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Julie Burchill and trans women

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Originally posted at Consider The Tea Cosy

I was going to write something fairly light-hearted today and pop it in the queue for next week. Maybe get working on one of the stack of comics I have notes sketched out for. Maybe talk about how I just started roller derby, or share a few badly-lit phone pics from Glasgow. Waffle on about love and creativity and how I can’t seem to think up a halfway decent derby name. Maybe finally share my to-die-for vegan chili recipe.

You’re all going to have to wait for the chili, though, because Julie Burchill is at it again with one of the most sickeningly vile transphobic screeds I have ever heard. I’m not exaggerating, by the way. I’m a reasonably-thick-skinned cis person. Trans hate speech isn’t directed at me. It took me several tries to get through this article. Trigger warning, therefore, for the rest of this for violently transphobic language as well as racism. Let’s see what Burchill has to say. I’m not going to link to the article, by the way, as I have no desire to give her more traffic. If you want to look it up, it’s in Comment Is Free in the Guardian, and the title is Transsexuals Should Cut It Out. Classy, Julie. Classy. Here we go:

The brilliant writer Suzanne Moore and I go back a long way. I first met her when she was a young single mother living in a council flat; she took me out to interview me about my novel Ambition (republished by Corvus Books this spring, since you ask) for dear dead City Limits magazine. “I’ve got an entertaining budget of £12.50!” she said proudly. “Sod that, we’re having lobster and champagne at Frederick’s and I’m paying,” I told her. Half a bottle of Bolly later, she looked at me with faraway eyes: “Ooo, I could get to like this…” And so she did.

I have observed her rise to the forefront of this country’s great polemicists with a whole lot of pride – and just a tiny bit of envy. I am godmother to her three brilliant, beautiful daughters. Though we differ on certain issues we will have each other’s backs until the sacred cows come home.

So Julie has a friend called Suzanne, and Suzanne used to be broke but now they’re both relatively loaded. That’s nice. It sure is lovely when people get recognition for doing the things they love, isn’t it? Let’s see what’s next..

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.

Oh. I see what you were doing there, Julie. Dicks in chicks clothing. Because DID YOU KNOW that trans* women are born with differently shaped genitalia than cis women? Did you know that? And the shape of a person’s genitals is super relevant to everything else about them. I know it’s the first thing I want to know when I meet a new person.

Also, Suzanne’s style and substance are important. Trans women don’t have either, you see. It’s not like they’re real people or anything- just caricatures. Also, as feminists we’re very interested in people’s style. Women’s style is the first thing we should be interested about them! I mean, apart from the shape of their genitals. Naturally.

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. That rude and ridic.

Wait, what? Minstrels? Minstrels? Right, regular readers of the Tea Cosy will have been around for the last time we had that discussion. I’m just going to make something clear here. Burchill is saying that trans women can be compared to cis women in the same way that minstrels in blackface can be compared to Usain Bolt.

To that, I’ve got nothing. I can’t say something witty and biting about why this is messed-up, because she has gone so far over the line of unacceptability. Let’s move on.

Here’s what happened. In a book of essays called Red: The Waterstones Anthology, Suzanne contributed a piece about women’s anger. She wrote that, among other things, women were angry about “not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual”. Rather than join her in decrying the idea that every broad should aim to look like an oven-ready porn star, the very vociferous transsexual lobby and their grim groupies picked on the messenger instead.

Huh. I’m a grim groupie! As, it seems, is everyone that agrees that trans and cis people are equal and deserving of the same dignity. Sounds like a pretty damn good bandwagon to be on, if you ask me.

Here, Burchill misses the point, as usual, by a mile. We’re not picking on the messenger. We’re decrying the idea that being Brazilian and trans* gives a woman the body of an “oven-ready porn star”. Whatever, by the way, an oven-ready porn star is. I’m not sure why Burchill is talking about putting women in ovens, but maybe there’s a turn of phrase I’m not familiar with here. Either that, or just terrible writing. And bigotry.

I must say that my only experience of the trans lobby thus far was hearing about the vile way they have persecuted another of my friends, the veteran women’s rights and anti-domestic violence activist Julie Bindel – picketing events where she is speaking about such minor issues as the rape of children and the trafficking of women just because she refuses to accept that their relationship with their phantom limb is the most pressing problem that women – real and imagined – are facing right now.

And now Burchill confesses her absolute ignorance of trans activism or trans people. Normally, by the way, when you know that you’re absolutely ignorant of a subject it’s considered polite to learn about it before pontificating in a national paper. Julie’s distillation of trans issues to people’s “relationship with their phantom limb” is a bit of a giveaway of how she knows absolutely nothing about real trans people’s actual lives and concerns. Also, her obsession with other people’s genitals continues to be troubling.

Similarly, 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”. Ignore the real enemy – they’re strong and will need real effort and organisation to fight. How much easier to lash out at those who are conveniently close to hand!

