Targeting trans women, or the pathetic pastime of increasingly irrelevant wealthy people
Depending on which circles you move in, you may have gotten wind of a few articles in the British press that were heavily transphobic, transmisogynistic, classist and racist. It all began last week, when The New Statesman printed an excerpt from one of Suzanne Moore‘s books. This essay looked at the concept of anger, and why women are right to remain angry in the current political climate. It is almost a decent piece, although to my mind not as eloquent as the much more raw and immediate piece on feminist anger published by Flavia Dzodan a year ago. The ‘almost’, however, comes from the fact that, when discussing the physical ideal that women are expected to live up to, Moore said women are expected to look like ‘Brazilian transsexuals’.
The first Brazilian transsexual that came to mind was a friend of mine, the only Brazilian trans person I know. As a trans guy with a rather cuddly beard, I doubt he’s the kind of person Moore had in mind. The sheer lack of knowledge of the diversity of the trans community coupled with making fun of those ‘hilarious’ exotic Brazilian trans people, set a lot of the online trans community on Moore. After all, murdered Brazilian people in the trans feminine spectrum (travesti, trans women and others) made up over a hundred names in last year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance list.
At any rate, Moore kept putting her foot in it and saying more and more offensive things on Twitter, people kept responding, including the infamous Julie Bindel, who accused the ‘trans cabal’ of running a witch hunt. Moore quit twitter, but not before writing a flippant response on The Guardian. And then Julie Burchill jumped into the fray.
To many queer women, Burchill’s name might be more familiar as the author of Sugar Rush, the book upon which the TV show of the same name was based. In the UK, however, Burchill has long been known as someone who held appalling views on trans issues, calling for sex workers to be shot after a feminist revolution for treason, being in favour of Thatcher’s politics, the Falkland and Iraq wars and, oh yes, having less than kind things to say about Irish people.
I’m not going to point out exactly what is wrong with Burchill’s piece, which reads more like a random tirade from an obscure blog rather than an actual journalistic opinion piece, printed by Britain’s largest so-called-progressive newspaper. Instead, my friend and fellow Gaelick contributor Aoife Fitzgibbon-O’Riordan did all of that, dissecting Burchill’s rant with the usual rationality and wit we’ve come to expect of her. In a fair world, Burchill would be relegated to the dark, poorly-designed websites of the internet where conspiracy theorists and David Icke fans hang out.
Apologies and withdrawls
These horrid screeds ignited the trans community, with many people writing excellent responses. Others started petitions, or spread information about where to complain. A government minister called for Julie Burchill to be ejected from The Observer. Suzanne Moore returned to twitter and apologised. Finally, Burchill’s article was withdrawn.
I imagine that, in the eyes of Irish activists, such focus and vitriol coming from feminists might seem odd. While I’m not saying Irish feminism is devoid of flaws (among them an unsettling lack of understanding of sex work, race issues and disability issues in many, though not all, groups), transphobia cannot be said to be one of them. Or, at least, the kind that comes from years of academic ‘scholarship’ from feminists who are seeking to find a way to rationalise their outright hatred for trans people in general, and trans women in particular.
For those of us who have been at this English-speaking internet trans activism game for a long time, it seems like these kind of online storms come about a couple times a year. Last year it was the “cotton ceiling” debate, followed by the Rad Fem 2012 debacle. Now we have this whole mess, where the same tired, boring transphobia, based largely on work by Janice Raymond and Mary Daly, keeps getting trotted out. The womanhood of trans women is attacked, solidarity with our struggles is non-existent, and these people proceed to mock us, insult us and, in some cases, attack us by publishing our contact information or outing us.
It’s enough to make you extremely exhausted at the fact we have to have the same arguments every time. It’s tedious, and it makes you want to rise above the whole thing. The thing is, we can’t. See, many people were surprised that The Observer, or The Guardian, would publish such vile, blatant hate speech. While I am aware that The Observer and The Guardian are not the same institution, they do share a website and a history of publishing transphobic screeds from a number of feminist writers (all able-bodied women who earn a lot of money). These people are connected, they’re friends with the editors and other writers, and are considered succesful. Hell, Burchill at one point was on a contract for £300k per year for her writing, which is more than my parents’ combined life savings.
Moreover, we all know print journalism is on its last legs, moving online and relying on advertising. When a ‘controversial’ writer like Burchill pens an article such as this, it has an in-built audience, from her fans to her detractors, the trans community and its allies. And amongst an in-built audience are people who will click on ads, or buy from The Guardian shop. It’s up to the editors to gauge whether the risk of alienating readers makes up for the spike in traffic. It seemed, to me, like a cynical ploy, and I did not want to play along.
I also felt I didn’t have to: after all, many talented, eloquent commentators, both trans and cis, expressed their outrage at Moore and Burchill. And if there’s one thing I hate, as a born contrarian, is to simply reiterate the obvious. But when it comes to the mass media, I’ve often made the argument that the misrepresentation of trans issues in mainstream, opinion-making publications is more than just words, it is dangerous. Each time one of these media crises takes place, we have to rectify it, we have to use our networks and express our outrage, whether through petitions, letters to the editor, blog posts or social media.
I have certainly seen a massive change in the last four years, both in the UK and Irish media and the larger society. Trans issues are coming to the forefront more and more. Trans people are more confident in being outspoken thanks to the networks of support, online and offline, we have nurtured. Cis allies who have always been supportive, now feel strong enough to be outspoken and join us in the fight.
However, I feel we are ignoring a significant part of the issue. We must remember it is crucial to critique the structures that keep enabling people like Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill to get away with having trans misogynist, transphobic and racist hate speech published in a newspaper with a supposed commitment to social justice. The sheer cronyism in the journalistic world, the way in which mass-media journalism has mutated into the PR arm of corporations, and the way in which it can and often is used to uphold the status quo, are all equally relevant to the problem.
Today it’s trans* women, tomorrow it’s Palestinians, asylum seekers, immigrants in general, women in general, the unemployed, the poor, and anyone else that doesn’t walk through the offices of a major news organisation as anything but the cleaning staff (who are not invited to the champagne dinners).
We must keep counteracting these kind of hateful tirades at every corner, particularly from those who present themselves as our allies in the struggle for a more fair society. Solidarity needs to be expanded among people from all walks of life, and we need to keep examining the overlapping issues of privilege/oppression in terms of race, in terms of disability, trans status, sexuality, gender and migrant status. But it is crucial that we remember the underlying systems of power, which continue to work against us, and which will look for us even in the safest of places.