SubScribe: Death of a teacher Google+

Friday 22 March 2013

Death of a teacher

Littlejohn may not have killed Lucy Meadows, but he didn't add to her life

It's more than a year since I last stepped foot in the office. The thought of returning terrifies me - the questioning, the people who won't know what to say, the fact of being a stranger there after 30 years' service. Most of all, vain and shallow as it is, I'm embarrassed about my appearance.
But one day I'll go in, it'll work out one way or another and I'll come out the other side. After all, it's just stage fright.

Lucy Meadows must have gone through the same emotions magnified a thousandfold at the start of the school term in January. Goodness knows what sort of a Christmas and New Year she must have had. But we may well soon learn - from a coroner's court - and it won't be a comfortable experience.
Miss Meadows, 32, had taught at a primary school in Accrington for three years. Until December she had been known as Nathan Upton, husband of a school governor and father of a little boy. At the end of term the children were told, class by class, that Mr Upton would return to school after Christmas as Miss Meadows. At the same time parents were informed in a newsletter listing a series of staff changes.
The school emphasised its support for Miss Meadows, who responded to local media interest with a statement thanking the school and governors, adding: ‘I’d now ask for my privacy to be respected so that I can continue with my job, which I’m committed to and which I enjoy very much.’

New year, new start, new life. If only...

Lucy Meadows was found dead at her home on Tuesday, and Twitter is alive with recriminations about the press, which is being blamed for her apparent suicide.

It didn't take long for Miss Meadows's privacy to be disrespected and for the story to reach  the Mail and the Sun. Both wrote of the 'shock' for pupils and made much of the low-key manner in which the school had broken the news to parents - would it have done better to have made it a big headline, or to call a public meeting perhaps? Both papers carried  a picture of a solitary outraged parent who talked about his son being worried that he'd wake up with a girl's brain. Anonymous children were said to be confused; one said Mr Upton was popular, others commented on his pink fingernails, long purple hair and sparkly headbands. 
Yes, pink fingernails, long purple hair and sparkly headbands. Seems to me that the popular Mr Upton had been laying the ground quietly and carefully. Someone had done a rather charming crayon drawing of him (top), which was posted on the school website; the children clearly accepted him as he was and the school trusted them to accept Miss Meadows as she would be.

Was this a story at all? Tens of thousands of people in Britain have gender dysphoria - the sense of being a man in a woman's body or vice versa. Thousands seek medical help  and about 300 a year take the ultimate step of a 'sex change' operation, more properly described as gender reassignment. So it's unusual, but not that strange. We've come a long way since April Ashley.
Or you'd have hoped we had.
Does the fact that Miss Meadows was a teacher - and of primary school children - make it more newsworthy? Is there something intrinsically shocking about someone trying to achieve their natural identity? Would we write a news story about Miss X the Year 4 teacher who came out as gay over the school holidays?
Is it, perhaps, a local newspaper story, but not one for the nationals?

These are the sorts of questions the former Essex Chronicle editor Alan Geere wrestled with last July when a teacher at a high-achieving Chelmsford secondary school made  the same transition as Miss Meadows. The story started exactly as the one in Accrington: a letter to parents informing them that Mr X would be returning as Miss Y. The letter praised the teacher's courage and pointed parents to a website where they could learn more about the process. In his blog, Mr Geere wrote about his lonely hour trying to decide whether to publish. 

I sought out m’learned friend - not really a privacy issue if you don’t name him – and a couple of editor chums, who said they would run with it, both with tasteful provisos.
My biggest concern was not the legal, or even ethical, position but what would the 100,000 or so readers of the Essex Chronicle make of it. 
But, having found references to the letter on Twitter, spoken to pupils and got a response from the head, I ran this story, which I think shows the school in a very positive light and shows us to be a responsible local newspaper.

Mr Geere also tweeted the question 'would you run this story?' But in spite of posing it three times, he appears to have received no replies.  After the event, there were only two comments on the paper's website, one taking issue with the photograph used with the story, the other asserting that the paper had got it totally wrong.
My view, for what it's worth, is that the story should have been a top single on an early right-hand page. To splash on it suggests sensationalism, regardless of how sensitively handled or positive the text is. 
Remember, this was a nationally renowned school, not a tiny church school with 169 pupils, which may, depending on your view, make it more or less newsworthy.

