and your speech is a thunderous noise and my ears are catching a dreadful static --norma jean, high noise, low output
Many years ago, I remember my father once told me a story about a child he knew (neighbor’s kid or something like that). He once heard this child use some swear word or other, and so he gave them a lecture that they should never say such things.
Some time later, when he was working out in the woods behind our house, he found an old board on which someone had scribbled out in crayon all the words that my father had told them never to say. When he asked why they had (obviously) written these words out on the board, the child replied, “Well you told me I wasn’t supposed to say them, so I had to write them down!”
It’s a pretty adorable thing for a kid to do… the key word here of course is “kid.”
This of course brings us to the topic at hand: the ongoing kerfuffle over Julie Burchill’s recent column in the UK Observer. The piece was Burchill’s attempt to defend her friend and fellow columnist Suzanne Moore who had been criticized as a result of a series of events. First Moore made an odd, underhanded reference to Brazilian trans women, followed by comments about trans women “lopping off” their genitalia when she was approached about the issue (in a reasonable, polite manner) on twitter.
It’s ironic that many of Moore’s defenders have stubbornly complained that trans women who reacted to her comments (regarding our “mutilated” bodies and such) are being “politically correct” and over-sensitive, considering that the opening paragraph of Moore’s original article that set this situation off was a complaint about the phrase “Calm down, dear,” spoken by the UK Prime Minister David Cameron to Labour MP Angela Eagle during a Parliamentary session.
Of course, Moore is absolutely correct in her response to Cameron’s words: his comment was clearly patronizing and misogynistic. It’s just bizarre that Moore’s defenders accept that “calm down, dear,” deserves strong public condemnation, but somehow they expect that her talk of mutilated trans bodies and such should pass without a forthright rebuke (to say nothing of Burchill’s later use of slurs “trannies” and “she males” and such).
That having been said, I want to say one thing very clearly: as a trans woman, I absolutely condemn the decision by the Observer to “de-publish” Julie Burchill’s article.
(And I suspect there are more than a few trans women out there who will agree with me on that).
Sure, they should have known better than to publish such garbage in the first place, but given that they did publish it, the Observer should have stood by it. Instead, they de-published it (whatever that means), I suspect largely their motive was just to protect the reputation of the paper and its editors.
And of course, we all know that “de-publishing” doesn’t mean anything: the article has already been posted elsewhere.
And not only was this meaningless decision a bit cowardly, but it also provided the perfect cover for Burchill herself, because now she gets to step into the ready-made role of “free speech” martyr, acting like some kind of hero because her column was taken down from one site and placed on another.
Boo-who… as in, who cares.
Seriously, this woman has a decades-long career in which she has written for most of the UK’s major papers, and she has previously written (in somewhat more-veiled terms) pieces on her feelings about trans women.
Does anyone seriously believe that this woman’s free speech has been inhibited in any meaningful way? Does anyone have any doubt precisely what her feelings are about trans women?
As I mentioned, this provides excellent cover for Burchill, because now we can all have a perfectly meaningless conversation about free speech, which provides the much-needed distraction from the fact that the “censored” column was largely devoid of any content.
Before sizing up the article itself, a brief comment on the historical context in which it appears is in order. The fact is that there is an ugly transphobic history to a certain branch of second-wave feminism that stretches back to the mid 70′s and 80′s. One notable highlight in this sad history took the form of Janice Raymond’s trans-misogynistic screed The Transsexual Empire: the Making of the She-male (language that should be familiar from the recent fracas).
For example, this work stated utterly hateful (though entirely non-sensical) concepts such as the idea that trans women were rapists merely for inhabiting their own bodies:
“All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves …. Transsexuals merely cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive.”
The book also targets individual trans women such as Sandy Stone who worked in the late 70′s as the sound engineer at feminist recording company Olivia Records. Stone was the subject of escalating abuse and intimidation as a result, and was eventually compelled to leave Olivia Records under the threat of a boycott (in other words, some “feminist” cis women hated trans women so much, they were willing to destroy the only feminist recording company just to see her ejected her from women’s space).
Sadly, this type of attitude towards trans women was at one point fairly mainstream in second-wave feminism.
