Content warning: this post contains discussion of transphobia, trans-misogyny and hate speech, including direct quotations of the above. Links do not constitute endorsements.
“It’s never a good idea for those who feel oppressed to start bullying others in turn”. So ran the sub-heading for Julie Burchill’s Observer article about the supposed victimisation of Suzanne Moore by the “trans lobby” entitled ‘Transsexuals should cut it out’. It is a response to a saga which began a week or so ago with an article on female anger from Moore reprinted in the New Statesman which made a passing and ill-chosen reference to Brazilian transsexuals. I’m not going to go into the whole story here, since it’s been covered extensively already. In brief: Moore received complaints, refused to apologise, made things worse with a series of inflammatory tweets (recorded here) and a second article, and finally left Twitter following the enormous backlash. Stavvers gives a more detailed overview of events here.
In truth, I had been trying to stay out of it, since I have an essay to finish. Having read the latest installment, though, I don’t think I can. The article is bizarre: as one Twitter user notes, it’s written like an angry, drunken rant - and it’s very, very ugly. I can only assume that the Observer’s editors were also drunk at the time of publication.
Hopefully you’ve now caught up on Moore-gate, and you’re in a position to understand how the issue of intersectionality in feminism has come to the fore over the last few days. My take on it is this: if we expect our feminism to be meaningful, we have to recognise the struggles of others. That includes recognising our own privilege, and acknowledging that there are issues beyond those which affect us. Claiming that calls for trans* people to be respected and afforded basic human rights detracts from the bigger picture is a nonsense. And yet, that’s exactly what Julie Burchill does:
Suzanne’s original piece was about the real horror of the bigger picture – how the savagery of a few old Etonians is having real, ruinous effects on the lives of the weakest members of our society, many of whom happen to be women. The reaction of the trans lobby reminded me very much of those wretched inner-city kids who shoot another inner-city kid dead in a fast-food shop for not showing them enough “respect”.
Burchill’s argument here is that we should not attack those on the same side as us: after all, we’re all adversely affected by the decisions of our current government, right? On the surface, her argument that we should avoid internal conflict in order to stand up to a common enemy might seem logical. Considered again, though, it’s no less flawed than calls for rape victims in Occupy camps not to report their assaults for fear of discrediting the movement, or the accusations that calling out misogyny is divisive in the atheist community.
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.
I don’t know what huge leap of logic has led Burchill to imagine all-out war between all the cis women and all the trans women of the world, that it’s ‘us against them’, and that we’re all on her side. As far as I can recall, I’ve never heard this kind of ‘us-and-them’ rhetoric used as explicitly as it is here in the Guardian before – or at least outside the context of politicians and wealth. I can’t conceive of the incredible level of self-involvement it would take to enable her to think that she is in a position to speak for all cis women on this issue. But apparently we’re all now in a great “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.
“Having recently discovered” the word ‘cis’ – a concept I struggle with, since surely no one can consider themselves qualified to talk about gender identity without it – I can only assume Burchill has not bothered to do the little research required to understand the term. ‘Cis’, short for ‘cisgender’, is a Latin prefix meaning “on this/the same side as”. It describes someone whose gender identity is consistent with the gender they were assigned at birth, unlike that of a transgender person. So essentially, ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ are a lexical pairing, indicating difference but not attributing value. ‘Cis’ is an objective term used to avoid ‘othering’ people of differing gender identities; it is not offensive, and is certainly not the semantic equivalent of the far more loaded term ‘tranny’. The latter is a transphobic slur which is widely used to oppress people who identify as trans*. In response:
1. No one cares that you don’t like the word ‘cis’. It is not an insult. If you assume something to be an insult simply because of its phonemes, you should not be allowed to write. You know what else sounds like ‘syph’? Cif, where the article is published online.
2. If you know something is a “wrong word”, don’t use it.
3. This whole piece hinges on cis feminists being targeted by trans* people. However much we like to say that insults and slurs are equally abhorrent either side of the fence, let’s not kid ourselves. Even if people had been showering Moore & co. with ‘anti-cis’ language, there is a world of difference between someone reacting out of anger in the face of oppression, and someone shouting down from a position of power. This is what Burchill is doing. However much she might protest about her working-class upbringing, she is blessed with cis privilege and the privilege of having a national newspaper as the platform for her opinions. Not that she will admit it:
We are damned if we are going to be accused of being privileged by a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs.
All this pales in the face of the “they’re lucky I’m not calling them..” comment. I can’t quite put into words the arrogance and contempt behind the claim that a group of people who are oppressed should consider themselves fortunate because they are not being oppressed further. Except they are, because Burchill, by implication, is calling them exactly that – and repeats the slurs later on.
As though this diatribe weren’t dripping with enough bile, Burchill ends with a threat:
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. Trust me, you ain’t seen nothing yet. You really won’t like us when we’re angry.
I don’t know what’s worse about this. The bigotry, the hate speech, the fact that it was allowed to be published, or the sheer arrogance of thinking she dare speak on behalf of what she calls “natural-born women”. Not in my name, Burchill.
Note: I initially wrote that Burchill’s piece was published in the Guardian. In fact, it was published in the Observer; despite being displayed on the same website in the Comment is free section, it is the Observer editors who are responsible for its publication. I have rectified this above.