The Lesson We Keep Forgetting
By Christine Burns
© Christine Burns, 2003
Diversity Today's very first edition carried a news story about recently announced Government Policy to legally recognise transsexual people, following a landmark court decision. The text was faultless reporting yet the picture chosen to accompany it completely changed the meaning of the news. Veteran trans rights campaigner Christine Burns examines the wider lessons this case illustrates, and why it is important to the promotion of ALL diversity issues in our society.

When the Nazi's wanted to build mainstream public support for their policies towards Jewish people in the mid 1930's one of the most powerful tools they used was caricature. Newspapers carried images of Jews as grotesque characters, physically deformed and monstrously motivated in ways designed to set them apart from the rest of the population.

These messages were even promoted in children's books, graphically portraying the differences between Germans and Jews. (See Ein Bilderbuch für Gross und Klein, Nuremberg. 1936). If you are serious about setting out to systematise discrimination it's best to get them young, you see.

Coming right up-to-date, our own Government and the right wing press rely on stereotypes to promote populist notions about groups such as Asylum Seekers and anyone connected with Muslim religion.

The ideas are crude, but "crude" is effective. The term "Asylum Seeker" is transformed into a code for "terrorist infiltrator" and "anti-British freeloader". Similarly the words "Muslim" and "Extremist" are so subliminally linked through endless repetition together that the use of one without the other simply invites the audience to fill in the gap themselves. Having hijacked the language too, it becomes difficult to use adjectives for their original purposes. As if by magic it doesn't sound right any more to describe the other side of the debate as Christian Fundamentalists, or to acknowledge that Christian Extremism exists too.

Reinforcement of these basic precepts then comes in the form of thinly disguised praise for citizens who carry such simplistic ideas to their logical conclusion. It becomes implicitly acceptable to reject Asylum Seekers on your own doorstep and OK to fear followers of one of the world's great religions simply on the basis of the stereotypes. Meanwhile, those who vainly try to point out why it is wrong are damned by the mindless insult "Politically Correct" (as though it is wrong to be correct when you practice politics).

In this climate it then becomes frighteningly easy for someone like David Blunkett to advance populist ideas which are in open contempt of Britain's international treaty obligations, and to pour scorn on the ruling of the High Court, when it recently ruled against the Home Office's interpretation of Section 55 of the National Immigration and Asylum Act. As Mr Justice Collins said on February 19th, "Parliament can surely not have intended that genuine refugees should be faced with the bleak alternatives of returning to persecution…or of destitution…" And it is a worrying state of affairs indeed when such words can be tossed aside as sentimentally irrelevant.

No group is immune from this most basic of political devices though. Thirty years on, people are still referred to the mythical image of "bra burning" when women protest discrimination through references to feminist philosophy. In the popular consciousness even the term "feminist" is twisted into a form of put-down - whilst male society continues to reap the benefits of paying women an average of 80% of what a man would earn in the same job. Why does the stereotype work? I believe that the reason is partly because of the outrageousness of the founding proposition. In fact nobody actually burned their bra at the time, but this doesn't matter for the purposes of political caricature. It is a strong visual idea - just as all the press images of Asylum Seekers have certain visual cues in common - and strong pictures stick in the mind to be replayed on cue whenever required.

Look in every area of diversity and you'll find a "spin image" of this kind. Gay men are still clones of John Innman's "Mr Humphries" or Larry Grayson in too many minds". "I'm Free!" and "Shut that Door" become the pavlovian cues that invite a mental replay of the stereotype, decades after the images have passed from television screens. And again we've brought up a new generation of children schooled in those ideas since they could crawl.

Without realising it we are programmed in what to think. The process of becoming a truly effective diversity advocate is to recognise that programming and how, in spite of our very best endeavours, it works to frustrate our efforts to understand the needs of other groups. This way we can begin to tell whether our good intentions are effective or merely perpetuate the discrimination.

