Tag Archives: the times

Recipe for Misunderstanding

Gotta love Nigella Lawson. She’s smart, sexy: knows her way around a kitchen. She looked great on the cover of DIVA back in March, seemingly un-airbrushed. But did you know that, before she became a saucy TV chef, she was a journalist with some rather questionable views on “transsexuals”? No, me neither.

But after her name popped up on twitter last night, my friend told me she still hadn’t “quite forgiven Nigella yet”. Forgiven her for what? Baking cakes and faffing about with chilli oil? Making you want to go round her house for dinner and wash your fingers in little bowls of water with slices of lime floating about in them? Nigella: you’re forgiven!

Well, turns out that on February 6th, 1996, (not too long after I was born) she wrote this in the Times:

Sex change operations don’t work

I know, to my cost, that adverse comment about the Royal Family or the airing of insufficiently sentimental and therefore unEnglish views about animals inevitably excite the biggest postbag. But for sheer vitriol and threatening aggression or perhaps rather more accurately, defensiveness you cannot beat the transsexual correspondent.

I have twice, in completely different contexts, written about transsexuality. In neither case did I ridicule or sneer at those who claim to be trapped – that is inevitably, word for word, the complaint – in the wrong body, but I did question them, and it: and hence a batch of letters, the hostility of which it is hard to convey.

Nigella, was that you? I thought you were the nice cake lady!

Perhaps one of the most telling symptoms of the transsexual is that there is no other interpretation allowed of their malaise than the one they choose to put on it.

Wtf? Transsexualism’s an internationally recognised medical condition. Why on earth would you look for other explanations if your doctor diagnosed you with it?

As tonight’s moving television programme, The Wrong Body (part of Channel 4’s Decision series) shows, even while transsexuals complain about the intolerance that the rest of us have for them and their condition, it is they who are so intolerant.

In the first instance, they cannot tolerate their sex, in fact are so unable to tolerate it that the only way they have of dealing with it is first to deny it and then, if possible, to do away with it.

Come on Nigella, you were having a laugh there, surely? Imagine if she’d written: “Blacks just won’t accept racism, and that’s what makes them the truly intolerant ones.” I’ve never really got this whole ‘tolerance’ thing anyway – why has what I do with my life and body got anything to do with anyone else? I don’t really like heavy metal music but I’m not horrible to people who do: I just treat them like I do all people. Does that make me ‘tolerant’?

But this intolerance extends to a refusal to consider any other explanation for their distress, indeed to a tendency to feel annihilated by any such unauthorised approach. There is obviously an identity problem here, but I cannot help feeling that it is not one that can always so easily be solved with a sex-change operation or, as it is now called, gender reassignment.

The issue of this operation, and whether it should be available on the National Health Service, is becoming ever hotter. More and more health authorities are refusing treatment, and indeed only last week a number of transsexuals who have been unable to receive the treatment they want on the NHS began legal action to try to enforce their rights to it.

At the same time, a rather more straightforward legal battle is being fought to allow transsexuals to alter their birth certificates after surgery, so that their given sex accords with the sex they have been changed into. I’ll agree that it does seem crassly illogical to allow people to have sex-change operations perfectly legally, but then use the law to prevent their living as the sex they have, to all intents and purposes, become.

OK, fair enough… but I hope you’re not about to say that such operations should be outlawed Nigella?

What I’m not saying is that such operations should be outlawed.


Those who want undiseased breasts and wombs and penises removed are right, of course, to say that it is their body, their choice. The NHS may also be right, at times, to respond that it is their budget, their choice. But it must be wrong for the issue to be decided on grounds of funds and finance. The question is, what is the nature of the problem and what therefore is the appropriate treatment?

Undiseased? Wonder what Nigella would think about a woman who discovered she had a pair of healthy testes lurking about her innards.

Treatment there should definitely be – these people are suffering horrendously – but I cannot see that this should inevitably be in the form of surgery. All transsexuals are utterly convinced that they are, as they say, trapped in the wrong body. But does this make them right? I know psychiatric care is already provided, but there must be some kind of approach that might help people really to work out what is at the root of this incredible distress.

