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Sonia, Nina and Mikki

November 5, 2010

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.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Seamus permalink
    November 5, 2010 11:59 am

    One could perhaps excuse the Guardian writer who wrote “he” upon being presented with a picture that appears to be a man who has dressed up as a woman for a lark and put in less effort than the average frat boy on a pub-crawl. One suspects that, since this is the Guardian, she would probably have researched Ms. Nicholson’s preferred pronoun if there had been more seeming reason to doubt it in the photographic evidence.

  2. Seamus permalink
    November 5, 2010 12:20 pm

    Reading my comment back, it’s a little unfair. I do think it’s all good if that’s how Mikki Nicholson wants to look; it just happens to be a very close match for how people want to look when they’re just cross-dressing for a laugh. Your example of “Mr Cameron who has never had a sex change” doesn’t quite hold as a reductio ad absurdum of “the transsexual from Cumbria” though, because the various transgender statuses are rarer and so are the ones requiring clarification — if, that is, if they are anyone’s business. We don’t say “Mr Cameron, who has never won a Nobel Prize”, or “Mr Cameron, who has never received a speeding ticket” either. We do, however, say “Gillian McKeith, who has never earned a doctorate”; hold on, I’ve forgotten where I’m going with this. Anyhow, papers supply information which they think people will find interesting, whether people ought to find it interesting or not. Remember when they all prominently printed that photo of Blair’s baby son over articles about how Chirac was a ninny for putting pictures of Blair’s baby son in the public eye? ಠ_ಠ

  3. Seamus permalink
    November 5, 2010 12:23 pm

    I think with the Gillian McKeith thing, I was explaining the whole “has not undergone any surgery” thing (as in, most people haven’t, but it’s the first thing I insatiably want to know and feel I can’t ask in these situations). Well, I was 25% doing that and 75% taking a poke at Gillian McKeith.

  4. November 5, 2010 4:01 pm

    I’m not letting the writer off the hook for this one. I assume that, faced with a photo of (I don’t know) Judith Butler or Eddie Izzard or some other person who can be hard to gender correctly, any journalist worth the title would go and check. Or ask: people whose presentation is ambiguous or confusing are usually perfectly aware of this. It’s the height of both laziness and arrogance to assume that your own instincts in re: gender are automatically correct. And quite apart from that, the huge deal the journalist makes out of her transness pretty much removes the possibility that they weren’t actually aware. It takes a special level of not-getting-it to both dwell at length on a person’s gender-variance and refuse to respect it.

    Whatever Nicholson’s reasons for wearing that particular costume, I’m pretty sure those aren’t relevant, either, and the implication that the PVC dress and pink explosion are somehow related to her transsexuality is downright offensive. Ya know? It’s one thing when somebody, themselves, states that they dress a certain way because of how they identify; it’s quite a different thing to assume that with no basis.

    Your point about minority statuses sometimes requiring more clarification is fair enough, and there are a lot of different labels under the trans* banner. On the other hand, as you say, that only appertains when the precise nature of the person’s identity is actually relevant to the discussion – like, perhaps, in an interview with a trans activist working with a particular subset of people – but in both the Nicholson and Burgess stories, it clearly isn’t relevant in the slightest.

    Gillian McKeith’s phantom doctorate is an illuminating counterpoint, kinda, I think; the reason that Ben Goldacre et al. bring it up every time she’s mentioned is to emphasise that she *is not* a doctor, has had no medical training, and her ‘professional’ opinion should not be trusted as such. The hyperfocus on trans people’s anatomy and/or surgical history is a similar kind of policing: it’s insisting on a certain genital configuration as a requirement to be called female, just as a PhD is required to call yourself a doctor.

    The difference being, of course, that doctors hand out potentially life-impacting advice, and there are thus extremely pertinent reasons to require that they authenticate their professional status. Being a particular sex confers no such authority, in fact impacts nobody else at all, and so the idea of entry requirements (as it were) is completely absurd.

    Also, while the instinct to ask wildly inappropriate questions is probably universal, we have as a society largely got it through our heads that really wanting to know something doesn’t actually give you a right to ask, and certainly doesn’t give you a right to get an answer. Human curiosity isn’t the problem; the systematic devaluation of people’s privacy, to the point where it’s considered entirely normal to discuss – without their consent or perhaps knowledge – the shape of their genitals in a national newspaper, is the problem.

  5. Seamus permalink
    November 6, 2010 2:35 am

    This is why I love reading your blog: you take my ill-thought-out, randomly-applied analogies and transform them into something relevant and thought-provoking. Utter agreement. Rapturous applause.

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