Transphobes in the media: It's not about "offence".
It is becoming clear that the battle for trans rights in the UK is being won, although we are, of course nowhere near finished. There are still plenty of areas where change is needed and where discrimination still occurs; the rights of children, non-binary people, disabled trans people and BAME trans people and prison policy to name but a few. However trans people in the UK are in a better position with regard to having some kind of voice, with being able to express ourselves and counter the lies and deliberate misinformation put about by those who oppose us.
It cannot be stressed how important this is. Some of us can remember a time when trans people had no voice, no ability to challenge what was said about us. The harm caused by this state of affairs resulted in deaths by suicide (including, almost, my own, after I read The Transsexual Empire, the only book I could find about transsexual people in the 1980s, before the internet) as a result of the social exclusion generated by negative stereotyping of trans people in the media. These texts were produced by people like Janice Raymond, Sheila Jeffreys, Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel. During the last 40 years up to around 2008 the dominant public image of the average trans person was determined by these people's discourse; their narrative was not seriously challenged in the media to the extent that Julie Bindel could get away with stereotyping us this badly in the Guardian in 2004;
"...those who "transition" seem to become stereotypical in their appearance - fuck-me shoes and birds'-nest hair for the boys; beards, muscles and tattoos for the girls. Think about a world inhabited just by transsexuals. It would look like the set of Grease."
While Germaine Greer has recently demonstrated that this sort of nonsense has not gone away, it has to a large extent been replaced by more subtle mendacities, disinformations and outright lies from such people. However, trans people are now better organised and better able to challenge such narratives in the media, which brings me to the first important point I would like to make here: opposing people like Greer, Bindel, Raymond etc, is not about us being offended, it is about the harmful effects of the lies they peddle. When a TERF or other transphobe makes an appearance in the media, the content of what they say may be mildly offensive to trans people but to be honest most of us hear worse on the bus every now and then. No the problem with the material they are pushing in the media is that it usually contains quite profound untruths and disinformation about trans people. Indeed this is pretty much the norm in terms of TERF output in the media these days. Gone is the deliberate stereotyping; these days there are enough of us around so that most people know we don't look like john Travolta or Olivia Newton-John, today their weapon if choice is the lie.
The problem is that those who oppose the no-platforming policies of students, those who argue, as Julie Bindel did so disingenuously in the guardian recently, are presenting our opposition to their media output, speaking sessions in universities as based on "offence".
It is not.
Let me be clear about this; I am not opposed to Julie Bindel, Germaine Greer, Milo Yiannopoulos or anyone else speaking about trans issues on the grounds of "offence". These people may be offensive but that is not the reason why I believe they have no place speaking in our universities or in the media. The reason I oppose them speaking is because they use every opportunity they get, to spread deliberate lies about trans people which cause actual harm to trans people.
These lies include;
- trans children mostly do not grow up to be trans adults
- trans children have a medical transition forced upon them at too early a stage
- trans women use women's toilets, not to pee but to attack women
- trans women are men
- trans people are mentally ill
- trans children are diagnosed too early and don't have time to develop
- trans people are enemies of feminism
- trans people reinforce gender stereotypes and the oppression of women
This is why I believe trans activists now need to ensure that these people are not given undeserved airtime to spread these lies and to sharpen our response to them when they do, exposing their lies and being clear that no-platforming is about opposing their practice of spreading harmful disinformation about us, rather than "offence".
Indeed so many commenters who supported Germaine Greer's "Freezepeach" cited "offence" as our supposed opposition to transphobes in the media and at universities that it is clear the cis journalists and editors have got this entire issue badly wrong, and are misrepresenting trans people quite badly in this respect. I believe one of the main focusses of our interactions with the media should be this disinformation campaign by transphobes, and we should not avoid any opportunity to reinforce the idea that our main objection to transphobes being given a platform is not 'offence'.
The next point I would like to make in relation to this is with regard to places like Russia. Today it was announced that trans people, along with gay men, lesbians and child-abusers, were to be "treated" in new psychiatric hospitals. Let us be under no illusions that these "treatments" are going to include Reparative Therapy of the kind that killed Leelah Alcorn.
Two years ago I was invited by Amnesty International to speak about the problems faced by trans people in Russia. Since I knew very little about the situation and what they would like me to say I consulted with some Russian trans people, difficult, but I got in touch with as many as I could communicate with. Their main message was very clear; they are suffering because of TERF cultural imperialism. The transphobic hate published by the likes of Raymond and Greer under the guise of "feminism" is having an effect in Russia. The problem is that TERFs in Russia have a much louder voice than trans people, indeed trans people there are pretty much in the same position we were here in the early 1980s. In other words TERF disinformation and misinformation about trans people can be spread there with little or no opposition. The result of this, is institutionalised Reparative Therapy and trans people being treated alongside pedophiles. I am in no doubt that trans people will die, and indeed are probably dying already in Russia as a result of TERF cultural imperialism.
So whilst we need to be on our guard in the UK, we need to develop ways of supporting trans people in Russia. That was the very clear message I received from them about what they would like us in the West, to do to support them. They didn't need anything else, they were clear they could fight their own battles, what we need to do is prevent our TERFs from targeting them, because they are not yet in a position to fight back (the choice of battleground by TERFs is always one in which their opponents cannot fight back and where others do their dirty work for them).
The truth is that TERFism kills, that TERFism is predominantly about spreading false information about trans people. This is not a "free speech" issue or an "offence" issue it is about harm, in that sense it is not unlike the free speech implications of shouting "fire" in a crowded cinema.