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On Feminism, Transphobia and Free Speech

This weekend, columnist Julie Burchill used her platform in the Observer to launch what may be the most disgusting piece of hate-speech printed in a liberal newspaper in recent years. I’m not the only reader who was shocked to the core at smug attack transsexual women as ‘screaming mimis in bad wigs,’ ‘a bunch of dicks in chicks’ clothing,’ and other playground insults too vile to repeat. Burchill claimed to be protecting a friend, which is a noble thing to do, but I suspect that the friend in question, the writer Suzanne Moore, would rather she hadn’t been associated with this the popping of this particular pustule of prejudice.

Burchill’s article is an embarrassment to the British press, an embarrassment to feminist writing and a shameful abuse of a public platform to abuse a vulnerable minority. The Observer has now issued an apology, and rightly so, although I believe the decision to depublish the piece is not wrong so much as bizarre, since Google Cache never forgets. It’s even more dispiriting to see other mainstream media outlets, including the Telegraph, rally around Burchill’s ignorant screed as a ‘free speech’ issue, as if the right to free speech and the right to publication in a major national newspaper were the same thing at all in the age of Tumblr. That’s why, after a lot of thought, I’ve taken the decision to publish this article independently, on this blog. I don’t want it to become part of the symbolic face-off going on between British press outlets this week. I want us to get back to the issues.

I’m partly writing this piece out of selfishness. I want to make it clear to the readers around the world who were rightly disgusted by the Observer column that Burchill and Moore do not speak for all British feminists, and that not every British columnist is prepared to rally the coaches around bigotry. A young, powerful feminist movement with transsexual and queer people at the heart of the debate is gathering in strength in this country and across the world, and we know that gender essentialism and bigotry hurt all of us, cis and trans, men and women.  

Transphobic men and women who promote prejudice in the name of feminism, including writers like Sheila Jeffreys, Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel and now Julie Burchill, are on the wrong side of history. For far too long, a small, vocal cadre of the women’s movement has claimed that transsexuals, and in particular transsexual women, are not just irrelevant to feminism but actively damaging to the cause of women’s liberation. Their arguments are illogical, divisive and hateful, and sometimes just plain bonkers. I’ve been to meetings where transphobic feminists have argued that if they don’t keep a lookout, horrible sexist men will try to sneak into their meetings, marches and seminars in disguise in order to disrupt proceedings. 

What precise form the disruption is supposed to take has not been explained, partly because it has never happened, ever. If Jeremy Clarkson ever decides to try it, I can assure you that he will be spotted and stopped – but right now, the feminist movement needs no help from fictional men in petticoats to damage our hopes of winning the wider war on women’s freedom. Far more insidious is the insistence by some feminists on mocking transsexual women and denying their existence.

The word that annoys these so-called feminists most is ‘cis’, or ‘cissexual’. This is a term coined in recent years to refer to people who are not transsexual. The response is instant and vicious: “we’re not cissexual, we’re normal – we don’t want to be associated with you freaks!” Funnily enough, that’s just the kind of pissing and whining that a lot of straight people came out with when the term ‘heterosexual’ first began to be used as an antonym of ‘homosexual.’  Don’t call us ‘heterosexuals’, they said – we’re normal, and you don’t belong.

To learn that the world is not divided into ‘normal’ people and ‘freaks’ with you on the safe side is uncomfortable. To admit that gender identity, like sexual orientation, exists on a spectrum, and not as a binary, is to challenge every social stereotype about men and women and their roles in society. Good. Those stereotypes need to be challenged. That’s why the trans movement is so important for feminism today.

Thanks to a global surge in acceptance and discussion of a spectrum of gender identity, trans people are becoming more and more visible, more angry, and more open about their experiences. The world is changing, and those of us fortunate enough to be born in a body that suits our felt gender identity are going to have to accept that being cissexual, just like being heterosexual, isn’t ‘normal’, merely common.

