… and goodness me, what an epic saga it is. (If you’re reading this as someone with no idea at all why you should care, I recommend beginning with this response – ‘Why a straight man like me cares about transgender rights‘.)
At some point I may write a more detailed timeline of events, but a brief recap: Moore threatens to sue Pink News over their reference to her in their coverage of the murder of a Brazilian trans woman, before claiming it was a joke; on the same day, another piece from her appears in The Guardian where she positions herself as staunchly in favour of ‘freedom of speech’ with a quasi-Voltairean ‘people died for my right to offend you’. A planned protest/vigil outside The Observer’s offices takes place that day/evening: the deputy editor apologises to the crowd, and an apology from Stephen Pritchard is printed the next day (both of those links go directly to the Guardian – those wishing to avoid giving them revenue may want to use Google Cache). The blossoming dust-cloud of press and blogosphere and Twitter response continues to expand, and Trans Media Watch’s Twitter is a good start for following the coverage on this.
Following this mess – and watching it spread around various media at a rapidly-increasing rate – has been at times unpleasant, and at times heartening. There is some incredibly thoughtful, considered, and humane commentary out there – and there’s also cynical clickbait from papers wanting to increase their revenue, a whole lot of really vile mudslinging, and an increasing abstraction of the debate into one about the respective roles of the press and internet commentators.
I’d like to comment on this abstraction. As I expressed on Twitter, I am concerned that trans people (particularly trans women, as the targets of most of this vitriol – trans men and other trans identities are mostly being left out of the debate) are going to become scapegoats in the conversation on an entirely different issue. There is certainly a conversation to be had about anger, abuse, and the internet. Online anonymity or pseudonymity can enable (or at least evade repercussions for) some truly awful behaviour – consider the tidal wave of vicious misogyny directed at Anita Sarkeesian when her ‘Tropes vs Women’ project went viral, or this example of Reddit’s most famous troll. There’s also the debate about call-out culture within activist circles – when engaging with someone who has (intentionally or unintentionally) written/said/endorsed something that harms a marginalised group, to what extent is it appropriate to express one’s (legitimate) anger? I’m not going to cover that in detail today, but some recent examples of that debate can be found here, here, and here. I will say that from my participation in activist spaces both online and offline, I have noticed a tendency for offline calling-out to be much more in the spirit of ‘good faith’ than online – although even if this experience is common to other people, I couldn’t say whether this is a function of how people interact in person vs through text-based media, or just a result of offline spaces being more often composed of people who know each other personally, or some other factor. So, yes – there is definitely much to discuss about how the internet interacts with anger, and with the forms taken by activism, and with abusive language and behaviour.
However, what I am seeing in some of the discourse around Burchill and Moore – and I touched on this in my last post, with the reference to accusations of inauthenticity – is a blunt-instrument conflation of those two debates above. The genuinely important calling-out of Moore certainly began on a polite enough register, and while there has since been an outpouring of anger, this is the rage that comes from genuine hurt, and a lifetime of struggling against a world that has proven time and time again how dangerous it is for people like oneself. The pain and anger of trans people is not the calculated sadism of internet trolls saying anything for a rise out of people, or the knee-jerk cruelty and conservatism of those who mobbed Anita Sarkeesian. And yet, this is how Moore’s supporters – and some in the popular press who would consider themselves neutral – are portraying this. While it would not be inaccurate to claim that ‘there have been counterproductive insults on both sides’, to thence apportion equal ‘blame’ is a fallacy. Moore’s knee-jerk response on Twitter and Burchill’s hate-filled screed come from a place of power – and their angry response to criticism is, at heart, a refusal of the idea that they even have this power: don’t you dare tell me that you’re more oppressed than me, don’t you dare tell me that I’m harming you, I’m a good feminist. (For a very important essay on (cis) privilege as a loaded gun, see the third page of this piece from FemmEssay.) It’s a phenomenon I’ve observed before – I will never forget the man who informed a friend of mine (who is a rape survivor) that she was being unkind to him by telling him how rape jokes triggered her, and that her refusal to just ‘agree to disagree’ was unfair. He was someone who prided himself on being a good, kind man, who always did his bit for charity and the environment – the prospect that he was harming someone that much was so abhorrent to his idea of himself that his only way of maintaining that idea was to cast her as the villain. I see something very similar in Moore’s responses to those who tell her that she is harming trans women – by characterising it as ‘insane wrath’ . (I recently read Doug Muder on ‘the distress of the privileged’, which I found to be an interesting perspective on this, and I once again recommend Dean Burnett on how the Just World Hypothesis may play into this characterisation of victims as villains.)
