Friday, January 11, 2013

Mending Fences


Oh dear. There's been a bit of a bust up on Twitter this week.

"That's not new", you'll say. And you'd be right.

But this one is particularly sad. And doubly so, because the one twitter storm everyone's talking about has been raging whilst another, rather pertinent, twitter event has gone relatively unremarked.

As the two are about the same group of people … and as the one informs the context of the other ... I wanted to reflect for a moment on the dissonance.

Two storms, one teacup

The current status of the two twitter themes can be summed up by these articles (bearing in mind that I've selected these as the latest accounts at the time of writing. They may not be the best accounts by tomorrow).

Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore leaves Twitter following transphobic row (Pink News 11-Jan-13)

The real trans scandal is not the failings of one doctor but cruelty by many (Guardian 10-Jan-13)

The common thread is that they both involve trans people … and angry trans people at that.

But what's so strange is that the first storm, in which the supporters of Suzanne Moore step forward to denounce trans people as intolerant bullies who can't take a joke about a stereotype, is able to spiral ever more ferociously without anyone apparently caring a toss about the virtual disregard for the second.

Consideration of the second issue may explain, to those who don't understand, why trans people might be on an especially hair trigger this week.

Maybe I'm just old fashioned

The way I've been brought up is with a dash of humility. I'm an Equalities specialist, but I try not to be arrogant about my knowledge of different groups and their needs.

The more I know, the more I realise how much I don't know. Worse still, I probably don't even know what I don't know.

Periodically I make mistakes and offend people. Quite often people are very angry when they complain. I can be taken aback and feel hurt when they come at me with guns blazing because I really didn't mean harm.

In the ideal I aspire to, I swallow the indignant and defensive reaction on my tongue and respond in an open way. I explain I didn't mean harm. I try to use language that invites explanation so I can learn. Then I try and apologise quickly. I fix the problem. We move on.

That last bit can be painful sometimes. I'm not an ego free zone. And, hell, I don't always pull it off in quite this model fashion. Catch me when I'm tired and pissed off and I may fall dreadfully short. I'm no saint. Complaints can be aggressively triggering too.

What I do know is that whenever I depart from the ideal path I'm describing I end up regretting it.

Sooner or later the apology needs to come. And some mending of fences. This experience is what motivates me to believe in not escalating things.

Apologise quickly. Learn. Repair. Move on.

This is why I sympathise with the way that another blogger, Zoe Stavri, expressed concern...

I wish the Guardian’s Suzanne Moore would stop digging (Pink News 11-Jan-13)

A little empathy wouldn't hurt

Moore's friends and various independent-minded thinkers are now out in their legions to debate what's occurred. This is an interesting example from Stella Duffy:

Head/Parapet (Stella Duffy, 11-Jan-13)

Stella is obviously trying hard. She agonises over whether twitter storms like the one experienced by Suzanne Moore have a chilling effect … dissuading nice people from wanting to write about transsexual folk, for fear of attack.

Maybe that's a reasonable enough fear if you're looking at all this from a distance with a look of bewildered incomprehension.

"Mention the word 'transsexual'? You'll get your head torn off and fed to the Twolves." (And that's not quoting what anyone may or may not have said. I'm trying to sum up the idea that writing about trans people should be toxic)

But unless I've been particularly dumb, I don't see much consideration of why trans people might be angry. People don't rise up and argue passionately without a reason.

OK, Stella notes that framing a humorous quip around Brazillian Transsexuals … a group that is regularly harassed by police and murdered on a depressingly regular basis … might be a tad insensitive. You might imagine the response if you made a flip association between slimming diets and the prisoners of Belsen. Jewish people might have a similar sense of humour failure. (And I apologise in advance if making that comparison offends as well. I understand how raw that is. How profoundly unsuitable a topic for co-option).

But that's the point. If we discuss other oppressed groups being used as joke fodder then the chances are that everyone in the room acknowledges the back story to why a flip remark may raise more hackles than its face value. If we joke about skin and bone survivors in a Nazi concentration camp we can understand why some Jews would be triggered. There is the whole Holocaust in their mind. And just imagine if nobody ever talked about the Holocaust … if the press only concentrated on jews regretting their faith? How much worse would the trigger be?