Transphobic articles in high-profile publications are not harmless. They cause active, quantifiable damage. They justify the ongoing persecution of transsexual people by the medical and legal establishment; they destroy solidarity within political and social circles; they hurt people who are used to hearing such slurs shouted at them in the street, and do not need to hear them from so-called progressives. Worse, they make it seem to the average reader, who might be a friend or relative of a trans person, that the rights of transsexual people to be treated in a humane way are still a subject for reasonable debate. 

Some conservative feminists claim that arguing about trans issues is counter-productive to the wider struggle against austerity and sexual violence. They are right about that. Feminism is meant to be about defending women against violence, prejudice and structural, economic disadvantage –  all women, not just the ones self-appointed spokespeople decide count, and at this time of crisis, we need to be standing together to defend women who are poor, marginalised and live in fear of violence. We cannot do that if we exclude trans and queer women, who are more than usually vulnerable to gendered violence and discrimination. Entry to feminist spaces should not be conditional on having one’s genitals checked over by Julie Burchill, Julie Bindel or their representatives. If it were, though, it might explain the decline in popularity of the movement in recent years.

It comes down to essentialism, and essentialism, as Suzanne Moore rightly pointed out in a recent Guardian column, is always conservative. Stubborn gender essentialism – the belief that your body and your hormones should define everything about your life – is what women have been fighting since the first suffragettes unrolled their green and purple sashes. For transphobic feminists, though, it all seems to boil down to an obsession with what precisely is inside a person’s underpants, which is at best intellectually vapid and at worst rather creepy, unless you happen to be into that sort of thing. 

In fact, nobody on this planet is born a woman. Julie Burchill was not born a woman, unless her mother is a hitherto unheralded miracle of medical science. Just over half of us grow up to become women, and the process is a muddle of blood and hormones and angst and pressure and pain and contradiction. Transsexual women know just as well, and sometimes better than cissexual women what it is to be punished for your felt and lived gender, what it is to fear violence and rape, to be reduced to your body, to be made to feel ashamed, to have to put up with prejudice and lazy stereotypes.

Personally, if I thought that my vagina, which I’ve had since I was born, was my most important feminist accessory, I would let it speak for itself. Unfortunately it hasn’t read much feminist history, and neither, it seems, have transphobic bigots. If they had, they’d understand that taking a stand against violence and gender essentialism is what feminism is all about, and that’s precisely why solidarity with trans women should be the radical heart of the modern women’s movement.

A tipping point has been reached. All over the world, online and in local communities, transsexual men and women are finding their voices, and finding each other. Their struggle for acceptance in a society that still hates and fears those who are different, those who don’t follow the rules of gender and sexuality, is vital to the modern feminist movement. Young activists understand that that’s what feminism is all about, for all of us, men and women, cissexual, transsexual and genderqueer: the fight for equality and freedom of expression in a society that still believes that the arrangement of your genitals at birth should dictate the course of your life. It’s time for cissexual feminists to put hate aside and stand with transsexual women in solidarity. 

THINGS FOR EYES 05/01/2013

2013 being the year in which the world is not ending for at least the foreseeable future, I thought I’d make a real effort to keep this blog lively. For a long time I’ve been meaning to start a list of recommendations, things I’m reading and watching and loving and working on, and this seemed like a great week to start, because it’s been full of energising words. Let’s start with some of the best essays on the internet…
ARTICLES OF INTEREST:

Girl Geeks and Boy Kings, by Melissa Gira Grant at Dissent Magazine. The new issue of Dissent, put together by the powerhouse that is Sarah Leonard, came out this week, and it’s full of anti-capitalist feminism, net theory, gender trouble and basically all the things that give me an unhealthy pallor from too much time adventuring on the internet. It’s all great – Sarah Jaffe’s piece on Trickle-Down Feminism is worthy of mention and not just because she quotes me in it, but this was the essay that really got me squealing and linkspamming. MGG weaves an astute analysis of online identity production as a new ‘second shift’ of feminine and feminised labour into a review of Katherine Losse’s 2012 memoir of her time as an early employee of Facebook. 

