On The Observer's transphobic bullying: This is what the war on trans women looks like

January 15, 2013

One day, I want to wake up, turn on my computer, check out my Facebook feed and find out that today has been proclaimed International Cuddle Day, all wars have ended and the sad kittens in the ASPCA videos have all been adopted to be smothered with warmth and hugs. However, this Sunday was not that day.

Earlier that day at The Observer, Julie Burchill threw transphobic gasoline all over a transphobic fire with a piece defending an unnecessarily hateful remark by Suzanne Moore in The New Statesman. In an essay on "the power of female anger," Moore stated that women today are expected to look “like Brazilian transsexuals.” The rest of the piece was fine, and I’m an optimist, so I’d like to believe that Moore didn’t realize she was being offensive. Maybe her anger just got misdirected. The burgeoning media apocalypse might have abated had Moore just apologized and recanted her statement—abiding the rules of feminism and supporting other women, whether cis or transgender. It’s what Susan Faludi would want.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, when faced with criticism (from her freaking fans) on Twitter, Moore took the proverbial low road. If it were a Monopoly property, it would be called Bret Easton Ellis Way. In order of chronology and reverse order of spiraling-downward proverbial-career-hole-digging offensiveness, here’s how she responded to her critics. Let’s count down the hits.

1. On using the problematic “transsexual” instead of trans or transgender: “I use the word transexual. I use lots of 'offensive' words. If you want to be offended it your prerogative.”

2. When asked why her work doesn’t recognize the intersectionality at hand: “I dont even accept the word transphobia any more than Islamaphobia You are using 'intersectionality' to shut down debate. Its bollocks.”

3. When she’s run out of things to say, FTW: “People can just f**k off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me. Good for them.”

In her Kanye West-esque Twitter meltdown, Suzanne Moore (otherwise a respected writer and feminist) nosedives into a Reddit tailspin of argumentation, the type that Facebook status spats are made out of. The logic is that if you don’t like what she has to say, you’re the problem, and you just should un-friend her and let her live in her transphobic internet bubble. It’s her fancy way of saying “(Biological) Tits or GTFO.” As a feminist, Moore should have instead taken this moment to reflect on her politics and question the inclusion in her imagined community. She should have used this internet call out as a moment for change in a feminist movement charged with transphobia all too often. This incident recalls not only Rosanne Barr’s recent transphobic statements on Twitter but also criticisms lodged against the Michigan Womyn’s Festival for who its definition of “womyn” included and who it left out. Flavia Dzodan once wrote in Tiger Beatdown that “feminism will be intersectional or it will be bull—” and I agree. It’s not a real party unless my trans friends are invited to it.

But readers, I hope you didn’t forget about our friend Julie Burchill, because that’s where this hate party gets interesting. Rather than looking at this moment clearly and seeing the power dynamics at play (renowned feminist with media clout/cis woman in the gender binary in-group vs. assorted trans women with Twitter accounts), Burchill took Moore’s trolling to another level. Our dear Julie even made a whole article of it. The Observer, probably thinking that all press is good press, then published Burchill’s poopy diaper of journalism. They didn’t bury it online, out of view, next to a personals ad where no one could see it. No, they put it in the actual paper, awarding her demented crayon scribbles with a gold star of being archived in print forever. Fist bumps for everyone involved in that decision.

There’s too much crap in it to fully reprint here, and the piece is so astonishingly putrid that it would be shocking even if it were a broadcast on the 700 Club, who we expect things like this from. To give you the Reader's Digest version of her bigotry, here’s the top five terrible things from Burchill’s career swan song, in no particular order. Pick your favorite!

1. "With this in mind, I was incredulous to read that my friend was being monstered on Twitter, to the extent that she had quit it, for supposedly picking on a minority – transsexuals. Though I imagine it to be something akin to being savaged by a dead sheep, as Denis Healey had it of Geoffrey Howe, I nevertheless felt indignant that a woman of such style and substance should be driven from her chosen mode of time-wasting by a bunch of dicks in chicks' clothing."

2. "To my mind – I have given cool-headed consideration to the matter – a gaggle of transsexuals telling Suzanne Moore how to write looks a lot like how I'd imagine the Black and White Minstrels telling Usain Bolt how to run would look."

3. "But they'd rather argue over semantics. To be fair, after having one's nuts taken off (see what I did there?) by endless decades in academia, it's all most of them are fit to do.

4. "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."

5. "Shims, shemales, whatever you're calling yourselves these days – don't threaten or bully us lowly natural-born women, I warn you. We may not have as many lovely big swinging Phds as you, but we've experienced a lifetime of PMT and sexual harassment and many of us are now staring HRT and the menopause straight in the face – and still not flinching."

When looking at Moore’s and Burchill’s war on trans women, some patterns emerge between the two dung-filled screeds. The problem with their rhetoric is not just that it's hate speech (and not even coherent hate speech at that). It's that they are fighting to uphold a culture in which transgender and cisgender women have to compete with each other. Apparently, womankind doesn’t have enough female competition already—the type of middle school backstabbing that gets us nowhere. (Haven't they seen Black Swan?) In order to keep the privileges allotted by their biology—and forcibly exclude trans women from enjoying them—the two are willing to bully and namecall, engaging in the very tactics they accuse their critics of. With great media power comes great responsibility, and rather than using their privilege for good, they are using it to perpetuate the very systemic marginalization that Moore was decrying in her original article. By playing the Oppression Olympics and instead rendering trans struggles invisible, the oppressed become the oppressors, two respected writers reduced to shallow mean girls.

On top of being bad feminism, the trolling behavior seen above is bad humanism, as Moore and Burchill don’t recognize that trans issues also affect them. It’s not just that transgender issues are the problem of feminists—who, as we can see, have a lot of work to do in making the movement inclusive of all women. It's that trans issues are everyone's issues—because when some are oppressed, all are oppressed. If we focus only on cisgender people, we lose sight of the fact that trans rights are human rights. The transgender people Burchill so easily dismisses are people, too—our brothers, sisters, gender-neutral siblings, neutrois neighbors, friends, teachers, role models and allies, people who need our solidarity and support. Trans folks are fighting for inclusion in communities that historically shun them and struggling to carve out their own spaces in movements that prioritize the rights of those with hegemonic dominance over transgender equality—a movement that too often tells trans people that we can worry about you later, when the battles of the in group have all been won. First us, then you.

Although Moore and Burchill blame the oppressed for their own systemic oppression, this kind of victim blaming won’t get us anywhere, and it’s not just the job of trans people to fight for their liberation. As feminists, queer people and allies, we need to use our voices and privilege to bring trans people into our movements. As a queer writer, I need to give the marginalized a seat at my table and bring them into the spaces I take for granted as a white, cisgender-male-looking person. I need to speak up when I see oppression happening, or as Perez Hilton experienced, stay out of spaces I needn’t occupy and check my privilege. I need to be mindful of when my politics are not inclusionary, listen to criticism, recognize I’m still learning and intentionally work on being better. As an ally to others, I have to hold myself accountable—or no one can count on me to stand for anything.

And if Moore and Burchill want to be the feminists they think they are, they need to recognize that just as they are part of the problem, they can be the solution.  Change has to start somewhere. So why not start with ourselves?

Note: To clarify, Burchill’s article was originally printed in The Observer and republished in The Guardian. There’s been some confusion on this point, so let the tireless internet fact checkers now rest. Your work here is done.

Nico Lang blogs about LGBTQ life in Chicago for WBEZ.org. Follow Nico on Twitter @Nico_Lang or on Facebook.

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