The elephant in the room

That's why I'm mystified by the way so many people are blind to the full context of why some trans people are so triggered by a joke about Brazilian Transsexuals.

It's not that they are Brazilian Transsexuals.

It's not just that the epidemic level of murder of Brazilian Transsexuals makes joking about them a matter of poor taste.

Maybe … it could be because there's a group of transsexual people out there who are experiencing real brutality in their own lives and are already pretty pissed off that most of the press couldn't care a toss.

Pink News, which has gleefully reported the offence taken by non-trans people over the Suzanne Moore farrago, has barely mentioned why the clinical abuse story is of importance … until belatedly inviting a trans person to write about the matter this evening.

The Guardian is seen by many trans people (rightly or wrongly) as prone to transphobia … a belief reinforced when it carries reports critical of one trans clinician whilst being blind to the clinical abuse of hundreds or thousands of other trans people. Again, the only balance in this latest controversy has come from trans writers.

I don't say whether it is fair or not for trans people to see the world this way. I'm too far from everyday discrimination myself to know for certain how I'd feel if I were being called an abomination.

I don't say that being abusive or making threats is ever an acceptable way to conduct an argument. Heavens, over the years I've had enough threats myself. It's not nice.

But I do have the perspective to understand why people might get that angry. Why they may lose it. Why cries of 'victim' by the people who've abused you may sound just a tad ironic.

Building bridges

What's happened in the last couple of days has been both a triumph and a tragedy.

It's a triumph that trans people have turned their anger at one injustice into a united expression of all the bad things that have happened to them at the hands of Doctors. It's a triumph because the sheer force of voices has made a new story which challenges an old narrative. People are shocked to hear how trans people are treated. They may even see the irony of how the balance in reporting of trans health matters is usually swung the other way.

The other event is a tragedy. Because it should never have been allowed to get out of hand as it did. And it got out of hand, I believe, because of a fundamental inability to grasp just why some trans people may be so triggered and to respond to that in a sensitive way.

I don't give some of the trans people involved a free pass to abuse. No matter how bad things are, there are limits to reasonable behaviour. When they are crossed, we end up with a mess like this.

You can't undo things like this with a wave of a wand. But I have a couple of modest proposals.

Two proposals

I would like to see more non-trans writers … Suzanne Moore and some of her very capable writing friends … engage with showing that they can learn more about why trans people are so apt to get angry. It's not pathological. It's really quite reasonable if you're in those shoes. The team at Trans Media Watch have offered to help.

A really good 'win' would be to see mainstream writers examining and writing about the claims of abuse expressed this week under the hash tag #TransDocFail.

Why wouldn't a journalist do that? It might not be the most important story at any given moment. However, we are discussing right now how hundreds of people were not listened to or believed when being abused by Jimmy Saville. People are wringing their hands.

If they've genuinely learned anything from letting that happen over the course of fifty years then there's a way to put that learning to effect. Over a thousand trans people have said this week that they've been abused … and nobody has wanted to listen. Am I missing something?

And as for Suzanne. How about committing to write about the world wide scandal of hundreds of trans people being murdered in unsolved crimes? How about examining why trans people who defend themselves end up in jail instead? How hard is that?

And wouldn't it be a real mark of healing if Suzanne were to read from the roll of the dead at the next Trans Day of Remembrance event in November?

She could read the latin american names.

After that, I would join in supporting her if anyone gave her lip. I would know she truly understands why trans people are sensitive. But then I don't think they would be anymore. They would know they had a genuine friend.

But, hey … what do I know?


Alex said...

This should be printed in the Guardian.

Unknown said...

This piece beautifully describes what we need most in this debate, compassion & understanding in order for our feminism to move forward. Thank you for writing it

Natacha said...

As one of the team that organises the TDoR in London I will discuss with the group about whether inviting Suzanne Moore to the next London TDoR might be something we could think about.

