Thursday, 17 January 2013

An open (hearted) letter to Suzanne Moore

Dear Suzanne,

Like Paris Lees, I am a long-term admirer of you and your writing. Your articles have always been a breath of fresh air and often helped me understand that it is the world that is mad not me. So everything Paris wrote in her open letter to you, goes for me too.

Getting to the point, I would like to ask you to reconsider you tweet about suing Pinknews. Not only is there nothing you could possibly sue them for but you might help silence one of the few places where the murders of trans people around the world get reported in this country.

I have to declare an interest here; I am one of the team that organises the London International Transgender Day of Remembrance. I have volunteered to do it, despite heavy work committmemnts pulling me in other directions, because it is the only way we can bring people's attention to the obscene numbers of trans people being murdered around the world, and especially in Latin America. The Transgender Day of Remembrance this year saw such an increase in numbers that, for the first time we had to stop lighting real candles and use battery-powered ones because the smoke pollution they were causing in the room.

We also worked hard to find Spanish and Portuguese speakers who are trans, so that we can get right the pronuncuation of the names of the dead people. Finding trans people who can speak Portuguese proved difficult even in cosmopolitan London, but we found two who soldiered bravely through the 124 names until they were both overcome with emotion. I know it doesn't seem a difficult thing to do; read out a list of names, but I was one of the readers two years ago when there were "only"180 names altogether (there were 265 worldwide this time), I managed to get through without crying but wept almost uncontrolably afterwards. Believe it or not it was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Every name could have been me or my friends.

The reason why we keep this tradition going, and it has been going since 1998, is to keep alive the memories of our sisters and brothers who have been killed for being just like us. The world needs to know about this, we are a small and relatively powerless minority, even more so in global terms, so all we can uselfully do is bring it to people's attention, which is what TDoR is about.

So I want to ask, please, please do not make this about you. It is not about you, and no-one could ever read into the Pink News article that the death of Cecilia Marahouse is going to have any connection, however tentative, with you. However the fact that she has been murdered needs to be got out there. As far as we are concerned, any publicity about this issue is good publicity, but now is the time to allow the real story to be heard, that is the only way we will ever be able to bring pressure on governments in Latin America to change their ways. Work is under way already but it is difficult.

I recently met Mariela Castro who has worked hard for trans rights in Cuba, she is trying to spread understanding of trans issues throughout Latin America; she has recently started to make some tentative inroads with the Guatemalan government for example. But these governments will not listen to her without international pressure, and with the World Cup next year and Olympics two years after that, there are fears of an even greater bloodbath than that which trans people currently experience in Brazil.

We feel angry about the murders and at the same time powerless to stop them, but we are using whatever tiny influence and leverage we can find to stop out brothers and sisters form dying. Last year a young transwoman was tortured to death by a mob of 400 people in La Paz, Bolivia; plenty of others were killed in religious-style stonings across Latin America.

So please make this about them, not you. This is not about getting one back on you, this is about charred bodies in remote ditches, it is about drive-by shootings, it is about bodies of teenagers with multiple stab wounds or bullet holes, it is about religious-style stonings.

A constructive response on your part would also restore your reputation conmsiderably, especially amongst trans people and our supporters.

Yours sincerely,

Natacha Kennedy

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Thicker Skins

I am one of the lucky ones; I can afford to live in a relatively safe area of London, so I spend a considerable part of my - no doubt  by Toby Young's standards - paltry salary on a huge mortgage and two hours a day getting to and from work. This is because the area of London where I work, although having a plentiful supply of relatively cheap and comfortable accommodation, is dangerous for me. How do I know? I work there.

Numerous times I have been thankful that there are plenty of other people waiting on my platform at the station, as someone has acosted me and started haranguing me; I have been called everything from a "fucking tranny" to a "fucking dyke". At one time when I was waiting for a bus on the main road a mob of people started shouting things at me of a similar nature, and making threats. I was fortunate that a black cab went past after a few moments and I jumped in in order to get away. I don't know what would have happened if I had not done so.

This does not mean I have not received transphobic harrassment in West Hampstead where I live, Cornered once on a station platform with only one exit a large, threatening man tried to attack me, and once again I was only saved by the arrival of a train full of people. I have been folowed by people in the street, on one occasion a man tried to creep up behind me at the top of my street, for what purpose I do not know, can imagine. screaming at him in a loud voice and waking up many of my neighbours, to whom I later appologised profusely was the only way he was frightened off. I was threatened while waiting for a bus outside a tube station in East London in broad daylight once and harrassment and intimidation of a verbal kind is a weekly occurence so much now that I almost do not notice it. The only thing I have noticed is how the "I'm a Laydee" wits have generally disappeared since the BBC stopped repeats of Little Britain.

