On Tuesday Laurie Penny, author of Penny Red: Notes from the New Age of Dissent (2011) wrote a response to Julie Birchill’s disturbing and highly controversial diatribe against transgender people published in the Observer newspaper last Sunday. On a related note, listen to her discuss the political context of ‘columnism’ with Aaron Peters and James Butler Novara Radio here.
Laurie Penny, Tuesday 15th January 2013
This weekend, columnist Julie Burchill used her platform in the Observer to launch what may be the most disgusting piece of hate-speech printed in a liberal newspaper in recent years. I’m not the only reader who was shocked to the core at smug attack transsexual women as ‘screaming mimis in bad wigs,’ ‘a bunch of dicks in chicks’ clothing,’ and other playground insults too vile to repeat. Burchill claimed to be protecting a friend, which is a noble thing to do, but I suspect that the friend in question, the writer Suzanne Moore, would rather she hadn’t been associated with this the popping of this particular pustule of prejudice.
Burchill’s article is an embarrassment to the British press, an embarrassment to feminist writing and a shameful abuse of a public platform to abuse a vulnerable minority. The Observer has now issued an apology, and rightly so, although I believe the decision to depublish the piece is not wrong so much as bizarre, since Google Cache never forgets. It’s even more dispiriting to see other mainstream media outlets, including the Telegraph, rally around Burchill’s ignorant screed as a ‘free speech’ issue, as if the right to free speech and the right to publication in a major national newspaper were the same thing at all in the age of Tumblr. That’s why, after a lot of thought, I’ve taken the decision to publish this article independently, on this blog. I don’t want it to become part of the symbolic face-off going on between British press outlets this week. I want us to get back to the issues.
I’m partly writing this piece out of selfishness. I want to make it clear to the readers around the world who were rightly disgusted by the Observer column that Burchill and Moore do not speak for all British feminists, and that not every British columnist is prepared to rally the coaches around bigotry. A young, powerful feminist movement with transsexual and queer people at the heart of the debate is gathering in strength in this country and across the world, and we know that gender essentialism and bigotry hurt all of us, cis and trans, men and women.
Transphobic men and women who promote prejudice in the name of feminism, including writers like Sheila Jeffreys, Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel and now Julie Burchill, are on the wrong side of history. For far too long, a small, vocal cadre of the women’s movement has claimed that transsexuals, and in particular transsexual women, are not just irrelevant to feminism but actively damaging to the cause of women’s liberation. Their arguments are illogical, divisive and hateful, and sometimes just plain bonkers. I’ve been to meetings where transphobic feminists have argued that if they don’t keep a lookout, horrible sexist men will try to sneak into their meetings, marches and seminars in disguise in order to disrupt proceedings.
What precise form the disruption is supposed to take has not been explained, partly because it has never happened, ever. If Jeremy Clarkson ever decides to try it, I can assure you that he will be spotted and stopped – but right now, the feminist movement needs no help from fictional men in petticoats to damage our hopes of winning the wider war on women’s freedom. Far more insidious is the insistence by some feminists on mocking transsexual women and denying their existence.
The word that annoys these so-called feminists most is ‘cis’, or ‘cissexual’. This is a term coined in recent years to refer to people who are not transsexual. The response is instant and vicious: “we’re not cissexual, we’re normal – we don’t want to be associated with you freaks!” Funnily enough, that’s just the kind of pissing and whining that a lot of straight people came out with when the term ‘heterosexual’ first began to be used as an antonym of ‘homosexual.’ Don’t call us ‘heterosexuals’, they said – we’re normal, and you don’t belong.
To learn that the world is not divided into ‘normal’ people and ‘freaks’ with you on the safe side is uncomfortable. To admit that gender identity, like sexual orientation, exists on a spectrum, and not as a binary, is to challenge every social stereotype about men and women and their roles in society. Good. Those stereotypes need to be challenged. That’s why the trans movement is so important for feminism today.
