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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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Recognition Not Pathologisation- how bad could it be?

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Originally posted at Consider the Tea Cosy

With tomorrow’s International Day of Action for Trans* Depathologisation, there’s a lot of talk going around about why and how we need to recognise trans* people’s legal rights. And I’m struck by how much of a big deal is being made over what is, in essence, the simplest thing.

Ally?

What do we want?

It’s been five years today since Lydia Foy won her case for gender recognition. Five long years. In those five years, we’ve seen the publication of the GRAG report and, uh, very little else. By the sounds of it, gender recognition must be a complicated thing, right? Requiring all sorts of intricate legislative bits and bobs (the technical term) to sort out?

That depends. As with so many things, what it depends on is perspective. It turns out, the complexity of gender recognition legislation seems to depend mainly on whether you see being trans* as a tragic medical condition, or a normal part of human variation that should be recognised. On whether you’re determined to Other trans* people or to acknowledge that gender is a thing that lives between our ears that we get to define any which way we like. Turns out that if we go with the second definition, things get simple really, really quickly.

Legalise Trans*

Medical Tragedies or Self-Definitions

So what is being trans*? Is it a bizarre medical tragedy, an affliction that a small minority of people have to live with? Something a little bit scary that some people ust can’t help but that we should absolutely not be encouraging? Or is it a perfectly normal, if a bit less common than being cis, way to define yourself? And how does the answer to that question change what laws we put in place?

The recommendations of the GRAG report indicate that it tends toward the former definition. Here’s Maman Poulet:

The FF/Green Government formed the Gender Recognition Advisory Group in May 2010 to look at the issues which presented themselves following the Foy case. The group was entirely composed of Civil Servants and even though they received submissions and met with many groups from the rights and LGBT communities it is very evident that they really didn’t get it if an unnamed expert hadn’t told them.

Why was there no Trans rep on committee to at least provide an alternate view if even dissenting one? When the Government formed a group to look at the options for recognition of same sex relationships GLEN got a seat at the table….

The report recommends that Trans People applying for their gender to be recognised will have to have a formal diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder with evidence of medical treatments or will have to have had Gender Reassignment Surgery. This means that one has to have had hormones and mental health treatment and assessment or gender surgery (and hormones and mental health assessment/treatment and everything else)… There is no understanding of the issues facing InterSex here at all..

…The report proposes that there is a panel which people will have to appear before made up of medical and legal representatives and one other where the applicant will will be told if they are a man or woman in the eyes of the state.

I know Trans people who are married and happily so, I know others who are divorced or separated. The report recommends that those applying for Gender Recognition be required to divorce or end their Civil Partnership before they can apply.

Let’s go over that again. In order to change their legal gender, a person would have to:

  • Present a formal diagnosis of GID (defined as a mental illness)
  • Have had medical treatments and/or surgical intervention
  • Appear before a panel of medical and legal representatives to make their case
  • If married, divorce.
  • Oh, and also, because of the definition of GID, you can’t be intersex.

That’s a lot of barriers. You have to be diagnosed as mentally ill. You have to chemically or surgically change your body- which means that gender recognition would be denied to those who, for financial or medical reasons, can’t do this. Never mind bodily integrity. You have to convince a panel of strangers. And if you are happily married, you need to split up your family. And, most bizarrely of all, you need to have a binary-sexed body.

Can I diagnose you too?

I could go into why this is ridiculous, but I’m going to trust that my lovely readers can work that out for yourselves. Instead, I want to show you a different model that is in place right now in Argentina. Let’s check out what TENI have to say about it:

The Argentinian Law is based on self-determination and provides full recognition of self-defined gender identity. Transgender people in Argentina will not need to prove they have had surgical procedures, hormonal therapy or other psychological treatment such as a diagnosis of a mental illness. This law clearly separates a legal right from medical interventions.
This law has been heralded as the most progressive in the world and signals a new era for transgender human rights. Justus Eisfeld, Co-director of Global Action for Trans Equality told press, “The fact that there are no medical requirements at all — no surgery, no hormone treatment and no diagnosis — is a real game changer and completely unique in the world. It is light years ahead of the vast majority of countries.”
However, while clearly separating medical interventions from the legal recognition process, the Argentinian law also provides a right to access any desired medical treatment which firmly enshrines the importance of transgender healthcare.

Huh. Well. Um. That was easy. So in order to get your gender legally recognised in Argentina you have to:

  • Fill out a form. Probably take it in to be stamped by someone because this is a bureaucracy we’re talking about. I’ll bet there’s some queueing involved, so you might want to bring a book.
  • Receive new documentation with correct gender.
  • Continue to be able to freely access whatever medical transition you need to. THIS BIT IS IMPORTANT. Gender diversity is awesome. Gender dysphoria is really, really not, and depathologisation without ensuring access to treatment for dysphoria for everyone who needs it is worse than useless.
  • Have a cup of tea, read the paper, give out about things on the internet, watch TV, go for a run, get on with your life, etcetc.