Supposing, for the sake of argument, that both are legitimate news stories, the next question is are they a valid area for comment? Twitter's fury  has been directed at the Mail's Richard Littlejohn for weighing in the day after his paper ran the news report.

Nathan Upton is now in the early stages of gender reassignment treatment. He issued a statement which read: ‘This has been a long and difficult journey for me and it was certainly not an easy decision to make.’
So that’s all right, then. From now on, kiddies, Mr Upton will be known as Miss Lucy Meadows.
What are you staring at, Johnny? Move along, nothing to see here. Get on with your spelling test. Today’s word is ‘transitioning’...
Has anyone stopped for a moment to think of the devastating effect all this is having on those who really matter? Children as young as seven aren’t equipped to compute this kind of information.
The school shouldn’t be allowed to elevate its ‘commitment to diversity and equality’ above its duty of care to its pupils and their parents. It should be protecting pupils from some of the more, er, challenging realities of adult life, not forcing them down their throats....
Nathan Upton is entitled to his gender reassignment surgery, but he isn’t entitled to project his 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.
It would have been easy for him 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.
But if he cares so little for the sensibilities of the children he is paid to teach, he’s not only trapped in the wrong body, he’s in the wrong job.

The Mail has taken the column down from its website, and the outpouring of disgust on Twitter, spurred on by Alastair Campbell, has resulted in 30,000 signatures on a petition calling for Littlejohn to be sacked. There will be a vigil outside the Mail offices on Monday evening.

Littlejohn is hired, at great expense, to air controversial opinions - as are many others across Fleet Street. There are dozens of such columnists; it's their job to write what their bosses might describe as unpalatable truths. A strident tone and an apparent absolute conviction of their rightness seem to be the prerequisites, They also have to have thick skins, since at least half the population will probably find their words offensive.
Long-sightedness should also be a requirement. Such columnists have a duty to look ahead to the 'collateral damage' that might be caused by their words and to pick their targets carefully. Editors and features editors need to exercise the control that goes with their titles to make sure that star writers don't attack the vulnerable.
People in the public eye through their own choice - politicians, broadcasters, professional celebrities - may be seen as fair game. A dedicated young teacher who just wants to be left alone as she goes through an intensely difficult phase is not.

We can't blame the Littlejohn column for Miss Meadows's death; we don't know enough about her circumstances. She may have been struggling with the medical side of the transition;  she may have been missing her family - Ruth Upton had moved out of their home; maybe there had, after all, been problems with colleagues or pupils at school adjusting to the 'new' teacher. We do know that Miss Meadows had been upset by press intrusion in January, and it is pretty certain is that Littlejohn's acerbic commentary didn't make matters better.

Helen Belcher, director of TransMedia Watch, said that Miss Meadows had endured  "a huge amount of monstering and harassment by the press when she was very vulnerable.That level of press attention could not have helped her mental state one bit."
The pestering prompted Miss Meadows to seek advice from the trans community. Jane Fae, who produced some of the facts at the foot of this blog, writes in the New Statesman today that she had seen emails sent by Miss Meadows in January in which she talks of her good luck in having a supportive head. But the stress of her situation is also visible. She talks of the press offering other parents money for a picture of her.
The Guardian quotes the emails in more detail"I became pretty good at avoiding the press before Christmas. I live about a three-minute walk from school so they were parked outside my house as well as school. I'm just glad they didn't realise I also have a back door. I was usually in school before the press arrived and stayed until late so I could avoid them going home." Another said 'I just want to be me'.

I don't think that Miss Meadows's personal life was newsworthy and certainly not  a suitable topic for comment, but  just suppose for a moment that it was. If you want to write on any subject, surely the first task is to gather some facts and talk to some experts, rather than simply spout off on the basis of an agency rewrite from your own paper. Is Littlejohn right to assume that the children would find this transition harder to cope with than the teachers? I'd surmise that, far from being 'unable to compute', young children would be better equipped to deal with such a change. They are adaptable and accepting and have not been weighed down with the burdens of prejudice or experience. Littlejohn says that many of them still believe in Father Christmas. If they can accept that a man can fly around on a sleigh pulled by reindeer and deliver presents to every child in a single night, they can probably believe that a man can become a woman. And not judge.