I would have reservations about her reading out names because we try to make it a day when trans people speak, but I am sure coming along and listening and talking to some of us would help a great deal.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this piece. It clearly explains the history behind the Burchill piece (13/01/13), which I read with horror and disgust.

Anonymous said...

Great piece

Marina S said...

I really like your two peoposals (though I'm not sure I agree with your optimism about the outcome), and I thinkk this is a great pice, so this is just a niggle, BUT:

Can we just please leave Jews alone already? Seriously, why is that always the go-to group for "what if we spoke about X like we speak about Y" false equivalence analogies?

The fact is "we" still do speak about Jews that way. You might not see a lot of it because you are not as sensitised to it as you think - and when it gets pointed out it too often falls prey the the so-called "Livingstone Formulation", in which any outcry at anti-Semitism is dismissed as bad-faith defence of Israel's policies vis a vis Palestine.

Just today someone on Twitter compared anti-trans* feminists to "Zioninsts", like that's the new default bad guy lobby, the way Nazis were before Godwin's law. Leave us out of this one, it's not our fault for a change.

Christine Burns MBE said...

Fair enough. I know you're right ... and I sort of tried to acknowledge that in the article when I was desperately looking around for an analogy. The problem is that if an analogy is to work then people have to be familiar with it. All I can repeat is that I'm sorry and if I could think of a different analogy to use then I would go back and change it. If you believe me, I think this is the first time I've written using a jewish analogy as I'm so conscious of not falling into that trap. In this case I admit I needed something compelling, which I why I put in so much qualification around it. Sorry again.

jemufo said...

thank you for this. =)

Anonymous said...

Hi Christine, I read a piece you wrote on #TransDocFail about thje NHS Document you helped write, my Doc refused to accept it, because it had the word Guide in its title, he said, that means it isn't a ruling just a guideline, so ignored it and referred to me as male, even after I informed them of my GRC

Anonymous said...

Oh forgot to mention, I recently had a male nurse at a hospital refer about me when gathering my clothing prior to going into theatre, with this "I'll just "his" clothes up to "his" room" when he was talking to a colleague, I complained, he admitted what he'd done but added that he "didn't mean to cause any offence" NHS are so bad at treating transsexuals, I hope the #TransDocFail campaign works, but I fear once the dust settles, NHS staff will revert back to type, why don't NHS have an LGB&T or T staff network, they only seem to have an LGB staff network, if trans aren't represented on these staff networks how can we expect NHS staff to treat us with respect

Christine Burns MBE said...

Hi Anonymous, sorry to hear about your dreadful experiences. Yes, I wrote "Trans: A Practical Guide for the NHS" for the Department of Health. It was part of a series of policy guides for the whole NHS on how to treat everyone fairly. It included guides on religion, disability and sexual orientation as well, which were written by similar experts. I guess the answer is that your doctor was admitting that they ignore extant best practice unless it is a direct order. Bluntly, that raises a question over their fitness to practice. If it happens again then please do complain. GP practices have been commissioned by Primary Care Trusts until now. This will be taken over by the National Commissioning Board in April. Those organisations are paying the practices (as independently run partnerships) with public money to provide a service that is fit for purpose. That includes following all the guidance available, which is written to ensure that they are buying services that are legal, safe and offer the best quality care to everyone. If a GP thinks otherwise then they can stop taking public money. The General Medical Council can and should pursue such cases too, since a cavalier attitude to guidance rings danger warnings.

Kindest regards, Christine

Anonymous said...

Hi Christine,

I did complain at the time, the GP did apologise and said "We can treat you as a female from now on, wth, I'd been a patient there all my life, and a female patient there for 3 years, I have contacted the Commissioning Board today with my thoughts in light of the fact #TransDocFail has gone into the stratosphere with stories posted which made me cry this evening, there have been so my posts its taken an entire day to read through 60-70% of the posts it all. AuntySarah deserves an OBE at least for empowering people to open up about their real NHS horror stories like never before, the NHS whether under GP Consortia, PCT or AN other control, cannot change unless those who run it learn from what is posted on #TransDocFail.

