Unguarded and Poorly Observed: A Response to Julie Burchill

Grauniad Offices; photo by Bryantbob.
Grauniad Offices; photo by Bryantbob.

It is altogether fitting that on a day when my own father yelled at me for being a feminist, and got angry at me for introducing my brother to novels by women, about women, that I should come across Julie Burchill raging against “shemales” in the Guardian. It was very much in the spirit of an evening where I was told to my face that I’d do more good for feminism if I’d “been a man” and not a woman; it was a day where I had to listen to a man witheringly declaim literature about “women’s stuff,” and a day where I was attacked for my anger and verve in defending our right to write and speak as women.

So in that spirit, I shall continue to write, and to speak.

I shall continue to write in spite of having been threatened with rape, in spite of having been told that I’m a “shemale feminazi with too much sand in her fake vagina,” in spite of having been called every misogynist, transmisogynist, and transphobic slur in the book many times over, and in spite of having been accused of “man-hating, race-baiting, white-hating,” and the utterly unreal crime of “misandry.” In spite of being called too loud, too shrill, too whiny, too sexist (against men, of course), and “heterophobic.” In spite of being told I should avoid graduate school unless I had a “rich boyfriend.” In spite of all that, I speak.

The path I’ve walked is littered with those fell arrows, spread behind me like a sinister field of bent and blackened straw. So when I see something like this:

“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.”

I can only shake my head. Not so much at the transmisogyny that runs through Burchill’s article like streaks of blood, but at the failure of empathy and sisterhood such a paragraph entails. After everything I’ve put up with hearing in my life, after all the sexual harassment and moments where I’ve feared for my life and safety—moments any woman, trans or cis[1], would know all too well—after everything I’ve listed above, Burchill still sees trans women as so inscrutably and ineluctably ‘other’ that we are incapable of even being on the same side of the great political divide. It seems impossible, in Burchill’s world, that I exist—as a woman and a radical feminist—because I can only ever be a “shim” in a “bad wig” and a dress. More than anything else, I think, what saddens me are the profound and abiding consequences of failing to see trans women as women, and as sisters in struggle.

Our Old Friend “Authenticity”

Throughout the piece, she excoriates trans activists (most of whom are likely feminists, and many of whom may also be cisgender) for essentially being overeducated toffs who do not know the meaning of suffering, depravation, and struggle. “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.”

I’m not British. But I am a Puerto Rican American who both grew up in and still lives in “the ghetto” and my struggle with class in this country is as much a part of my life, my experience, and my activism as gender and its manifold vicissitudes. Further, it is still a matter of routine for feminists in general to be slapped by accusations of overeducation and ivory tower moralising: jeremiads against “the sanctimonious women’s studies set” are a staple of populist editorialising these days and have been for a generation now. I have not the slightest quarrel with Burchill’s working class background– to hate her for that would be to hate myself. I’m merely baffled at the fact that she antagonises women like me for speaking by suggesting that our attempts to get an education are a bad thing.

It never fails to surprise me to see women like Burchill and Bindel resort to the tics of patriarchs when defending their own bigotries, just as it surprises me to hear her extol her working class roots while mocking “wretched inner city kids” in another breath, rolling a horrifically complex social problem and the people who live it into a neatly poor analogy that insults with stunning economy but does nothing useful.

Indeed, going beyond the misogyny, classism, and transmisogyny that is this article’s raison d’etre[2] I would say that what is most disturbing about it is how stunningly and embarrassingly petty it is. It is more or less in the same category as a bullish op-ed by a cis male misogynist that was 50% “bitch, cunt, whore, slapper, slag, cow” and 50% bad clam jokes. Genitals and transphobic insults are the vast bulk of this article. The rest is comprised of invidious distinctions, such as the disgusting attempt to assert that trans feminists are opposed to Julie Bindel’s properly feminist work, and not just her transphobia, or to claim that trans women think their issues are the most important at all times.

The final dollop of a column centimetre that remains is, perhaps, her sole argument: that her friend, Suzanne Moore, should not have been called out for transphobia because she was doing something much more important with her article—the noble work of criticising the Coalition government’s oppressive and often misogynist social policies. But this is a weak argument, no more acceptable than a male socialist seeking forbearance for a rape joke used in an editorial about saving the NHS. Important work does not justify prejudice, even as a “joking” aside. Least of all prejudicial articles where women are objectified and find their appearances to be the subject of uncouth navel-gazing (see: all the remarks about wigs, dresses, cocks, etc.).

