It seems a long time ago now, but last summer there was another angry debate within feminism relating to the topic of trans women within the movement. A conference was booked for Conway Hall in London called Radfem2012, and the event was restricted to “women born women and living as women” and which was to include the notoriously anti-trans radical feminist Sheila Jeffreys. After a furious row, the venue agreed that the conditions breached their own Equality policies and cancelled the booking.
I was reminded of this when reading the most fascinating and profound comment on the Moore/Burchill saga I’ve seen yet, by Rupert Read on the Talking Philosophy blog. Read is the only writer I’ve seen this week (of course I may have missed some) to discuss the theoretical issues between some schools of feminism and trans women. I don’t agree with a lot of it, but that is by the by. What came out of his blog is that there are genuine (though arguable) reasons why some feminists might be reluctant to fully accept trans women, especially when it comes to women-only spaces and events.
I’m not going to get into that theoretical debate – it is not really my fight. But I am interested in one particular difference between the row over Radfem2012 and this week’s events. The former was about a practical, real world issue of access and participation – who was and was not permitted to attend a conference and why? This week has been different. While it brought up all sorts of related issues, such as violence against trans people and social persecution, at heart the debate has been intangible, almost esoteric. It ultimately comes down to one specific question – who chooses and controls the language with which we talk to and about trans people? The argument wasn’t about freedom to occupy women-only spaces. It wasn’t about whether trans women were being allowed to identify as women. It certainly wasn’t about whether they were allowed to identify as feminists. The only real argument was about the assumed right of Moore and Burchill to use words and language that was considered offensive by trans people and their allies.
Moore believed/believes she has the right to choose whichever terms and words she likes to refer to trans people, and to place them in a broader narrative as a stereotype or a punchline. She was told, initially politely and then less so, that her language was considered offensive and oppressive by trans people. Her response to that was to up the ante, to become more offensive and oppressive in her choice of words to make her point.
Burchill picked it up from there and went nuclear.
The impression I get is that Moore and Burchill, by virtue of being cisgendered women and feminists, considered that they have control over the narrative used to talk about trans people. This is where points about privilege become crucial to the debate. Who gets to control the language?
My own belief is that yes, women have the right to discuss, debate and decide who is a woman – is it down to biology, psychology, identity or some combination? Feminists must have the right to discuss and debate the place of trans women within their movement (and of course there is an obvious paradox there, whether the debate includes trans women to begin with.) But I also think trans people have the right to assert what language is acceptable or offensive to describe their experience and existence.
Just as women are perfectly entitled to say they don’t want to be called ladies, girls or bitches, trans people are perfectly entitled to say that they don’t want to be called transsexuals, trannies or dicks in chicks’ clothing. Someone who ignores that and expects to get away with it without challenge or criticism is, I think, abusing their privilege and power.
The upper classes do not get to decide whether the word “pleb” is offensive or not. The rest of us do. White people do not get to decide whether words like “nigger” or “Paki” are offensive or not in any given context. The first step towards liberty and autonomy for any individual or group is defining and describing our own experience – it is the first and best way of owning our existence.
In just one of the many awful articles printed by establishment journalists this week attempting to defend Moore and Burchill with a false flag of free speech, Tom Peck concluded by quoting Stephen Fry on the freedom to give offence. ‘I am offended by that’. Well so fucking what? It is true that “I am offended by that” is not a trump card or a guillotine for a debate. We are all free to cause offence and to accept the consequences, which is that those we wilfully offend might hate us for it and offend us back. What we are not free to do is reply “well, you shouldn’t be offended by that.” That is never our call. The free speech that allows one person to call another tranny, yid or poof is the precise same free speech that allows the offended party to call you a fucking bigot. If you offend thousands of people at once, don’t complain if thousands of people call you a fucking bigot in return.
I wrote the other day about privilege and power. There can be no greater expression of privilege than believing one can act without consequence. It is the privilege of a misogynist in a patriarchy, the privilege of a racist in a racist society, the privilege of the homophobe in a homophobic society and the privilege of the transphobe in a transphobic society. What I have found most revealing, and most depressing about this week’s events, is how many influential journalists are still willing to defend the right to abuse, insult and offend trans people when they would never, ever say similar about overt racism or homophobia, and when it is often the precise same people who complain loudest about misogynistic language when it occurs.
What this tells us I think is that while we have gone a long way in recognizing racism, sexism and homophobia for what they are, and making some notable (though still early) steps towards their elimination, huge swathes of our liberal media establishment remain at best broadly indifferent and at worst actively hostile to the rights of trans people. That is a deeply depressing realisation.