One of the interesting developments of my research has been the unpacking of Theguardian.com website’s transgender based articles. On one side are mainly non-UK writers showing empathy and compassion to trans subjects, on the other are UK based staff writers who throw every dog whistle they get at any article they write about trans people. In addition, there appears to be an editorial shift around the time the current editor Katherine Viner took charge of the paper in 2015 from being neutral to positive about trans folk to changing to a more hardline sex based editorial perspective.
There has been significant criticism of the Guardian since 2015 for its rhetoric about trans people, in particular the platforming of mainly female writers who root womanhood in sex alone. Most of the antagonism is projected onto trans women, with trans men only appearing when either they are involved in a court case or in non-UK lifestyle pieces looking at trans lives. Writers like Sonya Sodha have not only been grinding their axes, they also use every opportunity to bang the loudest drum about the dangers trans women face to cis folk. It is the UK staff writers who push a certain narrative, leading me to conclude that it is likely flowing from editorial meetings. These articles go through editorial checks, so the egregious science and linking back to right-wing media sources are accepted by editors in charge.
Yet, outside of the staff writers it is clear that US and antipodean writers have a wholly more empathetic and nuanced approach to writing about trans lives. Most US coverage appears to be even handed, cites and links to credible sources, and in turn presents a rounded perspective of trans lives in the 2020s. There has been significant pushback from the paper’s US office against the UK editorial stance on trans issues, and it appears that the London office is not impinging on the US writers willingness to give voice to trans folk.
A larger issue, and one which becomes critical in the UK, is that since 2015 most trans related articles have been written by non-trans folk. Paris Lees, Juliet Jaques and Chelsea Manning have all written for the paper during this period, but their writing tends to focus on social commentary rather than the day to day stories involving trans folk. Indeed, across 2022 and 2023 it appears that the majority of trans stories were written by UK apparently cis-gendered writers. This matters because by not including trans writers on staff to write about trans issues the stories often end up skewed towards a gender critical perspective.
This in turn matters for a wider non-trans audience, as if the only UK based stories related to trans identities consistently bang the drum that trans lives, and trans women in particular, are a danger to society, then this will seep into the decision making about trans lives. When trans voices are platformed there is no balance, rather they are considered in letters and small pieces that have no editorial heft to them. This projects a sense of both complicity to the editorial line, while also undermining wider trans narratives that fall outside the salaried middle class university educated Guardian writers.
Yes, The Guardian does have a trans problem, but it is not the obvious one that people project onto the paper. Its problem is the UK focus of the debate, the editorial desire to project a gender critical perspective onto the UK trans community, and an apparent lack of editorial oversight on the research and sources quoted. This cuts far beyond any support for JK Rowling or hosting Julie Burchill, it actively ferments a battleground between sex and gender without any clear reasoning as to why this battleground should exist in the first place. Editorially it was not always like this, with Juliette Jaques transition series being lauded across the paper in the early 2010s. What changed would appear to be the Guard, and the incoming Guard have shifted the feminist battlelines to line-up against one of the most vulnerable groups in society.
Britain is fast becoming known as TERF island precisely because on editorial stances such as this. Free speech is never free, it always has the right of reply and other consequences. That a newspaper that championed Jan Morris through her transition, gave space to Juliette Jaques’ writing, and had no intrinsic issue with Mermaids prior to 2015 has drifted towards this battleground is tragic. This has been by conscious choice by the editorial team, and while the US and Australian writers are certainly pushing back against it, the UK staff writers feed the gender critical war machine. The Guardian, I believe, is a Janus paper over trans rights, with one face in favour of inclusivity, the other choosing to face the darkness creeping in from the ultra right wing. And embracing it in all its insipient malignancy. Trans women are no threat to womanhood, they are not pastiches of some twisted feminine ideal; rather, they are marginalised and demonised precisely by the type of writing exemplified by The Guardian’s UK writers.
Some readers will likely state no shit at this, and The Guardian being transphobic is a truism within the wider trans community. However, this is not the whole picture. Whatever internal editorial turf war is happening between the US and UK offices is played out in the different approaches both take. While it could be easy to say the US articles are a smoke screen for the gender critical ones, I think this is unfair to those writers who genuinely make an effort to empathise with trans folk. I am left thinking that The Guardian is both virulently transphobic on the one hand, and incredibly inclusive on the other. Janus indeed.