An Ironically Missed Opportunity

What is especially irritating about all of this is that feminists have the tools to understand why all of this is problematic: why “it’s just a joke” is not an excuse, why slurs are hate speech, why and how language constructs prejudicial realities (just as “mankind” biases us to thinking of men as more human than women, calling trans women “men” biases us to discriminating against them), and so on. Feminists, more than most people, have the tools to understand all of this.

But what troubles me even more is the attempt to put feminists on one side and trans women on the other. As if trans women cannot be feminists, or as if cis feminists could not be deeply troubled by the implications of Burchill’s piece. This is what is most potentially destructive here: the neat, artificial distinction that keeps trans women away from that great sisterhood of feminism, and from the healing and empowerment it can engender. And for what? For the sake of a cheap thrill in the Guardian?

Oddly enough, the innocuous subtitle of her article is “It’s never a good idea for those who feel oppressed to start bullying others in turn,” a point I fully agree with. We do have a problem with “call-out culture” in our feminist and queer communities, we do have a problem with unchecked egos and with activist-cum-academic aesthetics becoming more important than material results. There is a real, meaningful discussion to be had about whether the Tumblr-isation of activism has been a wholly good thing, or whether it breeds reflexive semantic policing at the expense of necessary work.

But Burchill forewent that entirely, instead launching into an article where she failed to take her own advice and did so with an ineloquent flamboyance that betrayed little besides prejudice and lack of self-awareness. Instead of possibly seeing trans women as sisters and allies in both forming a more perfect activist culture and in fighting patriarchy, she—who by her own admission knows nothing of the trans community save through Julie Bindel and this recent episode with Ms. Moore—simply writes an article groaning under the weight of its slurs and insults.

That saddens me more than anything else. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Sisterhood Unbroken

The other sad thing is, I completely get why she’s doing this. From her perspective, trans women are not women. We’re overeducated fops who are whinging about getting our feelings hurt and throwing male privilege around, so far as she is concerned. She could not be more violently wrong, but that fundamental belief animates everything else she says. I would like to think that if she actually, sincerely knew us—that if she were the godmother of some of our daughters as well—she might think very differently, and that she might be confronted with the mountains of empirical evidence that we’re really not so different from her.

She might see that, in the spirited words of Eowyn, I am no man. That her words have profoundly deleterious effects for very real (not imagined) women.

But what also troubles me is that she suggests that women should prove that they can be hurt by patriarchy by showing how they have. Why? Why must I strip off and reveal my scars to prove myself? Why must I revisit traumas to satisfy her and earn my place? Why must I always return to those places and times where I felt death gather around me in order to prove that I “know the meaning of suffering”?

My feminism is defined by what I do—by what I write, by what I orate, by what organisations I work for, by the research I do, by how I confront a patriarchal world and try to change it. It is not defined by my many wounds. Neither, for that matter, is my womanhood.

To be honest, I do not want Burchill to apologise. I do not dream of apologies. Rather, I wish Burchill could see what I see. That she could see the indefatigable sisterhood of women, trans and cis, working side by side to shatter each other’s chains, that she could see my friends and loved ones who I keep in mind every working day. I wish she could see, through their eyes, why words like hers can feel so profoundly dehumanising.

I wish that she could see the evil that trans women have had to face—the same violent deaths that befall too many women in our world—the same objectification, rape culture, risk, and quotidian hatreds, and see how it can shatter us in our fragile moments of being all too human, while also seeing how we manage to rise above it at our very best. I wish she could see us as the very human women that feminism has always striven to empower and render visible in a sightlessly woman-hating world.

I wish she could see me.

In that moment, I’d like to think, we could be sisters.

[1] It should go without saying that in an article which Burchill seemed to assemble from a transphobia Bingo sheet, she—in a particularly bizarre aside—treated the word ‘cis’ as an insult of some kind, and in a cunning rhetorical move decided to call us trannies as a result—because after all, that would be the mature and erudite thing to do. Perhaps she thinks the word “heterosexual” is an insult, too, that merits a rejoinder of “faggot”?

[2] Wait, I’m a poor Puerto Rican trans girl, maybe I shouldn’t use hoity toity phrases so I can prove I’m totally authentic? Oh crap, I use international English spelling too!

