Reading the transcript of the Womans’s Hour programme broadcast on BBC Radio on the 9th of March I couldn’t help but be reminded of Rowan Atkinson’s TV advert for Barclaycard.
Broadcast many years ago, when I had time to watch telly, and paying the licence fee didn’t mean supporting a racist political party, it consisted of Atkinson trying to buy a carpet in an Arab country. His character was under the impression that he spoke the same North African language as the merchant. In fact it turned out that Rowan Atkinson’s character had to admit that he and the merchant were “both fluent, but sadly, in different languages”.
This is what struck me about the Woman’s Hour attempt to set up a fight between a trans person who knows about trans children, and a Radical Feminist; they both spoke fluently but in distinctly different languages. Michelle Bridgeman expertly put the case for trans children to be given access to proper healthcare very well and Finn McKay argued that gender should not be policed in the way it is.
Michelle was talking, in essence, about relieving the suffering of trans kids, and preventing suicide and self-harm. Finn wanted to change the gendered culture of our society which she maintains, is oppressive. They are actually two different things, like Rowan Atkinson and the carpet dealer’s languages.
Probably the moment that summed up Finn’s position was when she said this;
“if that starts from a position, from a baseline assumption about what is supposed normal and natural femininity and what is normal and natural masculinity, then that is nothing more than medicine based on stereotype and that is only gonna function to actually maintain this brutal gender regime that I think puts pressure on us all, and conveniently blame it on nature instead of blaming it on ourselves.” (my italics).
Unpicking this further the idea is that perhaps 1% of the population changing their gender is somehow acting to oppress the other 99% or as she describes it; supporting “this brutal gender regime”. So
- the media,
- the courts,
- the police,
- the education system,
- the professions,
- the political system,
- the economic system,
- science and technology… etc.
are of less importance than a tiny and desperately marginalised and misrepresented 1% of the population?
Suddenly the word “disproportionate” springs to mind.
Trans people exist, and do no more to support what Finn describes as a “brutal gender regime” than anyone else, and probably actually do a great deal to undermine it compared to the average cis individual.
However the section of that quotation which probably most illustrates how Finn and most trans people are actually speaking different languages is where Finn says “it is nothing more than medicine based on stereotype”. Of course MIchelle Bridegman put the real case that this is about making trans children’s lives more liveable, and preventing harm. But here Finn appears to be engaging in the age-old TERF accusation of a kind of pro-active, panoptic medical apparatus that acts to seek out and “normalise” gender non-conforming people. A state of affairs which exists only in the imaginations of some TERFs.
There are two things wrong with this; firstly a fair proportion of trans people are not “gender non-conforming” and there is nothing wrong with this, after all the overwhelming majority of cisgender people are also not gender non-conforming, one would have thought that the Radical Feminist project would, if it were to have any chance of eliminating the “brutal gender regime” attempt, first and foremost, attempt to change the behaviour of that majority. Finn may not like it but trans people have as much right to conform to the gender with which they identify, as cis people and I’m sure Finn would not want to be accused of double-standards in this instance. Secondly, it ignores the inconvenient fact that, for trans people, especially trans children, to obtain any medical treatment at all, requires an enormous struggle. Those who require any kind of medical intervention are normally required to get past a strict gatekeeping regime, obtaining any kind of surgery often feels like an intense struggle against this regime.
However there is more and I think this is also where different languages are being spoken. Finn seems to be under the impression that being trans is about masculinity and femininity, after all these are central concepts in Radical Feminism, yet in my experience from being trans myself and knowing a large number of trans people is that primarily it is about identifying as male, non-binary or female, it is about how one identifies, rather than whether one adopts particular traits which can be described as either masculine or feminine. I know some trans women who are very feminine, and I know some who are not at all, I know trans men who are masculine and plenty who are not. It seems to me that for most trans people it is primarily about identity, bodily integrity, and being recognised as their real gender, masculinity or femininity take second place for most and are entirely unimportant for a great many.
Finally Finn seems to drag up the old, and very outdated TERF canard that trans people are essentialists.
