Nobody will ever know for sure what desperate thoughts Lucy Meadows may have had in the hours leading up to her suicide last Tuesday writes Sam Feeney. As a 32 year old primary school teacher, only three months into her process of gender transition, she had undoubtedly been under enormous personal stress as she summoned the courage every day to live her life as the woman she always knew she had been.
That intimate details of her private life and questions over how ‘devastating’ her transition would be to the young children she taught were exploitatively exposed by Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail before Christmas must have made Lucy’s already challenging process an absolute living hell. The article has been taken down off the Mail website since Lucy’s death was announced but the paper has strenuously defended publication of the hideously offensive piece and rejects any connection with her suicide.
Living three minute’s walk away from the school she worked at meant Lucy had press photographers and journalists camped outside her front door and outside school on a daily basis, salivating like predators at the chance to snap a picture to sell. She wrote in emails around Christmas time that she felt glad she had a backdoor that the press didn’t know about so she could get into school unnoticed at the time. Lucy also described how parents at the school were being offered money to get pictures of her and how they had managed to get her wedding pictures and others from family members’ Facebook pages.
In the last 48 hours more than 65,000 people have signed this online petition calling for Littlejohn to be sacked. We also demand an end to the media publishing these intrusive, harmful and sensationalist articles that demonise and ‘monster’ trans* people as ‘freaks’ and ‘fakes’, a drain on public funds, and most certainly not suitable to be working with children. In recent weeks there have also been three cases of so-called ‘girls posing as boys’ being convicted as sex offenders and facing lengthy custodial sentences and a lifetime of stigmatisation for what is normative teenage sexual behaviour – other than they are emergent young trans men, isolated from community support and without adequate, trans-aware and informed legal counsel.
The outpouring of anger around Lucy’s death, both within trans* communities and our growing number of allies, has starkly magnified the issue of media transphobia and its devastating impact on real people’s everyday struggle to live our lives as ourselves. Those of us who are transsexual realise acutely that Lucy could have been any of us unlucky enough to have had our ‘story’ become public property through the actions of bigots with fat media pay cheques like Littlejohn and his ilk.
It was only in December in the Leveson Inquiry that Helen Belcher from the campaigning organisation Trans Media Watch gave evidence about the many horrific cases of monstering and vile press intrusion into trans* people’s lives. It was also in December when the head teacher at Lucy’s school in Accrington, Lancashire, wrote to parents in the end of term newsletter that the teacher previously known as Mr Upton would be returning to school in the New Year as Miss Meadows. It was this newsletter that got leaked to the media in the first instance.
Trans* people are caught between a rock and a hard place at the point of transitioning. In order to ‘prove’ your commitment to your felt gender identity, you have to undergo not only psychiatric assessment to get a diagnosis of what is still seen as a disorder in psychiatric medicine, but you then have to prove that you are ‘living in role’ for anything between a year and often more than two years, before you are able to get any hormonal therapy or surgery. This necessarily involves the trans* person telling employers, colleagues, and those they live and work with. It is an incredibly stressful time, full of unknown responses and an overwhelming feeling of being exposed to potential hostility, ridicule and/or harassment and abuse. That is without the additional colossal burden of exposure that comes from being the unwilling subject of a tabloid outing.
A ground-breaking study around the issues of mental health for trans* people was published in September last year and shows the clear unequivocal link between transphobia in the media and the harmful impact on trans* people’s mental health, especially around increased risk of self-harm and suicidality.
In TMW’s published evidence to the Leveson Inquiry the critical issue of trans* people’s vulnerability at the time of any press intrusion is made crystal clear. We are often at our least resilient point when stories like this emerge, and in common with victims of other hate crimes and bullying, we feel that if we complain we will make a seriously bad situation even worse. That is why one of TMW’s recommendations to the Inquiry that complaints to the PCC should not have to come only from the named individual in these cases but could be made by other members of the community affected, is so important. This would be similar to the situation with reporting hate crime to the police in that one does not only have to be a direct victim to be able to report a hate crime. There is a correct implicit assumption that victims of such harassment and bullying abuse face enormous barriers to reporting it themselves. The same standard should apply to monstering and press intrusion into trans* people’s private lives.
