Background: on the 20th December 2012, Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn wrote a piece on Lucy Meadows, a Lancashire primary school teacher and male-to-female transsexual who transitioned whilst teaching at the school. Littlejohn’s article criticised Meadows for not considering the “devastating effect” that this would have on her pupils and for putting her “selfish needs ahead of the well-being of the children”. On Tuesday 19 March 2013, Meadows was found dead.
Littlejohn’s article has since been taken down from the Daily Mail website but a cached copy exists online.
When I, like over 200,000 people, responded to this story by signing an e-petition from SumOfUs.org calling for Littlejohn’s sacking (and then encouraging my friends to join me by means of Facebook status), a friend highlighted that I was perhaps being a little rash by linking me to a comment piece from Pink News.
The author, Paul Canning, raises some important points. Firstly, there’s no explicit link between Littlejohn’s article and Meadows’ death. Despite allusions to the contrary, the media harassment that Meadows complains about in her published emails cannot be sourced to Littlejohn, and she makes no mention of his column.
Secondly, the local reporters who were guilty of harassing Meadows and parents of children at the school seem to be getting off relatively lightly compared to Littlejohn, who has become the main object of protesters’ anger.
Thirdly, the “clicktivist” sites involved in gathering e-petition signatures, such as change.org and sumofus.org, have questionable intentions and their conduct in response to Meadows’ death isn’t of the sort advocated by the Trans Media Watch, the watchdog group who submitted a detailed report to the Leveson Inquiry about the treatment of trans issues in the press.
With these in mind, I’m unsure about quite a few things. I’m unsure if signing the aforementioned e-petition was a good or bad thing. I’m unsure about how the local reporters should be dealt with. And though I wouldn’t miss him, I’m unsure whether there is good enough reason to call for Littlejohn’s sacking.
What we should all be sure about, however, is that Littlejohn’s (and indeed the Daily Mail’s) lack of apology for the content and tone of his article is unacceptable.
Littlejohn’s piece starts off by conceding that “it can’t be much fun being a woman trapped in a man’s body”. He’s right: a 2007 study of 873 British transgender people revealed that 73% had experienced public harassment and over a third of respondents had attempted suicide. He then goes on to say that he has no problem with gender reassignment surgery being carried out on the NHS. So far, so good, though he does feel the need to write “’gender reassignment’ surgery” with unnecessary, trivialising inverted commas.
As we move on through the article, things go swiftly downhill. Littlejohn continuously uses male pronouns and Meadows’ pre-transition name “Nathan Upton” to refer to her and chooses to have the article meandering between “before” pictures of Meadows. This is insensitive; being reminded of a previous, unwanted identity by the national press is obviously going to be upsetting. The Trans Media Watch’s submission to the Leveson Inquiry lists such conduct as one of the principal problems transgender people face when portrayed by the media. But we may want to give Littlejohn the benefit of the doubt; Meadows had not yet fully transitioned and he may have been innocently unaware of how properly to refer to her. Perhaps such language wouldn’t have been used if Meadows had completed transitioning at the time of writing?
Unlikely. In the recent Daily Mail article written by an unnamed reporter on Meadows’ death, we can see that their journalists still (albeit inconsistently) use male pronouns and “Nathan Upton” to refer to Meadows. This isn’t acceptable.
Further inspection of the article yields yet more examples of snide, transphobic language used to belittle Meadows. Setting this issue aside for now, though, we can see that Littlejohn is making a more substantive claim about Meadows’ character. He brands her as “selfish” for not considering the “devastating effect” that her transition could have on the pupils of the school.
What is his basis for this? Littlejohn starts to make sweeping, unfounded generalisations about how children are ill-equipped to deal with “this kind of information” and, in the absence of any real evidence for his claims, points to the example of a single child who is worried about waking up with a girl’s brain after gender dysphoria had been falsely characterised to him as something which could strike at any moment – BAM! – leading him to wake up with a girl’s brain. Incidentally, this is not how the school explained it to the pupils.
Naturally, explaining transition to primary school children is a difficult process – cisgendered adults (evidently) still have problems understanding transgender issues. But to use this one example of a confused child in need of further clarification to justify singling out Meadows in the national press as a selfish, unfit teacher is nothing more than an example of the vindictive, sloppy, sensationalist journalism synonymous with the Daily Mail.
Transsexuality isn’t some kind of perversion from which we should shield our children at all costs. There’s no need to go into the nitty-gritty, gorier details of transition – an explanation similar to that given by Meadows’ school should be enough. Littlejohn’s baseless assertions that children can’t cope with this, in the face of the experiences of other schools with transgendered teachers (though there is understandably relatively little evidence), is founded on nought but prejudice.
It’s a good thing that these children have been exposed to the idea that not everyone identifies with their biological sex. They may not fully understand the nature of transsexuality (in the same way that no pre-pubescent child can completely grasp the full implications of any sexual orientation or gender identity), but they will hopefully grow up with less of the ingrained transphobia present in older generations.
Littlejohn chastises Meadows for not thinking about the welfare of her pupils, despite the fact that those who knew her held her to be a loving and conscientious teacher. She doesn’t have the profile of someone who doesn’t care about their students.
He, on the other hand, should be chastised for not thinking about the welfare of the vulnerable transgender community. Through unfounded claims and derisive language he has contributed to the negative media representation of transsexuals. By singling out this individual, regardless of whether his article pushed her to suicide, Littlejohn made Meadows’ last few months that bit more unpleasant.
So yes, the response to Littlejohn’s article hasn’t been perfect; he’s been misrepresented by questionable “clicktivist” organisations and unfairly branded as the cause of Meadows’ death. But he cannot use imperfections in the arguments of Meadows’ supporters to sidestep the fact that he wrote an unfair, transphobic, bullying piece on Lucy Meadows and that, regardless of her exact response to it, he should apologise for this offensive, unnecessary personal attack masquerading as journalism.