A few years back I worked closely with a gently spoken man, let's call him P, who was separated from his wife. We would chat in the small hours about wine, motorbikes, cars, but  mostly about our children - he missed his very young son and daughter who lived in Scotland. Over the months, P started to grow his hair very long, eventually tying it back in a ponytail, I thought nothing of it, other that to envy its lustre.
Then an email came from the boss class saying that P had something called gender dysphoria and would henceforth be dressing as a woman and be known as Katherine. 
Unbeknown to most of us, Kathy had been dressing as a woman outside of the office for a while. She had now made the decision to make the journey to surgery and beyond - and that meant she had to live as a woman for two years before she would be considered for the operation.
This, I suspect, is the stage that Miss Meadows had reached at Christmas. It isn't as simple as Littlejohn suggests; you don't just pop off to hospital as a man and come out a woman. There are many drugs to take before and after. Doctors have to be as confident as they can be that you are completely sure that you want to change gender, and one of the tests is how you cope with life in the new guise. How do you tell your parents, your wife, your husband, your children? How hard is it to make that first visit to the GP, to go through all those specialists, counsellors, clinics? What kind of mental tortures must you have suffered that you are prepared to jump through all these hoops? 

No wonder 34 per cent of transgender women and men attempt suicide.

So, Mr Littlejohn, Miss Meadows was being 'selfish and insensitive' was she? Much better to hide away in shame, like some Victorian maiden with child, and then start a new life 'on the other side of town'.
Kathy tells me: 'As the parent of two loving, secure, sociable, confident children who are happy at their schools and academically at the top of their years, I refute Littlejohn's assertions. My children and their classmates apparently were equipped to compute this. The only person who isn't is Littlejohn.
'There were a couple of parents who were unpleasant to me - but nothing worse than turning their backs  when I entered the playground. But eventually they got bored with it.' Her son suffered some bullying at primary school - mostly, she thinks, because of prejudice against a well-spoken English boy rather than his parent's gender -  but has had no such problems at secondary school. Her daughter, who attended the same primary school, had no issues at all. 

Newspapers and their columnists should not underestimate the levels of tolerance and understanding in this country, especially among children, who are much more resilient than they are often given credit for. But mostly, they should let people out of the public eye live their lives in peace. If we haven't learnt that much from the hacking saga, Leveson, and the clamour for press regulation, then we have learnt nothing. 
Columns like Littlejohn's and the vitriol that pours daily from the Mail do nothing to advance the case for a free press. From that point of view, this couldn't have happened at a worse time. If we end up shackled, everyone will suffer. We all need to look to ourselves and wise up.

 Sometimes we get it right

The press may have been culpable in the case of Lucy Meadows, but here is a happier story from Essex.
Roger  was open about his gender dysphoria when he went to work in a general store in Clacton  in 2006. He explained to everyone the long processes he would have to go through before he could undergo surgery, including the need to live for two years as a woman.
The staff all rooted for him and threw a farewell party for Roger one Friday and greeted Lizi with welcome gifts the following Monday.
Lizi went on to have her operation in 2010 and there was a double celebration at the store a year later when her gender was legally recognised with a new birth certificate. Lizi was 63 and the change meant she could retire immediately, rather than wait to 65 as Roger would have done.
Colleagues gave her a rousing send-off, which was reported in the local Gazette -  a joyous story that was entirely positive and balanced.
You can read it here.

Some facts

  • 300,000 - 500,000 people in Britain have experienced some degree of gender variance
  • 60,000 - 90,000 of these want 'a complete role adaptation'
  • 10,000 of these have approached a health professional
  • 6,000 of these have undertaken transition to a new gender role
  • 80% of transgender people were born male
  • The average age for transition surgery is 42

More people are 'coming out', so that the number of people receiving medical help, has doubled in recent years. This is attributed to
  • Greater general knowledge and understanding of transsexualism
  • Increased NHS provision
  • Helplines, local support groups and web-based forums that allow people with gender dysphoria to meet and gain confidence
  • Anti-discrimination legislation
  • 'Somewhat more respectful press coverage.