Thanks to a global surge in acceptance and discussion of a spectrum of gender identity, trans people are becoming more and more visible, more angry, and more open about their experiences. The world is changing, and those of us fortunate enough to be born in a body that suits our felt gender identity are going to have to accept that being cissexual, just like being heterosexual, isn’t ‘normal’, merely common.
Transphobic articles in high-profile publications are not harmless. They cause active, quantifiable damage. They justify the ongoing persecution of transsexual people by the medical and legal establishment; they destroy solidarity within political and social circles; they hurt people who are used to hearing such slurs shouted at them in the street, and do not need to hear them from so-called progressives. Worse, they make it seem to the average reader, who might be a friend or relative of a trans person, that the rights of transsexual people to be treated in a humane way are still a subject for reasonable debate.
Some conservative feminists claim that arguing about trans issues is counter-productive to the wider struggle against austerity and sexual violence. They are right about that. Feminism is meant to be about defending women against violence, prejudice and structural, economic disadvantage – all women, not just the ones self-appointed spokespeople decide count, and at this time of crisis, we need to be standing together to defend women who are poor, marginalised and live in fear of violence. We cannot do that if we exclude trans and queer women, who are more than usually vulnerable to gendered violence and discrimination. Entry to feminist spaces should not be conditional on having one’s genitals checked over by Julie Burchill, Julie Bindel or their representatives. If it were, though, it might explain the decline in popularity of the movement in recent years.
It comes down to essentialism, and essentialism, as Suzanne Moore rightly pointed out in a recent Guardian column, is always conservative. Stubborn gender essentialism – the belief that your body and your hormones should define everything about your life – is what women have been fighting since the first suffragettes unrolled their green and purple sashes. For transphobic feminists, though, it all seems to boil down to an obsession with what precisely is inside a person’s underpants, which is at best intellectually vapid and at worst rather creepy, unless you happen to be into that sort of thing.
In fact, nobody on this planet is born a woman. Julie Burchill was not born a woman, unless her mother is a hitherto unheralded miracle of medical science. Just over half of us grow up to become women, and the process is a muddle of blood and hormones and angst and pressure and pain and contradiction. Transsexual women know just as well, and sometimes better than cissexual women what it is to be punished for your felt and lived gender, what it is to fear violence and rape, to be reduced to your body, to be made to feel ashamed, to have to put up with prejudice and lazy stereotypes.
Personally, if I thought that my vagina, which I’ve had since I was born, was my most important feminist accessory, I would let it speak for itself. Unfortunately it hasn’t read much feminist history, and neither, it seems, have transphobic bigots. If they had, they’d understand that taking a stand against violence and gender essentialism is what feminism is all about, and that’s precisely why solidarity with trans women should be the radical heart of the modern women’s movement.
A tipping point has been reached. All over the world, online and in local communities, transsexual men and women are finding their voices, and finding each other. Their struggle for acceptance in a society that still hates and fears those who are different, those who don’t follow the rules of gender and sexuality, is vital to the modern feminist movement. Young activists understand that that’s what feminism is all about, for all of us, men and women, cissexual, transsexual and genderqueer: the fight for equality and freedom of expression in a society that still believes that the arrangement of your genitals at birth should dictate the course of your life. It’s time for cissexual feminists to put hate aside and stand with transsexual women in solidarity.
Notes from the New Age of Dissent
Laurie Penny. Foreword by Warren Ellis
Selected writings from a prominent voice of the new activist left. Reflections on being young, broke and angry in the 21st century.
“Cuts, sexism and riots, Laurie Penny’s fresh and angry voice captures the moment and the important issues – highly recommended.” – Polly Toynbee
“Penny is re-inventing the language of dissent, delivering verbal taser-barbs to the left and right, and causing apoplexy among the old men in cardigans who run the British blogosphere.” – Paul Mason, economics editor of BBC’s Newsnight