EDITORIAL: Brianna Ghey’s murder is the culmination of relentless anti-trans media coverage
The media and people in power are directly responsible for the hostility and hatred which endangers trans people.
CW: This article includes potentially distressing mentions of transphobia and transphobic hate crime.
Just over one week ago, Brianna Ghey — a 16-year-old trans girl — was stabbed to death in a London park. Her murder, described by prosecutors as “extremely brutal and punishing,” came after Ghey had suffered from transphobic harassment and bullying stretching back to 2020. In its reporting, the British media elected to deepen the suffering of Ghey’s family, friends, and indeed the queer community. Ghey’s treatment by the British media is not an isolated event. It is emblematic of the way that the media, from Britain, to the USA, to Australia has legitimised anti-trans hatred by turning trans issues into a political football; not because trans rights are actually a topic to be debated, but as part of a cynical quest for clicks in search of the industry’s holy grail of “objectivity.” Such coverage ought to be called out for the tangible harm it has done, and will continue to do, to the trans and the wider queer community.
The British media’s harmful response to Ghey’s murder took a range of forms. Both the BBC and Sky News’ initial reports of Ghey’s murder did not mention that Ghey was transgender. The effect of such reporting is clear: by not clearly setting out the necessary context — that Ghey was trans and had suffered years of transphobic bullying — these outlets downplay the serious risk of violence that trans people face. In the UK, from March 2021 to March 2022, police recorded 4,355 instances of ani-trans hate crime, a 52% increase from the year before. In Australia, the story is much the same — trans people are disproportionately victims of violence and hate crimes. By failing to adequately report on high rates of trans hate crime, the media obscures the severity of the marginalisation trans people face, placing them in greater danger.
While trans people worldwide are severely persecuted, the trans community is subjected to a narrative where they are cast as a threat to women, children, and even themselves. This pattern played out again this week as The Times amended its original article about Ghey’s murder to remove mention of the word “girl” and include her deadname. Implicit in this editorial decision is the argument that this information is relevant to readers. It is not. It invites readers to consider whether Ghey was truly a girl and whether she should be deadnamed against her will as a result. Asking these questions in an article about Ghey’s murder is dehumanising, and it excludes the reality that trans people are constantly victims of violence. In place of this, it gives renewed prominence to the idea that trans people are incorrect about their identity, and are merely trying to trick and manipulate others. The Times have subsequently undone these changes.
The media — British, Australian or otherwise — doesn’t just dehumanise trans people in death, it dehumanises them in life as well. A key problem with their reporting is the sheer volume of coverage of trans issues. The amount of trans-related articles in the British media jumped 400% from 2015 to 2020. This rapid rise of trans coverage in the media has been responsible for the creation of a moral panic about the existence of trans people.
The creation of an obsession with trans people simply existing is worsened in media outlets’ publishing of blatantly transphobic articles. Just days after Ghey’s death, The New York Times published an opinion piece defending JK Rowling and her transphobic politics. The uncritical dissemination of piece after piece of the supposed “threat” trans people pose to women and children, to the integrity of sporting competitions, and any other baseless claims, is calculated to stoke anti-trans sentiment.
Poor media coverage itself has done significant harm to the trans community. Aside from increasing the rate of anti-trans hate crime, anti-trans media coverage discourages trans youth from seeking gender affirming care, and perpetuates a heated debate about their very existence, having a detrimental effect on the mental health of trans people.
It is also responsible for the emboldening of right-wing political parties who seek to use trans lives as a vehicle for electoral gain. It is not a coincidence that as the media covers trans issues in an increasingly inflammatory way, anti-trans laws have multiplied in the UK, US, Australia, and beyond. The distorted way in which the public consumes media about trans issues has also led centre-left parties to triangulate their stances on trans issues out of perceived political need: UK Labour leader Keir Starmer has said nothing since Ghey’s death; Anthony Albanese was quoted on the front page of the Daily Telegraph during the 2022 election campaign as saying trans men can’t have babies — a tepid response to an anti-trans talking point.
Mainstream media outlets, such as the BBC, ABC or even the Sydney Morning Herald claim that platforming trans articles is part of a broader dedication to free speech. The New York Times — which has received an onslaught of open letters condemning its coverage of trans issues — defended itself by saying “our journalism strives to explore, interrogate and reflect the experiences, ideas and debates in society — to help readers understand them.” The problem with ‘impartiality’ or ‘exploring debates in society’ is that it treats trans rights like any other political issue. But debates about trans rights are fundamentally different. For one, as Ghey’s death demonstrates, anti-trans rhetoric leads to anti-trans violence — placing an ethical obligation on media outlets to deplatform it. Treating trans rights as a debate also entails constructing a false moral equivalency between arguments which support or oppose trans people obtaining rights to healthcare and autonomy over their identity. Those views are not equally true. They are not equally valuable.
Brianna Ghey will have her gender described as “male” on her death certificate. In death, as in life, Ghey and trans children are denied dignity and autonomy in a way which is afforded to cisgender children. British laws deny trans children 16 and under gender recognition certificates on the basis that they are “too young.” Being a teenager is a fraught time for anyone but it should ultimately be a time of joy. Trans youth around the world are denied a chance to stake a claim to their identity in the first place. With every transphobic op-ed published and law in place, trans people are pulled away from who they are, from an equal chance at a happy life — for Brianna Ghey, this was a chance at a life at all.
The media and people in power, even within nominally “left-wing” parties, are directly responsible for the hostility and hatred which endangers trans people. As the Trans Safety Network said in its statement on Brianna Ghey’s murder, “the death of Brianna Ghey is the failure of our society at the deepest level. It should not take a public show of grief to value the lives of trans children. Brianna’s life should have been valued enough not to be taken in the first place.”