Also cried listening to a evidence based story on the Radio Cambridge, well done to both of you.

I suffer mental health as a result of years of transphobia including physical attacks on me and my home being targetted, 100's of transphobic incidents etc, police were understanding but seemingly unable to stop what was happening to me, so I gave up reporting hate incidents, even when I sexually assaulted it didn't lead to a court case.

Anonymous said...

self interest is all i see

i dont see anyone caring for someone else

like me

Anonymous said...

Suzanne Moore was threatened with beheading, told her face should be cut off and fed to wolves and called a c*nt repeatedly amongst the various attacks on her after she referred to Brazillian transsexuals.

If there are "epic" levels of murders of trans in Brazil then I'm not sure what the correct adjective is to describe the global elimination of women at the hands of men that has been going on for millennia now. Violence that was supported in the threats made against Moore.

When "transphobia" becomes visible, woman-hating doesn't even register. That's the real problem here, and maybe it's you who needs to understand why women are angry.

Christine Burns MBE said...

Dear Anonymous

I'm no apologist for any kind of violence. I made that clear in the blog. But let's get some facts straight.

First, it has become clear that the original twitter spat began when a non-trans woman pointed out the problematic nature of Suzanne Moore's choice of expression.

Following that, I've seen the tweets which Suzanne offered up as evidence of being bullied. I checked the identities of the posters and it appears that most of them were also not trans people. Indeed, how DO you assure yourself that, even when someone purports to be trans, they are not an agent provocateur.

None of that excuses abusive posting. But none of it excuses taking to a national newspaper to hit back at all trans people .. repeatedly.

And, yes, there is an epidemic level of abuse towards women. That includes DV, FGM, FM and other harmful practices, which I've written about in detail on other occasions, such as this:

The existence of abuse towards one group of women does not produce any excuse for ignoring the abuse of another. Where trans women are concerned, they represent (conservatively) about 1 in 5,000 of any given population. So, when 100 trans women are murdered in one country in a year then, proportionate to that group, it is as though half a million non-trans women were being targeted. That is not to say that one is more important than the other, but to illustrate how it adds significantly to the picture of all women being abused.

Sarah Mona said...

Hello Christine,
What a lovely surprise! I've only just read your article and I think it has the same sentiment as a video I made for my school newspaper. I would love to hear what you think.
The issue really grabbed my attention and made me question the limitations of free speech. So much so, that I've changed my dissertation question! I really want to get to the bottom of this one. Do you think you would be available for an interview in the coming weeks? My email is

George Gissing said...

It's occured to me that perhaps one reason so many people have difficulty understanding what trans people put up with is because ...well, they haven't existed before. That is to say before the 50s there were hardly any transexuals. I'm using the word transexual although it might be un-PC differentiate between transvestites and transexuals (people who've had the op). Are all trans people just people who self identify as the wrong sex or does it mean people who've had reasignment surgery? Anyway the point I'm driving at is gay people can point at Oscar Wilde, Jewish people can point at the Nazis, Black people can point at the KKK and it's pretty easy for people to see they're historical targets of discrimination. Even white people can point at Mugabe or somebody if they look hard enough. But transexuals and trans people have no one to point at. The trans people in the past all being lumped in with gays ... which was a criminal offense from the 1600s to the mid-twentieth century (and still is in some countries). And before anyone says it I'm not saying you have "no history" but that it isn't visible to many people so...

...why dont you have a trans history month?

George Gissing said...

Actually it was criminal to be gay from the 16th century was what I meant but lets not split hairs...

Alisen said...

Writing a thesis or essay can be a stressful time in anyone's life, especially when the pressures build up and the deadline is near. If you can focus on letting your creative writing flow free, there are essay editors who can help focus your writing. See more how to write an integrative review

Unknown said...

An online education degree can help you become a better educator. If education is important so are the educators, they are the ones that teach the student what they needed to learn. Educators can sometimes be considered as second parents to their students, for they are the ones that guide the student when they are in school.