Thursday, 20 March 2014

The Great Debate: Should Sarah Ditum Exist?

The debate over whether "Sarah Ditum" should exist has raged for a number of years, and has been central to watercooler talk at the New Statesman for a while now. Should we collude with her in her fantasy claims to be Sarah at all? As a socially constructed identity many feel that she does not really exist, after all anything socially constructed it cannot be real can it?

"Sarah" claims she has felt like Sarah Ditum since she was a child and has as much right to self define as any other person. However many doubt that a person claiming to be a "Sarah Ditum" should be entitled to an important job in such a prestigious national political magazine as NS. Her assertion that she is a "journalist" also appears to be based on dubious claims. Rudimentary knowledge of grammar and knowing how to use email and Word for Mac do not make you a journalist. After all real journalists like Polly Toynbee or Suzanne Moore clearly have very different skills to "Sarah Ditum".

"Sarah" of course insists she has as much right to be a "feminist" and a "journalist" as anyone else, but given that journalism and feminism are both socially constructed her claims can only be regarded as pure whimsy on her part, "feminism" and "journalism" clearly do not exist, they are pure constructs. She even uses a social construct itself derived from other social constructs; "English" to engage in this journalism and feminism, how ridiculous can you get?!

Young trans people.

Of course the above is ridiculous, but it is what Sarah Ditum is expecting young Trans people to go through on a regular basis as they come out, transition and find their feet, taking baby steps out on their own in our harsh and increasingly dysfunctional neoliberal world. Indeed maybe Sarah might like to imagine what life would be like if she had been brought up in a family that didn't accept her for who she was, in a small provincial town which also didn't accept her and went to schools that didn't allow her to be Sarah Ditum. Imagine that she had been brought up being told by all those around her that she was someone else, and that she had to be this other, completely different person, all the time by her parents, teachers, friends, relatives and the media.

Imagine then that, in spite of all this she made it to university and, with the modicum of independence that gave her, she then decided to come out as Sarah Ditum and transition to living full-time as Sarah.  Imagine her joy at finally being able to be herself and live an authentic and livable life.

But lets also imagine that there exists a group of people who are opposed to Sarah Ditums, who speak regularly on campuses and in feminist socs, LGBT socs, journalism socs maybe and other student societies, who oppose her, that tell her that, as a socially constructed entity she has no legitimacy, is clearly fake and that, in fact she represents a threat to other groups on campus if she continues to maintain this, indeed she should not even have the right to use the appropriate toilet. Imagine that these people tell Sarah that they know more about her than she does and, because her lived experience doesn't fit in to their theories, she should be considered a fraud rather than their theories.

As a result of this Sarah finds herself constantly having to argue with other students who have been encouraged to question her legitimacy as a person, she finds that some students openly call her a fraud, use the wrong name and pronouns and subject her to other abusive behaviour. Her life would quickly become a nightmare.

This is the problem; once transphobic "feminists" have been allowed to delegitimise and dehumanise Trans people it does not stop there. This is what happens when Trans Exclusionary "Radical Feminists"(TERFs) decide to engage in debate about trans people. TERFs do not simply sit around and talk in a detached, academic manner about how awful trans people are, they engage in activities designed to harass, harm, silence and intimidate trans people. TERFs regularly out Trans people against their wishes, abuse us online, subject to us to defamation, harassment and much worse.

So Sarah Ditum's New Statesman article (in a column called "politics for tired people." which maybe should be renamed "tired old argumenrts" or "lazy journalism") calling for an end to no-platforming for TERFs on campuses is actually just the most recent example of a long line of articles that have repeatedly accused trans people and their allies of censoring debate and silencing TERFs while conveniently turning a blind eye to the multiple activities of TERFs who persistently work hard to silence trans people. Indeed there have been so many of this type of one-sided article they have almost become a cliche.

Ditum's accusations of censorship would be considerably more credibile if she investigated TERF activity which threatens, abuses, harms and, in particular, silences trans people on a regular basis. 

I have been doing a lot of in-depth research into the lives of young trans people aged between 18 and 28 and from this it is clear that university is one of the key spaces where young trans people can come out and begin transition, it is usually a relatively safe social space for them. It contrasts dramatically with school, which remains largely a very transphobic place with all but one of my research participants being unable to come out in school - and he went to school in Denmark. This makes university even more important as a safe space for young trans people. No wonder the TERFs are targetting it with so much energy.

Sarah Ditum seems to think that our identities are up for discussion, and that a supposedly calm, reasoned, dispassionate, academic  debate about trans peoples identities is actually possible. She is either living on a different planet from me or is totally unaware of her cisgender privilege.

Deliberate misinformation about treatment for trans children
Does she genuinely think that it is ever going to be possible for any debate in which any minority groups identities are questioned, qua identities, to be anything other than intimidatory, harassing and regarded by those whose identities are attacked as anything other than abuse?  There is no fence to sit on here Sarah, you are either in favour of TERFs harassing young trans people or you are against it. Julie Bindel has plenty of opportunities to say what she wants elsewhere. In any case most of her opinions, while readily digestible by the uninitiated have been discredited comprehensively, often and for a long time. This is a plain and simple issue of the rights of young trans people to get on with their lives and education without harassment.

This is not a 'freedom of speech' issue, it is a right to exist issue. Julie Bindel has plenty of opportunities to publish her ideas, and indeed I have a lot of respect for much of her journalism, but on this issue, in my opinion young trans people's right to exist safely comes first.

I wonder if Sarah Ditum is in favour of that.