Monday, April 11, 2011

Revisited: The end of a chapter

In the past couple of weeks I've been revisiting on the spot news accounts that I wrote during the 1990's to support an earlier contention about one-sided reporting and distortion of trans experiences. Here is the third and final example.

The story so far

Number Ten

Each of the accounts that I've showcased illustrates quite major milestone events which needed an amateur journalist like myself to record them because the mainstream media had no interest.

Dusting off these accounts has acquired an added importance now, as the original web site on which they were published and stood for 15+ years has now disappeared. The only hope you have of finding them in their original form is the Internet Archive.

It wasn't that mainstream newspapers didn't want to write about trans people at all. This recently remembered article is typical of the material which they were quite happy to print regularly, at the drop of a hat.

When you read Nigella Lawson's article take a look at the date on it (Feb 6th 1996) and notice how close it was to these events in Parliament (Feb 2nd 1996) that were otherwise not mentioned by the mainstream press at all. That's what 'erasure' means.

And, of course, negative articles in the Times would have to have been framed rather differently if they were to have acknowledged the existence of a major international conference like this.

This is why it can be galling for trans campaigners to be accused of attempted censorship the moment they ask for a little of the space routinely given to detractors to be handed over to them.

The end of a chapter

The events I've so far revisited took place in 1993 and 1996 respectively. For my final example we move ahead just another eighteen months to October 1997.

The Government had changed -- Tony Blair's Labour administration romped into office with a massive landslide in May of that year.

There were signs of hope for us as a tiny campaign too -- the events below took place in the same month that we were suddenly offered exhibition stand space inside the Labour Party conference in Brighton.

The press even appeared to be interested in what we were doing. However, as you'll see, 'interest' was as far as it would go...

Presenting the Press for Change Petition

Posted Saturday 1st November, 1997 to the press for change email list server "UKPFC-News"

When a technical glitch on the Australian computer running this service threatened to put UKPFC-News out of action this weekend, it seemed almost fitting in a way.

There are times when silence can be deafening; Times when a vacuum can be full of meaning.

If you'd logged on today for the anticipated account of our petition delivery and press conference, and found it wasn't there though ... If you'd gone down to the library and checked diligently through Wednesday, Thursday and Friday's national papers and found nothing reported ... If you'd watched all the day's news reports and seen nothing more topical than the Spice Girls mouthing some meaningless platitudes about people who died for our freedom ... THEN you might have felt a frisson of intrigue, or wondered what dark and evil event had occurred on Whitehall this week to obliterate the actions of fifty UK citizens from the news.

There are, as you know, some places on this earth where such things happen.

Almost as quickly as it went down however, Kym Kovan's computer was back up again today ... stealing the opportunity to turn a computer hiccup into a statement ... and turning the responsibility for what to write about the week's events back into an editorial one.

So, robbed of my excuse for a quiet night away from the keyboard ... and powered by a different set of editorial values and imperatives than those who shape the news that makes our world, here IS the world's only historic account of the week when fifty UK citizens went up to London to do something their kind had never done before.

It was the day when transsexual people came out on the streets to protest ... and the day they disappeared from every newspaper and television in the country.

Curious coincidence.

Nice day for a protest


If you're GOING to have a rally, of course, it's much nicer to have one in the sun. Walking round Parliament Square and down the sunny south side of Whitehall on Wednesday lunchtime I couldn't help commenting to Alex Whinnom (who organised it all) that maybe the sun shines on the righteous. It was certainly one less factor to worry about, as we both wondered, perhaps, whether we were about to preside over the biggest flop in our campaigning history.

Wind or rain might have gauranteed it. Even on a bright, pleasant autumnal afternoon, however, who would have liked to lay odds on how many traditionally media-shy transsexual people were prepared to come and stand under a banner in public, proclaiming their status ?

As we crossed the road by the Cenotaph, towards the gates that bar the entrance to Downing Street, I have to admit I had a moment's panic though. There were certainly people in abundance there ... it's a popular tourist venue .. but where were "ours" ?

