Was sex-change teacher a story at all? - Press Gazette

Was sex-change teacher a story at all?


Primary school teacher Lucy Meadows apparently took her own life last week some months after her sex-change surgery was written about in the press.
Many have taken exception to a Richard Littlejohn column which suggested Miss Meadows should have moved to a different school after her surgery. Some 35,000 have signed a petition calling for Littlejohn to lose his job and last night several hundred people held a candle-lit vigil outside the Mail offices. Here blogger SubScribe asks whether this was a news story at all.

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."

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, 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?

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;  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.
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.
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. 
This is an excerpt from a longer post which appears on the SubScribe blog here.