Saturday, January 19, 2013

It's not about Burchill

It's been a febrile week. The Moore/Burchill outpouring - I tend to give Suzanne Moore some benefit of the doubt, Burchill I give none - has turned into a minor media storm, with journalists lining up on various sides of a debate which some are trying to cast as about the principle of 'free' speech, and others are discussing in terms of 'hate' speech.

As a transgender woman, I know how Burchill's piece felt to me. I know how it felt the last time I saw her do it too, in 2001. I also know how another piece by Julie Bindel, 'feminist' writer, in 2005 felt to me (along with its cartoon of an unshaven man with hairy legs slouching in gaudy women's clothing and smoking a cigarette butt, which appeared in the print edition of The Guardian Weekend magazine).

I felt frightened. I was approaching crisis point. Still desperately (and I use the word advisedly) trying to hold together a life, and a public gender identity, which made no sense to me - for the single and exclusive purpose of trying to protect my much loved children - I was in the thick of an inner battle. What was going on inside of me versus the horror and terror of what 'the world' thought of people like me. Of what it would do to me if I stopped fighting, and 'gave in' to the inner knowledge which had, in some form, been with me since I was four years old.

What the world thought of me was not difficult to discover. I had known it all my life. I only had to open a newspaper and see how people like me were discussed, if we were discussed at all. I only had to turn on the tv to a Friday evening comedy show to see more. I knew that so little was understood by the public at large about people like me that the language, the ridicule, the rejection, was likely to drop into an empty space in most people's minds. Hardly anyone had any real framework to reject this ritualised humiliation, because so few people knew a trans person (and of course so few people knew a trans person partly because so few trans people could take the risk of revealing themselves). Alongside this, the very notion of an inner knowledge of gender being at variance from the outward, physical signs of it was - and remains - an entirely incomprehensible idea for many. For the majority, the thought is difficult even to conceptualise

Faced with this problem of understanding, the world has always faced a choice. Accept and support another's right to feel as they do, and accept the authenticity of that experience. Or deny it. Try and erase it. In effect say "Because I do not understand you, you are wrong". For some it went further - "Because I do not understand you, you do not exist". And if you do not exist then, clearly, you cannot have rights.

For decades, transgender people have had to listen to the latter viewpoint, ceaselessly. Only a  very courageous few fought back. I wasn't one of them. I was told I was 'wrong' in my understanding of of my own feelings, in a very personal and abusive way, for years. Much of the language I heard started life on a page somewhere, in vocabulary created by someone with a public platform. Germaine Greer, Janice Raymond or Sheila Jeffreys at one end. 'Little Britain' and a cesspit full of tabloid journalists at the other. It's hard not to absorb it, to take it on, to imagine that the world is right. It's surprisingly easy to see yourself as sick and to be ashamed, if that's the only way you can make sense of what you have to face.

I tried to do that, to make myself less than I am, to buy the picture I had been handed, as so many others have tried too. But eventually, even my love of my children couldn't prevent the collapse of the inner dam I had built against it all. I had been building this personal barrier against the truth for years - brick by brick, while the flood waters of realisation deepened on the other side. One day, in 2007, I just couldn't hold it all back any more and it all came crashing down.

I should have listened to myself sooner. That I didn't - couldn't - made what happened next even harder, for me and for those I loved, than it was always going to be. But I had been deafened by what I had been hearing from a world which, in its writings and its comedy, was saying it would punish me if I didn't conform to its rules. One day I stopped playing by its rules, and came to understand what the world meant by that - what this fear based hostility really looks like. I was punished. Apart from the personal consequences I was put through (some of which were a result of the adults around me having signed up for society's view to varying degrees too), I was harassed in the street, spat on, abused by NHS staff (leading to tribunal action). I had people call me names in public, film me on their phones in a pub and elsewhere, insult me as I worked. I even had a phone call from a man who was supposed to be delivering oil for my central heating, desperate to get me to 'admit' my past. I lost work, and plenty more, much worse than all of this.

I got through. I better than got through. I found me. All of me. Joined-up me. Despite the attitudes of the world, and thanks to the love and the help of a few (including my children) plus a self belief I didn't know I had, I am now happy, centred, and living in the quiet knowledge that I know I 'fit together' as a human being, with a gender that makes sense to me. It's only what other people get when they are born, after all.

But no thanks at all to the Burchills and the Bindels and all the others. Those who conspired with society's brutal lock down of my right to assert my own identity, even simply to own it (it was constantly taken from me as I was 'othered' - called a 'tranny', a 'freak', a 'pervert' and all the rest - a vocabulary which Burchill has recently refreshed). For years the media - pouring everything from misunderstanding to bile into the empty space of societal non-understanding - caused me immense emotional pain. The media caused it to people who loved me too.

