During the homosexual law reform campaign 35 years ago plenty of inflammatory, derogatory and sometimes downright bigoted portrayals of gay people were published and aired in our media. Some have apologised for it since then. Are our media repeating the same mistakes reporting controversies over transgender peoples' rights today?
Earlier this week, Taieri MP Ingrid Leary arrived at her electorate office to find its windows covered in anti-trans graffiti.
The attack was denounced from all corners, with Leary saying it was cowardly, and a sad reflection of the vandals’ values.
Despite the condemnation, it still felt like a sign that a culture war that has previously been fought mostly overseas is bubbling up in Aotearoa.
The anti-trans movement is most entrenched in the UK, where segments of the media have hosted what could euphemistically be described as a roiling public debate about trans rights.
Last week, the BBC printed an article about lesbian women feeling pressured into having sex with trans women.
The story used an unrepresentative survey of just 80 women to support its premise, and quoted former adult film star Lily Cade, who recently called for trans women to be executed or lynched.
The BBC removed Cade's contribution to the article - but the broadcaster maintained it is an "important piece of journalism."
The article was far from an outlier. According to research from the author Shon Faye, The Times and The Sunday Times ran almost 300 stories on trans issues in 2020, all of them negative.
The New Zealand media has been comparatively free of these damaging media narratives.
But it’s facing more pressure to follow in the UK’s footsteps.
In September, The Otago Daily Times was criticised for agreeing to place an ad by the group Speak Up For Women, which insists trans women are not women.
It’s understood other media companies rejected the ad.
“Speak Up for Women has denied being anti-trans but maintains that trans women are not women – a distinctly anti-trans sentiment”.
A majority of council members said that breached principle four of its code, which orders media companies to draw a clear distinction between comment and factual reporting.
The decision was split, with three council members arguing it was fair to describe denying trans people a fundamental part of their identity as an “anti-trans viewpoint”.
These flare-ups come in the context of two bills passing through parliament that will impact on trans rights: the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation, which would ban organised efforts to suppress people’s gender identity or sexuality -- and the Births, Deaths, and Relationships Registration bill, which would allow people to more easily change the gender marker listed on their birth certificate.
All this has many people in the local trans community feeling nervous that they may soon be the subject of the kind of relentless, and sometimes abusive, media targeting seen overseas.
Ross Palethorpe, a trans man who works as a counsellor, has written about how unappealing it is for his identity to be used as drive time talk radio fodder, or as a flash point in a culture war.
In a blog in May last year headlined ‘Trans Lives Matter (and can be boring)’, he argued the commentary and vitriol around trans rights is making a political issue out of people just trying to live their lives.
“If you have never met someone who’s openly transgender and all you have read about them are endless opinion pieces by people who’ve also never met a transgender person about how we are coming for your gold medals, we are coming for your children. If that’s the only view you have of us, there is no recognition that these are people we are talking about here, and not just some vague concept," he told Mediawatch.
“Especially around trans women, there’s this debate that you can have women’s rights or you can have trans rights, and it’s not, it’s around the right to dignity and around the right to live your life in peace as your authentic self. Those two things are not at odds. It’s a manufactured debate.”
Palethorpe said stories focusing on trans issues often misrepresented reality in order to platform “both sides” of that debate.
For instance, there was an idea that sexual health clinics were handing out puberty blockers like “smarties at Halloween”, he said.
“In actual fact the process for getting medical support as a transgender person is actually quite complicated and the criteria’s quite rigorous but there’s no real discussion of what that’s actually like."
He said the way news outlets were covering trans people held echoes of the way gay people had been treated by the media in the 1980s.
“We’re starting to see it again. When I think about trans and gender non-conforming people that I know - they are just coming into themself, and they’re seeing a media environment which is painting them in this extremely negative light, and then we wonder why mental health statistics for LGBTQ people are as dire as they are,” he said.
“I’m going to be really interested to see in about 20 years which MPs and which columnists write the half apology about how it was a different time and how they wish they could cover these things differently because now they realise it was not the right thing to do.”
Palethorpe said if he had one piece of advice for journalists covering trans people, it would be to ask themselves whether they’re ‘writing about us, or are you writing with us?’.
“You can’t be what you can’t see and it goes back to that idea that I know transgender people who work in a wide range of fields, and just seeing people for whom their gender identity is just part of who they are and maybe informs the work they do or their view of the world but that not being all that they are I think is really important,” he said. “Once you move past the identity being the whole of the person, that’s when we start being seen as part of the community, and less as an avatar for people’s fears and concerns.”