Shoddy reporting on sub fusc
I have rarely seen such bad journalism and shoddy reporting as I have in the past couple of days, after Oxford University altered its subfusc regulations in order to be more flexible and inclusive to trans and gender variant students. Nearly every article I read on the changes was riddled with inaccuracies . I was quoted using male pronouns, and Jess Pumphrey with female pronouns. Jess is OUSU’s LGBTQ officer, not the LGBTQ society’s executive officer, as has been reported. Furthermore, many articles took misleading slants, bordering on transphobia. The Daily Mail and the Telegraph both took the angle that men would now be able to wear skirts to exams, focusing on the idea of cross-dressing and transvestism.
Setting aside the somewhat baffling obsession with men in skirts (so what if a man wears a black skirt to an exam? Who on earth does this affect?) it is important to note that the cross-dressing angle not only misses the point of the subfusc changes, but is the complete reverse of the point. Had any of the newspapers hurriedly rushing out what they’d received from the Press Association actually read the information provided, they might have noticed this quote from Jess Pumphrey: “In future there will be no need for transgender students to cross-dress to avoid being confronted by invigilators or disciplined during their exam”. The aim of the sub fusc changes was not to allow cross-dressing (although again – so what?) but to stop transgender students feeling the need to cross-dress for exams.
A brief outline of what subfusc actually is may be helpful at this point. It is formal academic dress worn by Oxford students to exams and certain other occasions – matriculation, for instance. It consisted, before these changes, of a white shirt or blouse with a black skirt or trousers, with a black ribbon round the neck for women, and a white shirt with black trousers and a white bow-tie for men. All genders wear their gowns with subfusc. The changes mean that everyone has to wear a white shirt or blouse with black trousers or a black skirt, and can choose between a ribbon or a bow-tie. That is it. That is literally what has changed. It is a small thing, which will make life a little bit easier for trans students, who will no longer have the extra worry at exam times of gaining dispensation to wear their gender’s subfusc. Of course, cisgender students (students who are not trans) can also wear different subfusc, if they feel happier with it. Women will be able to wear bow-ties, if they prefer to. Men can wear a black ribbon and, yes, a skirt. That is the change reported by the Daily Mail as “academic dress code is changed to ‘meet needs of cross-dressing students’” which, to be frank, either a blatant lie or complete ignorance. A second lie in the Daily Mail’s reporting comes in a sub-header, saying “Change in regulations the first in thousand year history”. Women were not admitted to membership to Oxford university until 1920, so it would be astounding if the subfusc regulations provided for women before then.
The Mail’s article, indeed, becomes astoundingly transphobic and cissexist as it continues. For instance: “transgender students, including transvestite or ‘gender confused’ men and women” is a bizarre segment, implying as it does that all transvestites are transgender. This is nonsense. Presumably by “gender confused” it refers to genderqueer and other gender variant students. Being genderqueer, agendered, bigendered, etc, is not confusion. It is a non binary gender. Most bizarrely of all in the Mail’s article, Ann Widdecombe is consulted. I am not sure why. She is hardly a noted expert on trans issues. Perhaps the Mail just wanted to find a bigot who’d been to Oxford. The Mail is not alone in its poor reporting, however. The Telegraph also focused on men cross-dressing, while even The Guardian, with a much better article, has a photo caption saying “male Oxford University students will be able to sit exams in skirts and stockings”. Why this obsession? Female students have hitherto been permitted to wear trousers for subfusc; why should men not be able to wear skirts? Who cares? A lot of angry commenters on the Mail and Telegraph articles, apparently. I am constantly stunned at the ability of people to care so intensely about something which affects nobody at all except the person concerned.
So, what objections have been levelled to the subfusc changes, other than “Men will be able to wear SKIRTS!”?
An objection I have seen popping up again and again is that the subfusc changes are undermining tradition. Okay. The tradition of subfusc has been changed. It has not been removed. It is possible to maintain some traditions while preventing discrimination. Tradition, I believe, has some value, but only in as much as it does not harm people. There was a tradition lasting about a millennium that women did not attend Oxford University. There was, until 1967, a fine old tradition in the UK that sexual acts between two men were illegal. Of course the subfusc tradition is by no means on the same level, but the point stands; there is no inherent benefit in the tradition. Furthermore, I fail to see how the tradition has been damaged; every student must adhere to the same standards of formality when they take exams.
Another point has been that the rules have been changed to suit a minority. Well…..so? The changes were put through in the recognised way through OUSU. Furthermore, the changes will affect absolutely no one who doesn’t want to change the subfusc they wear. Some commenters on the Mail website were concerned that students taking exams would be distracted by “cross-dressers”. Even assuming the apparently catastrophic scenario in which men wear skirts to exams, I really can’t see that men in smart white shirts and sombre dark skirts would be particularly distracting to anyone, especially considering they have exams to focus on. As does everyone. I was somewhat surprised at one Telegraph commenter who thought it was likely that men would wear skirts to their exams for getting sexual pleasure. I mean, really. They can wear skirts any day. The exams are important.
There are those who criticise subfusc. They say that rather than looking at changing it to be more inclusive, Oxford should just scrap the dress code entirely. This is hardly relevant to the changes which have occurred, however; given that subfusc is in place, there is no reason why it shouldn’t be made as inclusive as possible. Furthermore, every time there have been surveys about subfusc, Oxford students have shown themselves to want to keep the tradition. Why, then, should it not be kept? It doesn’t affect anyone else.
Finally, there are those who have claimed that people shouldn’t have bothered changing small things, suggesting that poverty, famine and injustice were more important concerns. That’s all very well, but a) I’m not sure that “eradicating world poverty” was in Jess Pumphrey’s remit as LGBTQ officer for OUSU, and b) people can care about, and change more than one thing at once. And, you know….a few Oxford students can’t do much to change the world. No one can. Means are limited. But Jess and other dedicated students have worked hard and changed something, something tangible, which will make trans* people’s lives a little better. How many of us can say that?