The Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn has generated considerable heat in the media following the suicide of a transgender primary school teacher in Lancashire, UK. Littlejohn had previously written a scathing article entitled He’s not only in the wrong body… he’s in the wrong job, in which he accuses the deceased, who went by the name Lucy Meadows, of “forcing [children] to deal with the news that a male teacher they have always known as Mr Upton will henceforth be a woman called Miss Meadows.”
While Miss Meadows had asked for privacy during her transition, concerned parents reached out to the press after the school sent out letters to children’s homes announcing the well-liked teacher’s gender transition. What resulted was a firestorm of media attention, and Littlejohn’s article was at the centre of it.
Couched in language of faux-sympathy for transgender people, Littlejohn’s article starts by explaining that he can comprehend how difficult it must be for someone of one gender to be trapped in the body of the other gender. He even goes so far as to acknowledge that transsexual people should have their surgeries covered through the NHS (the UK’s version of public health insurance), admitting that “transsexuals pay taxes, too.”
But then the tone shifts and the remaining article pretends to speak on behalf of the children that Miss Meadows is presumably traumatizing by her “selfish” desire to “go public with his (sic) inner turmoil”.
Where to begin.
First let’s make it clear that so far police have found no direct link between Littlejohn’s article and Meadows’ subsequent suicide. The events may well have no relation at all. But from media reports, evidence exists that Meadows was struggling to cope with the scrutiny from the press after the school announced to parents that she would return to school as Miss Meadows at the end of Spring break.
Regardless of whether Littlejohn’s article drove her to suicide, the points he makes in the article are part of a larger, harmful narrative surrounding transsexuals that needs to stop.
Littlejohn insists on framing transsexualism as something shameful, the result of an “inner turmoil” that needs to be kept hidden from vulnerable young children who themselves are still making sense of their fragile identities. He writes, “Pre-pubescent boys and girls haven’t even had the chance to come to terms with the changes in their own bodies” and goes on to describe a particular 10-year-old boy who presumably became so confused by his teacher’s transformation that he became afraid that “he might wake up with a girl’s brain because he was told that Mr Upton, as he got older, got a girl’s brains.”
Children, in my experience, are way more resilient than we give them credit for when it comes to gender variance. Unlike their adult counterparts, they do not rush to judgement but instead exhibit a curiosity and interest inspired by a desire to understand the world around them. Adults would do well to embrace a similar “beginner’s mind” when faced with issues they struggle to understand, such as transsexualism.
While I question how “devastating” Miss Meadows’ identity shift was to the children she taught, what really riles me is the way Littlejohn characterizes Miss Meadows as “selfish” and claims that she “isn’t entitled to project his (sic) personal problems on to impressionable young children. […] By insisting on returning to St Mary Magdalen’s, he is putting his own selfish needs ahead of the well-being of the children he has taught for the past few years.”
Transsexualism is not a personal problem. It is a social problem. As a transsexual man (who was assigned female at birth) I refuse to feel shame for a condition that I did not ask for, that does not harm anyone else, and that is as deserving of treatment as a cleft palate or a broken limb. We do not ask people with physical disabilities to stay out of the public eye lest they damage children’s fragile psyches. Why, then, should Miss Meadows skulk away to a different school to hide her condition, as Littlejohn advises?
Revealingly, Littlejohn concludes his essay as follows: “It would have been easy for him (sic) to disappear quietly at Christmas, have the operation and then return to work as ‘Miss Meadows’ at another school on the other side of town in September. No-one would have been any the wiser.”
This culture of secrecy, of treating transsexualism as a taboo subject, is one of the reasons why suicide rates among transsexual and transgender people across the world significantly outstrip rates among the general population. In the US, a 2010 survey of 7,000 individuals found that 41% of transgender persons had attempted suicide. That’s 25 times higher than the rate among the general population, which is 1.6%. And a staggering 45% of transgender people between the ages of 18 to 44 had attempted suicide! In the UK, a survey of approximately 900 individuals determined that 34% of adult transgender people had attempted suicide.
If Littlejohn really cared about the well-being of the children in Miss Meadows’ class, he would have lauded Miss Meadows for the bravery she exhibited in confronting a hostile press, for being courageous enough to be her authentic self in front of a classroom that no doubt contained 1 or 2 children who themselves were struggling with a condition they did not yet understand and for which they had no language. Having more positive role models for transsexual children is key to showing the next generation that who they are, what they are, is beautiful, natural and acceptable.
Shame on the Daily Mail and on Richard Littlejohn for failing to lead the way in cultivating understanding and acceptance.
To sign a petition calling for an apology from the Daily Mail and the firing or resignation of Richard Littlejohn, click here.