Reporting transgender issues

‘People think we are child-molesting perverts because of media reporting, or pantomime dames – figures to ridicule, to be pointed out and laughed at, regardless of our feelings,” runs a desperate cry on Trans Media Watch, a website offering guidance to journalists on an area which is often misunderstood: how to portray transgender issues and people.

The Observer would like to think of itself as reasonably progressive in this area, careful to give the correct pronoun to someone who has a gender identity that is different from their biological sex or who has undergone gender reassignment. But reaction to coverage of the death of brilliant human rights lawyer David Burgess, also known as Sonia Burgess, shows that, however careful the approach to the story, the issue is extremely sensitive. Earlier this month, the New Review devoted four pages to a 4,600-word account of the life and death of this extraordinary person. Last October, Sonia Burgess, first identified by her railcard, died beneath a tube train at King’s Cross station. It was later discovered that Sonia was biologically male – a man called David Burgess, an immigration lawyer of international reputation. (A murder trial begins next month.)

The Observer piece included this sentence: “Many of Sonia’s friends found the media interest difficult to stomach, especially as some newspapers used the male pronoun to refer to Burgess in spite of the fact that he had chosen to live as a woman.”

This enraged several transgender readers who felt the Observer had done just that, ignoring Sonia’s chosen identity and referring to her using the male pronoun and identifying her both as David and Sonia. “What you’re actually saying is that this person ‘believed themselves to be female’ and that your policy is to ignore that because you don’t believe she was female and therefore you use the male pronoun,” was a typical reaction from a reader who went on to accuse the paper of “transphobia”.

I wrote to that reader after I had spoken to the author of the piece, Elizabeth Day, who, in my view, had gone to great lengths to approach the subject as sensitively as possible.

I felt that this passage from the piece summed up her dilemma as a writer: “On the day that Burgess was killed, he was living as a woman and yet working as a man. He was open about his lifestyle to anyone who asked, but he also had separate groups of friends: those who knew him as David and those who knew him exclusively as Sonia.

“He allowed only his closest confidants to see him in both guises.” This, I felt, was a simple fact and one that could not be ignored by adhering to the female pronoun.

I also told readers that the family had asked the Observer to refer to Burgess as both David and Sonia according to the stage in his narrative – a point underlined by their own adoption of both male and female pronouns in their funeral eulogies at St Martin-in-the-Fields – a service attended by 600 people whose lives had been touched by this deeply compassionate person.

However, members of the transgender community wrote dismissing the wishes of the family. “It is how Sonia wanted to be referred to that is important, not other people,” said one reader. “The wishes of the family have absolutely no bearing on how this was handled,” wrote another.

I disagree. Too often, newspapers are accused of ignoring the wishes of those who have lost loved ones. This stubborn insistence that Burgess be referred to as “she” throughout the piece misses the point that he was famed for his sensitivity on the subject of his identity, both towards his children from his 20-year marriage and towards his colleagues. His firm’s founding partner said: “He never came to work as Sonia but that, I think, was more to do with David wanting to make sure everyone else was OK. That would be his greatest concern… He was always thinking of other people.”

Our style guide currently has no entry on transgender issues. Clearly, it needs one but as the experience of the past week has shown, it’s not going to be easy to arrive at a consensus.

This column was originally published in The Observer on Jan. 23, 2011.

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