“to be told that I hate transgender people feels a little … irrelevant.”
Whatever Suzanne Moore might have been wrong about this week, she’s right about one thing – the issues she has brought to the boil are not new. To anyone who was politically active on the left in the 1980s, they will have been strikingly familiar.
I’ll leave it to (doubtless many, many) others to explain why Moore has caused so much offence and hurt to trans people this week, but to set out my stall and for the benefit of anyone out the loop, my perception of the chain of events were as follows: She published an essay at the New Statesman which made a passing remark to women having bodies “like Brazilian transsexuals.” A few people complained to her about derogatory language on Twitter, some not entirely politely. Moore became angry and defensive, launching into a tirade of sneering and vicious comments against and about trans people, then attempted to explain and justify herself in her showpiece Guardian column the next day.
I have a rather tortured ideological relationship with the concept of privilege, but I would never dispute I am exceptionally privileged in one specific way: I have somehow wangled myself some very minor platforms in the news media. I have a megaphone that is unavailable to all but a handful of people on the planet. That still rather puzzles and frightens me. My megaphone is really very, very small (insert own punchline here) but I can understand why people get upset when I say something they don’t like. Unless you are a proud bigot, there are few things more painful than being accused of some kind of bigotry – racism, sexism, homophobia or whatever it might be. Not only is it deeply hurtful to be accused of being what you despise, is it also often a finger-trap of a debate, where the harder you try to wrest yourself free the tighter you become entwined.
If you are accused of contributing to the oppression of others, it is entirely understandable that you want to deny the charge, defend yourself and argue back. Whether you are in the right or wrong is not the point, few decent people want to be thought a racist, a sexist or a homophobe. But while disputing that you may be contributing to the oppression of others is one thing, denying that the oppression exists at all is far more harmful. Acknowledging that you might even be contributing to the oppression but maintaining that it doesn’t matter, that it feels a little… irrelevant, is I think worst of all.
It had all begun much earlier, but when I was being blooded in politics; in the aftermath of the miner’s strike, the heyday of the GLC, with various factions fighting tooth and nail within and outwith the Labour party, we were still hearing those precise same statements from prominent voices in the left leadership and media. As gay people attempted to fight discrimination and assert their rights, they were used as punchlines and told that their concerns felt a little… irrelevant. When black and Asian people would point out examples of racism within the movements their concerns were considered a little… irrelevant. When feminists brought gender issues to the table, they were told that people’s genitals are less interesting than the breakdown of the social contract. They were lectured about divide and rule. They were told their anger should be saved for the Tory government. We have come full circle.
Those crotchety old voices of the British left were wrong. If it is ever possible to build a united opposition, it will only be though acknowledging, challenging and fighting injustice and oppression of all sorts, without creating a hierarchy in which the valorous struggle of the few is sacrificed to short term pragmatism of the agenda-setting, privileged elite.