...so are the overwhelming majority of cis people, we live in a society in which gender essentialism is the predominant ideology.
Indeed I would wager that the proportion of trans people who, like me, consider themselves to be social constructivists rather than essentialists is very much higher than among cis people. Of course one doesn’t have to peer into the festering mire that is TERF discourse to realise that this is firmly grounded on an ideology of biological essentialism. Actually, whether one considers trans people to exist essentially or social constructively is pretty much irrelevent, we exist, and we are not going to stop existing for the convenience of an abusive and hate-riddled ideology that may never succeed in enforcing its gender-free utopia sometime in the dim-distant future.
Ultimately trans people want to live liveable lives and as such are largely (as Catherine Mackinnon put it recently) “aggressively indifferent” to the TERF project of a degendered world which may never come about. This really is a case of “My ideology is more important than your lived experience.” Would trans people not exist in a gender-free utopia? Well I’ll tell you when we get there, or rather my great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great great, great, great grandchildren might, if ever they get to experience it, but right now I would just like to get on with my life in a liveable way, just like most trans people. TERFs have failed to sell trans people their utopian ideology, (I wonder why?) and one has to seriously question their tactics. If a gender-free utopia is ever to come about, it will not happen through coercion.
So it seems to me that getting someone like Finn on to talk about trans kids is in effect getting a cricket player to commentate on a football match or a psychologist to talk about quantum physics. Personally I think Finn is trying to sit on an imaginary fence between trans people and TERFism. Well in that case she needs a helicopter; there is no fence, there is only a chasm.
I have long maintained that trans children need to have access to what Laverne Cox calls “possibility models” from a very early age, to make the knowledge available to them about trans people and trans kids. Trans people should be on the school curriculum for all children from the age of 4 or 5, to ensure trans kids can get to know that there are other people like them, that they are not alone, that there is nothing wrong with them and that they can take control of their lives. This has been the case in California since 2011 and civilization hasn’t collapsed there.
Also we need to go further than President Obama’s expression of condemnation of Conversion Therapy. It should be made illegal to attempt to intentionally change anyone’s gender identity or sexual orientation whether by going to one of these quack therapists or through unofficial coercive methods. This would mean that trying to make a trans child into a cis child or an LGB young person straight should be considered a form of child abuse whether carried out by a school, a religious organisation or a parent.
The problem is that TERFs, along with other transphobes, will try and portray the proposals contained in the above two paragraphs as representing “child abuse”. This is unacceptable and in itself represents TERF child abuse by proxy.
Last but by no means least… The Behaviour of the Woman's Hour Team
At issue here has also been the behaviour of the media, in this instance the editorial team of Woman’s Hour. As CN Lester eloquently explained it in their blog, this is effectively about the BBC manufacturing an argument for the sake of listeners. In the end they got no fisticuffs, which I am sure will disappoint Jenni Murray and Anne Peacock.
It has to be said however that, trans people are not dancing bears, we are not performing dogs or clockwork toys you can just wind up for the entertainment of the public. Trans people are still a badly misunderstood group and the main reason for this is the way the media has still often failed to tell our stories, to explain to a largely ignorant public, who we are. It was clear that the makers fo this programme were woefully ignorant about trans issues. As CN said this is not merely a case of Woman’s Hour failing to adhere to the standards required of it as a public service broadcast programme but it also represented extremely unprofessional journalism with the programme makers clearly both very ignorant of the issues around trans children and seemingly making no attempt to remedy this.
So the final question I have to pose is this; although Trans Media Watch and All About Trans have done great things, achieved a great deal in changing media attitudes in general, it seems that we may be getting to a point where some of the media are ignoring these groups. Recently there have been examples of media platforms deliberately not consulting either of these groups because they want to sensationalise a story, and usually that sensationalised story relates to trans children. Do we need a different approach entirely (possibly a more aggressive one) to deal with these type of stories and journalists? When we have “journalists” like Carole Malone proudly saying that she is “no expert” and then going on to talk about trans kids we have a problem. For too long the media have peddled "commonsense" opinions by making ignorance a virtue. It is time for this to be challenged robustly by trans people.