“All transsexuals”. All Muslims? All wheelchair users? Just why do cisgender writers – no matter how sympathetic to our sufferings – feel they have a right to talk about trans people’s bodies and motivations with such baseless authority?

I was stunned in the programme by two unconnected comments by a couple of the girls who wish to be boys. The one, in her/his late teens, spoke of her/his horror at developing breasts at puberty: “I wanted to be like my father.” The other, a child of 13, brought up by mother and stepfather, said that she/he wanted to be called Rick “short for Richard which is my Dad’s name”. You don’t need to be Freud to see there is something going on there.

Freud? Pfft. And no ‘normal’ little boy wishes to be like his dad, does he?

Is that a phallic symbol you've got there Sigmund, or are you just pleased to see me?

Is that a phallic symbol you've got there, or are you just pleased to see me?

Nigella concludes:

The voice-over of tonight’s programme, however, reported that some post-mortems of transsexuals showed that their brains accorded with the sex they thought they should be rather than with the sex their genes made them. This, if true, would indeed be staggering evidence, though the vague, unscientific nature of its reporting hardly makes it sound, so far, conclusive.

Nigella Lawson clearly wrote a whole feature about transsexual people – including whether or not we should receive NHS treatment, the suggestion that we’re delusional, and sweeping generalisations – without doing much more research than watching a Channel 4 documentary. It beggars belief.

This is not a Nigella-bashing blog. She’s probably really lovely, and would no doubt feel rather embarrassed about this now. It was 15 years ago. People change. Awareness spreads.

But not fast enough. The reason I chose to revisit this entry is because it really highlights some of the key problems we’re currently facing in the media and society at large:

1. Ignorance & Arrogance

Why do people who clearly know very little about transsexualism – who most likely have no trans people in either their family or close circle of friends – feel so incredibly comfortable discussing our lives? Spouting on about what is, essentially, a misunderstood medical condition. Without doing any research. But not only that – then questioning whether we should even receive treatment. If I was posing the question that a certain procedure shouldn’t be available on the health service I’d bloody well read up on it first. And then she thinks we’re hostile which, I have to admit, made me laugh. We probably are. But can you imagine if she were talking about Jewish people? “This is the third time I’ve written about Jews: they reacted really badly the first two times but I still feel I have something more to say….”

2. Sweeping generalisations

I don’t feel like anyone trapped inside anything. I’m just me, and that happens to be someone who feels more comfortable in a female body; expressing themselves through a traditionally feminine set of behaviours. But such generalisations are, largely, a by product of:

3. Learning about trans people through the media
Do you think documentary makers fully grasp the power they wield over our community? A large proportion of the public get all their information about trans people from the media – just as Nigella appeared to have done. She didn’t seem to question that the programme presented a distorted and edited version of these people’s lives.

4. Othering
I sometimes feel a bit pedantic pointing out that transsexual is an adjective, not a noun, but it makes a big difference. This piece really gives the impression that it was written for people who aren’t themselves transsexual. Very much “us and them”. If you don’t quite see it, re-read the piece but just swap ‘transsexuals’ for ‘gays’, ‘blacks’ or ‘retards’.

5. Branding trans people hostile/unreasonable/touchy
Kind of like when someone says that black people have a chip on their shoulder, no? Quite a clever trick, this accusation has often been used to ignore completely valid expressions of anger. The best idea is to always remain calm.

So that’s it really. I’m sure Nigella’s an absolute pearl and all that, and yes: this is donkey’s years old, but the points it raises are just as relevant 15 years on. Indeed, there are still many fairly decent, fairly educated and fairly open-minded people out there who, nevertheless, don’t have a frigging clue what transsexualism is.

Which is fine. I just wish those people would stop creating news features, documentaries and other media output about transsexualism. Stop focusing on the surgeries some people may choose to have. Is that too much to ask?

But, if I got my wish, would we ever see anything about trans people in the media again?

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