Tag Archives: Guardian

On Disagreeing with Julie Burchill

Having come across, via TractorGirl and a debate on Twitter, this article in the Observer by Julie Burchill, I’d like to post a reply from my perspective as a transsexual man.

As I understand it, a row erupted after Suzanne Moore, a veteran journalist whose writing I normally have lots of time for, made a passing comment in a piece about women’s anger about women being angry that they do not have the body of a “Brazilian transsexual”. Bearing in mind I agree with the rest of her argument about women still being treated as second-class, under-represented in the upper echelons of the political world, hit hardest by the recession and living in an environment where violence against women is an ‘occupational hazard’, if you will, this comment is unnecessary and ill-informed. Having been involved in a Transgender Day of Remembrance event this year, I had to put together a list of those killed in the last year as a result of transphobic violence. The vast majority were Brazilian women, and reading the brief reports of their deaths was incredibly sad. Thus, I think Moore’s throwaway comment was in very poor taste.

In response to this, Moore has apparently been hounded off Twitter by trans activists, according to her friend Burchill, whose article is a whole different kettle of fish to Moore’s silly comment. As a deliberate non-user of Twitter I haven’t seen the threads myself, but alas, I do know from experience that some in the trans community do us no favours with their responses and temper. However, it seems to me that Burchill’s article is a hate-filled rant rather than any kind of reasoned argument, despite no doubt reflecting the views of some, as the comments on CiF show.

Before going through what she has to say, a few thoughts on life as a trans man in the early stages of gender reassignment. I’ve come to the conclusion that my gender has three aspects – the ontological (the essence of who I am, which is definitely male), the biological (which is currently female) and the social, the expectations and societal norms I encounter as a result of my biology. I wish to transition as the biological (body) doesn’t match the ontological (brain), which is very painful for me, and as because people go off appearances, I’m not treated as a man by most (even those who know the score sturggle at the moment). Hopefully, as I move forward with the process and my body increasingly matches my brain (which will be a huge relief and a liberation), the social side will follow and I’ll be able to get on with my life as an ordinary bloke. Key in this is the point that what ‘lower surgery’ I have or haven’t had shouldn’t be an issue when it comes to daily interactions – we don’t insist on seeing someone’s genitals before deciding how treat them, so why is it anyone else’s business what I do or not have? The obsession with penises baffles me!

Anyway, back to Burchill. She argues that the response to Moore’s comment from some in the trans community was like “those wretched inner-city kids who shoot another inner-city kid dead in a fast-food shop for not showing them enough ‘respect'”. She describes trans people as “educated beyond all common sense and honesty” and justifies using the word ‘tranny’, which is deeply offensive and often used by those harassing us, on the basis that she doesn’t like the term ‘cis-gendered’ being used for non-trans people. There then follows a rant about coming from working-class roots and “we are damned if we are going to be accused of being privileged by a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs”. Her last two paragraphs speak for themselves:

“To have your cock cut off and then plead special privileges as women – above natural-born women, who don’t know the meaning of suffering, apparently – is a bit like the old definition of chutzpah: the boy who killed his parents and then asked the jury for clemency on the grounds he was an orphan.

“Shims, shemales, whatever you’re calling yourselves these days – don’t threaten or bully us 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.”

In response, I’d like to say that:

  • Contrary to our total absence from this piece, trans men exist, too, albeit as a minority within a minority (trans folks) within the LGBT minority.
  • Having been stuck with a woman’s body for almost three decades, I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of misogyny, to feel threatened walking down the street by groups of men, to be ignored or patronised in the workplace and to suffer sexual violence, as well as putting up with PMT! Apart from the latter, many trans women experience these things too, as well as physical danger if they do not ‘pass’ as female. Sex discrimination an issue facing all women, cis- and trans-gendered.
  • Moreover, taking transphobic violence seriously is not mutually exclusive from taking violence against women seriously – the suggestion is just daft! I thought the point of feminism was that discrimination based on gender is wrong. Surely this applies as much to trans people (male and female and everything in-between!) as cis-gendered women?
  • It seems very odd to criticise people for being well-educated! Or is it only certain people that should be allowed to use academic language e.g. radical feminists?
  • Being from a working-class background doesn’t stop one being privileged. I’m from a council estate in Lancashire and from a household that wouldn’t have survived if it wasn’t for income support. My education (one of those pesky PhDs I’m afraid, Julie!), at which I worked bloody hard, and the opportunities I’ve had as a result does give me advantages over someone denied those chances; as proud as I am of my roots, it’s something I can’t deny. Similarly, being cis-gendered is a privileged position compared to being trans – people expect one to be so, most people are, and there are challenges one will never have to face as a result. It’s the same as heteronormativity in its context…
  • I thought we were trying to move away from a world in which a person is defined by their body, and in particular a woman is defined (and limited) by having the capacity to give birth. Are women only really women now when they’ve been mothers? What about those who cannot or choose not to or never get the chance to have children – are they not ‘real women’? I suspect Burchill and company may have rather more in common with the Pope than they realise! Moreover, as I argued above, we judge people on the basis of secondary sex characteristics in all but intimate sexual encounters, so why the obsession with genitals??
  • Better “a bunch of bad-wetters in bad wigs” than someone who thinks hurling insults will help their argument…

In summary, I think Julie Burchill is massively out of line here. We live in a democracy and if she sees someone like me as a woman pretending to be a man, that’s up to her. However, using a national newspaper to spout transphobia shows that she needs to do some serious growing up. Around a third of all trans people will attempt suicide at some point, as the threats, harassment and violence we face are very real, just as they are for millions of cis-gendered women throughout the world. Last year, over 250 people were killed worldwide as a result of transphobia. Yes, the community can be somewhat introverted and defensive, but it’s not without reason…

The Big Society?

