This is a guest post by Sarah Brown
Back in October, David T wrote about a row which had erupted between LGB campaigning organisation, Stonewall, and some members of the UK transgender community, as well as some of our LGB and straight supporters and allies, over the nomination of Julie Bindel for Stonewall’s “Journalist of the Year Award”.
It may be worth taking a few moments to clarify why many trans people are so upset with Bindel. To hear her side of the story, one would imagine it was all about her 2004 article, “Gender Benders Beware”, where she pandered to negative stereotypes about us, suggested that we were all gay people who transition to avoid the social stigma of a same-sex relationship, and said that a world inhabited by transsexual people would “look like the set of grease”. She would also, I suspect, point out that she apologised for the tone of that article, and that she is only interested in honest debate.
The view from the other side of the “debate” is rather different. I am a trans woman (i.e. I transitioned from male to female) who is also a lesbian, and was one of the many people who chipped-in to make what ended up being the UK’s largest ever trans-rights demo, when around 150 protesters gathered outside Stonewall’s awards ceremony on a cold November evening, happen. My objection to Bindel has nothing to do with her pandering to negative stereotypes about me and people like me. Her 2004 article was ludicrous, it’s true. Transsexual people are not the stereotypes she portrays us as, we come in all “shapes and sizes”, just like the rest of society (girly girls and macho men, to butch lesbian trans women and effeminate gay trans men who sometimes enjoy a bit of drag).
The suggestion that we transition to avoid being seen as homosexual is also ridiculous. While it’s true in Iran, there are cases of people using gender transition as a last, desperate way to avoid execution for being gay, the UK is not Iran. Being visibly transsexual, a stage that most of us occupy for at least the early part of transition, if not forever in some cases, is to invite constant stares and threats of violence to a point where it’s a struggle to avoid having ones spirit crushed. It also ignores the rather inconvenient (for Bindel) point that after transition, transsexual people identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual in a far greater proportion than the rest of society.
No, where I have a real problem with Bindel’s work is with the stuff she hasn’t apologised for, much of which is far nastier than merely insulting a whole group of people in a national newspaper. Listening to Bindel talk about this (and she does, at length), one may form the impression that she’s invented her own version of transsexualism in her head. One where instead of us begging and fighting with doctors and NHS bureaucrats to obtain the one thing that helps end the pain of gender dysphoria, she pictures gender psychiatrists luring unsuspecting effeminate men and butch women into gender clinics. There they use their psychiatric mind-control powers, presumably accompanied by glowing, spinning eyeballs, to talk us in to having our willies or breasts “cut off”. This is because, so Bindel’s argument goes, transsexualism was invented in the 1950s by psychiatrists, motivated by a desire to make everyone conform to culturally oppressive gender roles. Since Bindel suggests gender (and here she seems to lose the distinction between gender identity and gender roles – a distinction which is crucially important for trans people) is simply a tool to oppress women, it follows that transsexualism is a medical plot to keep women down, presumably by maintaining a nice wide gap between “male” and “female” gender roles.
This too is ludicrous. For a start, the numbers involved simply do not add up – in the grand scheme of things there are hardly any transsexual people (5000 transsexual people in the UK is a figure that’s often quoted, although most agree this is an underestimate) , and far from being instrumental in enforcing gender barriers in society, we’re usually presented as figures of fun or contempt, sad pathetic people who are “fooling” nobody, or subversive deceivers who “trick” unsuspecting men into having “gay” sex. We have about as much influence on gender norms as a cork bobbing about in the wake of a supertanker has on its course.
But Bindel doesn’t stop there. She seems to be on a crusade to end this horrible conspiracy. In the summer of 2007, I sat in the audience for BBC Radio 4’s “Hecklers” debate in which Bindel took on four panellists in order to argue that “sex change surgery is unnecessary mutilation”. I listened to her paint a picture suggesting people like me are pathetic Emily Howard type characters, obsessed with girly shopping trips for blouses in pastel shades, and also say that “sex change surgery should not be available”, and that we “should be offered talking cures instead”.
That’s getting to the nub of why I, and many others, find Bindel’s views and agenda so objectionable; trans people represent an inconvenient diversion on the road to her genderless utopia (where everyone presumably “does gender” in the one true approved, vaguely masculine flavour of largely chaste grey androgyny). If we really are who we say we are, then we blow some of her vital assumptions about gender out of the water. Therefore we cannot be who we say we are – we must be deluded, the victims of a medical conspiracy.
And we have to go, for the good of the revolution.
While trolling the Facebook group set up to talk about the Stonewall protest, Bindel said that she did not support reparative therapy (the type of treatment favoured by the US religious right to “deprogram” LGBT people):
“I can confirm that I am strongly against ‘reparative’ or ‘aversion’ therapy, full stop.”
