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Posted by on Jan 13, 2013 in Culture, Debate, In the news | 25 comments

Julie Burchill loses it on transsexuals

Over at the Comment is Free site, which has a huge audience because of its connection with mainstream newspapers, Julie Burchill has a piece in which she defends her friend Suzanne Moore from transsexual activists on Twitter. If we take Burchill at face value, Moore was driven off Twitter after being ferociously dogpiled for making a clumsy, snide reference to transsexuals. This appeared in an essay published in a recent anthology. (The essay has also appeared online, published by The New Statesman, presumably to promote the anthology. Check it out for yourself.)

All this raises issues about the legitimacy of dogpiling tactics, when legitimate activism turns into obsessive surveillance, witch hunting, and bullying, etc. If I knew the full facts of what happened here, perhaps I’d even side to an extent with Moore. From what I know, I have some sympathy.

It seems that Moore’s original remark was far from exemplary, but you can judge for yourself. To me, it appears to show a callous, superior, disdainful attitude toward male-to-female transsexuals, but that’s possibly open to debate. In any event, there’s an argument to be made as to whether the response to Moore was in the appropriate place, proportionate to the offence, etc., etc. Perhaps the response went too far in going after the writer in such a personal way. Perhaps, in all the circumstances, this was a bullying level of escalation.

Even if that is so, however, Burchill goes far beyond thoughtful argument about such issues, or even angry argument in support of her acknowledged friend. She engages gratuitously in what looks like raw, hateful, cruel transphobia. She appears to go out of her way to hurt and provoke (and to whip up hostility against) male-to-female transsexuals in general, based on their characteristics as transsexuals rather than anything else. She does not merely criticise, even in forthright or angry terms, the tactics of particular activists or activist groups. Again and again, she does this kind of thing: “a bunch of dicks in chicks’ clothing”; “their relationship with their phantom limb”; “the trannies. (I know that’s a wrong word, but having recently discovered that their lot describe born women as ‘Cis’ – sounds like syph, cyst, cistern; all nasty stuff – they’re lucky I’m not calling them shemales. Or shims.)”; “To have your cock cut off and then plead special privileges as women”; “Shims, shemales, whatever you’re calling yourselves these days”.

To say this least, this is bad form. We can argue with each other about these sensitive issues, and we can even get angry with each other. Once again, maybe Moore was bullied, in all the circumstances, for a relatively minor offence in the scheme of things. Whatever. But there is no excuse for the hateful way that Burchill has chosen to express herself.

  • Kevin S.

    As nasty as Burchill’s tone was, the most concrete example of pure prejudice is this line:

    “To my mind – I have given cool-headed consideration to the matter – a gaggle of transsexuals telling Suzanne Moore how to write looks a lot like how I’d imagine the Black and White Minstrels telling Usain Bolt how to run would look.”

    Apparently, in Burchill’s world, no transsexual anywhere could possibly have any literary talent, strictly because they’re transsexual.

  • RussellBlackford

    Yes the whole thing is permeated with prejudice and seemingly deliberate hurtfulness (to a group of people who already suffer much social prejudice and hostility).

  • Actual quote from Julie Burchill:

    “When the sex war is won prostitutes should be shot as collaborators for their terrible betrayal of all women.”

    There’s an utterly vile streak in British feminism that goes even beyond the usual excesses of stereotypical angry feminism. That The Guardian chooses to give it a platform to so many of Burchill types (Moore, Julie Bindel, Bidisha, and others) speaks very badly of them and mars their otherwise strong journalism.

  • The White Male POV: ‘slaves fighting to the death over scraps that fell off of *our* table’. /sigh

  • SheffP

    I don’t think a capacity for vileness is peculiar to ‘British’ or any other Feminism – it would seem to be part of the human condition – just look about you.

  • Dave Kendall

    The question is why so many of these people are leaders within the feminist movement. Why are they so often the ones running major feminist NGOs, writing feminists articles in the left-wing press, speaking at marches and conferences, and generally being the voice of mainstream feminism?

