Guest post by Heather McNamara
So, who’s heard of Julie Burchill and her “censored” article?
Coming to the defense of her maligned feminist friend, columnist and author Julie Burchill wrote an article about trans women. Apparently, her friend Suzanne Moore’s latest article contained a faux pas. In Burchill’s words:
She wrote that, amongst other things, women were angry about “not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual”.
At best, this is simply a poorly constructed byproduct of the aged-out argument that idealized beauties are expected to be voluptuous in ways white women can’t achieve (Brazilian!) and skinny in a way that cis women can’t achieve (transsexual!) simultaneously. It juxtaposes the hyperfeminized (big boobs!) and masculinized (skinny hips!) to demonstrate the absurdity and impossibility of beauty ideals.
It’s aged out because modern feminists can generally agree that however rare these body types are, shaming the women who possess them as plastic and/or masculinized is just repackaging the same old worms. Moore’s statement was poorly thought out. It was also a microaggression. It was clearly not intended to upset or dismiss transsexual people, but to make a cheap and thoughtless argument. The problem was that she completely disregarded trans people in doing so. She decided that their opinions or their audience was not worth acknowledging and that their identities were therefore free and available to use as a brazen and absurd example of what not to be.
Not surprisingly, some trans people didn’t like this. Moore was apparently harassed quite a bit on Twitter and felt forced to delete her account. Julie Burchill to the “rescue!” I won’t bother going into the specifics of the article, because it’s all ugly. There’s some stuff about bed-wetting and bad wigs and a hilariously sophomoric display of Burchill’s feeble grasp of How Words Work. For example:
having recently discovered that their lot describe born women as ‘Cis’ – sounds like syph, cyst, cistern; all nasty stuff
Why but Burchill rhymes with Churchill, so if I call her Burchill, am I calling her a wrinkly old white guy who hates Lady Astor? What an idiot.
It was originally published in The Observer, but the editor didn’t take long to realize their mistake and took it down. Of course, any editor worth their salt wouldn’t have published it to begin with, but don’t tell that to Toby Young! Why he was so offended at this “censorship” that he chose to republish this snot on The Telegraph, proving that British and American conservatives have at least one thing in common: they really have no grasp of the concept of censorship at all.
But why did Burchill do this? To defend Moore’s honor? I once found myself in Moore’s position, and I can sympathize… almost.
Not too long after my marriage went downhill and my ex lost his main source of income in the flailing economy, I was forced to take a job – literally any job I could get. My skills and experience were pretty okay, but at every job I applied for, I was competing against literally hundreds of thousands of unemployed people in my area. It was taking forever and I had children to feed. I was about to get evicted. So, I took a job I wouldn’t otherwise take at a call center that hired anyone that came through the door: felons, addicts, anyone.
Every day after work, I would apply for more jobs, but for a while I was stuck there. Well, as anyone who has seen any of my videos on Zinnia’s channel or any of our live shows on BlogTV knows, I present in a fairly masculine manner. I stand well above average for a woman at 5’10”. I’m also very obviously a lesbian, and it didn’t take long for my coworkers to notice, but I am not trans. I do identify as a woman. As one of the few people at the office who didn’t show up to work on a lot of drugs every day, I was also fairly successful.
I worked my way up a rank fairly quickly and soon found myself on a level that very few women in that office ever achieved. My coworkers and bosses were all men. This privilege of being promoted, I was often told, had something to do with my “being one of the guys.” Never mind my performance, I guess. There were frequent jokes about how “manly” I was. They called me by my last name rather than my first. I think this was all meant as showing respect by defeminizing me. As a feminist, this was extremely offensive, but driven to feed my kids and not really in a position to hire a lawyer, I kept my mouth shut.
One day, we came to work and discussed the dress code. They were tightening it up, they said, and men would be required to wear collars and slacks. Somebody asked about women’s blouses. Could women wear shirts that didn’t have collars? Of course, they conceded. Women’s blouses are appropriate. I asked if I could wear shirts without collars. They said no. Somebody made a joke that I would look like a man in women’s clothing. I grimaced quietly.
So, along comes Halloween and there’s a costume contest at work. I thought it might be a good idea to up the ante, so to speak, on their crap. I put on one of my old dresses from back when I used to try to look femme. I did not shave my legs and had not in over a year at that point, so I let my fur fly. I also stuffed some tissue in my bra and put on some makeup to look like a five o’clock shadow and some chest hair. I wore a pink feather boa. I was a bad drag queen. My trans girlfriend thought this was hysterical. So did I.
I did not make much money. We rarely had enough to survive. In the absence of the resources to hire a lawyer and draw any real kind of line, I’d asserted my femininity and shone a spotlight on the absurdity and inappropriateness of my coworkers’ jokes. I felt liberated and empowered for the first time in a very, very long time. I carved a pumpkin with a feminism symbol on it and took a picture sans the boa, which was itchy by then. I posted it on reddit.
At first, the thread went fairly well. People thought it was funny. Then, somebody pointed out that this was transphobic. There was much anger. A trans woman who goes by the internet handle LifeInNeon wrote an essay about how offensive I was. This essay become quite popular. My inbox was filled with death threats and sundry vitriol. I was humiliated and exhausted. I responded defensively. Because this was an empowering statement of my gender during a time when I had very little to feel good about, I would not apologize.
The joke, as I attempted to explain to people, was that I looked like a man in a dress. But the way they saw it, I was mocking trans women as looking like men in dresses, simply by looking like a man in a dress. Individually, Zinnia and I managed to explain this to those who would be willing to listen. When I calmed down a bit, I apologized not for doing what I did, but for irresponsibly posting it without the very necessary context, thereby setting into motion the inevitable consequence of appearing to be another one of those transphobes, of which there are more than plenty.
Those who were willing to listen, LifeInNeon included, agreed that while I certainly could not have expected to be perceived as anything other than a transphobe, this was not bigotry and mostly a horrible mistake. I hold myself and no one else responsible for whatever offense I caused, and I hold the authors of the death threats and no one else responsible for their violent behavior. That’s the end of that.
Due to my experience, I have a unique understanding of what Suzanne Moore must have endured when her words went roaring through the trans activist circles online. People can be really awful. Over a year later, I still sometimes get replies to old reddit comments about how I’m a transphobe. People still post that picture whenever they disagree with me, their version of the ultimate ad hominem.
But however vitriolic and sometimes violent those who responded to me may have been, I would never resort to transphobia. I would never denigrate an entire group of people who are just trying to go about the business of living their lives and achieving the same amount of respect that even Moore and Burchill implicitly receive with crass, base insults about the genitalia of an entire group of people, most of whom probably have no idea who Moore even is.
Did Moore have to apologize to every single person who ever got offended or sent a rape or otherwise violent threat? No. Frankly, I’m not a fan of demanding remorse. Apologies taken are not the same as apologies given. But when you’re calling yourself a voice for equality and social justice, there are some basic rules that people will generally expect you to follow, if for no other reason than to demonstrate that, while you may mess up, and may not always practice what you preach, you at least have some kind of idea of what you’re preaching.
I wouldn’t say that I necessarily handled my personal debacle with the utmost of grace and dignity, but I can say with certainty that Burchill’s handling of Moore’s debacle was beyond the pale. Burchill claims she did this in the spirit of feminism, aggressively claiming women’s voices in a sea of men, in which she includes trans women. But what she’s demonstrated is that her version of feminism has less to do with equality of the sexes, and more to do with making sure sewage just rolls a little further downhill than herself. Armed with the same body-shaming, shallow insult tactics that have been used against women since the beginning of time, Burchill is nothing more than a common hypocrite, and would do well to remember that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.