So, on the one side, we have people who cannot believe or accept that they are genuinely harming a vulnerable group and so choose to cast that group as ‘too sensitive’ or ‘too angry’; we have people who are so wedded to their identity as good people and good feminists that they cannot brook criticism and so lash out; and of course, we have people who are simply too saturated in prejudice to grant trans women their basic humanity – and from all of them, there is anger. (I’m sure these sets of people can and do overlap.) On the other side, we have people who have grown up in a world that teaches them they are pathologically wrong, they are a fetish object, they are broken, they are disgusting; people who bear not only the burdens of being trans, but of being women (or of being men who were once [and perhaps still are] treated as women, or of being people whose gender is not even culturally legible); people who are disproportionately at risk of domestic abuse and suicide; and people who may not be trans themselves, but who are friends or lovers or family or colleagues to trans people and are witnessing their pain. This is a community which spent the preceeding week watching a trusted member being witch-hunted in the national press (see Jane Fae on Dr. Curtis); a community which also told the world in no uncertain terms how its members have been abused again and again by medical professionals in whom they were supposed to put their trust (see Fae again, and the TransDocFailAnon blog and twitter) – and saw this essentially ignored by the national press which has instead chosen to wring all the page views it can from this story. Myself, I am not the target that Moore and Burchill had in their cross-hairs when they wrote of ‘transsexuals’ – and as someone who is not a trans woman, I have tried in my previous entries to use this blog to amplify their voices rather than drown them out, as they are the targets of this hatred – but at the same time, you know what? Many of my closest friends and most valued allies are that target, and I have seen and heard their grief and pain and anger over the course of this media circus. And yet people say that ‘both sides have behaved badly’, as though this means both ‘sides’ have equal provocation for their angry words? Well, well, well.
As many have noted, it is exceedingly ironic that all this began with a mostly-excellent piece about the power and validity of women’s anger. And now, the anger of an especially marginalised set of women – and other trans people, and cis friends and allies – is being systematically invalidated by a discourse of ‘bad behaviour of both sides’, a discourse with the veneer of balance but utterly bereft of context or genuine comprehension of what has taken place. A conversation that began with a multitude of voices raised to tell the world about their suffering – in #TransDocFail and in the response to Burchill and Moore – has become abstracted into a money-spinning academic debate about free speech and the role of the press and the role of Twitter. As Musa Okwonga pointed out on Twitter, this is disturbingly similar to the way that the discourse around Jimmy Savile moved from being about the suffering of child abuse survivors, to being about the roles and responsibilities of the BBC. Is it so impossible to look human suffering in the face that it must be sidelined in favour of the ‘wider issues’ it raises? Or is it worse than that, and they simply don’t care? That is part of what has been so sickening about this whole thing: the way the focus seems to inevitably shift away from the pain of the marginalised, whether that is towards the ‘distress of the privileged’ (to borrow Muder’s phrase) or towards a debate on ‘free speech’ and ‘social media’ that is removed from the realities of what has happened so far.
And so it goes on. Once again, I’ll end with links – all of the following pieces are by trans women, and it is their voices which need to be heard now more than ever in this conversation.
