I have followed recent mainstream media events unfolding around the transgender community with a mixture of excitement, anxiety and sadness.
Excitement, because it is rare that trans issues get coverage that isn’t designed to portray us as perpetrators of some hideous evil. Even though the stories started with biased coverage in the Guardian about a doctor under investigation by the General Medical Council, it turned into something more positive when the #TransDocFail hashtag lead to LibDem Councillor Sarah Brown discussing the issue on BBC Radio. Even the continuation of bad reporting had a silver lining, when Julie Burchill’s transphobic screed in The Observer lead to widespread condemnation from the internet at large and calls for her to be sacked.
Trans people have put up with biased reporting and name-calling for years, even suffering from the ignominy of having transphobic writers nominated for awards by LGB campaigning groups. The difference here is that, oblivious to the turning of the tide when it comes to hate speech, Julie Burchill and the editors of The Observer finally crossed a line that mainstream opinion could not ignore.
Anxiety, because I worry what will happen to stories like this when the mainstream press gets hold of them. Besides the usual errors, such as erasure of trans men and use of “transsexuals” as a noun rather than an adjective, coverage has been on the whole pretty positive. Except for one point: The anti-trans lobby has been allowed to rewrite history in portraying a “baying mob” that hounded Suzanne Moore off Twitter, which was the catalyst for Julie Burchill’s piece. In reality, although someone picked her up for her “Brazilian transsexuals” comment online, that sort of behaviour is so common that, against the background of lady-boy jokes on BBC TV, that it would not even warrant a footnote in the annals of trans history. It was her subsequent abusive response to polite criticism from non-trans people on Twitter including the phrase “lopping bits off your body” that angered people.
If there was a mob on Twitter, then the leader was Suzanne Moore who reacted to valid criticism with abuse before flouncing off the site for a couple of days. But despite some disgusting language from Julie Burchill, her version of the “facts” has been accepted almost unquestioningly by many, because it appeared in a national newspaper.
And sadness because the reaction of some has been to complain that people expressed an opinion against hate speech, accusing those who dare speak out against oppression of being “identity politics obsessed lefties”.
Of course, my challenge to this on Twitter (after the piece was publicised on Twitter) was characterised as “intimidating” the proving the point, despite the acknowledgement that I was being polite. I do wonder about the mental processes of anyone involved in politics who thinks a polite exchange is intimidating. Have they ever been in a council meeting?
The crux of this argument seems to be that if anyone dares mention trans issues at all, they will be mercilessly attacked. The trouble is not that a non-trans person mentioning trans issues will cause outrage, as I do not see any such response to excellent posts by Caron Lindsay and Jennie Rigg. The issue comes when you assume a position of privilege but act from a position of ignorance.
Oppressed groups have recently found a voice via the Internet, and sites such as Twitter have recently boosted this even further. Journalists such as Julie Burchill (and others before her, such as Suzanne Moore, David Batty and Julie Bindel) have had a voice via the pages of The Guardian and The Observer that enables them to reach a million people. A voice that, according to the Leveson report, “fails to treat members of the transgender and intersex communities with sufficient dignity and respect” and “continues to refer to the transgender community in derogatory terms, holding transgender people up for ridicule“.
Complaining that these people are being silenced when they have such a loud voice that has gone hitherto unchallenged is simple oppression of those who have never had that voice.
If there is an issue with the kind of pieces these people have been writing for years expressed on Twitter, then consider that the Internet is revealing decades-old inequalities and injustices, not creating them.
* Zoe O'Connell is a Councillor and deputy group leader on Cambridge City Council, sits on the executive of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats and is Vice Chair of Federal Conference Committee.