Brianna Ghey’s murder was widely reported in the British media, with numerous national newspapers deadnaming her and explicitly referring to her trans identity as part of the core story. Many other news outlets chose to ignore her trans identity, referring to her throughout with only female pronouns. This discrepancy between the media handling of Brianna’s murder raises issues about trans people’s personal narrative and who gets to decide what that narrative should be. On the one hand affirming her gender identity and not stating she was trans is a positive because it treats Brianna as a woman first and only, though on the other by not stating she was trans it leaves out the potentially transphobic nature of her killing.
This is the balancing act that trans people in the media face as they go about their lives. Kim Petras has long acknowledged her trans identity, owning it and being an out trans woman on the world music scene. Yet, when she won the Grammy for Best Pop Duo with Sam Smith it was the fact both were gender non-conforming that was the major headline, not that either had won. Kim’s narrative is a lot more nuanced and interesting that simply she is a trans woman. Her Twitter feed documents her attempts to break into the US music scene, her story one of determination rather than simply adventures in gender land.
Isla Bryson’s rape conviction raised holy hell because of her gender identity, and while it is impossible to ascertain all the facts it was singularly the fact that she was a trans female rapist that was splashed across the global media. No other information was forthcoming, other than most people speculated that she was only performing being a trans woman to avoid being sent to a male prison. The whole narrative was weaponised against trans women, treating all trans folk as danger waiting to happen. The media shaped her narrative because it coincided with the UK government’s rejection of the Scottish attempt to liberalise gender self-identity. Bryson has been convicted and will serve her time, but in doing so has provided a narrative that will further restrict and demonise trans folk in the UK.
Brianna, Kim, and Isla have each had their narratives spun by the media. While Kim has been able to shape her own media voice to a degree, all three have had their genders raked over and questioned. This media mawkishness around trans identities flows all the way back to Christine Jorgensen and Roberta Cowell in the 1950s, who used the media as a way of fending off the vicious social commentary, but ended up trapped with trans identities unable to escape into obscure womanhood. For as long as the media archives exist, Brianna, Kim, and Isla will always be known as trans women, their womanhood marked with an indelible asterix of otherness because the media has spun their narrative thus.
Even if a trans person deliberately outs themselves, the narrative is never wholly reliable. Truths get distorted, facts changed, memories are forever hazy. April Ashley’s ghost-written autobiography First Woman is essentially a glorified gossip column, and aside from a few personal moments devolves into the rich and famous people she fraternised with throughout the 1950s and 60s. The ghost writer knew who the target audience were and served up April as a main banquet of sun, sea, and sex. Her narrative is unreliable because it needs to sell, needs to appeal to a broad enough cis audience who by the time it was published in 2014 understood the basics of the suffering trans narrative.
Of course, this is same for anyone in the public eye, but since Christine Jorgensen’s arrival home from Denmark trans identities have been treated as pastiches of their affirmed gender, weaponised as threats to women, and made other by a press that is hostile to the notion of trans normativity. Suffering sells, crime sells, sex sells. Brianna, Isla, Kim.
There have been attempts to create a press code of conduct in the UK for trans issues, but it is purely voluntary and does not include social media. If we want to create trans narratives that are positive, normative, and affirming it has to go beyond simply asking the media and social media organisations to treat trans folk with a fair hand. If the only trans stories are suffering, crime, and sex then trans folk will only be seen as victims, criminals, and sexual objects. Being prurient is a part of human nature, and people who fall outside the normal everyday experiences of us all will be curios and objects of fascination. Hence the media’s desire and need to point and objectify trans lives. If you are different, you can get eyeballs and advertisers to pay.
From the Molly Houses to Oscar Wilde to Lillie Elber to Caroline Cosey to Paris Lees, being gender non-confirming, gender queer, trans, and especially a trans woman or effeminate gay man, has been the bar for mockery, slander, and derision. Nothing about the media in the last two weeks is new, as long as there has been a popular press there has always been an interest in shaping trans narratives to fit the prevailing winds. It is us the consumers of that media who get to decide how those lives and stories are interpreted, how the narratives will play out. Kim Petras wins Grammies, April Ashley had her life destroyed. Brianna Ghey potentially was murdered because she was her authentic self. Yet how you empathise and engage with their stories will depend on the media you consume and the narrative that is shaped. Their personal truths come down to your personal understanding, and it is up to us all to fight back against transphobic narratives that demonise and shun trans folk.