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Asking if we should 'sterilise' trans people shows how much discrimination we still face

We live in an age when a slogan on the side of a bus shapes opinion. Headlines can too

Jane Fae
Wednesday 20 March 2019 17:12 GMT
Munroe Bergdorf talks about trans people feeling unsafe in public spaces

“Should transgender people be sterilised before they are recognised?” asks The Economist.

What’s the harm in asking that, you might wonder? After all, it is “just a debate”. The issue of sterilisation of trans people has been around for some while. Not just in Japan (an excuse for this latest social media misstep), but much closer to home: rewind a decade and you will find this policy being applied in many otherwise liberal European democracies.

France, Sweden, Switzerland and Finland, to name but a few. In Sweden, a policy originating in eugenicist thinking was finally abandoned in 2012, with those who suffered, as consequence, awarded compensation in 2017.

A year earlier, France finally buckled after the European Court of Human Rights upheld a claim by three trans people that compulsory sterilisation before legal gender recognition violated their human rights. Awkward. Although not entirely unexpected, as various international bodies, including the United Nations, had for many years been pointing out that this was, indeed, a human rights issue and any country that respected international norms would need to do better.

That context is useful, as it sets out where the substance of this debate sits right now. As in, there is none. When it comes to sterilising trans folk, it’s a done deal: stop it! Now. Or stop pretending that you respect globally accepted human rights. Because you do not.

Sure. “Should trans people be sterilised?” is a question, in the sense that it meets the syntactic, and linguistic criteria required to be such. And The Economist asked it. In a tweet, which they later withdrew and apologised for.

But as linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky pointed out, grammatical correctness does not prevent a sentence being semantic nonsense. Colourless green ideas, anybody?

An equally “correct” question – though maybe not helpful for Economist sales in the Far East – would be: “Is Japan once more promoting eugenics?”

Racist? A bit. Historically accurate? Definitely: Japan has a long and less than happy history of dancing with ideas of race purity. Yet if we agree that human rights are a good thing, perhaps the better question. Meanwhile, media organisations hope you do not notice how sensational headlines serve a dual function. First up, sensation sells: forced to decide between “dull and worthy” versus speculative and sexy, editors will too often go for the latter.

The BBC, back in the Halcyon pre-Brexit days of 2009, saw fit to ask whether homosexuals should be killed. Well, not quite. They are the BBC, after all. The exact question, responding to deliberations in the Uganda parliament was “Should homosexuals face execution?” This was later changed to “Should Uganda debate gay execution?”

So that's alright then.

But it’s not: it’s really not. We live in an age when a slogan on the side of a bus shapes opinion. Headlines can too.

We know too that “immigrants”, including those born here, and minority groups from LGBT to those with a disability are targeted for violence – sometimes fatally so – on the back of myth.

In January 2017 the BBC's Emily Maitlis promoted an upcoming Newsnight piece on trans children with a tweet asserting “the issue” of the day was surgery for primary school children. No, it’s not. Not anywhere. To her credit Maitlis removed the tweet after this was pointed out. Yet phrasing the debate in that way promotes alarm, hostility and makes it even harder for a very small minority – trans children – to access treatment and support that is already hard to access.

Of course, we expect sensation from tabloids. But I don’t believe the problems that trans people encounter with media coverage are confined to that end of the market.

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I report regularly on violence against trans folk, and I am on the receiving end of the daily hate directed at trans people on Twitter and elsewhere. The most recent was a threat, reported to the police, to come round and do me physical injury. I am in no doubt that much of the framing we see in the media does harm and incites viciousness.

I dream of a time when the tables turn, when the media puts as much energy into examining the stability and motives of those who obsess about trans people.

Until then I can only say: words matter. And if you think it’s OK to spice up your readership figures by sensationalising what are, for some people, literal life and death issues, then you are complicit in the consequences. All of them.

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