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Archive for the ‘Trans issues’ Category

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.

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It’s the second time in a few days that I’ve had to open a blog like this, but I will leave it to (many, many) others to explain why Julie Burchill’s Observer column today is so offensive and hurtful to trans people. Just to be clear on where I stand, I think it is the most vile, hate-filled, bigoted rant I have ever read in either Guardian or Observer. It is as if she made a simple list of all the most offensive things one could say about trans people and wove them into a clumsy cowpat of prose. But the trans community are more than capable of speaking for themselves on that, so I would like to focus on something else.

Of the issues raised by Suzanne Moore’s Twitter meltdown last week, one that has I think been overlooked is the privilege of the commentariat. I touched on this last week, but events since have added whole new layers of significance. One of the odder remarks in Moore’s Guardian piece was when she criticised the feminist jargon of intersectionality, saying

“Intersectionality is good in theory, though in practice, it means that no one can speak for anyone else.”

In Burchill’s piece, she (presumably quite deliberately) begins by describing a lunch with Moore where they ate lobster and drank Bollinger champagne, before quickly reminding us that both women (along with Julie Bindel) are from working class backgrounds.

“She, the other JB and I are part of the minority of women of working-class origin to make it in what used to be called Fleet Street and I think this partly contributes to the stand-off with the trannies. (I know that’s a wrong word, but having recently discovered that their lot describe born women as ‘Cis’ – sounds like syph, cyst, cistern; all nasty stuff – they’re lucky I’m not calling them shemales. Or shims.) We know that everything we have we got for ourselves. We have no family money, no safety net. And we are damned if we are going to be accused of being privileged by a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs.”

Leaving aside the transphobic hate-speech, I think this is a fascinating glimpse into what Burchill (and presumably her friends) believe is meant by both class and privilege. She is saying class is something one is born into and that it is immutable. She believes the precise same of gender, conveniently enough. In recalling the lobster and champagne story, Burchill was, I think, explicitly telling us that she was born working class, and whatever expensive meals she might have eaten, she will die working class. By implication, if you’re born a man or a woman, you will stay that way whether you like it or not.

I think privilege is a useful concept in understanding ourselves in relation to the world, how we perceive and interpret people and situations around us. I do not doubt that the ways in which Burchill, Moore and Bindel see the world are heavily informed by their upbringing as working class women. However to really understand the world in relation to ourselves (which is not quite the same thing) we need to look not at privilege, but at power. It is not privilege which controls people, constrains people, oppresses people and discriminates against people, but power. A straight white male may have privileges, but he does not necessarily have power (although for obvious reasons they often coincide). Your boss has power, political and religious leaders have power, your abusive partner has power, and their power is not necessarily lessened by their ethnicity, gender or sexuality. A working class entrepreneur turned billionaire corporate boss may not have been born into privilege, but it would be ridiculous to say that he (or theoretically she) does not have immense power. When Julie Burchill says she is not privileged it is no less ridiculous then when Lord Alan Sugar says much the same.

Whether they have attained their position through talent and hard work or old school ties and nepotism, star newspaper columnists wield enormous power. They can not only help to shape news agendas and public discourse. They have the power to brighten the day or ruin the week of millions of readers. More specifically, they can choose to wield that power to incite or (more commonly) validate the hatred and bigotry of others, which can have a direct influence on the safety and quality of life of their targets.

It’s almost got lost amid the nonsense, but the at heart of this dispute over the past six days has been the allegation that there is a “powerful lobby” of trans activists who control the debate, stifle freedom of speech and bully opponents into silence. Quite obviously, if the lobby were that powerful neither Burchill’s article nor Moore’s before it would ever have been published and the types of horrors uncovered by the #TransDocFail hashtag would be history.

To the best of my knowledge, trans activists have no powerful allies in the establishment or politics. They have no financial backing to speak of. They have little influence over cultural norms and discourse, or the setting of the political and social agenda. Just about the only weapon they have at their disposal is anger. The anger directed by (some) activists towards Moore, Burchill and Bindel comes from a position of virtual powerlessness. Sure, the outbursts of a few dozen angry activists can ruin a newspaper columnist’s day, perhaps make them feel picked upon and sorry for themselves and earn the tut-tutting sympathy of their friends. The anger of a newspaper columnist, on the other hand, can poison the air for millions.

While I acknowledge and unequivocally condemn nasty trolling, bigoted hatred and needless personal abuse, I have never had much sympathy for journalists at any level who complain about the negative feedback and genuine anger they encounter online. I’m not just talking about the Three Sisters of transphobic feminism here, Robert Fisk was talking just as much nonsense the other day and similar issues come up whenever powerful journalists discuss civility in discourse. It is as if they want all politics to be conducted by the rules of a debate at the Oxford Union, which is entirely alien to a large proportion of the population and always has been. There is hypocrisy in it too – I rarely see complaints about the compliments, fawning praise and adulation that also come with interactive media. It’s not just that the negative is the price to be paid for the positive, it is that it is an essential counterbalance.

Few things make us humans more angry than someone co-opting our voices, speaking for us without our blessing or consent. Anger is the weapon of the weak against the strong, the powerless against the powerful. That doesn’t always make it correct or justified (BNP, EDL or Hizb Ut Tahrir activists are angrier than anyone) but it makes it explicable. People get angry with journalists, and columnists in particular, because of our power, not our privilege. The irony, if you haven’t noticed, is that if we go back a week to the first article by Suzanne Moore that kicked this off, she made almost the precise same point. Forgive me for ending on a cliché, but they do say to be careful what you wish for.

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“to be told that I hate transgender people feels a little … irrelevant.”

Suzanne Moore, Guardian, January 9th 2012

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.

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