This is interesting. Not because it is accurate, but because it is an argument that I hear a lot in activist circles. There are those who argue that worrying about issues of gender, disability, race, orientation or other ways in which people are marginalised distracts from the real issue of whatever it is we’re protesting today. Pointing out misogyny in atheist communities? Distracting From The Real Issues. Mentioning that LGBT activism can be overly-white and ignore POC? Distracting From The Real Issues. And so on and so forth.

This is exactly what Burchill is doing. Sexism and classism, to Burchill, are Real Issues that we need to focus on. It doesn’t occur to her that poor people and women can be trans as well as cis. It doesn’t occur to her that the problem is not that trans activists are offended, but that they were used in the first place in a stereotyped, marginalising way to make someone else’s argument. You don’t fight racism or classism or ableism with misogyny, and if you do then you’d better expect some pissed off women. Similarly, you don’t fight classism or misogyny with racist transphobia, and if you do? You’re going to expect some pissed off trans people and POC.

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. Educated beyond all common sense and honesty, it was a hoot to see the screaming mimis accuse Suze of white feminist privilege; it may have been this that made her finally respond in the subsequent salty language she employed to answer her Twitter critics: “People can just fuck off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me. Good for them.”

With “having their nuts taken off” and “cut their dicks off”, Burchill continues her obsession with trans women’s genitalia. I’d be willing to bet that I spend less time thinking about other people’s genitalia while I am having sex with them than Burchill does every time she hears the term “trans woman”. Which is interesting, because a woman being trans tells you absolutely nothing about the current shape of her genitals. Which are irrelevant to everyone but her (and her partner(s)) anyway. It is a tad creepy.

Oh, also, trans women are “screaming mimis”. Again, I’m not quite sure what a ‘mimi’ is and a quick google came up with enough different options that I’ll officially designate this Bad Communication. Burchill’s tone, however, does remind me of people who accuse women of being “hysterical” and “shrill” when we raise our voices. Coincidence? I think not.

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.

Remember the first paragraph? We’re back to the fact that Burchill has some friends. Which is, as I said before, nice. It’s good to have friends. I have friends myself, you know. I hope you do too. I am not sure how this is relevant.

Also, it’s Time For Slurs! Hey, how many transphobic slurs can one person use in a single paragraph? We have t*y, s*e, s*m, and “bed-wetters in bad wigs”. Maybe Burchill has a better grasp of biology than I do, but as far as I’m aware gender identity and continence are unrelated. Also, I’m absolutely certain that since trans and cis people are all, in fact, mammalian, we have the same ability to grow hair. Again, alopecia is distinct from gender identity.

Of course, this isn’t about alopecia. This is about Burchill’s inability to understand that being trans is not the same as dressing in drag. That we’re talking about life, not performance art. Not, by the way, that many drag artists don’t identify on the trans* spectrum themselves! But Burchill claims to be talking about transexual women here. So she should really stick to the topic.

As for ‘cis’? Oh, Julie. Julie, Julie, Julie. Have you heard of Google? It’s very useful for looking up words you’re not quite sure of the definition of. I just popped “cisgender etymology” into Google and within seconds came up with this:

“Cisgender has its origin in the Latin-derived prefix cis-, meaning “to/this the near side,” which is antonymous with the Latin-derived prefix trans-. This usage can be seen in the cis-trans distinction in chemistry, or in the ancient Roman term Cisalpine Gaul (i.e., “Gaul on this side of the Alps”). In the case of gender, however, cis- refers to the alignment of gender identity with assigned gender”

See? It’s from Latin. Just like ‘trans’. If you want to blame someone for how the syllable sounds, you’re stuck with the ancient Romans. Who, by the way, would be a far better target for Julie’s bile since they’re all long dead and can’t be harmed by it.

It’s been noted before that cyberspace, though supposedly all new and shiny, is plagued by the age-old boredom of men telling women not to talk and threatening them with all kinds of nastiness if they persist in saying what they feel.

Pot. Kettle. Also, where are the men here? I didn’t see any conversations about men. I saw a conversation about trans women by a cis woman. But Burchill makes no effort to hide the fact that she doesn’t see trans women as women. Which is what blinds her to the fact that she is, in fact, telling trans women not to talk and threatening them with all kinds of nastiness if they persist in saying what they feel.

The trans lobby is now saying that it wasn’t so much the initial piece as Suzanne’s refusal to apologise when told to that “made” them drive her from Twitter. Presumably she is meant to do this in the name of solidarity and the “struggle”, though I find it very hard to imagine this mob struggling with anything apart from the English language and the concept of free speech.

I find it ironic that someone would accuse a group of struggling with the English language while butchering it herself. Burchill is also suffering from a lack of focus here. Are trans women overprivileged upper-class white PhDs with nothing better to do than undermine feminism? Or are they illiterates? C’mon, Julie. If you’re going to stereotype a massively diverse group of people you should at the very least pick a side.