On the theme of the feminisation of labour, imprecarity and identity,  this essay by Paul Myerscough at the London Review of Books is all about why Pret A Manger’s union-busting employment policies are fucked up and bullshit. It goes into the eye-watering details of precisely how wide Pret Staff are expected to smile if they want those seven and a half pounds an hour. Great read, with a bonus mention of…..

…Novara, the radio show on Resonance FM, which Myerscough credits as a “ gratifyingly apocalyptic counterweight to a BBC political news operation.” It’s  weekly hour of anarchy and erudite thinking around topics you won’t hear covered on NPR, it’s all archived online, and I happen to be on the show next week (at 2pm GMT on Tuesday). Novara is presented by my friends and fellow travellers, Aaron Peters, James Butler and, occasionally, by Dr Nina Power…
….who wrote this brilliant piece on A World Without Work for Comment Is Free. A timely analysis that really shouldn’t be as controversial as it is, Power’s piece went viral for good reason, and it tied in nicely with my other reading.



THIS WEEK’S BOOKLIST:

I was interviewed by Book Trust all about my favourite books growing up, as a teenager and right now, as well as the future of publishing and its interaction with journalism, which is as good a way to kick off a reading list as any.

This week I’ve also been reading The Problem With Work, by Kathi Weeks, a vital book that knits feminism, Marxism and anti-work theory into one complicated crochet that might be worn to a squat party by a semi-fashionable anarcho-hipster. Seriously, it’s important, which is why I’m reading it slowly and carefully, although the prose does have the annoying academic’s habit of telling you precisely what it’s about to say several times before it says it, which sometimes makes me want to put my forehead through the page.

AND, the collected stories of Colette, per Molly Crabapple’s recommendation, which have given me fantasies about becoming a 19th-century French courtesan, a vocation to which I am not at all suited. 
Yesterday after finishing work I got greedy in a bookshop and bought another pile of Science Fiction I can’t really afford, one of which was the Hugo and Nebula-Winning Among Others, by Jo Walton. I’ve only just started it, and I already know that this is going to be something I’ll savour and come back to. “I can bear anything as long as there are books.” (C1).
Also out this week is Gun Machine, by Warren Ellis. I got to read it a few months ago because Warren Ellis is my evil internet uncle, and it’s a great deal of goddamn fun. Go and buy it. The man has an expensive waistcoat habit to maintain.
If you’re not convinced yet, check out the SUPER INCREDIBLY AWESOME AMAZING GUN MACHINE TRAILER VIDEO OMG YOU GUYS by the very talented Jim Batt (@battsignal), of whose stop-motion work I’ve been a fan for some time, so this video for me is rather like David Bowie making a teaser for for Yorkshire Tea, except significantly less evilly capitalist. The fact that Bowie already does adverts is something I’ve deliberately chosen not to remember.
ALSO, I WROTE WORDS:
I’m now into book-writing territory on the Tome That Is Demanded, and I feel a little like Frodo going to Mordor, in that I’m increasingly unsure what the fuck I’m doing but charging in anyway. I’m finding time to cram in regular columning and essaying around the side, and my New Statesman column on rape myths went down particularly well.
 – A Note on the Nice Guys of OKCupid is still being shared around and responded to, and it contains some formulations on love, justice and the nature of the cruel and inscrutable Hive Vagina with which I’m moderately pleased.
IN OTHER NEWS:
Stavvers and I went to see the Death exhibition at the Wellcome collection in London, and felt moderately gothic, and I finally decided to furnish my room like an adult, which involved a harrowing trip to Ikea Wembley. The place is a living nightmare of labyrinthine furniture displays, futuristic bottom-simulation chair-stress devices in glass cases and babies killing time before they too get old enough to shop there. Deliver us from flat-pack furniture.