That last bit, by the way, is optional and can be adapted to your own preferences. As is the first bit. You might prefer a few podcasts to a book.

Note, by the way, how this involves vastly less hassle for everyone than the proposed Irish model. And how it also guarantees any trans* person the right to the transition-related healthcare that they want or need. So what, precisely, is getting in the way of Ireland doing the same? What are we so scared of? What’s the worst that could happen?

Time to do a poodle

If we make it easy to change your gender, everyone will want to do it!

Fearmongers envisage a society where you, me, your ma and your entire secondary school history class are changing our genders like we change our shoes. In my case, that would be as rarely as possible, when the old ones are worn out and full of holes, with an awful lot of grumbling. But I gather that I’m not representative of everyone.

So there we are, with everyone changing their genders whenever the mood strikes them. Down is up, left is right, nobody knows what to call anybody and everyone’s in such a panic that they can’t even remember how to make a nice cuppa anymore.

Shocked woman with a cup of tea
It’s okay, scared lady from the internet. It’ll be fine, I promise.

What nobody seems to have explained is why this would be such a bad thing in the first place. If gender is all about how we identify ourselves, then why shouldn’t we get to change it? Why shouldn’t you, me, your ma and your entire secondary school history class get to cheerfully toddle down to the relevant department, sign a couple of dozen forms, hand over the inevitable fee and then do it all again a few weeks later when they change their mind? Why on earth would that be so terrible?

In fact, it might be pretty great.

For one thing, we’re in a recession here, and changing documents always costs money. Wouldn’t the hordes of people changing their gender markers be a fantastic source of revenue?

For another thing, this scenario inevitably means that people are going to magically forget that they live in a world filled with cissexism and transphobia and instead cheerfully (and with legal recognition) explore all the gender possibilities that they can. Nobody would get to assume just by looking, or by having known what it was last week, that they knew a person’s gender! Asking “what’s your pronoun?” would become as ordinary a question as “Jaysus, will this rain ever stop?”.

Of course, this scenario- as delightful as it is- is ridiculous. I’m sure there are some people in the world who like filling out forms for the lulz. I’m equally sure that it’s a minority sport.

So with that scenario out of the way, what else is there to be scared of?

Dogs And Cats Living Together

Did you notice that in Argentina, there’s no requirement to divorce the person you love in order to get your gender markers changed? That’s because in Argentina, they’ve reinforced their buildings from falling skies and reinforced their umbrellas for downpours of (literal) cats and dogs. All necessary precautions in order to allow same-sex marriage.

Terrifying gays getting married
Under your very nose!

That’s right. If you let trans* people’s genders be recognised without forcing them to get divorced first, you’re going to have a situation where perfectly normal het couples, through a magical process probably involving radioactive spiders, start morphing into gay marrieds. Before your very eyes! WHO WILL BE SAFE? YOUR OWN NEIGHBOURS COULD TURN INTO THE GAYS AT ANY MOMENT.

So, uh, that’d be scary, right? Right? …….right?

What’ll we gain?

Oh, you know. Just little things. Dignity. Trans* people not being forced to out themselves whenever they have to present legal documents. Embracing people for who they are. Honouring bodily integrity and the sovereignty of each of us. Massive symbolic recognition throughout the country.

Little things like that.

Why’re you telling me all this now?

You can’t have forgotten, can you? Tomorrow is the International Day of Action for Trans* Depathologisation! If you’re in Dublin or can get here, and you’re even half as sick as I am of ridiculous, unnecessary barriers put in the way of trans* people’s legal rights, get that (remarkably attractive) ass of yours out to Kildare Street for 2.30pm.

Rally for Recognition Saturday 20th October 2012, 2.30pm


Edited to add a Very Important Thing:

In writing this, I’ve realised- almost instantly after hitting ‘post’- that something that I’ve left out here is anything about gender dysphoria. As I’m running out the door right now, I’m going to leave you with some quotes from the wonderful Quarries & Corridors. Listen up, because this bit’s important!

There’s an incredibly important distinction that needs to be made clearly, front and centre in any debate about depathologising trans people. Having a gender that differs from that assigned to you at birth isn’t illness, it’s the gender dysphoria resulting from this that is. That may seem like semantics, but there is nothing wrong with me for having a nonbinary gender, I used to have gender dysphoria, now treated. Similarly, no one is ill for being a trans man or a trans woman, but the gender dysphoria from not having that recognised and affirmed hurts. The DSM-5 is already removing ‘Gender Identity Disorder’ & replacing it with ‘Gender Dysphoria’, pathologising our dysphoria not our genders. I think this is the right approach. It lets me be transgender without that being seen as disordered, it maintains access to medical care. Anyone making a lot of noise about depathologising trans* without making these important distinctions up front’s likely to do serious damage.

So let’s not forget that, k?