    I see people judge other political groups by their spokespeople and leaders, and that seems pretty reasonable to me. For example, when Rick Santorum was spewing ignorant bigoted nonsense it reflected badly on the whole Republican party. The fact that not all Republicans are like that doesn’t excuse the fact that someone like Santorum could be a serious contender for their presidential nomination.

    In the same way, I think the bigotry, dogmatism, authoritarianism, and general vileness of so many mainstream feminist figures gives feminism a taint that can’t be wiped away by the existence of a liberal and sex positive fringe.

  • SheffP

    ..bigotry, dogmatism, authoritarianism, and general vileness

    Pick any political organisation you can think of and you will find precisely the same thing. Wherever you look you will find idiots. Try focusing on the sane voices – of which there are plenty.

  • Dave Kendall

    I agree that Moore’s original “Brazilian transexual” comment wouldn’t justify the anger she received, but the “dogpiling” didn’t occur until after Moore stirred things up on Twitter.

    If Moore had just tweeted “Oops, my bad. won’t do it again” then I think this would have blown over pretty quickly. Instead she responded by telling anyone offended to “fuck off”, mocking “men” who “cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me”, and denying that transphobia is a real issue. Just shutting up would have minimised the damage, but instead it looks to me like she went out of her way to troll and rile up her critics.

    That’s what turned a few critical comments into an unsurprisingly angry response from the trans community. It’s telling that Moore now avoids mentioning her twitter behaviour, instead disingenuously acting as if the “bullying” is simply down to her article. Of course that makes it easier for her to play the innocent victim of a “trans cabal witch hunt”.

    It’s just pathetic behaviour in my opinion.

  • Dave Kendall

    I don’t agree that you find precisely the same thing in all political organisations. They may all have a share of bigots, but some have a much larger share than others.

    That was my point in bringing up Rick Santorum. Finding people like him high up in the Republican party, while such extreme bigotry is less tolerated among Democrats, reflects really badly on the GOP. The fact that there are sane voices within Republicanism doesn’t change that.

    There are feminists I respect and generally agree with, but when I look at the mainstream feminist movement I rarely see them represented. Can you point out a significant British (or even European) feminist organisation that’s run by these “sane voices”?

  • Vic

    “I know that’s a wrong word, but having recently discovered that their
    lot describe born women as ‘Cis’ – sounds like syph, cyst, cistern; all
    nasty stuff – they’re lucky I’m not calling them shemales. Or shims”

    It sounds similar to bad words? Really now?
    AFAIK the usage of the term “cis” was inspired by cis/trans isomerism in organic chemistry. That origin is innocent enough in my opinion and in no way derogatory.

    I agree with the article, it seems like someone is going out of her way
    to be transphobic and, from the tone of the comments, even feels
    rightous about it.

    As an aside, cis naturally applies to non-trans men as well as non-trans women (As in, I would be a cis man). It’s telling she only focuses on her imagined insult of “real women”. Never forget, slurs are ok when directed against men.

  • Why aren’t feminists speaking out against the treatment of Muslim women?

  • I’d suggest that, in Burchill’s case, she’s feeling the need to be the centre of attention.

    Mind, this is not the first time she’s made anti-trans comments, as Oliver Thring has pointed on on Twitter. And that was in the Guardian –

    It would be nice to think that this will force the Guardian’s senior management to stop giving space (and money) to their pet hate-filled rad-fems, but I somehow doubt it.

  • MosesZD

    You judge movements by their spokes people as the rank and file tend to start mimicing their leaders. If they’re liars and assholes… Well, that’s what you end up with in the rank and file.

    It works like this in any social organization, from a mean-girls club or a jock-bully clique to a country where they massacre thousands upon thousands to millions upon millions… The fish, consistently, rots from the leadership head.

  • MosesZD

    That’s sort of niave. The sane get no voice. The sane get no power. Reason is left behind and the herd follows the alpha loudmouth.
    In the end, all movements are political. And those that do best in the political arena are those least likely to be what YOU and I might want… And those that do best are the authoritarian, psychopathic shit-stains.

