Monday, 16 February 2015

Open Letter to Mary Beard

Dear Mary,

I am truly sorry the aftermath of the Campbell letter caused you to cry. I know how you feel, I have had to cry myself to sleep on many occasions because of what people have said about me on social media, everything from out-and-out lies to deliberate misgendering, which is very, very unpleasant if you are trans. Like you, I am a busy academic, teaching at Goldsmiths College and completing a PhD at UCL, and I am taking time out from working on that PhD to write to you. I am doing this because I believe you are worth writing to and because I believe you will listen to the points I need to make. So I have waited until the Twitterstorm has subsided a bit because I would like to explain to you the issues with regards those "feminists" who want to bounce Student Unions into allowing transphobes to speak. The issues are much more complex than might otherwise be assumed from the outside.

Firstly, I understand the normal response to the no-platforming debate; that all issues should be debated at university in an atmosphere of understanding of the issues and freedom of speech. I am sure however, that you are understand that this might be somewhat Panglossian, unfortunately the world simply doesn't work like that. The issues I intend to outline to you come under four headings:

  1. The debate between transphobic “feminists” and trans people has historically been one in which the former has abused and assaulted the latter over a long period.
  2. The mere fact that those opposed to my existence are able to stage any kind of debate is not neutral. 
  3. Those opposed to my existence have a long history of preventing fair debate and silencing trans people, and many of those who co-signed the letter have been party to attempts to silencing trans people.
  4. Universities are the most common places where young trans people come out, and as such transphobic speakers there would have particularly negative effects on individual Trans people
In addition I was able to see a copy of the email which Bea Campbell was sending round with an early iteration of her letter attached inviting individuals to sign it. It did not elaborate at all on any of the issues, nor did it invite anyone to consider that there might be alternative points of view, or how one might investigate those alternative points of view. If you got the same email as the one I saw, I suspect it didn’t really give any information at all. So not only is her published letter quite one-sided, which one would expect, but the way she presented it to you and others to sign failed to suggest that there are alternative perspectives, and that potential signatories might like to become more acquainted with the Issues in this instance, especially since she must have been fully aware that this letter would provoke an angry reaction on social media; she knew this would happen and didn’t warn you. I find this disturbing, but in character.

This appears to be why so many trans people are upset at your signing. This letter is my attempt to put those points of view to you in a way Bea Campbell did not.

So to reason number one. The so-called "feminists" who wish to initiate a debate about my existence have probably glossed over the nature and history of this "debate". This is a debate that has raged since the early 1970s and which quickly became violent. Despite denying that their anti-trans position is essentialist, it clearly always has been and it has resulted in physical attacks on trans women and allies, in the case of Sandy Stone, threats of violence against other members the feminist collective, Olivia Records, of which she was a part. The debate, quite frankly, went downhill from there, with Janice Raymond publishing a book in which she suggested that people like myself should be "morally mandated out of existence”. A senior academic also helped the Reagan government to withhold gender reassignment healthcare from trans people. Many blame Raymond for the high level of violence experienced by trans people in the US, especially trans women, and more specifically black and Hispanic trans women, who were placed in vulnerable situations as a result of trying to find means to fund surgery by the only profession open to them.

Since then transphobic "feminists" have worked hard and consistently to harm trans people, they have consistently spread deliberate disinformation about trans people, including making it appear that there are large numbers of "regretters" after surgery, which there are not. They have described as “child-abuse” the treatment for trans children which involves the entirely reversible and medically safe administration of hormone blockers to delay the onset of puberty and give them the opportunity to take stock and decide for themselves at age 18, whether or not to have surgery. Ironically they are effectively arguing for trans children and adolescents to be forced to go through puberty in a body which they do not recognise; a dangerous, harmful and medically unethical position. In my opinion it is their desire to prevent this from happening that represents child abuse by proxy.

So those wishing to debate my existence rely almost entirely on disinformation and misrepresentation of trans people’s lives. Indeed I have come across no argument from their side that is not either based on entirely unsupported assumptions or unprovable/undisprovable assertions, or which are not deliberate falsehoods about people like me. Indeed one argument made by these people; that trans women assault cisgender women in toilets has been shown to be false. These transphobic "feminists" collaborated with a well-funded right-wing "religious" group called the Pacific Justice Institute. The PJI devoted its not inconsiderable resources to trying to find instances of this happening. They found not one, but still accused us of all sorts of things anyway. Debate under these circumstances is both impossible and pointless. 

The second reason is simply that holding a “debate” at which one side is effectively being forced to argue for their entire existence against a group of people who would erase us, force us into even more marginalised, dangerous and vulnerable lives, is not a neutral position. Simply engaging in any debate on those terms represents a considerable advantage to those who would like to see us dead. (Yes I know this sounds like an exaggeration, unfortunately it is not). No-one is ever going to engage in any kind of debate on those terms, it would be like a neverending trial in a kangaroo court. In effect, those who are arguing for my existence to be debated in universities are arguing for a debate at which their views are unopposed. I’m afraid there is no neutral position in this instance, there is no middle way, no half-way house. The mere fact that this issue is being debated would result in an extremely unequal playing field and a one-sided debate.

