As Brianna Ghey went to her death, she sent her mum a text.
“I’m on bus by myself,” the 16-year-old wrote. “I’m scared”.
Later, during the trial of the two teenagers now convicted of Brianna’s murder, Esther Ghey would tell the court how proud she had been of her daughter at that moment, venturing out on her own. Brianna’s anxiety often kept her at home.
“I don’t think she ever saw [that text],” Ghey said.
On 11 February 2023, Brianna was found with unsurvivable injuries in a park nearly 30 minutes from her home in Birchwood, Cheshire. She had been stabbed in a “frenzied” attack, perpetrated by two 15-year-old peers, one of whom Brianna called a friend.
I have been trying, for weeks, to find the right words to talk about the murder of this child. It’s difficult to know where to begin.
Perhaps with the murderers? They are two teenagers, referred to publicly only as Girl X and Boy Y. The former had developed a fascination with torture and murder, watching graphic videos via the dark web and boasting – falsely – that she had already killed two people. The latter was an academic “genius”, full of bravado via text but shy in reality, unable to approach a girl he liked. Instead, in messages to Girl X, he spoke about wanting to kill a rival suitor for the object of his affection. The pair egged each other on via WhatsApp and Instagram exchanges, eventually compiling a kill list of four people they knew. Brianna was one.
Or should I start with Brianna herself? A much-loved granddaughter, daughter and baby sister. A girl who suffered from social anxiety but was beginning to blossom, particularly after finding an outlet via video platform TikTok, where her clips racked up thousands of followers. A teenager with a passion for fashion and make-up, who had a wicked sense of humour and a sharp tongue. “I knew she was going to be a star,” her father, Peter Spooner, said in a statement following the conviction of his daughter’s killers. “I was so proud of what she could do.”
Brianna was also transgender. This should be irrelevant. But it’s central to her life and death.
In the hours after her murder, Cheshire police chief superintendent Mike Evans said her killing wasn’t a “hate crime”, pointing to the existence of the kill list as evidence. “I think if it hadn’t been Brianna, it would have been one of the other four children on that list,” he said. “Brianna was the one who was accessible at that time, and then became the focus of those desires.”
At the subsequent trial, presiding judge Mrs Justice Amanda Yip also gestured towards online discussions of transphobia as a possible factor in the crime, telling potential jurors to discard “uninformed views” about Brianna’s murder.
This is a profound mistake. Brianna Ghey’s murder sits at the intersection of several social issues facing us in Britain today.
It’s a crime committed by desensitised children, numbed to the magnitude of their actions via consumption of violent content and the detachment enabled by digital-first communication. It’s another sad entry in the logbook memorialising the women and girls who’ve fallen victim to an epidemic of gender-based violence. And it’s an example of the extra vulnerability engendered upon trans people, particularly trans women and girls, by a climate of transphobia that has now seeped from mainstream politics into the schools and playgrounds.
Messages swapped between the two killers reveal Brianna’s gender identity to be a prominent theme of conversation. Boy Y “didn’t agree” with trans and gay people, testified his co-defendant. In texts, he referred to Brianna as “it” and called her slurs. Meanwhile, Girl X spoke of an “obsession” she had with Brianna, pairing praise for her beauty with reference to her genitals.
“I think it’s quite clear that dehumanisation and fetishization played a part in the psychosexual way in which they plotted this very, very violent murder,” says Shon Faye, author of ‘The Transgender Issue’.
Brianna, Faye adds, was targeted as a victim because she was anxious and therefore vulnerable – something that Faye says is “very common among trans kids of her age”.
“Yes, it might not be the sole motivating factor, that Brianna was trans,” she explains. “But she was selected, or more vulnerable to being selected for this terrible crime because she was trans.
“Mainstream reporting […] reduces the inflection of transphobia on the whole thing.”
Cross-examination during the trial of Girl X and Boy Y revealed that all other potential victims on their kill list were identified because one party had a personal grudge against them. Brianna was the exception. She was singled out because Girl X – who had struck up a friendship with Brianna the previous year – found her “really interesting”.
Socially, there’s an understanding of how multiple systemic factors can converge to make someone more vulnerable to violence. But this isn’t reflected within the rigid criminal justice system of England and Wales.
I often return to an anecdote told to me by one of the organisers behind the years-long push to make misogyny a hate crime. The campaign originated in Nottinghamshire, driven in part by Muslim women who had noticed that Islamophobic abuse they received differed from that of their male counterparts. Why? Because it was paired with misogyny. But their ask wasn’t for misogyny to be made a criminal offence; rather, they wanted it to be a distinctive category within hate crime reporting. This approach could ensure the presence of misogyny in an attack was recorded, garnering more data evidencing how gender-discrimination puts women and girls at greater risk. In 2022, the government officially rejected the proposal at a national level.
Persecution based upon being transgender is already recognised as a hate crime. But only if police classify it as such. In Brianna’s case, the underlying transmisogyny, clearly present to those of us familiar with how such prejudice fuels dehumanisation, was quickly disregarded as a relevant factor by law enforcement. Yet how could it not be?
Brianna was killed at a time when hate crime against trans people has reached a record high. In October, even the Home Office appeared to concede that disproportionate – mostly negative – attention devoted to trans people by politicians, the press and on social media, could have contributed to these figures. Schools are a particular battleground for anti-trans activists, mirroring the homophobic panics of the 1980s, which resulted in the infamous Section 28 clause banning the “promotion” of homosexuality in local authorities.
Yesterday, as the jury on Brianna Ghey’s murder trial retired to deliberate, the Daily Mail carried a front page announcing proposed changes to schools guidance concerning trans and non-binary children.
A joint venture by education minister Gillian Keegan and equalities minister Kemi Badenoch, the draft suggests that teachers won’t be required to respect a child’s chosen pronouns, and that children should be restricted to using single sex spaces e.g. a changing room or toilet block, that accord with their biological sex. If this causes distress, children will be separated from their peers and directed to use single-person facilities, such as a disabled toilet.
“Ministers crack down on gender ideology,” the Daily Mail’s headline screamed. “Kemi [Badenoch] warns: ‘Teaching children you can be born in the ‘wrong’ body is harmful’.”
Today’s Mail lead proved a contrast. A picture of Brianna and her mum was accompanied by a paraphrased quote from dad Peter. “What they did to our beautiful Brianna will haunt us forever,” it read. Can the same be said for the architects of a society in which two disturbed children, their perversions fatted on a diet of extremist imagery and social isolation, can so easily mark out a classmate as prey, based on adult prejudices they can’t wholly explain but are all too able to enact?