if they have to try two or three times.

The solution lies not by abandoning a commitment to free speech, but managing society around the concept.

First, innocent or vulnerable people who are attacked need to be able to turn to mechanisms which can protect them. Trans people have few such mechanisms, often. Certainly media regulators are a waste of time...enthralled by the free speech argument, they routinely ignore their obligation to protect within any wider social context because of the ferocity of the media which they are trying to regulate.

Second, those given a platform, and power to broadcast their free speech widely, need to properly understand the responsibilities it brings.

As it stands the freedom to write words that insult, to ruin, to destroy the social standing of innocents, even the freedom to drive the vulnerable into suicide, is something most loudly supported by a privileged group offered a platform to give it out...plus the cultural protection to be mostly protected from getting it back.

It has not crossed the minds of many of this group what being on the receiving end of this 'right', if misused, could really feel like. They have never thought about what it could mean to be forced from your home, because of someone's else's right to express an opinion - even one based on conjecture, prejudice or ignorance. To be insulted in the street. To have your children bullied. To have pictures of you stolen, or money paid to others for vindictive gossip. To be made to leave your job. To lose friends or to receive hate mail. Perhaps even to be driven to despair, and death.

All because of the irresponsible use of a 'right', by others.

Until such people face up to the blind arrogance with which they use terms like 'free speech', until they start accepting that it can resemble a loaded weapon, the situation will not change.

Those of us who have had enough do not want to disarm them. But we do want to stop them gratuitously firing their weapon at the vulnerable and entirely innocent, simply because they feel they can.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Death of Lucy Meadows

I didn't know Lucy Meadows. But like many of those of us who have been through the firewalk of facing down hate and anger and ignorance and prejudice from others in the battle to become ourselves, it almost feels like I did. I don't have to imagine the pain and soul searching that arises before one makes the final decision to go into a process of gender transition, because I have been through it. Of course, I don't know how it was for this talented teacher from Lancashire, but I have yet to meet a trans person who has faced this moment without trauma - usually severe, sometimes terminal.

But Lucy had something else to face. The increasingly monstrous, out of control, irresponsible press detected her. She arrived on their radar because she was a teacher. And her story came to light when her highly supportive Primary School informed parents of the personal journey she was making to be true to herself - in a letter at Christmas last year.

I read now that many parents supported Lucy. She was well liked and good at her job. And of course, a great example to offer a child - a person of courage, self awareness and integrity. A strong message of the value of inner honesty, of beating the odds - given to young people at an age at which they could really absorb and learn from it. Lucy seemed to have seen it this way too. In an email she sent at the time, she expressed the hope that she could "give something back" by educating others about the issue she'd had to face. "I am a teacher after all!", she said.

A parent displays the letter from Lucy's
school. Press photographers routinely
coach subjects over facial expressions
etc to support 'the story' (from The
Accrington Observer Dec 19th 2012)
Three months later she is dead.

It started with the Accrington Observer - a journalist named Stuart Pike filing an agenda laden story which claimed local animosity to Lucy's transition - an attitude that seems to have been a minority view at best, at worst practically non existent beyond a few bigoted parents who were encouraged to vent their opinions, possibly for money. And the ball rolled from there. Soon The Mail got hold of it and the story blew up with Richard Littlejohn adding his own poisonous take. Lucy was told by Littlejohn and others that she had no business teaching these children, that she should disappear. Photos were stolen, showing Lucy in her previous gender role, and one drawing done by a child at the school was acquired without permission. 'Negative' opinions were eagerly sought by journalists, whilst parents who wanted to support Lucy remained uninterviewed or unquoted. It was routine, textbook, 'monstering'.

The press arrived at Lucy's house and camped out. Despite living close to the school, she had to leave absurdly early for work, via a back door that they hadn't discovered, and wait at school until well after it had closed to avoid them. She was upset, under great pressure, and she complained to the effete and worthless Press Complaints Commission.

Finally, last week, her dead body was found, another casualty of the tabloid climate in this country that loves to hate, and to make money from it. Suicide seems likely, though we await the coroner's view - many trans people kill themselves, and many many more try to, because they simply can not bear the prejudice, the isolation, the ridicule...framed by the tabloid press with its unerring vendetta against the 'different', and a lust for the money to be made in exploiting elemental fear when it detects it. Stories involving children, like this one, are like a fruit machine of manufacturable moral panic to the gutter press. And naturally, even much of the reporting of Lucy's death was insulting, insensitive and uninformed.

And so we come to the post mortem...literally I guess for Lucy, but figuratively too...and we look around again at morality free tabloids now regathering to protect their self serving power post Leveson. Amongst those horrified by events, the cry has gone up to get Littlejohn sacked from the Mail. There is less than zero chance of that, and that petition is of course futile - but it is a symptom of the powerless anger so many feel against a group of people who seem to exist in a world oblivious to the concept of there being consequences to the words they write and that with the privilege of a platform comes responsibilities too. Responsibilities to honesty, to decency. But this is a world which is only about readership, and all else is ultimately irrelevant collateral damage. Even death.

The Mail is already defending itself by refuting any proven 'connection' between Littlejohn's piece and Lucy's death. Assuming Lucy's death was suicide, this position from the Mail - or from any of the other scum inhabiting this nest of press vipers - brings new meaning to the word 'disingenuous'. Short of discovering a note that says "Richard Littlejohn has made me kill myself", such a 'connection' will of course never be found. But if writers at the Mail, or the Accrington Observer, or The Sun, or any of the others who are part of this story sleep easy at night because they think this lets them off the hook, they are not just deluded but probably beyond hope.