A roundup of the best reporting on Hurricane Sandy

This list, which I’ll be adding to over the next few days, was compiled by Truthout’s Joe Macare and added to by me. Really pleased to note that most of this has been generated by members of the freelance/quasi-freelance journo solidarity networks I know. Journobloc represent!

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Rockaways

Sofía Gallisá Muriente:http://occupyduniya.wordpress.com/2012/11/02/rockaway/
Photos by Sarah Jaffe: http://www.flickr.com/photos/seasonofthebitch/sets/72157631930207028/
http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/politics/2012/11/6539010/wreckage-and-messy-bloomberg-media-hit-rockaway-beach
Molly Knefel & John Knefel: http://www.alternet.org/jesus-come-help-us-what-its-no-power-no-running-water-and-little-food-post-sandy

Staten Island

Ryan Deveraux: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/nov/05/staten-island-community-recovery-sandy?CMP=twt_fd&CMP=SOCxx2I2
Molly Knefel & John Knefel: http://truth-out.org/news/item/12515-after-sandy-staten-island-helps-its-own-but-more-relief-still-needed

New Jersey

Michael Tracey: http://www.thenation.com/article/171036/super-storms-wake-concerns-about-widespread-disenfranchisement-new-jersey

Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Scott Gold: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-jersey-shore-20121104,0,3657494.story

Caribbean

Jonathan M Katz: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/10/30/what-haiti-can-teach-us-about-the-storm.html

Mimi Whitefield and Jacqueline Charles: http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/10/28/3071813/cuba-and-haiti-struggle-to-recover.html

Ingrid Arnesen: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204349404578099132692727720.html?mod=e2tw

Overviews / Occupy Sandy

Tom Hintze: http://www.alternet.org/occupy-wall-street/how-occupy-sandys-relief-machine-stepped-post-superstorm-void
Allison Kilkenny: http://www.thenation.com/blog/171020/occupy-sandy-efforts-highlight-need-solidarity-not-charity
Laurie Penny: http://www.penny-red.com/post/34978235379/blood-and-thunder-new-york-after-hurricane-sandy
Picture the Homeless on impact on homeless: http://picturethehomeless.org/blog/node/364
Sarah Jaffe: http://jacobinmag.com/2012/11/power-to-the-people/

Blood and thunder: New York after Hurricane Sandy

In the forty-eight hours since I landed in the United States, flying into storm-torn Brooklyn just days after a bunch of cars floated down Wall Street, nobody has mentioned the election to me once. You know, the presidential election, the one that’s happening in – what is it, three days? Right now, New Yorkers have more important things on their minds. 

Access to food, fuel and electricity, for a start. People who do have these things are opening up their homes to friends and strangers who don’t. Across the city, volunteers are packing cars and heading to the disaster zones of Red Hook and the Rockaways, as well as to Staten Island, the borough worst-hit when Hurricaine Sandy battered through to flatten homes and devastate lives.

Like I said, nobody’s talking about the election. The island I always privately think of as Starship Manhattan spent days cut off from the rest of the city, all of the lights out for days under 34th street, basements choked with brackish water, old people stranded in their homes. There’s an actual crisis taking place: houses have been destroyed, lives lost. The eighteen-month media circus that passes for representative politics in this country seems worlds away from the women in Staten island weeping in front of the remains of their family homes on the nightly news. 

It being practically impossible for anyone without a car and a full tank of fuel to cross the city, I’ve just come back from volunteering down the street at the Williamsburg Church emergency blood drive. Right now New York is in a blood crisis. When the hospitals were evacuated during the storm, there was no time to collect the blood left in storage banks when the power went out, and by the time they got everyone to safety, that blood had rotted. Now they need new blood desperately. 

