Representing trans people in the UK press – a follow-up study

I do not identify as trans, nor did I carry out this research for profit or because I am an activist. I approached the subject from the position of allowing the data to speak for itself, and the corpus methods I use rely on computational techniques that are unbiased – computer software identifies the most frequent words, phrases and combinations of words, which then have to be accounted for by the analyst.

Introduction

A few years ago I published the “corpus linguistics” chapter in an edited collection relating to different methods of carrying out critical discourse studies. As a case study for the chapter, I decided to look at the representation of trans people in the British press. At the time there had been a disapproving article about a trans person who was also a school-teacher in The Daily Mail who had committed suicide three months later, while another article published in the Observer, one of the more respectable Sunday broadsheet newspapers, had used pejorative phrases about trans people like ‘a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs’ and ‘screaming mimis’. I wanted to use corpus approaches to see whether these articles were typical of the general press discussion around trans people or whether they stood out as unusually harsh. I built a (small by corpus linguistics standards) corpus of around 900 articles, just from 2012 and used traditional corpus methods (keywords, collocates, concordancing) to examine a range of words like transgender, transsexual and trannie. My analysis found that the two articles mentioned above were at the extreme end of a continuum, although:

“the analysis did find a great deal of evidence to support the view that trans people are regularly represented in reasonably large sections of the press as receiving special treatment lest they be offended, as victims or villains, as involved in transient relationships or sex scandals, as the object of jokes about their appearance or sexual organs and as attention-seeking freakish objects. There were a scattering of more positive representations but they were not as easy to locate and tended to appear as isolated cases, rather than occurring repeatedly as trends.” (Baker 2014)

I was recently approached by the charity Mermaids UK who asked me if I would carry out an updated analysis of more recent press representation. This time I collected data from the previous 2 years (21 October 2017 to 21 October 2019), resulting in a larger corpus of around 6,400 articles, indicating that there were around 3 and a half times as many articles written about trans people in this later period. In terms of news values, trans people are seen as rather more newsworthy these days. So has the discourse around them changed?

Changing Labels

In terms of how the press refer to trans people, in 2012, the most common term by far was transgender. In 2018-19, transgender and trans were about of equally frequency, this being mostly an effect of the Guardian and Observer showing a strong preference for trans. Terms I had expected that would have died out, like sex-change and transsexual, had decreased somewhat but were still being used about once every other day, with the Mail, Telegraph and Times making the bulk of such cases. Another decreasing term, tranny occurred about once a fortnight. In 2012 it was used to imply bad taste, outlandishness, sex romps or the subject of jokes. The term was a particular favourite term of journalist AA Gill (who used it in bizarre ways like tranny panto and tranny centaur night out). However, in 2018-19 it was now mainly acknowledged as a bullying term (AA Gill died in 2016). The rather jarring use of transgender(s) as a noun (“How about One Guy, A Girl, A Transgender and Two Nonbinary Persons” (The Sun)), occurred 37 times in 2018-19 (there was only 1 such usage in 2012).

Collocates of trans(gender)

Examining the contexts that trans and transgender people were written in showed one of the most notable changes though. I’d noted in 2012 that transgender people were implied to be quick to take offence – in that year there were 8 cases of trans(gender) co-occurring with words like angry, clash, complaint, fury, offended, outrage, row, spat, upset and wrath. There were enormous increases of this representation in 2018-19 though – 586 cases. While a small number of these cases don’t attribute trans people as being the ones who are cast as angry or complaining, the vast majority do – and the wider point is that trans people are being discussed as being at the centre of controversy. A similar set of words which relate to conflict including aggressive, demand, harassed, bullied, confronted, lunge, militant, outspoken, pressure and threat saw a similar pattern – 5 cases of these kinds of words appearing near trans(gender) in 2012, but 334 cases in 2018-19. The result is that trans people are constructed as newsworthy because they are difficult, angry, easily offended (and often unreasonably so).

Scout leaders have been told to avoid referring to children as boys and girls to ensure transgender members are not offended. (Mail on Sunday)

A transgender woman is demanding an apology and £2,500 compensation after claiming she was called “sir” by rail company staff. (Times, March 16, 2019)

It’s not a new representation. I saw the same thing when I looked at news stories about gay people in the early 2000s, Muslims in the 2000s and feminists in the 1990s and 2000s. Another representation (also used on gay people) was to link trans people with crime, connecting them to words like killer, prisoner, lag, criminal, murderer, rapist, jail and kill. These words occurred with trans(gender) 3 times in 2012, but 608 times in 2018-19.