I'd missed the point, of course. How DO you spot a crowd of transsexual people in their natural habitat, lost in a sea of humanity milling around on the pavement ? It's not as easy as people think. Only as we got closer, and as friendly and familiar faces turned to greet us, did I realise that we DID have a real live protest rally and that, more to the point, it was in full swing and we were the last to get there !

Mind you, it was still difficult to work out where WE ended and the general public began in the mele. Two television crews were there ... the BBC from Bristol, following Ros Mitchell for the day, and Central Television, covering for ITN News because Dr Lynne Jones MP is on their patch. Both crews were busy interviewing little groups when we arrived. A rookie reporter was there too. As far as media coverage was concerned that was it though !

This isn't to say that the media hadn't shown interest, mind you.

The press release went out from Lynne Jones's office on Monday morning to all the normal agencies and news desks. A release on Westminster letterhead, from the office of a sitting MP, is usually expected to attract a bit more attention than one sent by a pressure group on its' own. Sure enough, by Monday afternoon, I got a couple of calls at work too. The fact that it WAS just two calls didn't surprise me as I expected the main interest to begin in the evening, or or Tuesday.

There are calls ... and there are CALLS though ..

The first was from a cockey sounding Sky News reporter, who cheerfully assured me that he could do a lot for our campaign, but only if they could do it THAT afternoon ! He had it all planned. "We want to come and film you at work ... talk to the people you work with ... or how about visiting your home ?" When I informed him that I was working for my employer's clients, in a secure area of an Investment bank, and that I was available to talk about serious rights issues as a campaign representative OUTSIDE of working hours, and that I live in Cheshire, not the City, all the chirpiness evaporated though. Besides, we wanted coverage for what we were doing on Wednesday, not a probe into my working life.

Wednesday wasn't any good for him of course. Neither was Tuesday ... inside or outside of working hours. It dawned on me that we were the man's way of filling a gap. We could have been protesting the price of Pilchards for all he cared ... just so long as he could film me eating them that night. I passed him on to Susan Marshall (wondering whether this was a friendly thing to do to her) and then got back to my work. Later, Susan's secretary confirmed my impressions. "What a nasty little character !", she said. (Well, actually, she didn't say "character"). Needless to say, he got the same reception in Oxford as he got in London.

Sky News wasn't going to be reporting us on Wednesday, therefore. Good riddance.

The next call was from a researcher on Nicky Campbell's Radio Five show ... very pleasant and friendly, if you discount the essential lack of manners in the short dialogue we had ...

"Um, I'm from Nicky Campbell's programme on Radio Five ... I understand you're from Press for Change and you're presenting a petition at Downing Street on Wednesday".

"Yes, that's right.. "

"Have you got anyone FAMOUS taking part ?"

"Well, no actually ... the point is that this is a group of transsexual people taking a protest along on their own behalf".

"Oh, sorry ... you see, the programme format's really about celebrities talking to Nicky"

"So, you don't want to talk to US then ?"

"Well, UM ... er ... no ... sorry !"

Well, she did say sorry ..

Meanwhile, back on Whitehall we were at last beginning to arouse the curiosity of the sightseers, as we unfurled the Press for Change banner, and stood under it ... feeling like lemons. When the police came and pushed us gently away from the kerb though it started to feel a bit more like a REAL rally and I pondered whether I ought to try and say something to the assembled group. On the other hand, as I'd already discovered, my voice seemed tiny and ineffective against the noise of the passing traffic ... even when I strained to shout above the heads around me ... so in the end I decided to save the rhetoric for the press conference.

When Lynne Jones arrived, the police came and asked who was going to make the walk up Downing Street ... and then half a dozen of us were allowed through the gate, and ordered to an exact spot on the pavement beyond, to await our moment.

You really begin to appreciate the clever way in which any semblance of democratic empowerment is snuffed out by authority at times like this. The policeman explained EXACTLY how we were going to proceed and stated, flatly and with no room for compromise, that there WOULD BE NO speeches or interviews outside the door of Number Ten.