I am also in the position of having to do part of my job in a cisgender male appearance, because that element, supervising students on placement, is not covered by any anti-discrimination legislation, including the "all-encompassing" Equality Act.

Clearly I have not been doing things right. The wisdom of Toby Young, who must know everything about being trans, after all he's a journalist for the Sun) clearly dictates that I should grow a "thicker skin". I must admit to being perplexed at this advice. I must be doing something wrong and I can't see how a thicker skin is going to help me overcome the harrassment I recieve at the hands of those who have been driven to hate me by the media's cumulitive negative stereotyping of trans people.

OK so Young argues that you cannot "prove' that the media causes transphobic hate crime, but this is legalistic disingenuousness. You can't prove that school uniform improves discipline of attainment in school, but Toby Youn's "free" school has one.

So perhaps Toby Young could advise me on these points. I wuld love to be able to live colser to work and not become a victim of hate-crime. How thick will my skin need to be to protect me from a knife, a gun or a hate-fuelled mob.

Putting Words into our Mouths

As the dust from the Burchill transphobic article starts to settle it is time to step back a bit and look a little more closely at some of the untruths that have been said for trans people by others. In this case, in addition to Burchill, the almost as unedifying ‘intellect’ of Toby Young; the bone-headed tribal Tory reactionary journalist who stepped in to champion her cause...

There are the obvious and sickening insults from Burchill; deliberately provocative and reminiscent of some bad racist propaganda I got hold of at an Anti-Nazi League demo ages ago. But her diatribe of mindless working-class Tory bigotry (is there any other kind of working-class Tory bigotry?) also concealed an interesting, and rather nasty twist, which probably went unnoticed but which may turn out to be more significant than the more obvious stuff.
This was her deliberate misrepresentation or deliberate “misunderstanding” of the word “cisgender”. The way she presented us as using it as a kind of anti cisgender insult “syph, cyst, cistern.” Suggests that this represents one of the ways TERFs like her are going to try and misrepresent us. The fact that she suggested that “cis” is a term only used to describe women, is, of course not true, yet I have had a number of cisgender women friends contact me in recent days saying they don’t want to be called “cis” thinking that it is some kind of anti-feminist insult, which of course it is not.
A blatant attempt to deny us an important element of our vocabulary represents epistemological violence against trans people and aims to misrepresent what we say in an attempt to drum up transphobic hatred through promoting misunderstanding. It is an attempt to deny us the words with which to talk about out lives and our experiences. This is something we must watch out for. It is sometimes difficult to understand but people who have considered themselves “normal” and “unmarked” actually do find it uncomfortable to find someone else attaching a label to them. I’m not sure how many heterosexual people like the term “straight” for example. Unfortunately TERFs running round deliberately trying to make out that we are using it as a misogynistic insult is something only too true to type for these individuals; in the end since they have so little ammunition with which to attack us, they will use what they can…
Of course Burchill’s attempt to do this is probably unlikely to have much effect since it was associated with so much obvious bile, but Toby Young’s piece in support of her, and, for that matter from some other journalists, is more subtle. As such more dangerous, and not just for us but for other minorities that it is still not socially unacceptable to have a go at, Romany travellers, Chavs, genuine feminists, red-headed people, disabled people etc…
His argument is the “offence” argument, an old chestnut that needs to be exposed for what it is. The stock in trade, standard issue argument for right-wing journalists trying to silence others critiques of their own bad practice and unacceptable (and usually bigoted) views. The argument is that they should have the right to cause “offence”. Let us be very clear about this. Toby Young is using a what is in my view a thoroughly dishonest argument. He is telling everyone that we are against Burchill’s article because it caused us to be “offended”. This is a serious and disingenuous misrepresentation; I am “offended” almost every time I look at a news site, I am certainly offended every time I look at any newspaper that Young writes for, but I am of the opinion that the Burchill article should not have been published for entirely different reasons, and I believe Toby Young knows this but still chooses to misrepresent our views.
I am protesting against this article, and others like it by Richard Littlejohn for example, not because I am “offended”, but because they legitimize transphobic hatred. They make it OK for those people in the street who shout at you, to call me ‘mate’, ‘fucking tranny’, ‘I’m a Laydee’ or any other clever witticisms. It makes it OK for groups of young men to threaten me in the street, it makes it OK for men in cars to stalk me to my door at night because they want to have sex with a “TV”, like they have seen on porn sites. It makes it legit for men to try and chat me up when I’m walking home from the Tube at midnight; a scary experience because you don’t know what they want. And it makes it OK for schools to say; no, we don’t want your kind visiting our premises and “confusing” our kids.
Toby Young’s deliberate disingenuousness is easier to pick out but no less dangerous. If journalists can justify incitement to hate crime by simply describing it as the right to “offend” then almost anything becomes possible, including groups of people being “mandated out of existence.”
So, in addition to calling Burchill on her bigotry we need to call both her and Young on deliberate and dishonest misrepresentation. It is a classic right-wing bigot’s tactic in the absence of any genuine argument. We need to make sure it is a tactic that fails.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Every School A Crammer.