It’s crazy to give trans prisoners everything they say they want,’ said chair Janice Williams. Why wouldn’t they lie in the circumstances? (Daily Mail)

Women’s jail holds trans lag born lad (The Sun, September 13, 2019)

Some of the trans brigade advocate the murder of Terfs as the best course. (Telegraph, 12 January 2019)

Transphobia, trans children and the trans lobby

What about more general contexts? What topics are trans people talked about in relation to more, or less these days? Here we see potentially a change for the better. Topics that now take up less space in the overall debate involve references to transvestites and ladyboys as well as discussion of implants, the clothing worn by trans people and their ability to “pass” as a particular gender. There’s less of the inappropriate prurience in trans people that’s associated with sitcom characters like Alan Partridge. In its place, the biggest area of growth is in stories relating to transphobia and discrimination, although there were also increases in references to transitioning, inclusivity and gender-neutral pronouns.

Lest we think that references to transphobia indicate that the press are overall more concerned about trans people being abused, a closer look indicates this is not always the case. Although such references are 112 times more frequent in 2018-9 compared to 2012, 15% of the 2018-19 mentions put the word transphobia in quotes, implying authorial distance or even rejection of the term.

A transgender teenager who demanded the removal of a female Labour member from her post as women’s officer over her allegedly “transphobic” views has been elected to the post in her local Labour party. (The Times, November 20, 2017)

I took 100 random cases of transphobia and related words like transphobe and looked at them in more detail. Approximately half (47) used the term to raise questions about its validity – either using the distancing quotes, referring to “supposed” or “alleged” transphobia, mentioned the way that the accusers behave: e.g. “howled down as transphobia” or simply baldly stating that something is not transphobia.

An analysis of the term trans(gender) children found a slightly better picture. That term doesn’t occur in the distancing scare quotes – so the concept of trans(gender) children appears to be more accepted in the press than the concept of transphobia. An analysis of 100 random cases found 56 that accepted the existence of trans children and/or advocated that they should receive support. Thirty seven cases were more disapproving, either suggesting that children who identify as trans should not be supported in transitioning or that efforts to support them (e.g. through pronoun stickers or gender-neutral toilets) are unnecessary, even unhelpful. A further seven cases appear more neutral, noting that this is an issue which divides people but not clearly coming down on either side. It’s very rare to find voices of trans(gender) children in these press articles.

A final change relates to the increase in the phrase trans(gender) lobby. There were no mentions of this phrase in 2012. In contrast, 2018-19 saw 151 mentions of it, with over 90% of such cases writing about it in a negative way (e.g. as silencing debate, peddling politically-correct fallacies, being deranged or aggressively militant). The transgender lobby is described in somewhat contradictory terms across the press. At times, journalists go out of their way to stress that it is unimportant, referring to it as miniscule and doomed, yet at other times it is described as powerful, hegemonic and influential (with the implication that it should not be these things).

Conclusion

The UK press wrote over 6,000 articles about trans people in 2018-19. On the surface there appear to have been improvements – the more sexualising and joking uses of language around trans people have reduced since 2012 and there are many more stories around transphobia and inclusivity. However, there are large swathes of the press which write about these topics in order to be critical of trans people and many articles which consequently paint trans people as unreasonable and aggressive. The picture suggests that the conservative press and most of the tabloids have shifted from an openly hostile and ridiculing stance on trans people towards a carefully worded but still very negative stance.

Reference

Baker, P. (2014) ‘”Bad wigs and screaming mimis”: Using corpus-Assisted techniques to carry out critical discourse analysis of the representation of trans people in the British press.’ In C. Hart and P. Cap (eds) Contemporary Critical Discourse Studies. London, Bloomsbury: 211-236.

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CASS co-investigator Paul Baker is a Professor of Linguistics and English Language at Lancaster University. His research interests corpus linguistics, language and gender/sexual identities and critical discourse analysis.

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About Paul Baker

CASS co-investigator Paul Baker is a Professor of Linguistics and English Language at Lancaster University. His research interests corpus linguistics, language and gender/sexual identities and critical discourse analysis.