27 thoughts on “Unguarded and Poorly Observed: A Response to Julie Burchill

  1. kateri January 13, 2013 / 5:43 am

    Quinnae, I love you so much.

    • Annie January 16, 2014 / 1:40 pm

      Me too!

  2. Catherine Scott (@EnstonJump) January 13, 2013 / 6:45 am

    Great piece, incredibly well written and with great heart. Just one heads-up – I think you’ve confused Julie Burchill and Julie Bindel at several points in the piece. Burchill wrote today’s hateful article, but Bindel is also a feminist writer and also has a record of being hostile to the trans community. Confusing I know!
    Keep up the good work.

    • Quinnae Moongazer January 13, 2013 / 3:25 pm

      Hi there! Thanks for your comment. I don’t think I have confused them at all. My mention of Julie Bindel is per Burchill’s aside about her in the article (the especially pernicious bit about how we protest her because we think we’re so much more important than feminist work about rape culture, etc.)

      But thanks for your kind words. 🙂

  3. Jennifer January 13, 2013 / 8:54 am

    What an extraordinary and generous piece. You’ve said it all. Thank you. It helped me to feel human again after I read the original JB article.

  4. davidbeauvais January 13, 2013 / 9:03 am

    It’s important to remember that for all of her ‘adult’ life Burchill has sought to make a virtue of her ignorance. Our Julie always gets space in the Guardian for her steadfact unthinking support of the status quo. What would the establishment do without her?

  5. Lorraine Vivian January 13, 2013 / 10:37 am

    Very well said – I agree totally. That article is a piece of pernicous nonsense. All the very best to you, yours most definately in solidarity, Lorraine

  6. hattermadigan January 13, 2013 / 12:40 pm

    *Stands up and claps for this piece* I could not have written this any more maturely and professionally.

  7. ophelia24 January 13, 2013 / 1:55 pm

    Burchill’s op-ed reminds me of the way news networks often conceive of politics, as if they’re teams competing for points and trying to beat the other team. We’re not on her team, and therefore she’s competing with us and needs to beat us (hence the sense that critiques of certain aspects of a person’s argument are seen as denigrations of everything the person stands for).

    I think your comparisons to “the tics of patriarchs” is spot on. She’s using the tools and techniques of oppression because, at her core, it seems like she believes that those tools and techniques are wrong only because they’re used against her not because they’re used at all. That kind of politics exasperates me. It’s like she’s missing the point of the entire “feminist exercise.”

    Ah well. At least the comments were rather heartening.

  8. gorinet a January 13, 2013 / 4:56 pm

    After reading Burcill’s ignorance I couldn’t believe that she thought to be writing for every women (natural ones…lol…). I know that she does not speak for me. How can we females have any power to fight against anything if we are wasting time in an internal war against one another…..We need to unite and stop with the nonsense….There should not be a greater or lesser human being period,,,,As for this article it was so well written and it could not had been said any better. way…………..

  9. tambrosia January 13, 2013 / 6:34 pm

    This article was amazing! ❤

  10. Ceri January 13, 2013 / 6:52 pm

    Wonderful article, insightful and moving.

  11. Jay January 13, 2013 / 7:23 pm

    Hi Quinnae. I’ve not read any of your articles before but a friend of mine just shared this one and, erm, I just wanted to say that you’re brilliant. Truly. I’m a cis male with limited personal experience of these issues but I just wanted to let you know that my friends and I are behind you 100%.
    Keep trying to change the world for the better! Kind regards.

  12. Saschk January 13, 2013 / 11:10 pm

    I’ve never read one of your articles before – I wandered here through the Twitterverse – and I wish I’d phrased my own response as eloquently and gracefully as you have. Burchill’s article hit every nerve that’s taken a blow my entire life, and while I go about my business acting like a fearlessly confident transboy ready to take on the world, people like her make me feel like we’ve made no progress in the world whatsoever. You, though, are beautiful. So thank you.

  13. leftytgirl January 14, 2013 / 5:38 am

    Thanks for this, this was really brilliant. The question of sisterhood among all women is, I think, the most important aspect of this conversation (and it also was the primary theme of my own response to this mess).