They remain up to their elbows in this - because they did what they did, because they have done it before, because they did not give a damn about what could happen to innocent people, and because they would do it again - tomorrow - in a heart beat. And likely will.

I am lucky. I transitioned a few years ago. And although I went through a personal hell which lasted about three years, my luck held.  For the most part it was a private process, confined to me, my family and my friends. Ironically, much of the pain felt by me and by those I loved was clearly attributable to attitudes on display in the media every week of the year. From the vicious headlines, the smirking standfirsts, the breathless uninformed (or even lying) copy, to the vindictive comment pieces (Littlejohn's amongst them), to the parade of tv comedians who (then as now) routinely insulted trans people, I had the poison parroted at me, even insultingly replayed to me in the street by strangers.

But at least I didn't appear in the media...and I can barely imagine how that would have felt. At my very lowest points, in the early days of my transition, I felt profound loneliness. I spent months in a kind of slow motion shock as my life fell apart around me. I would lie on the floor of my kitchen and weep, sometimes for hours, as those I loved walked out of my life.

Three things kept me alive. The knowledge - somewhere, somehow - that this was something I simply had to do. That there could be no going back. Second, my love for my children, and the hope that they would return to me (despite the failure of almost all the adults in their lives to help them or to model decent, human behaviour towards me that could have helped them). And third, the love and support of a few friends, trans and not, to whom I owe everything.

But it was a close run thing. And if my life story had been all over MailOnline, forever (with my past, my history, stolen pictures of me, a vindictive commentary), if there had been reporters outside my door stalking me, with cameras every day, I might well have swallowed the bottle of Co-Proxamol that sat like an emergency exit in the bathroom cabinet.

Who knows what happened to Lucy. The Inquest will tell us a little maybe, and I have learned a little more from those who were in touch with her. But from what I know already, it seems pretty clear in one sense at least.

My luck held. My children came back. They fought past the prejudice. And the Co-Proxamol is long gone.

Lucy's luck didn't.

I was lucky enough to be doing an unimportant job, about which no-one cared much. Lucy's first piece of bad luck was that she was trying to do something that actually matters. She was trying to create a better future, teaching children, and ultimately, as she said herself, emblemising something through her own life that she hoped was valuable for children to see and from which they might learn. It was bad luck for her that she cared about these things.

And her second, even worse piece of bad luck, was that the press found her. As they will continue to find other private, entirely blameless transgender people and to destroy their lives, for no reason other than financial gain, until they are finally, properly, stopped.

Rest In Peace Lucy Meadows.

(A respectful vigil in Lucy's memory is taking place outside the Headquarters of the Daily Mail at 6.30pm on Monday March 25th. Details here )

Monday, March 11, 2013

In Istanbul...taking away the fear

In a reflective mood, I flew into Istanbul four days ago for a ten day intense burst of project work on my own. Major responsibility, pretty much all on my shoulders. Nothing new in that...it's my job.

Here I am again, I thought. Challenging myself. If I'm not scared, it seems - if I'm not pushing myself to the limit of what I can bear - then maybe I feel like a failure, a coward.

I take apart my fear sometimes. I know its origin. I am frightened of weakness more than I am of the hurdles I set myself. Indeed I create those hurdles to keep the fear at bay. And that perhaps comes from living a life which looking back now feels uncomfortably characterised by weakness.  I didn't have the courage to face up to the reality of my inner knowledge for decades. As the years went by I buried the knowledge as best I could, and as others came to rely on me more and more, there were more and more reasons to not deal with it. I thought I was doing the right thing. To start with I thought I could hold out, then began to realise I could not. I think I despised myself, from then on, and I live with that legacy now. Indeed I am terrified of feeling it again.

So have responded to that memory with what I can only guess is some kind of personal courage. I say this not in any way to eulogise myself in any way - it's a coping mechanism, a way of trying to drive away the fear in a constant game of chicken with it. Perhaps there's a more a pig headed objective there too - of defeating the fear, defeating the weakness? My life as a war, something that feels familiar? But it means I live a life which feels like a constant struggle between two competing instincts at total odds with each other. I often feel like an exhausted, shell cratered battlefield. The more frightened I feel of what lies ahead of me, the more I must turn on the taps of courage to beat the fear back. I don't do weakness. I have no-one - at all - to be weak to. No-one whose strength I can lean on. For many with my background - cut out of family life, made to move away - that's how it goes.

I struggle to find ways to replenish the energy I need. The more so now that the job in which I - a woman, and a transgender one at that - have worked so hard to prove myself has now elevated another notch in stress and demands on me. As that stress rises, I am ramping up my attempts to face it down, ever bolder. It's what I do. More challenge equals more effort. But will that work? I have been through one monumental collapse of my bulwark against the things I couldn't face already. It was like the engines cutting out mid flight - no fun whatsoever.

I guess the guts I use to get through the day - to do things that maybe you'd never give a second thought to - do have their uses. Today, I was in the Blue Mosque, with all the tourists. I was shoeless and in a headscarf and as I spent time standing and watching, I noticed the small sections cordoned at the back for women to pray.  I joined the women there, after a few minutes of deliberation (me, a Non Muslim, and with my backstory?). But I did it. Wanted to know how it would feel for me. So I knelt down with them. One woman, a young mum with a young baby, smiled at me. I was quiet and prayed with them.

Islam may call him Allah, but he's my God too, I thought.  As I quietly asked him to take my fear away it felt right to be amongst women, in a place only for women, a place where something bigger was in charge.