The recent slump in teacher morale documented by a YouGov poll published a few days ago represents a severe indictment of Michael Gove’s education policies. Largely the extreme logical conclusion of a quarter of a century’s education policies his policies started with Margaret Thatcher’s 1988 Education Act and were carried on by a Blairite government too timid to change them.

These right-wing education policies have continuously relied on assertions that applying toytown market reductionism and simplistic MBA-style solutions to schools will achieve improvements. The problem for those advocating these right-wing policies is that they have almost always relied on unsupported declarations and failed to include any serious data or even arguments to support their claims.

Now everything is starting to fall apart, the core of Gove’s policies; fragmentation through academies and “free” schools, top-down imposition of performance-related-pay, greater centralization of the curriculum, giving heads too much power, abandoning initial teacher education and over-reliance on exams and testing. The head of Ofsted’s idiotic comment "If anyone says to you that 'staff morale is at an all-time low' you know you are doing something right." Is now threatening to make him look even more out of touch than his boss.

The problem is that as teacher morale decreases (and resulting industrial action increases) the status of teaching decreases and this hits recruitment and retention of teachers. Already, despite a severe shortage of jobs for graduates and young people, recruitment is starting to suffer, and disillusionment of teachers is falling.

The problem has been that pretty much every right-wing education initiative imposed on schools since May 2010 has been based on untested assumptions, or even, in some cases, assumptions for which there is significant evidence to the contrary – such as “free” schools.

Just one example of such an assertion is the claim by Teach First that sending barely-trained graduates into schools for a couple of years while they wait for a job to come up in banking or accountancy will “raise the status of teaching”. Brett Wigdortz, the head of Teach First has repeatedly made this assertion but has never supplied any justification for it. Indeed he has never even supported it with any serious argument, never mind any data. The decline on the status of teaching associated with the figures for teacher morale now gives lie to his vacuous assertions, repeated, Goebbels fashion to make them true.
This reflects one of the defining features of those advocating right-wing education policies has traditionally been the substitution of anecdotes for data, and unsupported assertion for actual evidence; something which runs through the entire New Educational Establishment (NEE) from Katherine Birbalsingh and Toby Young to Joel Klein and Michael Wilshaw.

In fact the British NEE is but a subsection of the GERM (Global Educational Reform Movement) as Pasi Sahlberg has Christened it; a barely-disguised corporate-run Astroturf movement dedicated to educational privatization, increased testing, and subjecting children to greater regimentation and conformity. Yet it uses the language of educational improvement to disguise a reduction in educational quality for our children.

Every school a crammer, is now the effective policy, one that was probably inevitable from the start of the current right-wing education “reforms” in 1988. Ofsted used to say that, “if pupils are not learning, teachers are not teaching.” Well this logic has now come full circle. Dr Tony Wagner has shown how rote memorization of test answers has effectively replaced real learning, and Prof. Paul Dowling and Prof Andrew Brown’s research in secondary schools has shown that many secondary school children now regard the curriculum as little more than a ticket to the next level, like a computer game. Learning has been replaced by information to be memorized for exams but useless for anything else and soon forgotten. The children in our schools learn nothing more than to pass exams and schools have become adept at producing good exam results without actually teaching the children anything useful.
So what is the motivation behind the GERM? The cat was let out of the bag by a Tea-Party pundit during the American election who admitted that people are more likely to vote Republican the wealthier they become, but that this is reduced significantly if they are well educated. The problem is that the more educated people are the better able they are to see through the unsupported assertions, hyperbole, propaganda and outright lies of right-wing parties.

The problem is that no-one is going to win any election by telling people they are going to make education worse, so a systematic dumbing-down of educational has to be dressed up as educational improvement, with the full force of the right-wing propaganda machine behind it. Some people have suggested that it is Gove’s background as a journalist that has resulted in him being given an easy ride by the media. This is probably an oversimplification. They are doing it because they need to maintain the myths upon which his policies are based in the face of considerable evidence on the ground to the contrary.