The third reason is that those transphobic “feminists” who wish to debate my existence are a group that has a long and sordid history of silencing and intimidating trans people. Indeed I invariably attract quite extreme personal abuse online whenever I write something to counter what these transphobic "feminists" have written. They provide no counter-argument, no engagement with the issues I raise, just abuse and occasionally threats. And I count myself lucky, others have been threatened with legal letters from solicitors trying to shut them up, some have had letters written to their employers, trying to get them sacked, in one instance a transphobic "feminist" even tried to intervene in someone’s medical treatment. Transphobic "feminists" have also doxxed trans people who try and engage in debate and have actually doxxed two minors, with the result that one 16-year-old trans girl had to leave school and go on suicide watch after being threatened with death on social media. One transphobic "feminist" academic even employed an expensive firm of solicitors to force blogs that had quoted her own words to stop publishing them. Many of those signing the letter have absolutely no interest whatsoever in free speech or open discussion of the issues. They have no arguments to make that have not been comprehensively dismantled over and over again.

In my opinion all these reasons detailed above are good enough reasons to withdraw your signature, however there is one final reason which is, in my opinion, much more important; holding these debates in universities will actually cause material harm to young trans people who attend those universities.

Universities and colleges are by far the most common locations for young trans people to come out for the first time. This is because schools are particularly hostile places for young trans people and trans children; I have a litany of horror stories, some of which I outline here:

  1. An 8-year-old trans girl who was bullied by her headmaster in a rural school in the West Country, he prevented her from attending school in her real gender and put her through Hell until we were able to threaten him with legal sanctions. This went on for a very long time.
  2. A 13-year-old trans girl who was assaulted quite violently and subjected to physical bullying and 24/7 cyberbullying at school in London. Ultimately she could no longer attend and was given an hour a day home tuition instead. However home is not a safe space for a child and she was subsequently raped by a burglar which caused her to self-harm, to abuse substances and attempt suicide on many occasions.
  3. A young trans man who was bullied so badly at school, and by his local community in a small town in the south of England that he was no longer able to go to school and had to finish his A levels on his own. He has since fled the country!
  4. A young trans woman aged 17 who was bullied so badly by her family, local community and teachers in a small town in the North of England that she found it better to run away to London where she had to resort to sex work to survive. Because of the precarious position of trans women sex workers she has been assaulted by ‘clients’ many times.

I have spent a great deal of time trying to help trans pupils in schools and discrimination against them is common, multilevel and usually ignored by staff. Indeed in some cases staff have been involved in bullying trans kids. So universities and FE colleges are the most important places for young trans people to come out and take their first baby steps in their real genders. They represent a kind of sanctuary or asylum from the endemic harassment that young trans people receive from schools, local people, and even their own parents. University is the first time most have the opportunity to come out and be themselves and start transitioning and many are in very vulnerable, exposed and liminal positions, and their existences are often conditional on the acceptance of those around them. Having transphobic speakers bombarding universities with transphobic content would make life very hard, if not impossible, for these exposed people. Spending lengthy hours constantly defending one’s right to exist is not the best way to come out. This is a point that I have made before and one which, so far, the transphobic "feminists" have not responded to with any counter-argument.

So having “debates” about our right to exist in universities would not be a neutral act; it will manifestly make life harder for young trans people at the time in their lives when they are at their most vulnerable. It would be a profoundly hostile and harmful act for us and it would legitimise what is, in my experience, nothing more than blind hatred and discrimination.

Of course one also has to take account of the issue of power imbalances. People who can get letters in national newspapers complaining about free speech do not seem, from where I am standing, to be suffering from a big problem with being heard. This is not the case for the majority of trans people. As FeministKillJoy blogged today;

"Whenever people keep being given a platform to say they have no platform, or whenever people speak endlessly about being silenced, you not only have a performative contradiction; you are witnessing a mechanism of power"

I am aware that I have only talked about the trans element of Bea Campbell’s “trans/sexworker" conflation. I am one of the relatively privileged and fortunate trans women who has not had (to date anyway) to engage in sex work or survival sex, so I can’t claim to speak for sex workers, although I do know plenty of trans sex workers so I take the lead from them, and when they say the proposals by these “feminists” are currently pursuing to further criminalise the purchase of sex will make their lives more dangerous, I believe them. They are in the best position to know.

Hopefully I have started to give you pause for thought about the Campbell letter. I have a further blog post about this issue here, which deconstructs Campbell’s letter in greater detail. If you would like to discuss any of the issues I raise here further I would be happy to do so at any time.

Best wishes,


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