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It's about respect

Posted in: Our Communities, Features
By Steve Attwood - 16th March 2012

Brooklynne Kennedy
“If I believed the media, I would believe I was a whore, a murderer, a paedophile, a victim, a junky, a freak, a ghastly parody.

“Thankfully I don't believe the media. I know they are wrong. But too many people do believe it, and that's when trans-people die.”

This was the emphatic message delivered to a conference specifically for media in Wellington on Thursday by a group of trans and gender variant people intent on tackling head-on the transphobia they witness in New Zealand media on a regular basis.

The above quote was part of a passionate speech by Brooklynne Kennedy, who transitioned when she was 19.

“When a trans person dies, whether it's because someone kills them, or it's suicide, in my view it's still murder,” she told the assemblage of journalists. “This is what happens when media focuses on when we do things wrong, on the bad things, when media deny who we are, who we present as, and focus instead on what we were. The tragedy is, people believe them, including trans people themselves. The impression the general public has of trans people is hugely influenced by what they see in the media.”

The meeting was organised by Wellington group The Queer Avengers to give trans and gender variant people the chance to share their experiences of the media and its effects on their transitions and subsequent lives. The press conference was an opportunity for the media to learn about the personal burdens and the joys of being trans, in addition to wider legal and medical obstacles that impede trans people's abilities to simply be recognised in the appropriate gender.

With the on-going debate in Parliament about the Department of Corrections' handling of trans people in New Zealand prisons, and the recent article by Rosemary McLeod titled “Why he/she ego-trippers shouldn't have kids”, the press conference was timely.

Shelley Howard, who described herself as 'span-gendered' talked of her struggle with the black and white dichotomy of male and female, and where she fitted into that.

“I discovered I'm neither black nor white,” she said. “I'm grey.”

Howard shared how she struggled for years with the feminine side of her identity in a career that included a long and successful stint in the military.

“The higher I got in the military, the more successful I was, the greater the fear,” she said. “I was so afraid of ediscovery and the shame that would bring, not just on me, but on the military itself, which I loved.”

When Howard finally had the courage, after living some 50 years as a man, to “be me” she was amazed at the acceptance she received in her community and among her friends.

“I have found real prejudice from people to be very rare,” she said, “and, of course, with my background, on the odd occasion I have met with aggression I have been able to deal with it. But what really gives me angst is when I see articles in the media like that by Rosemary McLeod, and the comments by Germaine Greer. These take me back to the era of homophobia when I felt marginalised and excluded. They make me feel that all my achievements, my marriage, my children, my military career, have been of no significance. I am left feeling degraded not for who I am, but who they perceive me to be.”

Ashley Stewart also transition in her her later years, but will never look back.

“Before I transitioned, I was a man in a man's world. I deliberately chose really blokey professions. It was bloke overkill really. Now that I have come out as the person I really am, it's a lot easier.”

Stewart spoke of the difficulties trans-people face when official processes and systems do not recognise them and try to put them into boxes based on their birth gender. She said comments by the likes of McLeod and Greer reinforce those stereotypes and make it just that much harder.

All three spoke of how the biggest difficulty they faced was ignorance, but that, in their experience, that was the easiest to deal with.

“Ignorant people can be educated,” Kennedy said. “It's genuine bigotry that's almost impossible to overcome.”

Stewart and Kennedy both spoke about how media had a strong role to overcome its own, and the public's ignorance.

“I ask journalists,” Kennedy said. “Put yourself in my position. Ask yourself how would you feel if you were the trans person reading this story.”

One of the biggest issues the group had with the way media reported trans issues was its insistence on referring to trans people's former identities.

“The media focuses on our past,” Kennedy said. “There is no respect for what we call ourselves, who we say we are, how we present and identify. They drag up the past and our birth genders even when it has no relevance to the story.

“You know, people say we want special rights. Well, I demand that people use the name I give them. I demand that they respect the gender I identify as and present as. That's not special rights, that the rights everyone has. What it boils down to is respect.”

Steve Attwood - 16th March 2012

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