When me and my friend Veronica Varlow went down to the Church to open our veins for the cause, I was told that my tangy British blood was not acceptable because I might be riddled with mad cow disease ( this from people who haven’t even read my Twitter feed). They did, however, need volunteers to help shepherd those donors who were waiting patiently in line for up to three hours to hand over pints of superior all-American haemoglobin. So, I pinned on a badge and spent a few hours buzzing around filling out forms for people, cleaning tables and chairs, handing out snacks and tea and generally making myself useful. Even doing something so small to help the people helping to rebuild the city felt powerful.

Blood: when disasters happen, I’m always struck by the readiness with which people queue up to restock the banks of blood, platelets, plasma. In the days after September 11, 2001, the donation centres had to start turning people away, and indeed, here at the Williamsburg Church we’re doing the same thing, the donation line already thirty people deep, running around with sign-up sheets where eager donors can leave their name and number in case we need more blood tomorrow. 

There’s something so tender about that impulse. Sure, it says, we could raise money or go and help pump water out of basements in the Lower East Side, but wouldn’t it be simpler just to give you this part of my own body that was pumping in my heart five minutes ago? I’m pretty sure that if the New York blood centre were to put the call out tomorrow asking people to donate a pound of flesh cut from the chest closest to the heart because someone stranded on Staten Island needs it, there’d be plenty of volunteers, and not all of them would be kinky Shakespeare fetishists.

When there’s a crisis on, people want to help.  Running around with the snack basket I was reminded of the floods of volunteers who gave their time, money and expertise to the Occupy camps last year. Practical anarchism. Everyone so keen to do whatever they could to help. Not just the kids from all over the country who kicked in their lives to sleep in the cold and be multiply arrested in the name of a better future, but the shop owners who shipped out their spare produce. The trained nurses who turned up to administer basic medical care to those who had none. The parents who donated freshly-baked pies and soups to the kitchens. The librarians and academics who created an enormous library that, almost a year ago, I watched the NYPD rip apart and hurl into dumpster trucks, just because it was messing up their nice clean corporate dead-zone. 

It’s no accident that the original Occupy Wall Street organisers were among the first to set up and co-ordinate volunteering efforts across New York. The group, which has drifted in recent months, immediately set about organising teams and transportation to the worst-hit areas.The Zucotti Park protest camp which was evicted last November and the enormous post-Sandy volunteer effort going on this week are different expressions of the same thing: overwhelming human response to crisis. 

Crisis is what people in the United States have been living with for at least four years. Active emergency, turning people out of their homes and into the cold, destroying lives. It’s not crass to compare a climate disaster to a juddering crisis of capitalism, because the two are connected, not least because those most responsible are also those most likely to be cosily tucked away in gated compounds shrugging their shoulders when the storm hits. Like the crash, Hurricane Sandy hit the poorest hardest, smashing through Staten Island and the Rockaways while the lights stayed on on the Upper East Side. 

Nobody expected it to be quite this bad. Last year’s Hurricane Irene was bearable for most. But what I’m seeing here, at least in Brooklyn where I’ve been stuck for two days, is a city coming out of a six-month paralysis: finally, there’s a concrete task that people can put their hands to. Sarah Jaffe’s brilliant piece at Jacobin draws attention to Rebecca Solnit’s work on the communities that arise in disaster zones: 

“There’s a particular opportunity for mutual aid in the void in the aftermath of disaster, particularly in a neoliberal state whose safety net has been shredded, where the state simply isn’t there and people step up to take care of each other (not “themselves” as our libertarian friends would have it, and not the rich handing out charity as Mitt Romney wants you to believe, but communities in solidarity). The idea of mutual aid was at the foundation of Occupy as much as the much-debated horizontalism and the opposition to the banks.”

Volunteerism, of course, can be regressive as well as radical. I am reminded of those “broom armies” in London in the middle of the August riots last year, the sea of white, middle-class faced holding up brooms they’d brought to unfamiliar areas of the city, the sweet intention to mop up after a disaster tempered by the idea that the kids from deprived areas who came out to fight the police could just be swept away like so much filth. Like any desperate human impulse, volunteerism can easily be coopted, twisted into something violent, calcifying.

