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If the RAF can accept my gender transition, why can’t the media?

Ayla Holdom is a search and rescue pilot in the Royal Air Force. When she began her gender transition, she was supported by friends and family and by her employer. Yet she, like teacher Lucy Meadows, who killed herself in March, has had to endure articles full of hurt and spite. She argues for all transgender people to be treated with the dignity they deserve

Perhaps it’s understandable that I should read more articles relating to transgender people than average. Being transgender, I have a natural desire to want to know how people like me are being presented. Unfortunately, I’m most often left wishing I had not read the article or watched the television show, which has made entertainment of, or vilified, people like me. I admit I take a rather simplistic view of the world and I don’t see myself as a demon trying to tear apart the very fabric of our society. So I remain flummoxed why someone like me would be newsworthy simply for being themselves.

The coroner’s recent remarks following the heartbreaking death of primary school teacher Lucy Meadows in March highlighted the press intrusion into her life in the months before her suicide. He found that elements of the press “carried out what can only be described as a character assassination, having sought to ridicule and humiliate Lucy Meadows and bring into question her right to pursue her career as a teacher”.

Neither coroner Michael Singleton nor Lucy blamed press intrusion for being directly responsible for her suicide. Personally, I strongly suspect that the feeling of social stigma she acquired from such monstering in the press and that of people like her would have had a significant effect. How could it not?

The emotional turbulence experienced during a transition can be immense, even without a public and unforgiving spotlight placed on you by the media. With the right support, a transition can be entirely manageable, as was my experience. However, it is a sad fact that statistics suggest around 40% of trans people will have attempted suicide at some time before transition, due to social stigma. I am fortunate in that regard. Lucy Meadows, it appears, was not. That is a deeply sad loss for all of us.

My own experiences in the media were awful enough at the time for me and my family, but of course I am fortunate to be able to write about these today. I feel fortunate in so many ways, having strong support from my employer, the Royal Air Force, and my family from day one. I was sheltered from further sensationalised news articles. I had the rare ability to hide away and pretend that this hadn’t happened. I have come through a transition to have a bright and productive future ahead of me. I hope that’s welcome news not just to my family, but to society at large. I am in no way special; every person going through a gender transition must surely be entitled to the same level of dignity.

The memories of my experience at the hands of elements of the tabloid press over the past few years are ones I would rather forget and move on from. But even after the Leveson inquiry, I still see the same story, but with a different name, and a different life being the undeserving target.

Like Lucy, the first articles written about me occurred within weeks of coming out to my colleagues, friends and family as being transsexual. Less than two weeks after I began the not-so-easy process of transition, and gossip being what it is, my deeply personal news reached critical mass and the press were made aware, publishing articles about me, constantly referring to me with male pronouns, personal photos of my life before transition and using frankly crass phrases such as “sex swap”. Immediately after beginning what was an incredibly stressful and personal period of life, I was thrown into the public spotlight for examination and analysis.

In my case and Lucy’s, they created a fictional problem to fit an ill-informed prejudice, and raised concern over how a transgender person could possibly be allowed to work within our respective careers. In a second article a year later, I was referred to as “a transsexual who dresses as a woman called Ayla”. The implication was that I am just a charade. This not only hurt greatly but was a statement I had no way of defending or correcting.

The aim of these articles was clear: to highlight me as an oddity, to be ridiculed or pitied. The result was even more distressing. A shocking number of public comments on the tabloid’s websites questioned my right to even exist. One comment asked: “How can someone this selfish be allowed to work in search and rescue?”

A wave of negative feeling had been incited not only against me, but against every transgender person. These comments, I am happy to say, have since been taken down from the websites. The hatred they inspired in so many is possibly a little harder to overcome.

The reason I deserved this treatment? Why any transgender person deserves this treatment? I had admitted who I was.

The RAF has always been completely supportive of me and I have been immensely proud to serve in the search and rescue force. I work alongside friends and colleagues who encourage and inspire me daily and the feeling of responding directly to people in distress as part of an operational crew is something I cherish and, of course, I have a great sense of professional pride.

People are often surprised when I tell them that I transitioned in the RAF, imagining days past when people such as myself would have been discharged. Today, that couldn’t be further from reality and, following the brave work and example shown by many before me, being transgender (as with being gay or bisexual) is simply not an issue. Importantly, I witness this shift not just in policy, but in culture and ethos as well. I genuinely hold the RAF up as a benchmark in this regard. My transition barely caused a raised eyebrow. I had support when I needed it but was rightly expected to do my job and I was assessed professionally, not on the basis of my gender or my sexuality.

As Tim Minchin sings: “I will judge you for no reason but your deeds.” If her majesty’s armed forces can do that, it baffles me why elements of the media find it so hard to achieve.

The portrayal of me by elements of the tabloids was of a horrid caricature in the role of a search and rescue pilot that I didn’t recognise. Lucy Meadows was reported as a caricature in the role of a primary school teacher and the same generic caricature of what it is to be transgender has been applied to so many others; each taking its toll not only on the individual at the centre of the story but on every transgender person reading.

I did make attempts to fight the injustice I felt had been dealt to me at the time. I consulted my command chain, the RAF media liaison team, legal experts and of course my family. The advice I received was that, should I dare to respond, I would invite heightened media interest on myself or, worse, on my family. Almost as if to say that I could expect that sort of treatment. By extension, it was my fault.

I think it’s fair to say that many transgender people wish to live their lives as normally as possible, without ever having to refer to the dreaded T-word. I feel this need myself but have to ask: why? Why do I not want to be labelled as trans? Should it ever become relevant during conversation, I have no fear in outi
ng myself. I’m happy to overcome any potential stigma because the person already knows me. And there lies my answer. The concern is of the stigma attached to simply being labelled as trans. That by doing so, I suddenly become less-than or other-than.

People tell me I am brave for what I have done. But they never know the trepidation I often have simply walking to the corner shop to buy milk. People sometimes tell me that I am so very confident. But they haven’t heard my inner voice telling me that I’m unworthy. In my experience, the only place I receive the message of stigma for being trans is from representations in some parts of the media. An article in a tabloid or magazine might be a perfect example of this. I can ignore it – and of course I know better! But that background message is powerful enough to mean I still have to overcome a fear of walking down my own street.

Thankfully, things are improving. All About Trans, for example, is a social enterprise with the specific aim of encouraging greater understanding between media professionals and the transgender community through positive engagement. There is still a long way to go, but the very fact we are slowly seeing transgender people in the paper, presenting on the radio or on television shows that things will get better.

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