Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Fragile Discourses

There is so much wrong with Trevor Phillips’ anti-trans rant in the T*mes that it is difficult to know where to start, indeed a proper take-down with a comprehensive examination of the inaccuracies, dishonesties, tacit motivations and implications would be better reserved for a dissertation in Social Psychology or in the subject now banned in Hungary; Gender Studies.

So first I will take issue with the existence itself of Phillips’ rant. After a year and a half of one-sided anti-trans propaganda by most of the media, but by the T*mes in particular, it is hard to see how this article can be justified by someone who claims to favour ‘equality’ and who is a member of the Labour Party. Out of scores, possibly more than a hundred, anti-trans articles there has been nothing published in the T*mes by any trans person arguing in favour of trans human rights. It has been entirely anti-trans propaganda all the way, and I use the term ‘propaganda’ with great care and deliberation here. 

When one side of a ‘debate’ is presented consistently, unremittingly, relentlessly -and with no opposition permitted from the people the ‘debate’ is about- then it is no longer a "debate", it has become propaganda. The notion that there has been a "debate" over trans rights in the last 18 months is entirely bogus. Trans people have been silenced, prevented from speaking in the media outlets that are talking about us, and the T*mes is the worst of all these, excluding trans people opposed to their point of view comprehensively and systematically.  The media has then argued that the impoverished and marginalised 0.7% of the population that is trans is somehow “silencing” those plucky, remunerated anti-trans “journalists” in the media as well as loads of other people. When you are reminded of this, the whole thing starts to look ridiculous. But it is beyond ridiculous, beyond laughable, it is full-blown oppression in action. The people doing this know what they are doing and are doing it purposely, deliberately and in the full knowledge of what they are doing.

So when contextualised Phillips’ article starts to look a little less like a man giving us his wisdom about equalities and more like someone contributing to an insistent, ruthlessly-organised onslaught of anti-trans propaganda. By contributing an article like this to a paper, the output of which is biased in such a way that none of the people about whom the debate is focussed are allowed to speak, Phillips is not “engaging in legitimate free speech and debate” or whatever he might argue it is, he is contributing to an wilfully oppressive propaganda machine churning out misinformation and disinformation on an industrial scale. He has every right to speak, I have never argued against anyone’s right to say what they want, (although some people have misrepresented me here) but when you are allowed to say what you want and the people about whom you are talking are not, that is not freedom of speech, that is oppression verging on brutal persecution.

This takes me to one of the most bizarre elements of his article, his idea that there are “extreme trans activists” instilling fear into politicians and harassing journalists. Perhaps if trans people were allowed to speak in this debate then we wouldn’t need to resort to calling people out on Twitter or demonstrating outside the offices of the propaganda factories that exclude us. When the newspaper in which he writes has an evident policy of total excluding the voices of trans people arguing against his position then his words become part of this oppressive machinery. This explains the awful mess he has got himself in with the content of his article, a mess that has left him exposed to the accusation of prejudicial and oppressive behaviour.

In one such instance he attempts to link transgender people with “transracial” people, in the US. What he fails to explain is the difference, and his attempt to conflate the two is as disingenuous as it is misleading. As Rogers Brubaker observed, regardless of race, every generation has men, women and non-binary people (only most of these people are not yet recognised). There is no ancestral gender heritage in the same way that there is an ancestral racial heritage. In that sense your racial heritage is not yours to own, it is the product of your ancestors, it is handed down from generation to generation. Attempting to disavow this is very different from declaring that one is a woman, a man or a non-binary person. It is also evident from (subjugated) human history that transgender people have been around, not merely for centuries but for millennia and have existed in every civilisation worthy of the name, and exist today in different forms in different cultures around the world. The same cannot be said for “transracialism”. For Phillips to make this comparison is ugly and smacks of a desperate attempt to delegitimize trans people with a confected and bogus argument.

The worst is yet to come however, unless I am no longer allowed to use the term “transphobic” to describe his writing. He attempts to generalise from one bad individual to the rest of the population of trans people. This is quite literally the textbook definition of prejudice; when one evil individual is taken to represent an entire group, and you make that group take responsibility for that one individual’s actions. In the weeks following 9/11 the same thing happened to Muslims, they were all made to account for the actions of Osama Bin Laden. One can see the same happening here, Phillips is making an entire community take responsibility for the actions of one of its members.

Not only this but his language choices are deliberately transphobic; “men who become women” is, quite frankly, a pathetic attempt to delegitimize trans people which exposes him as a bully-pulpit bigot. This is not the way trans people are, indeed you do not have to spend much time with a trans person to know that trans women are women, trans men are men and non-binary people are valid, many of us have identified this way from early childhood and do so at great personal cost to ourselves, so just who is he to tell us who we are? Not only that he raises the bogeyman of “men” pretending to be women in order to enter women’s spaces for nefarious purposes. Trans women are women, and do not go through all the difficulties of identifying as women just to access women's spaces, to argue that way is verging on Janice Raymond-style paranoia. If, of course, he means "cis men" then why should trans women be punished for the crimes of an entirely different group? However, what is a significant omission, and one would have to argue, a convenient one on his part, is how self-identification of gender has not resulted in any of the problems he suggests will occur in any of the jurisdictions where it is already in operation.

Countries like Argentina, Malta, Norway, Mexico City, Portugal, California and Ireland. And policies of gender self-identification have been in operation in some of these places for many years. Personally I have come to expect that anti-trans activists pretend to want "evidence-based debate" while at the same time ignoring the evidence and refusing to enter into any such "debate", and it appears that Phillips is no different. Indeed it is almost a defining feature of this group. 

This most unpalatable element of his screed is part of it most unedifying underlying ideology; the idea that gender is externally imposed; the idea that self-determination should not be allowed, that he (or people like him) should have the right to decide who is a man or a woman or a non-binary person, in effect trans people should have no right to self-determination. For everyone else it is OK, but not trans people.

The implications of his position here need to sink in. This is a true esprit fasciste, and it is not pretty. On the right to self-identification it is not just trans people’s identities that are determined by self-identification; Muslims do so through affirmation of the Shahada, Christians through confirmation ceremonies, Buddhists through ceremonies that manifest themselves in a not dissimilar way to Catholic ones, involving name changes. Unilaterally to decide that trans people are to be denied self-determination while others engage in it as a matter of course is discrimination pure and simple.


It is perhaps fitting that Trevor Phillips’ had this tirade published on the same day that Donald Trump decided to legislate to erase trans people from society by doing the same thing that Phillips is doing; imposing his own definition of gender on the trans population. We have come to expect little more from Trump, that a Labour Party member and former chair of the equality and human rights commission should adopt an identical view to this demagogue is more surprising, and of great concern. 

Despite all this, I do not feel disheartened by this dreadful article. In most respects it is scraping the barrel in terms of the arguments that he deploys, he is quite literally using arguments that are easily countered and indeed can easily be made to look ridiculous. The fact that mainstream media has had to systematically exclude trans people's voices from their 'debate' about trans people is indicative of how fragile their arguments are. Protecting fragile discourses is an indication that those arguments cannot withstand even quite simple interrogation. This shows us the way forward; trans people need to work on getting our voices heard and making them un-ignorable and difficult to misrepresent. This may mean different strategies and even different ways of organising, of monitoring the media and dealing with media platforms. Our arguments are so sound that theirs need protecting from being exposed as dishonest, facile, running counter to the evidence and made in bad faith. 

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