Brianna Ghey deserved better than the U.K.’s transphobia

OPINION: The U.K.’s normalization of anti-trans hate has real-world consequences—the trans teen murdered this week should be alive

Brianna Ghey’s social media feed showed her as a sweet teenage girl from a small town in the northern U.K. She ran a popular TikTok account with more than 30,000 followers and posted lip syncs and outfit-of-the-day videos. She was also trans. On Feb. 11, she was found with severe stab wounds in a park and died on the scene from her injuries. 

Her family said in a statement she was “a much-loved daughter, granddaughter and baby sister. She was a larger than life character who would leave a lasting impression on all that met her. Brianna was beautiful, witty and hilarious. Brianna was strong, fearless and one of a kind.” Friends spoke to VICE about her impact on their lives and their heartbreak. 

Vigils will be held this week across the U.K. to mourn her.

Two teenagers have been arrested on suspicion of her murder. Ghey had reportedly been experiencing bullying at school

Warrington police said on Sunday they did not believe Brianna’s death was a hate crime. “At this time, there is no evidence to suggest that the circumstances surrounding Brianna’s death are hate-related,” Detective Chief Superintendent Mike Evans said in a press release. On Tuesday, police issued a new statement, saying, “All lines of inquiry are being explored, including whether this was a hate crime.”

In a tweet, Warrington Police asked people to “please avoid speculation online—consider how any messages or those you share may affect family and friends of Brianna.” 

But, even if this was not a hate crime, if Brianna was targeted and murdered for reasons besides her transness, her death happened in a climate of anti-trans hate in the U.K. We can’t ignore that context. The mainstream media, public figures and senior politicians have been pushing transphobic messaging for years: Prime Ministers Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson have all demonized trans people; Labour MP Rosie Duffield pushes transphobia cloaked in feminism, while writers like Hadley Freeman, Lucy Bannerman and Julie Bindel are paid to continue spewing anti-trans narratives, and noted troll Graham Lineham got un-banned from Twitter

 

In 2021, I wrote about how the U.K.’s media has been creeping further rightward on trans issues. The big flashpoint was in 2017, when the government proposed opening a public consultation for reforms to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA). It took a year for the consultation to actually happen, leaving a year for misinformation to swirl and take root.

The GRA specifically deals with the mechanism of how trans people change their gender on their birth certificate. It takes multiple years and requires sending off evidence of your medical and personal history to a panel of people you never meet—doctors, lawyers or psychologists—who decide if you are “trans enough.” They then issue you a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC). The consultation ultimately ended in 2020 with a reduced cost for getting a GRC and no other changes, despite respondents’ overwhelming support for a self-ID model. 

While British people can change their names and the gender on their passport or drivers’ licence with relative ease, birth certificates are arduous to change. And they determine your gender on a few specific government-issued documents, including marriage certificates, pension documents and death certificates. Due to the time, lack of privacy and bureaucracy involved in obtaining a GRC, most trans people in the U.K. do not have one: government figures say 5,871 had been issued by December 2020, compared to an estimated 262,000 trans people in the country. 

Brianna, as a minor, was not legally allowed to get a GRC. So she will be misgendered, and even deadnamed, in death—despite her loving and supportive family. 

The same media that has been aggressively platforming anti-trans talking points also has done a terrible job at covering her death. At first, no news outlets even mentioned that she was trans. 

Then, it was worse: The Times deadnamed her and included details about how long she had been “living as a girl” for (before removing her deadname), while the Daily Telegraph quoted a former cop who said her death should be “categorized as the tragic murder of a young male.” 

Transphobic reporting is par for the course in the U.K. Since 2017, when the GRA reforms started to be discussed, it has only ramped up in intensity: transphobia generates clicks, and outrage, which then informs political priorities and societal views. Around 0.5 percent of Brits identified themselves as trans on the 2021 census, but the never-ending cavalcade of anti-trans stories means we take up a huge amount of the public consciousness. Even though a 2021 survey found the majority of the population support trans rights, you wouldn’t know it from the biased and distorted media coverage that blankets the Sunday papers.

It’s horrifying and exhausting to live through. But it’s also a distraction. Trans people are a scapegoat so the government can duck talking about the underfunded healthcare system, the disintegrating economy, 40-year record inflation rates, soaring poverty levels or the hostile treatment of immigrants. The misdirection is clear in this Guardian write-up from earlier this month:Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told Piers Morgan that ‘biological sex matters.’” There were questions focused on nurses’ strikes or immigration proposals or booming oil industry profits, but guess what the paper ran as the headline? 

Since the beginning of 2023 alone, British media has had a host of “transgender issue” talking points: Women’s and Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch promised to “update” which countries’ gender-recognition processes would be acknowledged in the U.K. Scotland’s long-running attempt to change their gender-recognition guidelines was stonewalled by England’s government. The U.K. government promised they would also block any similar attempts in Wales. The Scottish government received pushback for their plans to house trans prisoners in prisons that match their legal sex, until they reversed position. Labour leader Keir Starmer said 16 was “too young” for people to be able to legally change their gender. Tavistock, the only publicly funded clinic that provides trans healthcare to children, is set to close, with nothing to replace it. 

Each of these stories created its own micro-climate of stories and counter-stories, opportunities for (mostly cis) people to write hot takes about trans people in whatever specific context has the most attention on a given week. Press regulator IPSOS found that between 2014 and 2019, the number of stories about trans people increased by 400 percent. When there’s so much content targeting a single marginalized demographic—even if some of it is positive, or neutral—it sends the message that not only are our lives up for debate, but that everyone is allowed to weigh in on our humanity. It’s no wonder that trans people say they want to leave the U.K. (Transphobia played a not-insignificant part in my own decision to move to Canada with my girlfriend in 2017, and is the main reason we do not wish to return.)

And we know that this hateful rhetoric has real-world impacts. Hate crimes against trans people increased by 68 percent in Scotland from 2020–21 to 2021–22, and by 56 percent in England and Wales in the same time frame. 

“Let us be clear—there is a direct line between words and violent acts against our community, and always has been,” Leni Morris, chief executive of LGBTQ+ anti-abuse charity Galop, told ITV News last year. “Combined with a growing hostile atmosphere for our community in the media and public life, this is giving a message to those who would do us harm that this is acceptable in this country.” 

If the two teenagers arrested for Brianna’s death are found guilty, that will not be justice. Nobody is born with hate in their hearts. They learn it: whether from politicians who repeat it, media that stokes it, schools that normalize or minimize it, parents who engage with it or social media platforms that do not moderate it. Justice would be eradicating transphobia, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and other forms of weaponized hate.

Brianna Ghey deserves to still be alive. Trans children in the U.K. deserve to live freely, without fear or hostility. We cannot and must not forget her.

V.S. Wells

V. S. Wells is a British writer living in Vancouver, B.C., with bylines in Slate, VICE and Autostraddle. Please stop asking them about Brexit.

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