If transgender people have a “superpower” it is our remarkable ability to stand for anything: living, breathing “floating signifiers.” Our meaning d’jour is, for some on Fleet Street, “a professionally offended, Left wing lobby group” that is now the latest “post-Leveson” threat to free speech and a free press. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of things—fleeting as these meanings are, such that we can even speak of stable oppositions—Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill had accused trans people of dividing and distracting the Left from its “important” goals and its “true” cause.
If this seems exasperating and contradictory, you ain’t seen nothing yet, as they say.
But for now, it is enough to deal with these two absurdities one at a time and bring a bit of light to a decidedly un-illuminating heat.
Toby Young and all the other vacuous, fly-by-night defenders of “free speech” filch lovely rhetoric that whistle stops past all manner of liberal democratic tropes while failing to specify the connection between, say, hate speech and liberty. They use language meant to bypass both the intellect and one’s reason, while subtly refusing any attempt at being substantive. To do so would be to pull back the curtain at Oz and reveal the great democratic wizard to be nothing more than a petty would-be tyrant in disguise. In his entire blog post, Young does not mention the content of Burchill’s article once, instead gesturing to the void indirectly by casting trans people as some monolithic left lobby opposed to free speech.
The news media (as well as most every other media, in fact) has a long history of writing about trans people, and trans women in particular, in ways that are extremely sensationalistic, exploitative and ultimately damaging to our lives and livelihoods. These types of media tropes about trans women, habitually dehumanizing and de-gendering us through words, serve to stigmatize our bodies and our lives and therefore promote the discrimination, marginalization and violence that the vast majority of us have experienced quite commonly. I myself have experienced some measure of all of these, however trans women living at the intersections of racial oppression, poverty, and others tend to experience these even more dramatically than someone like myself with white privilege.
For examples of this type of media reporting in the U.S., consider a local TV report covering the murder of Coko Williams in a Detroit neighborhood back in April 2012. Coko had her throat slashed and was shot, yet the news story said little about the loss of human life, instead airing grievances of a neighborhood man who complained of street crime and finding trash on his lawn. When the loss of human life was alluded to towards the end of the interview, Coko’s name was never used and she was inappropriately referred to with male pronouns; further, another resident basically said she had the murder coming because she was trans. Finally, even when a queer website covered the murder, the picture included with the story featured a picture of trash from the first interviewee’s lawn rather than a picture of the woman who had been murdered.
(Lefty T-Girl has also written two other pieces on this: ‘free speech vs. actual content: a challenge to julie burchill‘ and ‘seeing only the red you want to see: suzanne moore’s bullheaded trans-misogyny‘.)
Natacha Kennedy – ‘An open (hearted) letter to Suzanne Moore’
So I want to ask, please, please do not make this about you. It is not about you, and no-one could ever read into the Pink News article that the death of Cecilia Marahouse is going to have any connection, however tentative, with you. However the fact that she has been murdered needs to be got out there. As far as we are concerned, any publicity about this issue is good publicity, but now is the time to allow the real story to be heard, that is the only way we will ever be able to bring pressure on governments in Latin America to change their ways. Work is under way already but it is difficult.
…We feel angry about the murders and at the same time powerless to stop them, but we are using whatever tiny influence and leverage we can find to stop out brothers and sisters form dying. Last year a young transwoman was tortured to death by a mob of 400 people in La Paz, Bolivia; plenty of others were killed in religious-style stonings across Latin America.
So please make this about them, not you. This is not about getting one back on you, this is about charred bodies in remote ditches, it is about drive-by shootings, it is about bodies of teenagers with multiple stab wounds or bullet holes, it is about religious-style stonings.
And for some excellent posts from allies, see Harry Giles on freedom of speech, this Guardian article by Deborah Orr, and The F-Word’s statement against transphobia (which also compiles a long list of resources on the topic).
There is doubtless much more that will be said on this – and there is much that has already been said which I haven’t linked to here (I have a 3-page document filled with links to responses from across the web, which I may at some point fashion into a timeline) – but for now, I’m once again signing off.