Another strong trend in feminism along these lines has been the accusation that trans people prop up stereotypical concepts of “womanhood” and “manhood;” and of course, trans women are treated as the ultimate evil from this perspective. And indeed, both Burchill and Moore have a history of arguing this false idea of who trans women are. For example, Moore penned a previous column for the Guardian back in 2011, titled “Why does nobody want to feel like a natural woman any more?” in which she writes:
“Today’s templates of beauty for women are very samey, but they rarely occur in nature. The tall, slim-hipped figure with huge, pert breasts – basically the body of a Brazilian transsexual – was sought after for a while. Now we are told bottoms are making a comeback (where HAVE they been all these years?). These things are spoken about it in vacuum, as if we are not allowed to talk about the racial aspects of ‘the bootylicious’.”
and she closes with
“A[n] [unnatural] look that has comes to us via porn, ladyboys, transsexuals, queer culture and high fashion is a look I now see on the bus. This excess of femininity may compensate for endless anxiety about appearances. There is nothing natural going on here, and some women are not hiding that fact. To become a woman is to become a female impersonator. How, in such a world, can we say to any young girl: ‘You are fine just as you are’?”
This context suggests that not only does Moore view trans women as “unnatural” women, she seems to actually holds us partly responsible for beauty stereotypes or even the beauty industry itself. A glance through some of Burchill’s writings makes clear that she holds similar views.
The truth is that trans women, like all women, fall all over the map in terms of body shape, size, etc. Some do indeed obtain surgery. And some don’t. Although there certainly are valid questions to ask about the beauty industry, scape-goating us for it is silly, willfully blind, and just taking the easy way out of dealing with the issue seriously.
And in any case, the truth of course is that the trans community ultimately serves as the very best challenge to gender stereotypes, even if some trans people do feel their gender falls more in line with the traditional binary (just as plenty of cis people feel in a similar manner).
But beyond exposing (for the umpteenth time) Moore and Burchill’s strongly-held anti-trans woman views, I would like to make a more specific point about the more recent column:
The Burchill column everyone is wasting their time discussing actually contains virtually no original content or new ideas (not even bad ones).
I realize that much in opinion writing in general involves rehashing snippets from the past, but for an aggressive column that has gotten so much attention (and left more than a few howling on the horrors of “censorship”), it really doesn’t contain any original thought whatsoever.
What do we learn from reading the piece? We do learn that Burchill is close friends with Moore, however, that’s not of any public interest. She reminds us that second-wave feminist Julie Bindel holds some similar views (albeit usually stated it in a more diplomatic manner), and other than that we mainly learn that Burchill despises trans women… but we already knew that.
However, many have noted that the piece seems to end with a threat:
“Shims, shemales, whatever you’re calling yourselves these days – don’t threaten or bully we 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.”
First of all, it’s sad that Burchill wishes to ignore the fact that trans women have faced oodles of sexual harassment (and in some ways, face very particular vulnerabilities to sexual violence– and victim-blaming after the fact).
Second, I think it should be noted that by and large trans women have stood in the face of this hate speech with dignity and respect, regardless that Burchill was probably trying to goad us into a destructive war of words. There are a handful who might have responded to this provocation with hateful language, and that I totally condemn, but it was unquestionably a small minority of voices (and they were responding to hateful provocation in the first place).
But I would like to emphasize my main point about the above quote by asking the following question: what exactly is Burchill threatening here?
My theory is this: absolutely nothing.
Think about it, there is already a strong history in second-wave feminism of scapegoating trans women over gender stereotypes and traditional gender roles. That’s nothing new, and anyways the effects are beginning to wear off as people get to know trans women in real life and learn that we have a diversity of gender expressions, just like all women do. So I doubt Burchill will be able to do much with that.
There’s also the thing of scapegoating us for the beauty industry, but a similar statement applies since that also just falls into the category of dumb stereotypes about trans women.
Does she having in mind targeting individual trans women? Some batty hate sites out there have already targeted us, but following along those lines would just move her deeper into the increasingly fringe wings of old-school feminism.
I guess Burchill might think she’s going to convince other cis women to begin calling trans women pejorative names such as “shemale” and “tranny”… but she pretty much already played that card with the article itself, and it doesn’t seem to have really worked out that well.
In fact, I doubt Julie Burchill even has the creative ability to back up her threat against trans women in any meaningful way. (And while we’re discussing competent creativity, Julie Burchill lecturing the trans community on how to do activism is a bit like that kid in the woods trying to tell Umberto Eco how to write an essay).
So I’m calling her bluff: Julie, show us the promised nasty. Tell us what this is all about. Make good on your threat, and show us that your writing actually has some kind of meaning to it.
Otherwise, I’m just going to have to stick with my present theory, which is that your column wasn’t worth anything more than childish prattle scribbled on an old rotten board and that you are full of shit.