Even so,
  • 34% of transgender people have attempted suicide at least once
  • 19% have suffered verbal abuse
  • 10% have faced threatening behaviour
  • 5% have suffered physical abuse
  • 2% have suffered sexual abuse

A Twitter campaign in January elicited a thousand complaints about the healthcare offered to transgender people, the GMC is expected to look in detail at 39 allegations of abuse. The trans activist Helen Belcher reported to a healthcare conference on Monday that:
  • 98 documents were presented to the GMC last month
  • 15 may have to be set aside for technical reasons, but those being investigated include
  • 10 cases of sex abuse or inappropriate intimate examinations
  • 19 patients who say they were refused medical treatment
  • 1 patient who alleges a coercive threat of withdrawal of treatment
  • 4 allegations of inappropriate or damaging treatment

  • 63% of people who suffered alleged abuse did not complain at all because they did not trust the system to give them fair treatment
  • 21% had had previous complaints dismissed
  • 39% of complaints related to GPs
  • 17% related to mental health services
  • 22% related to gender specialist services
Newspapers tend to write about the 'average' cost of transgender treatment, and of 'sex changes on the NHS'. Costs vary from case to case, but include
  • For the vast majority of  MtF (male to female) people who seek treatment but not surgery, the cost over a lifetime is unlikely to be more than £1,000
  • For those who go on to surgery, the cost over 20 years will be about £2,500 for hormone and endocrine intervention, and
  • The surgery itself will cost about £11,000
  • For FtM people the cost of hormone treatment over 20 years is about £15,000
  • Full gender reassignment costs about £50,000 - but most FtM people do not undergo this surgery
  • Case management for both men and women costs between £1,000 and £3,000
  • The Revenue will recoup about £2,000 from prescription charges in England

Gender Variance in the UK, Gires, 2009

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  1. I am reminded of a time when my daughter was aged about seven. A couple of gay friends came to stay the weekend. After they'd gone, the three of us - husband, me, daughter - were sitting at the dinner table when she suddenly looked at me straight in the eye and asked: Mummy, are X and Y married? That was the point at which my husband's eyes dropped and remained fixed on his plate of food. However, I looked back at her and replied: Virtually. There was silence for a moment or two, until she held me with a beady eye: What do you mean by 'virtually'? I was momentarily stuck for words. Stuck, that is, until I realised she that her look was very knowing and that it was me she was actually testing. She had understood exactly what I meant. I said so, and she giggled. There was no need to add more. However, it was my husband's reaction that I found interesting. He is not, never has been, homophobic. But he really did not know how to handle the child's question of sexuality, so he metaphorically absented himself from the conversation.

    Years ago, I was at a meeting addressed by the chief statistician from the Office of Medical Statistics. He was talking about changing people's unhealthy habits. The young, he said, adapt to new ideas more easily than older people; women adapt more easily than men; the unskilled more easily than the professional. Statistically, he said to much laughter, it meant that the hardest group to persuade were older professional men.

    Newspapers are top heavy with older professional men, both in years and in attitude. A typical male reaction to situations with which they are unfamiliar or unsure is to reject and then perhaps attack, physically or verbally. It is an instinctive form of self-protection. It was no surprise that male-dominated organisations - police, armed forces, etc - were among the last to accept gay men among their ranks, or that others such as the medical profession, lawyers, boardrooms and the higher echelons of the Church, were reluctant to admit women - and that some still are. Many men (by no means all) cannot seem to adapt to flexible working and are happier - feel safer, perhaps - with a familiar routine alongside like-minded people of the same sex.

    So Littlejohn's reaction to gender change is surprisingly normal among a certain group of men. Fearful, perhaps. Unenlightened certainly. But the fact is that people such as Littlejohn are just not equipped to cope with facing what unsettles them and, like an insecure child, hit out at what disturbs them most.

