Julie Burchill is a writer for the Observer, a sister publication to the Guardian. On Sunday, Burchill set out to defend a friend, Suzanne Moore, who while complaining about beauty ideals wrote a sentence that was tremendously unfortunate, saying women “are angry at ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly, and not having the ideal body shape — that of a Brazilian transsexual.”
The sentence was bigoted, and that drew anger from the transgender community. Moore could have — and should have — responded by apologizing for using transphobic language, and that would have been the end of it. Instead, she doubled down, complaining that those who called her out were harming feminism. “Other people’s genital arrangements are less interesting to me than the breakdown of the social contract. I am asking for anger and for alliances. Less divide and rule. So call me a freak.”
Of course, demanding that trans people simply shut up and listen to the nice cis woman isn’t the best way to defuse a situation, and Moore eventually ended up departing from Twitter rather than apologize.
One of the worst human failings is our willingness to trample on others. Individuals do this, of course, but it never is more disappointing than when it’s done to a whole group of people. In these cases, it’s rarely the best-off who suffer. Instead, people who face oppression kneecap those who face different oppression, piling on with their own oppressors.
Modern feminist philosophy recognizes this problem as intersectionality, and while it’s done so imperfectly, it has tried to grapple with the idea that bashing other groups hurts an awful lot of women, and doesn’t advance the goal of ending oppression. If, for example, African American women have different ideas about feminism than white women, that’s not only to be expected, it’s to be acknowledged, accepted, and acted upon — because a feminism that does not recognize the way identities intersect is doomed to fail.
Unfortunately, this basic truth has not filtered out to all those who claim the mantle of feminism. And this brings us to Julie Burchill.
Moore’s pieces were insensitive and clueless, to be sure. Burchill’s was much, much worse.
I was incredulous to read that my friend was being monstered on Twitter, to the extent that she had quit it, for supposedly picking on a minority — transsexuals. Though I imagine it to be something akin to being savaged by a dead sheep, as Denis Healey had it of Geoffrey Howe, I nevertheless felt indignant that a woman of such style and substance should be driven from her chosen mode of time-wasting by a bunch of dicks in chick’s clothing.
To my mind — I have given cool-headed consideration to the matter — a gaggle of transsexuals telling Suzanne Moore how to write looks a lot like how I’d imagine the Black & White Minstrels telling Usain Bolt how to run would look. That rude and ridic.
Ignore the fact that this doesn’t make any sense — why wouldn’t a trans person be able to write? — and you see the pure bigotry seething beneath the surface. The Black and White Minstrels were, for those of you who like me are not British, exactly what it says on the tin — a minstrel show. White people dressing up and pretending to be black, just as trans people are dressing up and pretending to be women.
Burchill continues on, arguing that fighting against transphobia is foolish, because “their relationship with their phantom limb is the most pressing problem that women — real and imagined — are facing right now.” Never mind that this argument is the equivalent of arguing that we shouldn’t discuss access to birth control because women are dying in Afghanistan — it’s the hatred that startles. “Phantom limb?” Really?
Burchill continues on to show an utter lack of self-awareness:
The reaction of the trans lobby reminded me very much of those wretched inner-city kids who shoot another inner-city kid dead in a fast-food shop for not showing him enough ‘respect’. Ignore the real enemy — they’re strong and will need real effort and organization to fight. How much easier to lash out at those who are conveniently close to hand!
Indeed, this is true. So why is Burchill spilling so much bile against trans people, whose argument from the start has been, simply, “Hey, this is offensive language, could you not use it please?” If we’re choosing to fight the “real enemy,” isn’t the proper response a simple, “Okay?”
This assumes that Burchill is something other than a horrible, transphobic person, reveling in her cis privilege, assuming that she can lean on her identity as a woman to prove that she isn’t a horrible person. Her next paragraph clinches it.
But they’d rather argue over semantics. To be fair, after having one’s nuts taken off (see what I did there?) by endless decades in academia, it’s all most of them are fit to do. Educated beyond all common sense and honesty, it was a hoot to see the screaming-mimis accuse Suze of white feminist privilege; it may have been this which made her finally respond in the subsequent salty language she employed to answer her Twitter critics: “People can just fuck off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me. Good for them.”
Truly, how can one accuse Burchill and Moore of privilege, just because they crossed the line to outright bigotry? Yes, yes, it’s hilarious to engage in gendered language to attack the transgender community, but in doing so, Burchill manages to take a swipe at cis women as well. If having your testicles removed makes one only fit to carp at others, what of those who never had them at all? Don’t get me wrong — I reject the idea that fortitude is found in gonads outright. I suspect Burchill claims to as well. But so keen is she on attacking the transgender community that she’s willing to attack herself.
Burchill continues with language that is frankly offensive, and an unfamiliarity with Latin roots that speaks poorly of a professional writer.
She, the other JB and I are part of the tiny 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. (I know that’s a wrong word, but having recently discovered that their lot describe born women as ‘Cis’ — sounds like syph, cyst, cistern; all nasty stuff — they’re lucky I’m not calling them shemales. Or shims.) 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.
First, let’s unpack the language. Cis is not used to describe men and women whose gender identity lines up with their birth gender because it rhymes with cistern. It is used because it is the Latin prefix for “on this side.” Its opposite is trans, the Latin prefix for “across.” It’s a sad commentary that Burchill can’t be bothered to open a dictionary, or use Google.
Since she’s unwilling to grapple with such basics of language, it’s unsurprising that she’s unwilling to look up the meaning of privilege. Because privilege doesn’t just mean rich. In this case, Burchill and Moore most definitely are privileged. They are cisgender women. They never had a point where they felt like their birth gender did not match up with their internal concept of their own gender. They were lucky — they didn’t have to go through the fire of oppression just to be defined as the gender they defined for themselves.
That doesn’t mean that Moore and Burchill don’t face oppression, of course — as women, they most certainly do. It’s just that they don’t face the same problems as trans women.
Burchill closes with a disgusting rant.
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 we 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.
Asking for basic decency is not pleading “special privileges.” It’s simply asking for a modicum of respect, an understanding that others have it tough, too.
Burchill is unwilling to allow for this. She tells trans women, flat out, that they are not women and never can be. That only “natural-born” women count. That to suggest that trans women face different struggles — not better, not worse, but different — is met with a full-throated roar, a string of invective, and a threat.
This doesn’t do anything to advance the cause of equality.
Indeed, it sets it back quite a bit. If Burchill’s feminism is seen as representative of the struggle for gender equality, then feminism comes off as quite a sad movement indeed. It becomes a movement that is not about lifting all people up, but only a subset. If women — the right kind of women — get ahead, that’s all that matters. Who cares about those “shemales?” Burchill’s willingness to attack women in service of attacking the transgender community is instructive — this is a battle that doesn’t lift anyone up, and hurts everyone.
If Burchill spoke for feminism, as a feminist ally, I would despair. But I do not believe that. Feminists from Roz Kaveney to Aoife O’Riordan to Bethia Stone have taken Burchill to task for her writing. They have done so for the right reason — a simple recognition that trans people are, first and foremost, people, and deserving of all the respect and common courtesy of all other people — but their willingness to stand and defend others who suffer from oppression is good for feminism itself. Oppressive systems count on those who are oppressed to turn on each other. Recognizing each other’s common humanity, and showing respect for each other, is the best possible way to avoid that trap.
Burchill, sadly, doesn’t recognize that she’s doing real harm to feminism. Fortunately, I think her lack of perspective is rare. For the sake of a future where women — whether cis women or trans women — enjoy fully equal standing with men, I hope so.
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