The recent, controversial comments about transgender people by the usually fabulous Suzanne Moore, are just the tip of this particular iceberg.
Given the prominence of feminists like Moore and, then later, Julie Bindel, and finally, Julie Burchill – feminists who, whether intentionally or otherwise, come out with statements about trans people that are deeply discomforting to many of their own supporters, the time has come for feminists to actively speak up about the shameful and sometimes deliberate failure to engage with, listen to, and support trans people within our own communities.
Suzanne Moore may or may not have intended any offense with her original comments, and it’s easy to see how when someone is on the end of a twitter-storm, they might lose their cool a bit. But even to the most generous mind, Julie Burchill’s defence of her friend in the Guardian can’t be explained as anything other than deliberate bigotry. She deliberately called trans people “dicks in chicks’ clothing”, she deliberately decided to trivialise the protests from trans people against those who deny they even exist, she deliberately dismissed the right to define yourself as you are instead of having it dictated by others as “semantics.”
People cannot help their ignorance, but Julie Burchill isn’t ignorant. She’s an educated person. She has thought actively about sex, gender and sexuality for years; it’s not that she’s never met a trans person or thought about what it must be like to go through something so lonely and terrifying as gender reassignment surgery. Those people, the ones who are ignorant or naïve or ill-informed, perhaps we should have some sympathy with. But that’s not Burchill. She has the luxury of awareness and education. She still seems to choose to be transphobic.
Enough is enough. Trans women have been excluded from female spaces, portrayed as predatory, called traitors and perpetuators of patriarchy, accused of having male privilege, had their surgery compared with gay cure therapy, and, of course, constantly been on the receiving end of that boring old chesnut hurled, at some point, at pretty much anyone who ever speaks out about anything, ever: accusations of “distracting” from the “real” issues.
Yet surely we ought to be natural allies. Not only does transphobia shine bright lights on sexist assumptions about us all and help so often to show them up as inaccurate nonsense, but trans people live through a reality of gender-based oppression that most cis women can barely imagine. We should be on their side. Far from its victims being part of the problem, the culture that facilitates transphobia is so very often the same culture that perpetuates sexism.
The objectification and fetishisation of female bodies paves the way for the objectification and fetishisation of trans bodies. Gendered harassment and violence directed at trans people –a 2009 UCU report into transphobic hate crime estimated at least two deaths a month in Europe, and that trans women are more likely to experience it than trans men – exists in a culture depressingly used to accepting gendered harassment as a normal part of life.
If we think we have problems getting the male-dominated police or courts to listen when we report assaults, rapes, and harassment, how can we be comfortable that a trans person will be listened to within the same systems? There have certainly been studies to suggest that they are not.
And if men legislating over women’s bodies, because women are still all too often seen as “other,” is a priority for feminism, surely cis people, usually men, legislating and assessing the conditional basis for gender reassignment surgery is another side of the same coin in this unholy mess? Surely the absence of trans people in the media is as important as the absence of women in the media; that the objectification of us all in popular culture can only addressed with us supporting each other?
Just look at the disparity between the coverage given to the recent story about Dr Richard Curtis receiving complaints over his handling of gender reassignment surgery cases, even though the accusations, held up against the WPATH guidelines, do not necessarily even indicate malpractice, with the quiet shrugging off of the terrible experiences detailed by numerous trans patients, treated by cis doctors, which activist and Lib Dem councilor Sarah Brown collected in a twitter hashtag #TransDocFail.
Why the silence about this abuse of our sisters from so many feminists? Perhaps it is, in part, because the very notion of gender reassignment challenges some feminist notions about gender more than we’re comfortable with? After all, much of modern feminism centres around the sensible premise that men and women are actually not as different as societal engineering would have us believe. While that’s undoubtedly true, the very fact that somebody’s true gender can be different than the sex of the body they are born into proves that there are some fundamental differences between what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be a man, which go beyond the coincidence of genitalia at birth.
When you are in the majority or a societal grouping which is considered to be the default norm, it’s easy to think it’s only “others” who keep bringing up the importance of lived experience, in contradiction with your impartial ideology or philosophy. When we’re not marginalised, we don’t see how much of the politics, history, philosophy, theology, and sometimes even science we take for granted as empirical takes into consideration our own life experience automatically.
The projection of academic ideology on to minorities and marginalised groups, in denial of their own lived experience, is the very thing that feminists have been battling for centuries. You’d think we’d be more sympathetic when other minority groups tell us that we’re guilty of the same thing. It’s about time we were.