January 13, 2013
Transphobia in The Guardian: no excuse for hate speech
Julie Burchill’s bizarrely vitriolic attack on trans people raises a couple of important questions. Firstly, why is it that some lesbian and bisexual women find it so hard to comprehend the oppression of others? And secondly, why is it that The Guardian continues to offer a platform for such vile hate speech?
Fun with bigotry
Burchill’s article doesn’t pull any punches. It draws upon a wide variety of slurs (“shemale”, “shim”, “bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs”), makes frequent, nasty references to genital surgery, and repeatedly asserts that trans women are “really” men:
“To have your cock cut off and then plead special privileges as women – above natural-born women, who don’t know the meaning of suffering, apparently – is a bit like the old definition of chutzpah”.
So what led Burchill to produce this unrelenting stream of bile? The answer lies in what could have been just a small social media spat, as a number of people objected to an article in the New Statesman by Suzanne Moore, who is also regularly published in the Guardian.
In her piece – a powerful, largely well-argued polemic about the importance of women’s anger – Moore caused offence by suggesting that the “ideal body shape” is that of “a Brazilian transsexual”.
This throwaway comment was not only a sweeping generalisation, but in pretty poor taste given the exceptionally high rate of murder for trans women in Brazil. Moore only fuelled the controversy when she responded rudely and dismissively to criticism, both on Twitter and in an article for the Guardian.
“People can just fuck off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me. Good for them.”
This isn’t just an issue of transphobia. A number of people will inevitably claim that a similar article “would not have been published if it was about black people”: an attitude that ignores the racist attitudes displayed by both Burchill and Moore.
When asked to clarify her “Brazilian transsexual” comments, Moore explained, “I deliberately used the word Brazilian transexual as ideal shape small hips and big T and A”. This implies that she is making some pretty sweeping generalisations not only about trans women, but about the entire population of Brazil. Burchill dismisses any criticism of this as “semantic”, and goes on to suggest that we should “join [Moore] in decrying the idea that every broad should aim to look like an oven-ready porn star”.
It’s easy to see this kind of controversy as relatively minor: ultimately, it consists of little more than a whole bunch of people arguing on the Internet. However, the impact will be widely felt.
Writers such as Moore, Burchill, and Julie Bindel – who also pitched in via social media – are widely respected for their work, particularly within LGB and feminist circles. The Guardian has a readership of thousands, meaning that Burchill’s piece in particular will be widely read.
Anyone who denies the power of the media in shaping attitudes is kidding themselves. Burchill’s article reinforces the idea that it’s okay to indulge in a bit of casual racism whilst viciously mocking trans people and dismissing their concerns. She reinforces the idea that “trans” and “transsexual” necessarily refer to trans women, and that trans men and individuals with non-binary gender identities do not exist. She even reinforces the idea that trans women face relatively few challenges compared to cis women.
You only need to look at some of the stories that have come out of the #transdocfail hashtag on Twitter in the last week to see the very real challenges faced by trans people in the UK. A vast epidemic of medical mispractice and negligence is both erased and perpetuated by the writings of Burchill, Moore and Bindel.
This is particularly disappointing when such writing comes from lesbian, bisexual and/or feminist writers. You’d think that women who have experienced sexism and homophobia might have some level of empathy for others who face prejudice, harassment and threats of violence on a regular basis. You’d think that they might understand that this isn’t just about the “other”, but members of their own community: trans women who happen to be gay, bisexual or queer; trans people who happen to be feminists.
It is also disappointing to see such articles in the Guardian, a publication known for its somewhat smug allegiance to “right-on” left-wing politics. Burchill and Moore should be able to say whatever they want (and, of course, everyone else should have the right to object) but they hardly have the right to be offered a platform for hate speech by a popular newspaper.
The Guardian’s editors could have easily chosen not to pay for their transphobic diatribes. You have to wonder if the decision to do so was based on incredible stupidity or deliberate malice.
An intersectional approach
The concept of intersectionality probably offers us the best possible way out of this mess. It’s been somewhat savaged by Burchill and Moore (and studiously ignored by Bindel) during this particular debate, as they argue that it’s an unnecessarily complex, academic idea. But intersectionality doesn’t have to be complicated.
Intersectionality is, at its core, the idea that (aside from a very small number of individuals who are spectacularly well-off or badly-off) we are all oppressed, and all privileged. To use some examples from my own life: I am oppressed as a bisexual trans woman, and privileged to be white, abled and middle-class. It does not make sense to say that I am simply oppressed, or simply privileged.
These oppressions and privileges then intersect. So, for instance, a black trans woman is likely to face somewhat different (and often, more significant) challenges than a white trans woman. It is for this reason that the public spokespeople for any given minority group are more likely to be privileged in certain ways: as can be seen in the predominance of high-profile white cis feminists.
Burchill, Moore and Bindel all attempt to rank the oppression of women against the oppression of trans people, suggesting that the former have it harder than the latter. This simply doesn’t make any sense, as both women and trans people are oppressed, and some women are trans.
Similarly, Burchill points to the writers’ respective working-class backgrounds, and suggests that trans complainants on the Internet are largely privileged in terms of both class and education. This is not only inaccurate, but entirely missing the point: even a middle-class trans woman has class privilege, she is still oppressed: because she’s trans, and because she’s a woman.
Intersectionality doesn’t mean that we can’t speak about the oppressions faced by others. It just means that we should respect and acknowledge difference, and listen carefully to those who are oppressed in ways that we are not. We can arguably make more of a meaningful difference in the world if we don’t assume that everyone who matters has the same experience as us.
I believe that bigoted writers from marginalised backgrounds and media editors would both do well to adopt a more intersectional approach. It’s therefore quite possible that the writers and editors responsible for the recent prejudiced articles are simply acting from ignorance.
Or, of course, they could just be horrible people.
A petition calling for an apology from the Guardian can be found here.
To contact the Observer reader’s editor, Stephen Pritchard: Stephen.firstname.lastname@example.org
A note on the use of “Guardian” in this article: Burchill’s article was published by the Observer newspaper, which has a different editorial team to the Guardian, but is also owned by the Guardian Media Group. It was posted online to ‘Comment Is Free‘ on the Guardian/Observer website.
The Sanctity of Marriage – 5 second film
Brilliant 5 second masterpiece by 5 Second Films: “They want to take our rights away? Well we want to ‘splode their heads!” Went one of the less-successful pro-gay rights protest chants.
September 21, 2012