The trans debate: 3 thoughts

by Stephen Tall on January 13, 2013

I wasn’t going to write about the Moore / Burchill / transphobia storm. Partly because identity politics isn’t my thing and I try to write about what I know best. But, if I’m honest, more because I reckoned it wouldn’t be worth the hassle. I’m not a trolling blogger looking for link-bait and I’ve no wish accidentally to offend. I don’t think what I’ve got to say will get me on the wrong end of a Twitter-storm, but then I don’t suppose Owen Jones thought that either yet that’s what’s happened today.

It’s precisely because I don’t know a great deal about trans-sexual politics, though, that I’m going to put finger to keyboard. Because one of the things I’ve found most troubling about the past week’s online furore has been that my first instinct (and I don’t think I’m alone) is to say: I’m just not going to go anywhere near that issue. Trans-sexuality is to identity politics what the Arab-Israel conflict is to international relations. Better off hunkering down, let others bear the brunt.

But that’s wrong. It’s wrong first, because it’s cowardly. But it’s wrong also because, by omission, it contributes to the closing down of free speech and the exchange of ideas which should be the Internet’s greatest gift. The world of global connectedness instead becomes shrunken and atomised, with only the really thick-skinned or ideologically certain daring to venture forth. And a public political discourse dominated by thick-skinned ideologues isn’t one I relish.

I blog to share my thoughts. But I also blog to learn more when other people challenge what I think. (Besides I’ve probably read up more on this in the last five days than most subjects I write about.) So here goes…

1. Everyone’s different. Seems a bit obvious, vanilla-bland, but it’s my liberal starting point. My experience differs from yours, which differs from theirs. (That’s why, by the way, I don’t do identity politics: because it seems to divide way more than it unites.) So I’m not going to presume to know how or why a human being can feel so at war with their own body that the only solution they can ultimately see is to undergo surgery to transform it. That’s a level of emotional damage I can’t imagine; and it’s a damage largely done to them by a society which makes them feel too uncomfortable to be who they were born as; and that, I think, is a tragedy.

2. Everyone deserves respect. No, I can’t imagine what drives trans-sexuals to feel the way they feel or make the decisions they do. But that applies to lots of other people, too. So live and let live. Trans-sexuals should have the same human rights as I do. They should be free to marry who they choose, to work where they choose, to live where they choose: all without any attempt to clamp down on their liberty, either by the state or any other organisation or individual. They should be free to go about their daily lives without being subject to threat or to bullying or to anything that subdues their natural spirit. That’s not really so very much to ask, is it?

3. Everyone should understand a little more, shout a little less. As I understand the feminist debate – one which has been raging at least since Germaine Greer argued against a trans-sexual female academic being employed by a women-only college – it divides into two main camps. First, those who say you can only be a real women if you were born a woman, that you would only chose to become a woman later if you had been hoodwinked by gender-stereotypes into believing you’re what society has constructed to represent as womanhood. Secondly, those who say gender identity is not fixed at birth, but one which is the individual’s right to choose later in life, and that once chosen it is their identity by right. As the last few days has proven that debate isn’t going to go away. But in the meantime, there are real living human beings getting caught in the cross-fire, whether insulted for the sake of cheap controversy by Julie Burchill or being murdered around the world for the crime of being different.


I’m not trans, so can’t really speak to the numbered points. My only thoughts are about the premise of what you wrote in your opening to the post. I’m sorry if this comes across as patronising, but I’m not sure how to avoid it!

I’ve got a lot of privilege, as a white, upper middle class white man, but I’d like to think I’m a reasonably good trans ally nowadays. My experience of the trans community has not been that it’s too difficult to take an interest in without getting shouted at.

I think you start from a good starting point as a liberal who recognises that you can’t tell other people what their experience of life is. In many ways that means you’re already streets ahead of some of the dinosaurs of identity politics, who cannot abide the concept of intersectionality, because it is steadily removing their right to a special pedestal as spokespeople for a particular characteristic (see Moore’s follow-up CiF piece, for instance).

But to be honest, I think most people can do fine as long as they stick to this principle: if you are called out about something you said or wrote which is accidentally offensive, seek to understand why the person objecting objects, rather than telling them why it isn’t a problem “really”. Be willing to apologise for offense caused, whilst making clear it wasn’t your intention. You’ll probably find you don’t have to do so nearly as often as you think you might, once you get onto that mental footing.

by Andy Hinton on January 13, 2013 at 10:05 pm. Reply #

I have to wonder what Moore and Burchill are frightened of. Moore’s reaction to being fairly gently questioned was offensively disproportionate, and Burchill’s “article” was no more or less than an insulting hateful rant. Most of the trans people responding remained in “adult” mode, and if some reacted strongly it’s really no surprise. I was surprised to see so much transphobia expressed.
And well done for reading up on the topic – so many seem to think that 10 seconds prejudiced thought on it is enough to come up with a useful contribution.

by Jenny on January 21, 2013 at 9:02 am. Reply #

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