    1. This comment is as interesting as the article. Very good points.

  2. I became a teacher nearly 30 years ago. My gay colleagues would never have dared to publicly express their sexuality because of the fear of discrimination. Today, I am fortunate to work for an educational institution in which gay colleagues and students are free to openly express their sexuality. I am sure that my students respond to the positive example set by their gay teachers many of whom come from parts of the world where it is legal for them to marry. The teaching profession is not the only profession with an important responsibility to set a good example for the youth of today, media organisations that allow articles such as Littlejohn's bigoted views to be published must be made responsible for the messages they promote. KB

  3. LIttlejohn and the Mail will now move on to the next victim, of course. RH

  4. The difficulty is two-fold.
    Firstly: No-one really knows 100% what causes people to think they are in the wrong body.
    Secondly: Having surgery doesn't change your gender, nothing can do that. A man may have surgery, but there is nothing that can be done to install a reproductive system.
    Therefore, it is impossible to back up the assertion that a man has become a woman, and so we should not be telling that to school kids.
    The school should not be telling the kids that he was born with a woman's brain in a man's body, as they don't know that to be correct.
    The worry I have is that whilst we don't understand what causes someone to feel they are in the wrong body, giving them surgery may not be the best thing to do.
    I know of some people that have had the operation only to find that in-fact they have become more depressed, as the solution they had pinned so much hope on, had failed to decrease their depression. They felt it was a mistake, and one that cannot be undone.
    We need more research.

  5. Sad to say much of what (the other) Anonymous says is simply wrong. I could write a long reply, but I seem to spend so much time doing that to people who have no clue about gender dysphoria. Suffice to say that regret rates after surgery, if surgery is what people need, are tiny - and much lower than many other surgeries. We don't need more research, that research has been done. Equally, this whole 'if you haven't got a reproductive system' doesn't add up at all. What about women after hysterectomies - do they stop being women? And where do you draw the line on what organs count? What about chromosomes - that's a whole mess right there? And what about the action of the endocrine system in the first trimester of gestation, and the action of androgen receptors? That can make all the difference potentially to the appearance of some things and not others. The natural variation on these things is way higher than you'd think.

    Gender is ultimately, has to be, an internal conviction. You KNOW what gender you are, and it is down to you. Your right, not the right of others to pick arbitrary characteristics or take authority that they have no right to take to force people to conform to what they think it should mean. Trans people face this all the time - with other people denying them the right to own their own identity, or to find happiness. People who have no idea what they're talking about are suddenly full of all sorts of 'rules' and 'absolutes'.

    And if you KNOW what gender you are, but it is not matched by what bodily characteristics you seem to have, then you are in a very very unhappy - possibly suicidal - place. Treatment and support can fix this problem, and often does. The attitudes exemplified by Littlejohn and the Mail, add to the pain and the misery and the isolation.

  6. To the other Anonymous of March 26th, I'm afraid you are very wrong. Gender is intrinsic to the person. Hardwired into the brain. Someone who is transgender can no more choose which gender thay are, than a gay person can choose to be hetrosexual.
    It is not a lifestyle choice.
    The common phrase "sex change" is extremely misleading. The person who decides to take the drastic step of surgery is trying to be who they really are. They don't want to change their true sex - they merely want to bring the superficial exterior into line.
    It comes down to whether you regard gender as being defined by someone's anatomy, or the brain.
    Let me give you a simply analogy, which hopefully most blokes can understand. Cough, splutter.
    Let's say you have a Ferrari sports car, with a fabulous engine management system, but without a body shell. You place a Ford Fiesta chassis on top.
    Is the car more Ford Fiesta, or Ferrari?
    If you wanted to make things match up, would you strip out the innards, or change the exterior?
    As far as I'm aware, no one has yet had a successful brain transplant.
    Your suggestion that those who have surgery later regret it is not born out by the official figures.
    Transgendered people spend their lives as someone they are not. The surgeon's knife brings peace. The best solution you can offer is carry on in the body you have - an option which leads one in three transgendered people to commit suicide.

    1. Thank you all you anonymice for joining in the debate, which is terrific. but it would be even better if you could sign - if only with an alias. i, after all, write as gameoldgirl! thanks again for your thoughtful contributions