Over the past couple of days, we have seen a bit of an internet temper tantrum coming primarily from some in Britain, centering on some voices in the British commentariat, who are very upset about the fact that trans activists and allies have critiqued an unfortunate line in an article and rather blatantly transphobic comments on twitter by journalist Suzanne Moore (see for example my own previous comment about the issue here). Moore initially made an awkward, de-gendering reference to “Brazilian transsexuals” in her NewStatesman piece, followed by a blatantly transphobic tirade on twitter when gently approached about that odd line in the original article.
Let’s say something off the bat to put all of this in some context. 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.
Then there was the New York Times coverage of the passing of Lorena Escalera who died in a fire last May. The NYT story focused on details of her sex life and reported what amounted to rumors about surgery a neighbor believed she might have had. Of course, the NYT (or any reputable news source) would never report such sensationalized details after the passing of a cis woman (or probably anyone else, for that matter).
Meanwhile, as detailed by Trans Media Watch in its submission to the Leveson inquiry, elements of the British Press have shaped exploitative and damaging reporting about trans people almost to a twisted art form; this includes outing trans people regardless of any dangers they might face and publishing exploitative pieces about a trans child whose life and images were put on display in a sensationalized manner that invited public ridicule and abuse.
Then of course there are the endless array of plot lines of movies and shows such as CSI in which trans people, and trans women in particular, are presented as freaks or psychotic individuals, not to mention the sitcoms on which trans women are commonly presented as nothing more than a joke.
It is of course within this wider context of sensationalistic media coverage that most any comments about trans people in the press will be received. Therefore it is in this context that such comments must be viewed, including the line from Suzanne Moore’s original article:
“We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.”
As myself and many of my fellow trans activists have pointed out over the last few days, this final phrase is odd and alienating. As I pointed out earlier, it represents body-policing, and it’s anti-feminist. Although she has objected strenuously to this characterization of her words, the comments that Moore made on twitter when approached about the issue clearly revealed a much deeper prejudice about trans women and trans women’s bodies.
I’ve noticed that many of those who have attempted to defend or deflect criticism of Moore’s remarks have avoided acknowledging her comments on twitter, about trans women “cutting off their dicks” and such (for example, this piece). But these comments absolutely elucidate the bigoted perspective from which the original “Brazilian transsexuals” comment emerged. The fact that an Independent piece of Moore’s from 1997 uses similar language reveals that this is not simply an outburst of anger on twitter, but very likely reflective of a deeper and long-held stigmatized view of trans women and trans women’s bodies.
Nevertheless, it is evident from the reaction of more than a few voices across the web (just see the stubborn comments on my previous blog post for a quick example) that at least a good chunk of the British commentariat has decided to close ranks around Moore and largely dismiss any meaningful criticism of her whatsoever.
Also let me take a moment here to critique pieces such as the piece I linked above, which basically represent a cop-out: the author of this piece suggests that trans activists are somehow uniquely aggressive or extremist, and because of this difference from other kinds of activists the author suggests that they will simply refrain from discussing trans issues in the future. Of course, the alternative route would be much simpler: when trans activists or allies approach you about something you wrote, listen to what they have to say, consider their views, and move forward from there. I fail to comprehend why that is such a challenging approach to take (unless you view trans activists as some special form of unapproachable or unintelligible human being… which would be totally bigoted).
But regardless, a piece was published today appearing on the Guardian website from Julie Burchill– a close friend of Suzanne Moore– that renders much of the questions about intent raised above rather moot. I won’t link to the piece, in part because I suspect that it was posted with the desire of generating massive page hits by creating crude controversy, but simply put it is breathtaking in the sheer vitriolic hatred expressed towards trans women, referring to us unflinchingly with slurs “tr*nn**s, sh*m***s, sh*m,” etc., and ending with what seems to be a direct threat.
A threat of what, or whether it should be taken seriously, I don’t know, but there is no question that the words written on that page represent pure unbridled hatred.