So, with our police guard making sure we didn't stray from our permitted course, we marched up Downing Street, into the lenses of the TV cameras awaiting our arrival and stopped on that famous step, in front of an impossibly glossy black door. We got out a few petition sheets for the cameras. Smiled. Put the sheets back in their boxes again (just over nine and a half thousand signatures at the final count) and knocked on the door.

The door opened. The doorman beamed and behind him I got a tantalising glimpse of red sumptuousness. I just wish I'd known THEN that the man was due to retire the next day. Maybe we could have made it a more human occasion than simply handing over two large box files and smiling. Maybe we could have got some tips from him too ... because the next day HE was all over every evening bulletin !

Everybody, it seems, gets on the news except ...

No time for thought though. The policeman was marching us back down the street almost as soon as we'd handed the boxes over and, seconds later, we were back on Whitehall.

Five years effort. Almost ten thousand hard won and thoughtfully contributed wishes of goodwill. Delivered, gobbled up by the system and forgotten in under five minutes.

This wasn't the end though.

Marching into the arms of democracy

Marching down Whitehall  Oct 1997

The next bit was to march as a group, under the Press for Change banner, up Whitehall and into the Houses of Parliament, for our press conference at 2pm.

Oh ... but I'm not to call it a "March". Marches aren't allowed. One can walk. One can move. One can't "March" without permission though. And you have to do your "walking" or "moving" on the pavement, with hundreds of sightseers and passers-by going both ways at the same time ... and being careful not to get your banner wrapped round a lampost, or leave half your party behind at the traffic lights on Westminster Bridge Approach.

Just what Oliver Cromwell thought as we struggled past the world's holidaymakers, past Big Ben and along the narrow paving, I don't know. The policeman who confronted us, as we neared the public entrance was in no doubt though...

"I'm sorry, you can't carry that banner when Parliament is sitting, who's in charge ?"

It seems we were breaking a very ancient law that prohibits protests outside of Parliament when the people you want to protest to are inside. (Quite why you'd WANT to protest outside at any other time is beyond me).

The Angry man in a helmet was unimpressed when I offered myself as the nearest thing he was going to get for a leader. Alex was some way further back down the line. What surprised me more, however, was that for the second time that day our host, Lynne Jones, who was walking beside me, had almost as much trouble getting the respect of the local police too ... at least until she produced her Commons ID card, when the tone suddenly turned to "M'am". I never quite graduated past "You stand there !".

The BBC rushed up gleefully at this point.

"Have you been banned from going inside ?" asked the reporter ? You could see the disappointment on her face, when we explained that we hadn't.

For somebody like me ... frightfully middle class, not used to marches and demos, and accustomed to a very different reception from the police under any other circumstances, it was an object lesson in what happens when you march under a banner, and become a "threat".

Satisfied that we weren't going to blow the place up though, the police stood us in the little coral between the fence and the arched public entrance, awaiting our chance to go inside. Parliament was busy that day. Several groups were booked into the Jubilee Room, where we planned our press conference ... and only one, it seems, was to be allowed in the building at any time.

The depersonalisation didn't end there, either ... when I was ordered (not asked, but ordered), to stay back and identify any members of our party who strayed up the wrong steps towards the central lobby, rather than down into Westminster Hall, where we were headed. (I didn't like to point out that I had no more idea of who belonged in our party than them !)

It's odd, because on the half dozen or so occasions when I've come to the same place, and jumped the public queue outside, armed with my invitation to parliamentary forum meetings, the reception's been very different. It wasn't like that either when I passed the same way, a couple of years ago, in a party of 30 "Conservative Ladies", on a day out to see the workings of Parliament. Policemen like to flirt ... and I'm certainly not averse to innocently flirting back. My entrances to the Palace of Westminster have always usually been pleasant, polite, smiling affairs. On this occasion, however, I found the contrast rather chilling. Today I was not a person under that banner ... I was not me, but someTHING else.

Press, what press ?

The press conference itself, reminded me of our fringe meeting in Brighton, three weeks previously. Seats stuffed with transsexual people ... but not a lot of press ... or MPs for that matter.