  • SheffP

    Don’t agree – saying the sane have no voice is the politics of despair which suggests making any effort is a waste of time. So why don’t we just hang ourselves from the nearest yard arm and put ourselves out of our misery.

    Whilst I agree that “authoritarian, psychopathic shit stains” have a head start because they care less what they do to get what they want, collective effort can bring better things – and has done. Unfortunately we need constant vigilance to keep them. In the UK we are watching whilst our hard won public services are stolen from us. We need to get off our arses and act!

  • SheffP

    They are and have been for years – you aren’t looking in the right places. Just google Feminism/Islam and you’ll find plenty to keep you occupied – if, that is, you’re really interested. And if you’d like to actually do something, you could support these women:

    Because boy, do they need it.

  • Ingemar Oseth


    You are quite correct about the suffering of transexuals, pre-op and post-op.

    They deserve our sympathy and our support, not the vilification and hatred of ignorant people.

  • RussellBlackford

    Oops, just saw this comment after writing a new post on “cis” and “trans”. I thought of Cisalpine Gaul and Transalpine Gaul, rather than concepts in chemistry. But yes, whether Burchill is educated in the sciences or the humanities she should have been aware of the “cis” vs “trans” distinction.

  • flueedo

    As I was reading her article and the diatribe involving the term “cis”, I was thinking to myself “couldn’t she just have googled that before writing this?”. Was she being willfully ignorant just so she could spill more venom.

    Given that I knew nothing of her prior to reading her article, I left earlier a quite charitable comment there suggesting to Burchill that she educated herself, that just because she’s a ‘veteran’ in activism (as she implies) that doesn’t entail being respected for saying stupid shit, but now it seems to me that she’s aware of the counter arguments and simply rejects scientific explanations of transsexuality on ideological grounds.

  • RussellBlackford

    Plenty of feminists are doing just that. Of course, there are reasons why doing this is sometimes not popular on the Left (fears of cultural imperialism, etc), but the problem is not with feminism itself.

  • Are you familiar with British feminism and some of the individuals and organizations within it? Burchill is just the tip of a very foul iceberg.

  • Dave Kendall

    I’ve been reading some of the comments and tweets regarding this. One thing I’ve seen a number of times is anti-trans feminists using the initial “attack” on Moore to label transwomen in general as “male brained”. They argue that the criticism of Moore is an example of “male entitlement to control and silence women”, demonstrating the “natural male aggression” that doesn’t change just because “a man cuts his dick off”.

    It’d be gender essentialist nonsense even if the initial criticism of Moore really came from a transwoman. But the irony is that those feminists have jumped to the wrong conclusion, as the person who “attacked” Moore for her initial article was in fact born female. She’s a trans ally, but not a transwoman herself.

    It’s a great example of what utter garbage gender stereotypes like that can be.

    By the way, here’s the initial series of tweets that started off this whole argument:

  • Kevin S.

    The rant about the “cis” prefix reminds me of the old days when some feminists used to say that “history” meant “his story.” Sometimes the first casualty of social movements (even the good and necessary ones) is etymology.

  • Colin Gavaghan

    Dave, unlike Rick Santorum, no-one has elected Julie Burchill to be a ‘leader’ of British feminism. She might see herself as such, but that’s hardly the same thing. As such, to use her stupidity to smear feminism per se is hardly fair.

    Burchill has made a career out of writing wildly provocative and obnoxious pieces exactly like this. The Guardian prints her because she attracts readers. Meanwhile, serious feminist scholars and activists struggle to get a tiny fraction of this attention.

  • Sarah

    “The Prejudiced Bigot POV”: ‘All Black Women share a POV. Just like all White Males.

    “A geniune White Male POV”: ‘Feminism will survive this fracas but it’s great to see so-called Feminists (really bigots) like Burchill turn the venom and hatred that they reserve for political enemies and white men onto other Feminists and getting the backlash she deserved for doing it to everyone.
    When hate filled ‘feminists’ like her are finally rejected and seen as the bigoted hypocrites that they are the world (and progressivism and activism) will be a far better place.

    demonisation of groups based on generalisation = bigotry