And make no mistake about it: we trans women already know damn well this is the way these individuals talk about us behind the scenes. I have no doubt that when the subject of trans women comes up around Burchill, Moore and their pals that these are the kind of words bandied about, fitting right in amongst the casual laughter, lobster and sips of champagne that Burchill references in her article.
In an odd way, I can respect Burchill for one thing: she’s not afraid to acknowledge what’s really on her mind: “I fucking hate these tr*****s and I don’t give a shit what anyone thinks.” In fact, perhaps Moore could learn something from this honest approach rather than childishly alternating comments about trans women’s “mutilated bodies” with laughable claims that she doesn’t actually hate trans women cause she wanted to shag David Bowie (however that’s supposed to be relevant).
But now let’s pause here for a moment and reflect on the full implications of the precise form of bigotry that these women are expressing: trans-misogyny. Perhaps some readers have heard that word before but not been sure exactly what it means. Trans-misogyny can be thought of as a particular form of misogyny that is primarily directed at a certain grouping of women: in this case, trans women.
I say primarily directed at trans women here because there are examples of trans-misogny being turned on cis women as well (e.g. male liberal commentators such as Keith Olbermann making fun of Ann Coulter by calling her a “tr***y,” which should be totally unacceptable).
More specifically, we can think of trans-misogyny as inhabiting the intersections of transphobic and misogynistic oppressions. However, the key here is to understand that what underlies trans-misogyny is simply misogyny itself: the social illness that is the hatred of women and womanhood (that in part explains why trans-misogyny could be directed at a non-trans woman).
To dig a little deeper at this concept, consider the words that Burchill has used to describe trans women (I’ll use the un-starred versions of these words here just to be absolutely precise with my meaning). “Shemale.” “Shim.” “Tranny.” Notice that all of the worst transphobic slurs are reserved for people who were socially assigned ‘male’ at birth but today live as women? That’s not a coincidence. As society has trained itself deeply in the hatred and imagined ‘weakness’ of womanhood, it often views the transition from male birth assignment to female social placement very differently than the converse process. Both sides of course experience transphobia, and trans men often have a history of dealing with misogyny associated with their birth gender assignment, but trans-misogyny is principally directed at trans women.
And exactly how this plays out for trans women can be pretty devastating. The fact is that trans women constitute a tiny portion of the general population, yet experience an astronomically high murder rate. Statistics aren’t always easy to come by, but even among the general LGBTI population (of which we still only constitute a fraction) trans women account for about half the hate crimes committed every year in the U.S.
Yet still this intersectional analysis is incomplete, because it must be noted that the vast majority of those trans women who are murdered each year are trans women of color and trans women sex workers (or both).
What’s more, society’s script for excusing or dismissing violence (including sexual violence) against trans women runs right through the script that it uses to excuse such violence against cis women– and then some. In general terms, recall the recent disgustingly casual conversations held about rape in Steubenville as an example of how violence against women is often considered… well, casual. Then of course there are the familiar victim-blaming narratives that asks of a woman who is assaulted, “Well, what was she wearing?”
For trans women, the standard narratives apply in a similar manner, but there are a few extra twists. Principally, there is the victim-blaming disclosure myth, which is used to justify violence against trans women with the ever-so-casual, “He didn’t know she was trans… yeah, of course he’s going to knock her out,” spoken often times even when the man who committed violence knew she was trans all along.
And so we see, this is what is so fundamentally wrong and disappointing with the “feminist” narratives that second-wave genital-essentialist feminists like Moore and Burchill espouse. Because you can’t dismiss trans-misogyny without ultimately limiting your critique of misogyny itself. So dismissing trans-misogyny turns out to be just that: dismissing misogyny. As an example, there is a 2001 Guardian article by Burchill “Gender Bending” (sorry, I just don’t feel like linking to the Guardian today) which contains this trans-misogynist sentence about some drag queens in a Theatre Royal production:
“The best reason for their continuing existence is that they demonstrate how very stupid men look, in fact, when they dress up as women.”