Greece, where I spent part of my summer documenting the human effects of economic collapse, isn’t the only developed country where people have been living in crisis for so long they are starting to numb down and accept it. As Imara Jones pointed out in the Guardian today, 50 million Americans, the same number as those in the states hardest-hit by Hurricane Sandy, are living in acute poverty, and nobody in the presidential race has deigned to talk to or about them, despite the fact that they also have votes.

 How do we respond to crisis when crisis has become status quo? That’s the question facing the entire developed world this year, and neither of the men jostling to lead the nominally free world appear to have any sort of answer. The Occupy Sandy operation is not an answer, either, not even the shadow-play of an answer, but it is deeply radical and compassionate. That means someone’s probably going to try to shut it down reasonably soon, especially if it continues to provide food and assistance to the needy after the floodwaters have receded. A community response to immediate external crisis can be spun as good PR for an administration, but a community response to structural, internal crisis is just embarrassing. In every case, though, the most dangerous thing you can do in any crisis  – the absolute worst thing you can possibly do – is sit at home and accept it.

Back to blood. Funny thing about blood: until the 1970s, America used to buy it. Blood donation, as the United States quickly discovered, is not something you want to inject with a market incentive when you have to juggle things like infection risks and supply shortages. All that changed when Richard Titmus’ book ‘The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy’ was published in 1971, explaining why the values of public service beat the private market every time when it comes to social care. The private market in American blood was regulated until it became something like the British voluntary model – people coming in to open their veins for a biscuit and a cup of coffee, just because somebody else needs their blood more than they do. Quite a lot of my job at billyburg church today was handing out packets of Oreos to younguns waiting in line to do just that –  I still have no damn idea who donated those biscuits – and telling the people massing at the door that no, we have all the blood we need for today, thank you, come back tomorrow. 

“There is in the free gift of blood to unnamed strangers no contract of custom, no legal bond, no functional determinism, no situations of discriminatory power, domination, constraint or compulsion, no sense of shame or guilt,” wrote Titmus. “In not asking for or expecting any payment of money, these donors signified their belief in the willingness of other men to act altruistically in the future.” There is still enough blood beating in the cynical hearts of New Yorkers to pound out an immediate, compassionate response to crisis. Today that gives me hope.

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Occupy Sandy Relief information here – http://interoccupy.net/occupysandy/ – put together by the good folks at OWS, contains all you need to know about what you can do to help.

NYC Blood Drive list of donation centres and times.

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A respectful statement on Twitter, trolling and the British commentariat

Guten Morgen, I’m in Berlin today on tour with my book Meat Market, which is significant because it means I’m not at the Editorial Intelligence UK Comment Awards this morning. I’m excited to say that I was nominated and won in the category ‘Twitter Public Personality’. I’m still not sure quite what that means, but it’s going on the virtual shelf alongside GCSE Superboffin 2002 and Sack Race 1998. Thank you to everyone who voted.

Here’s the little speech that was read out in my absence:


I’m really sorry I can’t be here in person to accept this award, and I’d like to thank everyone who voted for me, as well as Editorial Intelligence for nominating me. Social media has been an energising and empowering force for the British commentariat, rearranging some of the old hierarchies and allowing young people and those outside the mainstream press to amplify voices that would otherwise go unheard. Unfortunately, over the past two years social media has also become an increasingly hostile place for women writers and journalists, as well as for writers and thinkers of colour and of different faiths. I know of a number of talented women writers who have withdrawn from the arena of public debate in Britain because of the sheer scale and viciousness of sexist bullying that has come to poison the arena of political debate in this country, particularly online. I would like to use this opportunity to call upon all of the editors, journalists and commentators in this room to take an active stand against sexist trolling and hate speech in your publications and on Twitter. Call it out whenever you see it and refuse to host it on your websites, because it demeans and cheapens all of us who feel proud to call ourselves members of the British press. Thank you.