Transgender MP Candidate Consumed by the Press

Published: 23 December 2014

Country: UK

By Adil Yilmaz

Emily_BrothersThe British tabloid Sun and its columnist caused an outrage on social media due to discriminatory remarks about the first Labour transgender parliamentary candidate, Emily Brothers. Since the Sun Rod Liddle’s comment on the fact that Brothers is blind and transgender, more than 27,000 people signed the online petition demanding an apology.

Although most media voiced their strong support for Brothers, condemning the transphobic and ableist comment by Liddle, their coverage reifies highly problematic discourses on transgender and disabled people and keeps the discussion on a superficial level, neglecting the pervasive structural discrimination faced by these marginalised groups.

It is remarkable that almost every article on Emily Brothers stresses how she lost her sight due to glaucoma, followed by Labour leader Ed Miliband’s remark on Brothers’ “courageous” character. Brothers’ childhood illness is presented as the “tragic” event that caused her disability, which reproduces highly problematic notions of “compassion” and “pity” towards disabled people. The fact that her courage and accomplishments as a politician are mentioned only in direct connection to her disability not only reduces Brothers to her disability, but it also appears as if it were surprising that a blind person could succeed in politics.

The mainstream media coverage of Brothers’ identity is controversial from a trans-perspective, too. The Independent’s publication on Brothers’ profile, for example, is very much designed like an exposure to the public, as it begins with the phrase “This is what you should know about her”, followed by what the author finds to be the most important information about Emily Brothers.

Instead of focussing on her political views and agenda, the article provides information on Brothers’ private life, such as her marriage to a woman and her coming out. Apart from the fact that Brothers’ private life seems to be more important than her actual political agenda, it is indispensable to think about the gaze she is subjected to as a transgender woman. She is put in a position where she has to share information about herself, as if she were obliged to reveal her “secrets”. This way, she is exoticized and consumed by the public, which is a social practice transgender people are too familiar with.

The emphasis on individuals, rather than on problematic societal structures, can be detected in the representation of Rod Liddle. Headlines, such as “Emily Brothers Subject To Terrible Transphobic Comment From The Sun’s Rod Liddle” or “Sun columnist Rod Liddle sorry for ‘vile’ joke about blind transgender Labour candidate Emily Brothers” reflect a focus on Liddle as a “mean” and “bigoted” individual who insults an innocent woman.

International Business Times continues to construct this image calling Liddle’s remark a “disgusting joke.” The portrayal of Liddle as the” evil perpetrator” constructs a victim-perpetrator dichotomy contrasting him with the “good” and “poor” victim Brothers. This binary opposition finds its peak in an article published by the Independent that illustrates a split picture of Brothers on the one hand and Liddle on the other. The article explores how Brothers “hits back” at Liddle, defending herself after his attack on her.

The demonization of Liddle paired with the victimisation of Brothers has an individualising effect and it seems like the public have to deal with one single actor committing misconduct. This diverts the attention from structural discrimination against transgender and disabled people deeply rooted in society.

The Huffington Post, too, prefers to put an emphasis on the persona of Rod Liddle, instead of calling attention to structural discrimination: “Here’s an early Christmas gift for everyone – Rod Liddle has apologised for something!” The article also absolves contemporary British society of discriminatory structures by labelling Liddle’s remark as “medieval”, which suggests that Liddle’s viewpoints are to be regarded as “exceptional” in an else open, egalitarian society.

This portrayal of British society negates the systematic discrimination transgender and disabled people face. In an interview with Pinknews, Emily Brothers addresses these issues: “I am aware from my experience that there are a lot of issues about access to health services. In terms of counselling support and in terms of access to treatment in order to align people to their correct gender. Many transgender people also experience harassment and that is something that needs to be challenged and tackled. A lot of transgender people find it difficult to retain employment; they may have housing and other social challenges. There is vast under-representation of disabled people and people with transgender experience in public life, and there is of course vast under-representation of women in parliament, and that needs to change.”