Notice the implicit woman hatred in that sentence? Do women “look stupid” when they wear jeans (even men’s jeans)? Then why would men look stupid in the attire generally associated with women?
Beyond that, there are of course the victim-blaming narratives that are not merely overlooked or excused by the feminism practiced by Moore and Burchill, but are actually invented by it. In the previously mentioned “Gender Bending” article, Burchill writes:
“My objection to trannies, though, is that they are woefully conventional souls … who seem unable to exist alongside any sort of ambiguity, which as we all know is one of the things that makes life so interesting. …
It is the literal-mindedness, the clunky logic of transsexuals, that is so appalling (that, and their taste in blouses)… . They are frilly, docile smilers who always wear make-up and never the trousers. Their idea of womanhood seems to have survived intact from 1953.”
Similarly, in Suzanne Moore’s dishonestly-titled “I don’t care if you were born a woman or became one” she writes a slightly less accusatory version of this regarding the “transsexuals” she knew in college:
“Others I knew had sex changes. Or transitioning, as it is now called. Mostly this seemed to be an obsession with secondary sexual characteristics: peeing sitting down if they had been a man, wearing horrible lumberjack shirts and refusing to wash up if they had been a woman. The radical fluidity of gender vaporised. Some trans people appeared to reinforce every gender stereotype going.”
In either case, both of these feminists claim that trans women reinforce (or at least seem to reinforce) the gender binary. Of course, the extent to which there is some truth in this is principally a reflection of the medical profession imposing such required gender conformity on trans women (and trans people more generally, though trans women always seem to be more heavily policed in this regard) as a condition for obtaining treatment.
But anyways, here on planet earth I’m a trans woman and, in contradiction to Ms. Burchill’s claims, I wear jeans almost every day, and very rarely wear any more make-up than mascara and perhaps eyeliner. And in fact, my trans women friends run the gamut from from butch, to soft butch to high femme and everything in between or beyond those categories.
So why do Moore and Burchill and other second-wave type feminists wish to assign blame to myself and other trans women for “propping up” the gender binary? And what do you call someone who concludes that every member of a certain group (in this case, trans women) are all the same, despite the available evidence to the contrary?
Regardless, I would now like to offer a strong word of caution to my trans woman sisters and our allies regarding this moment, in the aftermath of Guardian publishing what amounts to hate speech against trans women under its masthead. I hope that everyone will understand that the publication of this column does not represent any kind of victory for the trans woman-hating branches of antiquated faux feminism.
On the contrary, it is an act of desperation, representing a mode of political thought that is gradually losing touch and becoming lost in useless anger as it grows increasingly irrelevant. Moore and Burchill allude to their long left-behind working class origins in an attempt to preserve a sense of authenticity, but they increasingly lose touch with the intersectional needs of feminism today, which it must be uphold if it is to have any change of providing a meaningful discourse of liberation for even most of the women living in this world.
With this picture in mind, I would suggest that the primary motivation of this and other faux-feminist attacks on trans women is an attempt to goad us to saying something stupid or anti-woman in response. Hence, I would urge my sisters Don’t take the bait! Do not respond to these women with the vitriol or hate that they have demonstrated for us. Particularly do not allow yourselves to fall into the trap of using anti-woman language against them. (Edit: even though they used such language against us in the first place.)
Remember that anti-woman language, no matter who it is directed at, ultimately serves the goals of patriarchy and hurts ALL women.
And yes, even as Moore herself did correctly acknowledge, anger in the face of oppression is sometimes justified. But there is a difference between righteous anger, cool and narrowly focused on dismantling patriarchy, and the crude anger from which these clowns in feminist drag speak and would wish to see us speak.
Their goal is not to bring the feminist movement forward, but rather to desperately attempt to convince feminism that they and their ideas are still somehow relevant to women today. And they are willing to push that goal forward, even if it means women turning on each other.
Feminism is too important for that, and too desperately needed for trans woman and cis woman alike in these difficult times, when it seems that we are being abandoned at all corners of the political map.