"Nasty Idiotic Tripe": Stand Against Julie Burchill's Years Of Transphobia
, January 14th, 2013 13:47
Why are we surprised at Burchill's bigotry, asks John Tatlock, after all, she's been venting poison about trans people for well over a decade
I like to read The Observer on Sundays. This is because I wake up most Sundays feeling like I’ve been hollowed out by an amateur taxidermist and filled with cyanide. So a bit of a read about soft furnishings, pan-fried squid, and No Nasty Suprises Thank You is generally the ticket, and on this front it certainly does deliver.
So I was somewhat nonplussed to encounter the latest episode of an increasingly unpleasant assault on trans people issuing from the nation’s supposedly liberal media.
The furore sparked by a recent piece by Suzanne Moore – a writer who I previously held in some regard – and fanned into flame by a piece from Julie Burchill – a writer – blazes on.
It all started with a really rather good Moore article published in the Waterstones Red anthology and republished by the New Statesman last week. An argument blew up around Moore’s reference to transexuality in this passage:
"The cliché is that female anger is always turned inwards rather than outwards into despair. 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 a reader, it crossed my mind that this was a clumsy choice of image, but I felt I knew what she was getting at, decided that it was probably an attempt at humour of the “laughing with” rather than “at” sort and thought little more of it.
I then later in the week came across this follow on piece from Moore, indicating that there had been something of a fracas. This one read as a bit more confused to me, and I knew I didn’t like this bit:
“In Iceland, they put bankers in prison for fraud. Here, we give them knighthoods. So to be told that I hate transgender people feels a little ... irrelevant. Other people's genital arrangements are less interesting to me than the breakdown of the social contract.”
Her unwillingness to say she doesn’t hate transgender people is not, of course, smoking gun evidence of anything in particular, but it was far from reassuring. Still, I hadn’t picked up a strong sense that the barbarians were at the gates.
Then on Sunday, Burchill weighed in in The Observer, with some characteristically nasty, idiotic, narcissistic tripe.
At which point I thought to myself, “For fuck’s sake, why I am I reading this insufferable idiot snort on in such thunderous pig ignorance?” and resolved to spray a bit of online bile myself. Which, dear reader, is why we are here.
The narrative Burchill would have you believe is that Moore was “hounded off Twitter” by a “cabal” of trans bullies. Unfortunately for Burchill’s position, it’s trivially easy to discover that it’s incorrect. And indeed, one or both of Burchill and Moore must simply be lying if they claim it.
This is important, because it’s what Burchill and Moore’s claims of being provoked and harassed by trans critics online rests on, and the only argument their supporters have bothered to deploy. And even many who are horrified at the Burchill piece seem reasonably convinced of the “overreacting trans cabal” angle.
Me, I think Moore would still have something of a case to answer, and Burchill’s screed would still be beneath contempt, even if this harassment claim were true, but it isn’t. What actually happened can be seen here.
The first detail worth noting, is that the tweeter picking up Moore about her “transsexual Brazilians” zinger – one @jonanamary – is not herself trans. The second is that she approaches Moore first with a compliment about her article, but seeks to raise an issue with her use of language:
"@suzanne_moore I loved your piece on anger - except for the shock transphobia ("a Brazilian transsexual") - why on earth did you include it?"
"calling someone "a transsexual" is like calling someone "a gay" - really creepy. "Trans woman" would've been better but..."
"... why include it at all? It's v weird & leaves a v nasty taste. Trans women deserve solidarity, not implicit shaming."
Whatever your view on this position – and for the record, I think it’s correct, but arguably overstating the case – it could hardly be called a baying mob. Moore’s first reply is less than constructive, but equally, it’s not World War 3:
"I use the word transexual. I use lots of 'offensive' words. If you want to be offended it your prerogative."
However, things then went rapidly downhill:
""offence" isn't the problem. Transphobia is. Transphobia kills. & intersectional feminism demands that we be in solidarity with trans* women & their cause. Pretty basic stuff. V disappointed that you delib misunderstood my point."
"dont "demand" of me. Transphobia is your term. I have issues with trans anything actually."
"Haha now @Suzanne_Moore thinks my issue with her transphobic comment is that I'm "offended". Um, nope. Try again."
"I dont prioritise this fucking lopping bits of your body over all else that is happening to women Intersectional enough for you?"
It was at this point that other people began to angrily pile in, with fairly obvious good cause. To declare out of the blue that transexuality is simply “this fucking lopping off bits of your body” is of course offensive to trans people. I’d argue that it’s reasonable to assume Moore describing it thus indicates that she does indeed “have issues with trans anything”. And then there was this:
"People can just fuck off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me. Good for them."
I won’t editorialise; this really does speak for itself.
Burchill’s defence of Moore, therefore, has the line of causality in this spat entirely backwards. Moore is the aggressive party. Trans people only complain after Moore begins to use very ugly language to describe them. And as for being “hounded off”, it looks instead like Moore came to at least some of her senses and decided to stop being so utterly vile in public.
Whether Burchill is deliberately misrepresenting events, or in honest error is not something we’re likely to find out. However, those with long memories might recall that Burchill has prior form for being nasty in print about trans people. Back in 2001 she wrote in a piece for The Guardian.
“… may I say that I feel even less patience with transsexuals. Male to female transsexuals are Michael Jackson to the transvestites' Ali G; not content even to dress up temporarily as the Other, they presume that its authenticity can be theirs through a few cosmetic adjustments.”
Tellingly, she trots out the claim that trans people are as inherently offensive to non-trans people as The Black And White Minstrel Show is to black people in both that article and Sunday’s loathsome rant. With 12 years in between the two pieces for her to have pondered on that point, it seems fair to say that Burchill is doing more here than simply coming to the defence of a friend (which would be weak mitigation in any case). She seems rather to be grabbing the opportunity to air an extant prejudice once again.
As such, we need only give her nonsense the short shrift it deserves. Like a drunken grandmother who gets a bit racist after a few sherries, Burchill’s family and friends are quite free to smile indulgently at this odd, long-harboured bigotry of hers, and chuckle at how good she is at winding everyone up. And the rest of us are quite free to wrinkle our noses and ignore this tiresome, mean blowhard.
Moore’s position, however, while not apparently fuelled by the same kind of visceral loathing, is in some ways more troubling. In the days since her article was first published, my initial charitable reading of her has become harder and harder to maintain. For one thing, I initially read the criticism of the “Brazilian transsexuals” line as being almost pedantically looking for something to take offence at, and partly still do think that. But Moore’s subsequent pronouncements suggest that @jonanamary had sniffed out something I’d only caught the mildest whiff of.
But more importantly, and far less equivocally, a call for solidarity that demands that some of the group just shut up about their trivial, second-class, not-proper-people issues is just plain not a call for solidarity. It’s a call for people to align themselves in a way that serves Moore’s priorities first.
This is at very best incoherent, and not something that requires the reader to understand sophisticated political or feminist theory, for them to see the flaws. There’s a simple question of human decency here. If Moore and Burchill think that trans people and their concerns are somehow secondary to everyone else's, and that a just society can include such disregard, they have a lot of work in front of them to explain how that would work.
Being concerned for everyone’s welfare isn’t a barrier to a just society, it’s a necessity for a just society. And to call out people for saying the things Moore and Burchill have been saying isn’t trivial leftist internecine warfare. Claiming to be the most working class, or the most feminist, or the most working class feminist does not turn cruelty into kindness, nor stupidity into insight. Abuse of people simply for what they are rather than what they do has no place on any side I’ll ever be on.