And it wasn't about feeling 'offended' by the way.  The papers have been full of journalists asserting their right to 'offend' over these last few days (almost as if it were some sort of badge of honour). Neither I nor those who cared about me were offended -  with its connotations of deep seated but maybe limited conviction across which another cuts with insensitivity, yielding some sort of personal moral outrage. We didn't have those convictions. We felt lost and vulnerable and were simply trying to find our way through the mess of those few years. This was always about something much more visceral, deeper, than offence. Something that hurt much more inside.

I was of course lucky. The vocabulary that is paraded by writers with media platforms sinks into public usage. David Walliams' 'Laydee' character in 'Little Britain' didn't take long to arrive in the public consciousness, and soon enough people were being called it in the street, or being beaten up while hearing it (want to know more? Read this). In more genteel circles, the casual vitriol of so called feminist writers contributed to a kind of middle class isolation for trans people. My old friends, some of whom I had known for 20 years, weren't going to beat me up. But they certainly weren't going to have me to dinner. I mean, just look at what was in the paper just recently? What would people think?

In other words, there were consequences to what was being written. With no cultural reference point other than a constant tide of animosity and ridicule coming out of the British media, many of those previously in my life looked for some kind of handle on what I was doing, found it in the prevailing media tonality and vocabulary, and walked out on me.

Like I said, I was lucky. I didn't end up in hospital or with a brick through my window, or with dog shit on my front door mat. But I was done harm by the words in the media, despite for the life of me never understanding the grounds on which I might deserve such treatment. Any attempt by me to object - letters or emails to newspapers - never even yielded a reply, less still any change. So much for the 'trans cabal'.

The 'defence' of those who would say these things is that they are exercising 'free speech'. This week, after the row blew up, the opportunistic Daily Telegraph - always keen to administer a kicking to anyone connected to The Guardian or The Observer - decided to republish Burchill's words. There have been pieces in The Standard, The Mail, and - sadly - The Independent too - all bringing up the free speech argument. Burchill, polemicist, controversialist, should be allowed to write this stuff and to publish it widely, say her supporters.

There's a principle at stake, they all say. (And, oh yes, along the way, there's a chance for a couple of good gags about 'trannies' with this story too. Let's not miss that eh?)

There is indeed a principle at stake, but in my view it's not the one that Toby Young, Evgeny Lebedev, Terence Blacker - the middle class, white, mostly (though not entirely) male commentariat - have been writing about. It's not about free speech, but about freedom from hate, freedom from fear, freedom to not be abused, freedom to be physically safe. And ultimately, the freedom to be who you are.

'Free speech' has of course never existed as an absolute in this country. If the term means anything, it means it within a framework of prevailing societal values and acceptability. You change the values and you change its meaning. It is a relative, negotiated term that means we allow ourselves the opportunity to say some things, but have chosen, as a society not to say others. The choices we make say much about the kind of country we are, because in our language we reflect our beliefs. One aspect of this choice is an understanding of the potential consequences of the language we use, rooted in a belief that consequences matter and that if we don't take responsibility for our own words we are at best being disingenuously adolescent, at worst encouraging the emergence of the very things that will smash the society we care about. Mature, socially liberal societies understand that we could say some things, but because of the potential wider consequences of the saying of them - the chance of them causing real harm for example, or because of the deeper shared beliefs on which society rests (tolerance, equality, the right to live in safety, for example), we will choose not to.

At some stage, these societal values may become codified in law (as has happened in the case of race hate) but it isn't principally about that. You can still be a racist in private and probably not get arrested. Ultimately, the real choice is an individual one based on personal beliefs about decency to others. About not doing harm to them, especially when they pose no threat to you. Nor trying to assert your dominance or importance or build your self regard through the victimisation of others more socially vulnerable than you. About looking for the value in others, not responding to them in fear of their 'difference.' About assuming they are worth something as a starting point, and offering them the chance to show it (as this excellent piece discusses)

It isn't about censorship (the most laughable of claims - that Burchill's words were 'censored' - as if this small, vilified community could censor anyone). It isn't actually about Burchill. It isn't even ultimately about transgender people.

It's about the kind of country we want to live in. And I want to live in a country in which 'free speech' can give freedom to people, not take it from them.

1 comment:

  1. I should follow blogs more closely; I missed when this was first published, and so much was said that week. But you put it so eloquently, and it is everything that needs to be said again and again until it is understood. Completely. So thank you.