What can socialists and trade unionists do to show solidarity and support to trans* people who face harassment and abuse on a daily basis? What can we do to stop a growing media intrusion into the most intimate aspects of trans* people’s bodies and identities which would be inconceivable if it were any other group of people in society?
Like any other oppressed group the trans* community is diverse and has had to self-organise and resource itself to get to a point where we are today. We have won some significant legal protections but some are routinely and often blatantly ignored. While a ‘T’ is often tacked on to the end of LGB in terms of policy support, the specific and often very different issues that present for trans* people are not widely understood or taken on board. Unlike LGB people where ‘coming out’ is often seen as a source for personal self-esteem and pride, many trans* people just want to be accepted purely and simply as themselves without having to be ‘out’ about the sex they were ascribed at birth. Those of us who are ‘out’ publically also face additional risks of any future targetted harassment and abuse.
Activists need to approach the question of trans* solidarity work with sensitivity and empathy. The last thing that an isolated and vulnerable trans* person needs is to be placed in is the position of having to ‘educate’ their well-meaning supporters about some of the basics. Confidentiality is critical and before any action is taken the trans* person needs to be given full space and support to work out what is the right thing for them personally. There is a useful guide to tackling issues of transphobia at work in Out in Unison’s spring newsletter. Last month also saw the launch of a new TUC Trans* Network which those of us involved with are hoping can bridge the gap between grassroots trans* communities and the trade union movement.
Right now though we remember Lucy Meadows, as a much loved human being and teacher of small children. As one parent at her school said, “as a parent whose child was taught by Miss Lucy Meadows can i just say that she was a fantastic teacher and a good person whose courage could put many if not all those who slated her to shame”.
There will be a candle-lit vigil to honour Lucy outside the Daily Mail offices in London on Monday 25 March at 6.30pm. As she was a member of the National Union of Teachers it would be entirely appropriate for trade union officers and anyone on the left with a position of influence (especially NUT or NUJ branch, regional or national officers) to send messages of support to the campaign via firstname.lastname@example.org
Getting signatures for the petitions and being prepared to challenge others about the day-to-day misgendering, intrusive personal questions and routine prejudice that trans* people face will go some way to creating positive and supportive relationships between the trans* community and the trade union movement and the left.
Getting union support for developing trans* community resources is also essential. Trans Media Watch, Press for Change, the Trans Resource and Empowerment Centre (TREC) in Manchester and the fabulous Trans Bare All peer support project are all examples of self-organised projects in the trans* community doing vital work on a shoestring and desperately needing wider support to cope with increasing demand.
One particular development that has come out of the tragedy of Lucy’s suicide is a new community fund has been established called You Are Loved which will develop specific resources for supporting isolated suicidal trans* people at times of crisis. Supporting this fundraising initiative would be of huge help to trans* community activists who are trying to support other more vulnerable individuals across great geographical distance and with little financial assistance.
There are other pressing and urgent issues that are around for trans* people right now, not least of which are the NHS reforms which come into effect on 1st April and which are shaking up the provision of gender reassignment treatments as well as the rest of clinical provision. Currently referrals to Gender Identity Clinics are growing at a rate of 34% a year and it has been made abundantly clear that there is no new money and so the long waiting lists for GIC appointments will just continue to grow, thereby increasing the levels of stress and frustration for individuals that easily tips into increased risk to mental and physical health.
Trans* liberation needs to be as much an integral part of our vision of ecosocialism as is our feminism, our anti-racism, our commitment to lesbian, gay and bisexual liberation and to disability rights. It may be an area of solidarity work that comrades and activists feel underconfident in their understanding right now, but that is no reason not to educate ourselves and be in a position to challenge transphobic prejudice wherever it raises its ignorant and fundamentally reactionary poison.
If you or someone you know is affected by these issues and need to talk to someone urgently, the Samaritans is available 24 hours-a-day on 08457 90 90 90; or email email@example.com or visit the Samaritans’ website
Sam is a trans* activist, a Unison member in the TUC Trans* Network and a counsellor/trainer in gender & sexual diversity
Trans* is an inclusive term encompassing a spectrum of gender variant experiences
For journalists writing about trans* issues – http://www.transmediawatch.org/media.html