Oh, and since Suzanne Moore’s original comment referred specifically to “Brazilian transsexuals”, it’s quite telling that Burchill criticises the people who responded for not having quite her command of English. Context, Julie. It’s important.

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: the boy who killed his parents and then asked the jury for clemency on the grounds he was an orphan.

Here we go back to Burchill’s questionable notions of biology. We saw above that she sees trans women as being unable to grow hair like the rest of us mammals. Now she refers to them as somehow apart from those of us who were “natural-born”. As far as I had been aware, trans people were born the same way as everyone else. Y’know. Pregnancy, labour, possible C-section. Someone cursing at someone else for knocking them up in the first place. Maybe an epidural, maybe not. In Burchill’s world, however, trans women are born.. unnaturally?

It would be funny, in a way. It would be, if it were not for the chilling fact that seeing others as unnatural is a profoundly dehumanising thing.

Also, I have no idea what she’s on about with the chutzpah thing. Non sequitors ahoy!

Okay, we’ve just got one paragraph left. Let’s get this over with:

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’m sorry, but I’m left lost for words.

Except for this: Julie Burchill, I am angry. I am angry both that you attack trans women in such a vile manner, and that you claim to speak for all cis women when you do so. How dare you? How dare you? You do not speak for me. I do and I always will stand beside my trans sisters who I have far more in common with than bigots like you. With whom, despite your protestations, I do share an experience of womanhood. There is nothing unnatural about being trans. There is, Ms Burchill, something unnatural about bigotry.

And you, Julie Burchill? If you think that this is acceptable? You ain’t seen nothing yet.

If you’re even half angry about this as I am, please sign this petition demanding an apology from the Guardian for publishing this vile excuse for an article. Official complaints about the article can also be made here.

Originally posted at Consider The Tea Cosy

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About Aoife

Nitpicker extraordinaire, wielder of the Eyebrow of Scepticism, and world-class consumer of tea. I write about skepticism, feminism, pro-choice issues, LGBTQ stuff, cooking, knitting, roller skating and whatever takes my fancy, from an Irish perspective.

13 responses »

  1. Reblogged this on Activism and Agitation and commented:
    Ditto

    Reply
  2. We’re decrying the idea that being Brazilian and trans* gives a woman the body of an “oven-ready porn star”. Whatever, by the way, an oven-ready porn star is. I’m not sure why Burchill is talking about putting women in ovens, but maybe there’s a turn of phrase I’m not familiar with here.

    Although my mind immediately went to the ‘why is she talking about putting people in ovens wtf’ option as well, on reflection I think that’s an example of her Bad Communication. What she’s trying to convey (I think) is that all people who work in porn are interchangeable and the same, like pre-made yorkshire puddings (‘oven-ready’). So, that’s great.

    Reply
  3. Wow, wow, wow! If I’d have known that all I had to do was get a pair of sharp scissors, something to mop up the blood, a sewing needle and some bandages, I wouldn’t have needed to go through the medical system to “have my cock cut off”.

    These are supposed to be educated people writing sensible and well researched articles for respected newspapers, not the kind of tabloid rubbish you’d expect of The Sun or the old News of the World.

    Reblogging this – love some of your funny comments btw.

    Reply
    • Yeah. I’m often amazed by how I can find far, far better writing in some of my blogroll than in papers where people actually get paid to do that kind of thing. Like, in real money. And are expected to therefore be professionals about it.

      Reply
  4. What ever happened to freedom of speech? if you are not ‘fluffy feminists’, why are you not able to see this debate, this issue has many voices. You need to understand that ‘some’ womon, dislike the tactics of the trans-community and its ability to foreclose on any debate about their inclusion or exclusion. from womons community, especially womon only events.
    Some cis womon prefer to be in a community with other cis womon that should be a matter for choice not a dictated by violent action and threats of legal injunctions.
    I personally have no objections to anyone changing their social role ascription but why do a minority of this community want to be so utterly anti- cis womon?

    Reply
    • Trans women are women.

      Cis women are privileged over trans women. A cis-only community is the equivalent of a whites-only or abled-only community.

      Freedom of hate speech ≠ freedom of speech.

      I have not seen any attacks on cis women as a whole in this community. I have never seen anyone attacked for their cisness.

      Reply
      • Ally Fogg has a really good response to the free speech argument being made by Burchill’s defenders:

        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.

        Reply
    • Also, mod hat on.

      From the comments policy: “Disagreement is welcome! Personal attacks and -isms are not. Repeat offenders will be disemvoweled, repeat-repeat offenders will face the banhammer.”

      Transphobia is not tolerated at Feminist Ire. This is a trans* positive space.

      Reply
  5. Pingback: UK - You can’t advance women’s rights by bashing trans people (Jeff Fecke)

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