    However, as one of the commenters above mentioned, I think you give Burchill and Moore both a little too much credit. I can assure you that the words that appeared in Burchill’s column are just her going public with they way they casually speak about us in private conversation. Make no mistake, they really hate us, and not just because they think we’re men, but because they see us as less than both women and men. This view is heavily influenced by internalized patriarchy, because they see us as something like a “man” who is placed as a woman, and that is hilarious to them because they already view, on some internalized level, woman as a lesser state. I find it difficult to believe, for example, that they would ever have this type of response to a trans man, and I think it is largely for this exact reason.

    • Quinnae Moongazer January 14, 2013 / 3:01 pm

      I don’t disagreee; I certainly wasn’t contending that they don’t hate us. This is certainly, as you accurately point out, about misogyny of a decidedly internalised sort. I don’t mean to give Burchill more credit than she deserves– I’m well aware of her odious history not only with trans women, but on a host of other issues as well. Nevertheless as I wrote this piece, I felt that I would be remiss if I did not hold out that olive branch; that was very much a personal decision and it is based on how I prefer to handle these sorts of situations.

      The one thing I will say is that I should’ve phrased certain things in the concluding section a bit better. You’re quite right about the “seeing us as less than both women and men” thing: as I’ve said in public events at the past, trans women are not interpellated as men but rather as “freaks” when we are antagonised in the way Burchill mustered for her article.

      Thank you for your comment. 🙂

  14. Beverley January 14, 2013 / 3:37 pm

    The Guardian / Observer have now pulled the original article and are pondering what to do next

  15. Andy January 15, 2013 / 12:33 pm

    To be honest, everybody keeps talking about sisterhood, but it seems pretty clear to me that some people are more included in the sisterhood than others. I’ve hardly ever seen feminists getting together to ‘call out’ an article full of hate speech with as much enthusiasm as they did for this one. 95% of what British media publishes about Romani people, for example, is disgustingly racist, yet I have never seen any article get taken down after complaints from the public – and when I’ve complained about this to (white) ‘feminist’ friends or suggested that we do something about it, they told me that racism is indeed very terrible, but there’s nothing they can do, I should just not read right wing papers. As if left wing ones aren’t racist. As if the racism will go away if I stop reading about it. Of course, I’m not saying that it’s trans women’s fault that racism exists or that efforts should be derailed from fighting transphobia – I’m saying that I’m rather unimpressed with white (western) cis / straight feminists jumping to the defence of trans people invoking sisterhood and tolerance and open-mindedness. It seems like these days appearing to be a ‘trans ally’ is the main way to gain yourself a certain status in feminist circles – and I’m not necessarily saying that this is a bad thing, if it helps fights transphobia, it’s great (though I’m not sure if it really does) – I’m just suspicious and very unimpressed with white (western) feminists / ‘radicals’ – we are starting to see a breed of white usually cis very often male middle class university educated ‘radical’ ‘queers’ who think oppression only happens on a discursive level and who ignore the plight of e.g. homeless queer youth etc because they’re too busy going on and on and on about how identity is ~a fluid performance~.

    • Megan January 15, 2013 / 2:05 pm

      I share your concerns to a certain extent but I think you are mistaken. A lot of third wave feminists are not white but women of colour and a lot of them identity as LBG or T themselves so it’s not out of the realm of understanding that an attack on the trans community is seen as an attack on them as well. I’d also point out quiet a few people have called out the racism religious hatred that also was in Moore’s original tirades. Her contention there is no such thing as islamophobia and the fact that she called out a latina because picking on non-white women is a very easy target. Maybe more needs to be said definitely but it’s there. Several articles were wrote on how the racism in the articles Moore and Burchill wrote is being talked over but the fact that several articles have been written means that at least some people do recognize it. All of it needs to be addressed.

  16. Neon January 24, 2013 / 5:13 pm

    Thanks, this is a really good piece! You have a really clear direct and to the point way of writing, and more empathy than most.
    I think this idea of sisterhood is important, and interesting.. there is so much um.. stratification(?) that usually only those who face no oppression besides being a woman will write this stuff and believe these things after being shown another perspective.
    Eg, PoC, trans*, queer, disabled, lower class, sex workers (etc) with a feminist analysis on/insight into their own deal seem to have a much higher rate of intersectional understanding for everyone elses oppressions.. and of the complexities of intersecting oppressions… and how not all sisters in the hood are treated as equals, how the stakes are different, and not everyone has equal power or equity amongst women/non-binary feminine gendered people.
    So happy at how far feminism has come since ‘second wave’, but we still have a long way to go.

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