…but she refused to clarify her oft-stated position that we should not be allowed to have access to medical transition, that we just need to be talked out of it. I think she’s playing word games. She doesn’t “support” reparative therapy because she doesn’t believe what she’s advocating is reparative therapy; it’s not a duck, even though it quacks, waddles and can be found scrounging bread on urban riverbanks the length of the country.
Bindel likes to play the victim, to protest that everyone is harassing her. Presumably she believes that our programming by the evil psychiatrists is so pervasive that we can’t recognise her hand of friendship for what it is, and so bite it instead. She wants us to understand that she just wants to have a “debate”.
And that’s my second big problem with Bindel – the way she seems to think we owe her. She assumes our audience and participation in a debate she wants to have about whether we should be allowed to exist. It’s an academic exercise for her, but for us, this “debate” is about our lives. There seems to be absolutely nothing in it for us; we get to fight a rearguard action, justifying our right to exist, with the best possible (and extremely unlikely) outcome being that she stops being quite so gratuitously offensive towards us in her Guardian columns. Big deal.
One of the complaints many feminists have about the way men tend to behave towards women is the assumption that women will just drop what we’re doing to follow the agenda of a particular man who might be, for example, trying to chat us up (you were having a bad day, reading a book, just wanting to be left alone, none of that matters, can I pester you to have a cup of coffee with me? Oh, you’re a lesbian! Can I watch?) Bindel’s behaviour here is tragically ironic.
Even then, some of us decided to call her bluff. A forum was created in the Facebook group for this “debate” to happen in. A few of us asked questions. One woman asked:
1) Do you believe that ‘sex change surgery is unnecessary mutilation’?
2) can a trans woman be (a) a woman; (b) a lesbian; (c) a feminist?
3) can/should we be ‘cured’ with talking therapies?
4) should we be denied hormone treatment?
In the same thread, I posted my questions:
1) Have you attempted to educate yourself on contemporary trans feminist thought by, e.g. reading Whipping Girl?
2) Do you know how easy oestrogen is to get without a prescription, and that there are non-UK surgeons who will operate with few questions asked?
3) What do you think of legal regimes which deny women legitimate routes to obtaining healthcare, thus leaving people such as back-street abortionists as the only route available?
Bindel did not respond to anyone. So much for her “debate”.
After the protest, she wrote an article in the Guardian where she declared she wanted nothing to do with other parts of the LGBT community. In it, she conflated queer people with those into “kinky sex” and said:
I for one do not wish to be lumped in with an ever-increasing list of folk defined by “odd” sexual habits or characteristics. Shall we just start with A and work our way through the alphabet? A, androgynous, b, bisexual, c, cat-fancying d, devil worshipping. Where will it ever end?
I just want to be left alone. I am not in your gang, I did not ask to be, so please don’t tell me I am one of yours, and then tell me off for offending your orthodoxy. Let’s have an amicable split, instead of ending up carrying on like The Judean People’s Front.
So imagine our surprise when, a few days later, trans campaigning group, Press for Change (who, despite having met with Stonewall’s supremo, Ben Summerskill to talk about the Bindel nomination were completely silent about the protest, and actively hostile towards some of those of us involved in making it work) announce that they are to be hosting “The Transsexual Debate” in Manchester on the 5th of December, between renowned US trans feminist academic, Susan Stryker, and “Stonewall award nominated journalist, Julie Bindel”.
Many of us can’t quite believe PfC are doing the very thing we were protesting about – giving Bindel the credibility that comes from being nominated for Stonewall’s Journalist of the Year and giving her another platform from which to conduct her “trannies as roadkill” agenda. Her opponent, Susan Stryker, is a formidable figure and I have absolutely no doubt that she will eviscerate Bindel’s position, but that doesn’t really matter. The mainstream press all but ignored the UK’s largest ever trans rights demo on the 6th of November outside the V&A, with the exception of Julie Bindel, writing in the Guardian. I’m not a betting woman, but if I were I’d put money on the only mainstream report on “The Transsexual Debate” being by Julie Bindel, in the Guardian.
One doesn’t have to read between the lines very much to realise that PfC feel that their noses have been put out of joint by the grass roots demo against Stonewall. There have been suggestions that they see the whole thing as some sort of a power grab against them (it’s not – we wanted their help, but they ignored us). I understand that within PfC circles, those of us involved are now being referred to as “those sort of people”. What comes as a shock is that they’re apparently willing to help such an unrepentant transphobe like Bindel push her agenda to reassert their dominance.
With friends like these, who needs enemies?