The Interaction between Policy & Media Representation of Trans People

A spotlight on Russia, Pakistan and the United Kingdom, by Sascha Amel-Kheir

Policies affecting trans and gender diverse people differ significantly throughout the world. The spectrum can range from countries that do not have the means to change one’s legal gender and which lack anti-discrimination laws, to countries that allow people to self-identify their gender for official purposes, without the threat of discrimination. Three countries, in particular, provide compelling case studies on the ways in which policy and media representation of trans people can interact: Russia, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom, all of which will be covered within this piece

Russia’s treatment of LGBTI people has once again come under intense scrutiny coinciding with its hosting of the World Cup. Current procedures are in place to recognize a change of legal gender, but they are difficult to access and most media representation of trans people is outlawed by the infamous propaganda law. The law prohibits the promotion of ‘non-traditional’ values to children, but what constitutes non-traditional is open to interpretation and therefore so is its application. At its broadest extent, the law can be used to ban any public expression or representation of queer identity.

While the media can reinforce negative stereotypes, thereby supporting discriminatory laws, it can also play a powerful role in introducing diversity to the general public, humanizing those viewed as different. In Russia, neither is possible because of the propaganda law. As the IARAN’s recent report on LGBTI social exclusion notes, a lack of visibility contributes to an alienation and othering of LGBTI people. This is particularly detrimental to trans people as the policy framework in Russia means that successful applications to change one’s name or legal gender are highly dependant on the prejudices of individual officials.

If, for example, a trans man wanted to change his name, he would have to submit an application to do so, to a local official. There would be a significantly lower chance that he would be successful if he wished to change his name to one regarded as traditionally masculine, than if he was changing his name to a gender-neutral one. Success is therefore determined by the official’s views. The lack of positive representation challenging prejudice, in combination with a lack of discrimination protections, is therefore affecting the ease by which trans people can access procedures to socially and legally transition, even though these procedures exist.

Following recently passed legislation in Pakistan, policies affecting trans peoples’ lives are now remarkably progressive. The Transgender Persons Act 2018 provides anti-discrimination protections for trans people and allows self-identification of gender, removing the previous need for medical approval. This may seem surprising when viewing the development from a Western lens, considering that same-sex activity is still punishable with up to 10 years imprisonment. However, this perspective is often ignorant of the legacies of pre-colonial conceptualizations of gender in South Asia and the impact of British imperialism on gender diverse communities in the region.

As noted in the IARAN’s recent report, colonialism was instrumental in the imposition of European laws against, primarily, sodomy in a way that overruled existing cultural norms throughout the world. In South Asia, there are positive references to a gender diverse community known as the hijra or khawaja sira that are mentioned over two thousand years ago in the Ramayana, right through to writings from the Mughal era prior to the British invasion of the subcontinent. The khawaja sira have experienced discrimination and social exclusion after independence, but not on a level comparable to the extremely negative view of same-sex activity, that has roots in both British and Islamic legal perspectives. However, since the new millennium, there has been remarkable progress in terms of both policy and representation for the khawaja sira and the wider trans community as a whole.

In 2005, the Late Show with Begum Nawazish Ali aired for the first time on Aaj News. Although there are past sources referring to Ali as transgender, Ali currently doesn’t identify so and Begum is now understood to be a drag persona of Ali’s. However, the show did showcase a subversion of binary gender norms to great success with guest appearances from all aspects of Pakistani life, including politics. 

The Pakistani Parliament passed legislation in 2010 that granted the khawaja sira the right to legal recognition, with an E marker on passports, and other civil freedoms such as voting rights. However, this progress did not change the situation for many other members of the community, such as trans women and trans men. Nevertheless, progress continued with 2012 seeing two important steps forward for the community: first, a number of khawaja sira stood for election. Second, Kami Sid shot to fame as Pakistan’s first out trans model, to a mixed reaction, but has continued to be a visible advocate for the community and was heavily involved in campaigning for the 2018 Act.

From analyzing the timeline of events, the above being just a sample, a cultural history of understanding gender in a less rigid way than the West, in combination with positive representations of gender diversity, has led to a rare situation in Pakistan. The country has some of the most progressive policies in the world when it comes to trans issues, but still harshly punishes same-sex activity. This is rather different to the West where the trans community has not seen the same levels of progress and acceptance as LGB people. It highlights not only the importance of representation but also serves as a warning against viewing LGBTI issues through a Western lens and, especially, looking at gender and gender diversity without considering the legacies of colonialism.

The UK Government is about to launch a public consultation on the Gender Recognition Act which contains provisions concerning a change of legal gender. Progressive at the time of its passing, the Act has come under criticism in recent years as it only recognizes a change from one binary gender to another and is a protracted and medicalized procedure. While the consultation was originally expected to progress smoothly, the last year has seen a frightening media campaign against any change to the Act, coinciding with the rise of fascism in the West and a shift to the right in British politics.

While there is some positive representation of trans people, trans issues are often highly sensationalized with a focus on the medical aspects of transition. This reduces trans people to their bodies and then proceeds to frame those bodies as entertainment for the masses to gawk at. A recent discussion programme, Channel 4’s Genderquake, included audience members shouting transphobic abuse at participants while they were forced to debate their right to simply exist.

The panic raised by the media has been compared to the campaign against gay men in the 1980s, which culminated in Section 28 – forbidding the promotion of homosexuality, and was similar to Russia’s current propaganda law. While the coverage has been condemned by government ministers, there is a fear that what was expected to lead to more progressive policies will bring little change and the UK will continue to fall behind when it comes to trans equality.

The situations in Russia, Pakistan and the UK each showcase three trends in the way policy and media representation interact. They serve as both encouragement and warning to trans activists throughout the globe. They highlight the importance for governments to firstly allow representation, but also, the need to produce positive representations that showcase trans people as human beings, without reducing them to their bodies. Representation is a powerful tool paving the way to greater equality and inclusion, including where it might not be expected. But it may also be weaponized, reinforcing stereotypes, stalling progress and leading to stagnation, even in previously liberal environments.

Sascha is a member of the team at Gendered Intelligence, a non-profit working to increase understandings of gender diversity and improve the quality of life of trans people. They are also the Co-Editor of Beyond the Binary, a submissions-based magazine providing an online platform for the non-binary community.

Follow on twitter @sjkheir