To her credit, Lynne Jones had rushed into the building ahead of us, and managed to drag three colleagues from the tearoom to join her. And note that I said the TEA ROOM ... not another meeting. Plenty of MPs ... all of whom had been sent a letter announcing the conference, weeks beforehand ... found it more important to drink tea than come and see us.

The press coverage had diminished a bit by this point too, with the two television cameras down to one ... albeit now supplemented by a stills photographer from the Press Association.

So we said our pieces to an audience of the converted, and then adjourned outside for a few photos to be taken, before urgently seeking a coffee shop in which to warm up and get a drink.

The sun may have been out, but the air was chill. Or was it the air ?

The end of a chapter

Outside Parliament

I paint a gloomy picture, perhaps ... though that's deliberate. And I've recorded the occasion as a set of impressions, rather than a more impersonal report, in order to try and better convey the sense of being there, rather than to lose what personal record there is behind a speech of self-congratulation for the campaign.

After all, if I portrayed the day as a huge unmitigated success then I wouldn't be telling the story of something which, when all's said and done, was hugely historic ... and certainly significant.

It was the first time ever that Press for Change brought out a crowd of people, in the United Kingdom, to protest for civil rights.

It wasn't just a handful of people either, but FIFTY.

It doesn't SOUND a lot, by the measure of most public lobbies, of course.

Whichever way you look at the number, however, it's about 45 more people than we might have hoped to muster in public a couple of years ago ... and in the press conference, I reminded the audience that when the PFC petition began, about six years ago, it was a struggle just to get people to SIGN the form, let alone go out in the expectation of meeting the cameras and press.

Fifty, whichever way you look at it, is an amazing figure ... and it means that NEXT time we take to the streets, we should be able to manage far more. For if there was ever a proof needed that we've made the streets safe for folk to protest on, then this week produced it.

IT WAS ALSO YET ANOTHER OCCASION when the press proved that a mere gathering of transsexual people is no longer newsworthy in its own right. What's more, on THIS occasion, even though the cameras CAME, news editors decided not to use the material they'd obtained.

More than that however ...

The occasion was symbolic of a change in the nature of the campaign ... a change that has crept up on us over the last eighteen months or so, as the press and public alike have worked "shock, horror" out of their system, and are just beginning to realise that there's maybe something to listen to and learn.

The Press for Change Petition belongs to a different era. It originated at a time when a petition was about the only form of public affirmation we COULD seek.

Petitions ... even when they have fifty thousand or five hundred thousand signatures are not very potent instruments. The very concept of a petition ... scratching around for proof that people support your case enough to sign a piece of paper ... is a symbol of a campaign that's looking for endorsement by its peers. Petitions don't make things happen ... they're what you do when you need to start by proving that people support your case.. We've passed that point already though.

Even as we carried the petition boxes along Downing Street, I was aware that the act of delivering it was no longer a fundamental part of the campaign strategy. Other than underlining that we'd been working hard for all those years to do OUR bit to bring transsexual treatment in from the political cold, the petition didn't ADD anything to what we are now already doing. It merely shows we have support ... to people who, when all's said and done, tacitly support us.

The real messages were in the fact that we can now bring people out in numbers to campaign ... and in what you can deduce from the media's assessment that fifty transsexual people at the gates of government are not newsworthy.

Of course, it was a neat end to an autumn campaign in which FAR more significant advances had been made, and it was a recognition of the belief and support people have given us over the years we've worked. By the time this Wednesday had arrived however, our campaign had moved beyond the point where a petition was an ESSENTIAL..

Delivering it, therefore, was like reaching the end of an important chapter in the campaign's development. Putting our affairs straight before we move on.

What lies ahead now is a different SORT of campaign. A time when we consolidate and assess the various openings we've got, and build more of the same. A time when we stop spending all of our time justifying WHY we should be listened to, and start to spend more time on WHAT we need to say. A time when transsexual people move from being objects of ridicule and fear, into subjects of interest and respect ... people with an experience and lessons which are of wider benefit.

A new chapter, in fact.

Christine Burns

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