I was provoked into writing today by Julie Burchill’s now-famous diatribe* against the transsexual community published online yesterday, but most of what I would have said has been expressed much more clearly by Dorian Lynskey in this excellent post. Debate on Twitter can resemble a load of cats scrapping in a bag. Everybody ends up arguing about who is more offended and offensive, and the initial point is lost amidst the carping and the blame. This seems to have been the case in the Suzanne Moore farrago – and then the Burchill article landed.
It’s hard to imagine such a rancid collection of slurs being published if they were directed at women or gay people or black people, but Burchill’s article may have generated one positive – it may have achieved the feat of being so noxious that it automatically generates sympathy for her intended targets. The piece is so cartoonishly exaggerated and muddle-headed, it’s like a Bond villain who’s gone three days without sleep and smoked his bodyweight in mind-altering drugs. (A transphobic Bond villain who’s gone three days without sleep and smoked his bodyweight in mind-altering drugs.)
She starts with two paragraphs that are supposed to illustrate that she’s friends with Suzanne Moore, but which seem to be mostly about the fact that she could afford champagne and lobster back when Suzanne was a mere journalistic whippersnapper – and that she has a novel out soon.
Then the abuse begins. I’m not going to bother parsing the gratuitous insults, but I was interested by the meanderings of her argument. From what I could gather, Julie thinks that:
1) Trans women (who are not real women, by the way) cannot write well: “a gaggle of transsexuals telling Suzanne Moore how to write looks a lot like how I’d imagine the Black and White Minstrels telling Usain Bolt how to run would look.” At the same time, however, these fake women who can’t write are all academics with “lovely big swinging Phds” – or such at least are “the transsexual lobby” representing them. (The transsexual lobby may or may not operate in the same shady way as the notorious Gay Mafia. Cross them at your peril.)
2) She and Suzanne Moore are working class, and this is relevant because: “She, the other JB and I are part of the minority of women of working-class origin to make it in what used to be called Fleet Street and I think this partly contributes to the stand-off with the trannies. [ . . . ] We know that everything we have we got for ourselves. We have no family money, no safety net. And we are damned if we are going to be accused of being privileged by a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs.” I think she means that because she’s working class, she hasn’t ever experienced privilege. She writes, in her article that is published by a major newspaper. (Although since she’s worked her way there from the black hole of “working-class origin” perhaps that’s supposed to exempt her from any of the advantages or responsibilities her current position brings.)
3) She implies that a trans woman who is offended by something written by her friend is just a man playing that old patriarchal trick of squashing feminist debate: “It’s been noted before that cyberspace, though supposedly all new and shiny, is plagued by the age-old boredom of men telling women not to talk and threatening them with all kinds of nastiness if they persist in saying what they feel.” Yup, those dicks might try and dress like chicks, but their inherent maleness will out when they take exception to something a woman says. This almost seems more offensive than the insults – anyone can spew out the tired old epithets (“shemales”, “shims”) they heard in the playground, but it takes a special kind of prejudice to insist that a trans woman will reveal her inherent maleness by sexist behaviour towards a woman.
4) Finally, she starts talking about a hierarchy of trans women versus “natural-born women”, suggesting that trans women are trying to “plead special privileges as women” before pulling PMT, HRT and the menopause out of her rhetorical bag of tricks in a final flourish of telling transsexual people to shut the fuck up. The clear implication is that yes, there is a hierarchy, and the “natural-born” women are at the top. Their “suffering” is what’s important and if you try to disagree with them, you can expect a tirade of abuse aimed at you from the pages of a national newspaper. Woo, feminism!
This is reactionary tripe of the worst kind. Burchill responds to what she perceives as a hyperbolic and unfair attack with a diatribe so hyperbolic and unfair that she alienates 99% of the people she’s talking to – and does anybody remember what Suzanne Moore wrote about to begin with? Me neither.
*ETA: The Observer has now taken down the article, but you can still read it here.