Comment: The media need to stop writing the same story about trans people

An online betting website has used rumours former Olympic athlete, Bruce Jenner's sex change to attract wagers.

Sportsbet's transphobia is yet another reminder that trans people remain fair game for insensitive jokes, sensational media coverage and lazy PR stunts.

Trans people suffer from a lack of community understanding and stigma, something which is the media’s role to remedy with fair, impartial and sensitive reporting. The fundamental issue here is the suffering of a person who is trapped in a body of the opposite gender, but what we too often see in the media is a cruel caricature of reality.

Yesterday there was another stark reminder of this in the vile attempt to cash in on speculation around former Olympian and reality star Bruce Jenner’s alleged transition from male to female by Sportsbet Australia, who created an online betting comp with odds on what name Jenner would take as a woman.

Under the headline: “Brucsilla, Queen of the Kardashians” Sportsbet posted a release on its website and then sent it out to media outlets around the country promoting the chance to bet on what female name Jenner might choose.

“With rumours intensifying that Bruce Jenner has undergone a sex change, online bookmaker is giving punters the chance to have a punt on what name he/she will choose,” the release on Sportsbet’s site blithely announced.

It got worse with quotes like: “Fair play to Bruce, it takes a lot of balls to em … cut off your balls.”

Jenner has never publicly announced any intentions to become a woman, yet this has not stopped Sportsbet and a number of media outlets from indulging in puerile commentary and fanciful speculation to make money.

The media needs to stop writing the same story. It’s frequently the one narrative when reporting on trans people; equal parts horror/titillation/freak then nothing.

The response from Sportsbet to the inevitable backlash was almost as offensive, with a company spokesman stating:  “If you did take offense, we obviously apologise. We didn’t do this to put anyone off. We don’t want to offend anyone”. 

Even the apology’s wording implied a lack of understanding. It was as if they still didn’t get it, almost saying: if you were offended then sorry, but we still don’t consider this offensive and don’t really know why it’s an issue.

Sportsbet's pig-headed intransigence in refusing to take down the betting comp, even after acknowledging it was offensive, is just the latest in a string of at best insensitive and at worst denigrating portrayals of trans people.

Earlier this month The Age tweeted a link to a story about the alleged sexual transitioning of Jenner. The Tweet was headlined “Jenner bender” and quickly drew ire before it was deleted and an apology issued by The Age. Again, the apology was along the same lines of: If you were offended then we are sorry.

Then there was the Courier-Mail’s gleeful coverage of the murder of a transwoman under classy headlines like “she-male” and “ladyboy”. The shockingly insensitive and inept coverage was met with an outcry, and numerous complaints to the Press Council.  The paper eventually claimed it had not intended to cause upset, but the damage was already done.

One of the first things you learn in journalism is that you don't report on a person’s race, gender or sexual identity unless it's absolutely relevant to the story or is part of wider context and background essential to a reader’s understanding.

The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance Code of Ethics states: “Do not place unnecessary emphasis on personal characteristics, including race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, sexual orientation, family relationships, religious belief, or physical or intellectual disability".

Variations of this approach are included in the codes and charters of most news organisations in Australia in one form or another.

There’s still a way to go in how society treats gay, lesbian and even bisexual people, but things have improved from ten, or even five years ago. Yet somehow trans people remain fair game. They are the new "other" when it comes to sexuality, it's almost as though some sections of the media and society in general decided that while they may have shelved their homophobic views, at least publicly, they feel they never agreed to extend that basic human right of sexual identity acceptance to trans people.

It’s hard to know why a swathe of people in the media and wider community think this is still acceptable but Sportsbet’s complete obliviousness as to why the Jenner stunt was a bad idea speaks volumes.

You have to wonder what the response would have been if this incident had been sexist, racist, or even homophobic. Transphobia seems to somehow not yet be deemed by many as being quite in the same league. So the question remains: why in 2015 is this sort of thing still happening?


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