I came across an article by Aditya Chakrabortty on the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free‘ pages today about choice in public services and David Cameron’s idea about the ‘Big Society’. It’s about the idea that there needs to be as much choice as possible in public services. For example, parents will be encouraged to start their own schools and more schools will be given ‘academy’ status, which means, as far as I understand it, that private money will be involved and businesses, universities etc will be encouraged to run them.

This article talks about how, if presented with too much choice, people struggle to make any consistant and coherent decisions. Conducted by Columbia Business School, it echoes something I imagine we’ve all encountered. How do you choose between twenty different types of tomato ketchup, exactly?

It seems to me that to understand this, one has to take a brief glance back through European history in the last three-hundred years or so. The governing idea of the Enlightenment, especially when combined with industrialisation, was progress. Through science and the development of new technology, humanity could solve all its own problems, or so the mantra went. The march of progress was inevitable, and human beings would keep getting more and more civilised. The first world war blew that out of the water, but to some extent the mindset has persisted. Bonhoeffer spoke about ‘man come of age’, and even theology got caught up in the idea that we could dispense with revelation and figure it (in this case, God) all out by use of reason, which still persists in some liberal theological circles.

Arguably, postmodernism is a reaction against this by taking the ideas to the other extreme. Instead of an overarching universal narrative, we now are told that all meta-narratives (big stories) are power claims and that actually, each person’s perspective is equally valid due to the absence of a framework in which to evaluate truth claims. In other words, I can have ‘my truth’, you yours, and no-one can tell either of us which is the better or that they are wrong. As such, we are free to pick and choose those ideas which are helpful to us at a given time. Now, not all of this is bad (though surely claiming there are not meta-narratives is to construct a meta-narrative?) but while the idolatry of ‘progress’ has faded, ‘choice’ has taken its place. One hears ‘choice’ spoke of as inherently a good thing, which makes sense in a consumerist framework, but this is pushed as far as to say that denial or restriction of choice is inherently bad. In other words, choice now has ‘moral value’.

Why am I bothered by this? Well, on the one hand, I fear that relentless pursuit of  a choice-orientated model in public services could have three major consequences:

  • It could re-introduce the ‘internal market’ created by the Major government in the 1990s which was such a disaster;
  • It could create bewildering choice, as the above article suggests;
  • It could create more opportunities for middle-class folks with the resources to do things like start their own schools, but create further societal division as the poorest are left behind. Some communities just couldn’t do these things even if they wanted to, and it could make it even harder for someone from my background (from a council estate, parents on benefits or in low-paid work) to escape. I fear more choice equals less social mobility.

You may want to come back at me on these, especially the latter. There is a balance to be struck between the role of the state or voluntary organisations and the role of the communities themselves. Ann Morisy’s wonderful book ‘Journeying Out’  has a lot to say about this. However, both the modernist mantra of ‘progress’ and the postmodern mantra of ‘choice’ both seem to forget a fundamental fact about human beings – we are limited. Frances Young has this to say:

Human beings look for success, fulfilment, for valuation in terms of the contribution a person makes. But value is not something achieved, or even inherent. It is something given, something accorded to something or someone valued by someone else – the worth and dignity of each person is given by God. In community, we make real that dignity and worth by valuing each other, but the grounds on which any and every person has value is God’s decision to put his name there (to borrow a phrase from Ezekiel).  Above all the incarnation bears witness to the presence of God in the midst of the ‘limit’ to which all human life tends. In God-forsakenness, in the absence of God, is supremely and paradoxically the presence of God, and the terminology of kingship is subverted when the story is told of a king who plays the part of a servant, is marginalised, rejected, stigmatised, judicially murdered. The cross stands over against the false optimism of modernity and the assertions of post-modernity.

The fact is, we need to accept and embrace our limited nature and that unlimited choice is just as much of a myth as relentless progress. Being human involves engaging with limits, boundaries, in a creative way. For example, following a vocation will always involve a degree of sacrifice – if I am ordained and in full-time ministry, I can’t continue my old career; if I want to write an essay in a night I can’t go to the cinema as well.

Mr Cameron is a committed Christian. Maybe if this was taken more seriously in government, we could concentrate on creating excellent public services in a given area rather than a hundred-and-one bewildering options that disenfranchise those most in need of a help-up by the state – the poorest, most vulnerable and those with least choice.

Further to that, the church could learn a lesson too. The parish system of the Church of England is not perfect, but it means that, at least theoretically, there is a church there for any English person if they need it. While people may still shop around, that parish provision is vital, and I think Grace Davie is right in noting that people turn to it in transitional times, at crisis points, for a reason. How does this fit with Mission-Shaped Church and its ‘network’ approach? I don’t know, but it does show that mixed economy needs to be taken seriously. More thoughts on that when I’ve written my essay for the mission module of my theology course…