Sonia, Nina and Mikki
There were two minor news stories in the UK press the other day whose juxtaposition is further proof that the universe thinks it has a sense of humour, in that it’d be funny if the whole thing weren’t so awful. And so depressingly common.
It’s an almost postmodernist contrast of the happily banal with the tragically serious. On the one hand, a woman wearing a ridiculous dress wins the National Scrabble Championship. On the other hand, a well-known and pioneering human rights lawyer dies, possibly murdered. In neither case was there very much to say: you can only spin out a Scrabble result into so many words, and the murder case hasn’t gone to trial yet.
The only common factor between these two news stories is that in both of them the protagonists happen to be transsexual. The victim in the murder case, Sonia Burgess, was a transsexual or gender-variant woman,* as is the accused, Nina Kanagasingham. So is Mikki Nicholson, the newly crowned British Scrabble champion.
By rights that should be no connection at all, any more than a story about the latest entry in the Wayne Rooney transfer saga is somehow thematically linked to one about Nick Clegg just because both of them are cissexual men. I wanted to mention them together, though, because the articles are in some ways depressingly similar, despite the lack of connection between their subjects.
The Guardian article about Mikki Nicholson’s win is literally bookended by references to her transsexuality: “transsexual” is the first word in the headline, and the last sentence notes that Nicholson “has not undergone any surgery”. They also managed to misgender her throughout, though thankfully that was swiftly corrected. There’s also this:
… the transsexual from Cumbria, who was wearing a pink wig, matching plastic pvc dress and lipstick during the final, held in London …
That use of ‘transsexual’ as a noun doesn’t seem to sit right; too often, the adjective->noun conversion is used as a means of marginalisation, thanks to its ability to reduce people to a single facet. (Would they have printed ‘the homosexual’? Probably not.) The noun use of ‘transsexual’, specifically, is also often used as a cover to avoid correctly gendering the trans person in question – in particular to position binary trans people as some mysterious third sex rather than the men or women they are. (On which: Internet survey designers, your heart may be in the right place, but expanding the ‘Sex:’ options from Male/Female to Male/Female/Transgender just switches from one variety of wrong to another.)
The attachment of the clause describing Nicholson’s costume to yet another mention of her transsexuality just reinforces the sort of cartoonish, Rocky Horror-ish view of trans people, especially trans women, that is so bloody pervasive. I have no idea why Mikki Nicholson played the Scrabble final in a pink PVC dress, pink wig, and pink fishnet gloves. Maybe it was for the same reasons people run the London Marathon in diving suits; maybe it was just for the lulz; maybe she’s cybergoth femme and dresses like that all the time; whatever. Implying that the choice of outfit is somehow related to her trans status is absurd at best and offensive at worst, and perpetuates the idea of trans women as overdone parodies of femininity.
In a lighthearted article about Scrabble, this stereotype – the comedy angle, or it would be if it were funny – is the one that comes out of the incessant focus on Nicholson’s transness. The other predominant one comes out in the reports of Sonia Burgess’ death and Nina Kanagasingham’s court appearance: the prurient, sex- and body-obsessed angle.
Helen at Bird of Paradox points out how the Evening Standard managed to get “Sonia Burgess was a sex worker looking for clients” out of “Sonia Burgess posted a couple of personal ads”. The media treatment of the accused, Nina Kanagasingham, is on the same level, as sarahlizzy at Questioning Transphobia notes:
The police outed the victim, the judge apparently outed the suspect […] Notice how the suspect was remanded in a male prison, notice how she appeared in court with significant male-pattern facial hair. Notice how the judge asked if Nina had “completed” her “sex change”, which is, of course, code for “does she have a penis?”. Notice how it’s reported that Nina “wished to be referred to as Nina” (probably because that is her name). Wonder whether, in allowing this information to come out in this way, the state is allowing Nina to receive a trial which is fair and unprejudiced?
This is the extreme version of the weird and irrelevant details about Nicholson’s surgical history, diagnosis, and outfit. In fact, the details being obsessed over are pretty much the same: the focus on surgery and present presentation are common to both stories. Nicholson is cast by the article as a sort of circus oddity, a harmless freak but definitely a freak; Kanagasingham, up in front of a court for murder, is held up as both pathetic and dangerous by virtue of her identity. (I wonder how long it’ll be before the prosecution try to bring up her transsexuality in explicit connection with her guilt?)
The ‘in the public interest’ defence which is occasionally brought out in cases like this does not stand up. We do not have a journalistic convention requiring the specifications of all interviewees’ sex and/or surgical history: it’s not as if people begin articles about the Prime Minister with “Mr Cameron, 44, who has never had a sex change, said today . . .”, and it would be rightly seen as absurd if they did.
The other thing people sometimes try to use, that it’s just tidbits of interesting trivia, doesn’t quite hold water either. Right now, with the world as it is, revealing the fact that someone is transsexual is not trivial. It can – is almost guaranteed to – be met with mockery, abuse and state mistreatment, as the two stories above make clear, and worse. No detail is trivial the revelation of which is liable to get someone killed.
EDIT: The Guardian readers’ editor responded with a column apologising at greater length for the misgendering of Mikki Nicholson and the unnecessary focus on her transsexuality. She also notes that the Guardian style guide has no entry on transgender people and their pronouns (i.e., the paper has no official position; individual journalists go it alone) and that this will be corrected in future editions.
*Her family, according to the Guardian obituary, say that Burgess was open about her gender-variance and “moving towards being Sonia full-time” but went by both Sonia and David, the latter remaining her professional name. The obituary uses David and male pronouns, with the reason that was how she was known in public life; but covers, and is respectful of, her eventual identification as transgender. RIP.