This is why I can't really get angry with Diversity Today's faux pas in juxtaposing a particular image with the story about serious new Government policy on trans people.

But note my use of language, by the way. Did you ever know that "trans" is the term preferred by transsexual people themselves - or why? Indeed, after half a century of a certain kind of programming, had you even paused to think that transsexual people (rather than "transsexuals") have intellectually derived views about the processes underpinning their own systemic discrimination?

If the photograph of two splendidly attired drag queens on parade doesn't trigger immediate feelings of dissonance next to an article on trans people's rights to marry then maybe this illustrates, better than anything, the stereotypes which have helped keep trans discrimination so effectively entrenched in society for so long. Discrimination thrives best on ignorance.

This isn't to say there is anything wrong about pictures of drag queens or transvestite men, so long as the accompanying article is about their issues. But when the article is about the very different background and problems of transsexual people, the accompanying images ought to tell you something truthful about the people being discussed.

How do you picture a trans woman? Come to that, how can it be that trans men still barely exist in public consciousness? How do these gaps in knowledge or misconceptions colour your thinking when (after thirty years of stonewalling) the Government belatedly sets out to legislate for our privacy, and for our right to form legally secure relationships?

See the parallels?

A recent article in the Daily Express illustrates just how readers' long-planted stereotypes are triggered, using word cues, to put a negative spin on a story about a groundbreaking employment initiative by the Metropolitan Police…

The most senior levels of the Met have taken the principles of the Macpherson report to heart in some surprisingly enlightened ways and actively sought out the advice of specialists like myself to learn how to perfect a policy for recruiting trans officers. The Daily Express took a different view however when they headlined their report, "Fury at Met bid to recruit transsexuals - It's Dixon of Frock Green".

The Express article used an entire catalogue of familiar terms which are linked, through decades of image setting, to negative ideas about transsexual people. Expressions such as "Sex-Swap" and "Gender-Bending" are used to remind the reader which mental files they should be opening. "Veteran Officers" are wheeled into the story to describe the policy as "absurd" political correctness. The headline tips readers that people should be "furious" and the reference to "frocks" reminds us of the notion that transsexual women are never portrayed wearing trousers like other women.

Finally, connections with wider rank-and-file prejudices are forged when "Ex-commander John O'Connor" is quoted as saying, "Carry on Constable looks like hard-line policing compared to what we have got now". Indeed, through this, we can see that the article is not really about trans recruitment at all, but part of a wider anti-reform agenda which leads us back to institutional racism and sexism among lower and middle ranks in the force.

The reason such an article works at all, however, is because it is using the same stereotype-triggering devices which are used everywhere else. In every case, these are the tools which help to keep oppression in place. And so long as we unwittingly help to reinforce such false images ourselves, the longer such deep-seated discrimination will continue to thrive in our society.

We may have all the anti-discrimination laws we like - no fewer than five by the end of this year. We may even one day have a Single Equality Act and a Single Equality Body - concepts which pay at least lip service to the universal notion of equality. We can have all the expensive educational initiatives we can afford. Visionary employers may trumpet the advantages of realising diversity policies within their corporate lives. But as long as people have absurd cartoon images of us in their minds - as long as they bring those ideas to work and practice them on hapless colleagues - and as long as the images make the prejudices seem reasonable - we will not have made real advances beyond the sort of mental precursors which permitted the Holocaust to happen.

© Christine Burns - March 2003




Note (added by Lynn): In the article below we see a photo of two gay male drag queens, dressed up in elaborately femme attire. These men only do drag (DRess As a Girl) as a kind of fun caricature of women in gay clubs where they are entertaining, etc. Otherwise they dress, appear and identify as men, and not as trans women.

These gay men were unwittingly photographed and used in this article to portray trans women who had undergone a complete social, hormonal and surgical gender reassignment. Here we see how an existing social stereotype of trans women prevented the emergence in media of an unbiased image of the reality of trans women's identities and lives.