Taking offence over transsexuality


THE READERS:What you said on irishtimes.com this week

Last week the Observer removed an article from its website “in light of the hurt and offence” the piece caused. In it, the British newspaper’s columnist Julie Burchill sought to defend a colleague from online criticism; Suzanne Moore had written in the New Statesman that modern women were expected to have bodies like Brazilian transsexuals’. Burchill called Moore’s critics “screaming mimis”, “bedwetters in bad wigs” and “shemales”.

In Thursday’s Irish Times Fionola Meredith argued that “the right to offend is more important than the right not to be offended, because it is bound up with vital political freedoms”. “Leaping to extreme offence” over Moore’s remark was “both unnecessary and damaging”, she wrote, adding that the subsequent “small-minded intolerance” amounted to “patrolling offence-addicts” trying to restrict what could be said.

Meredith’s article drew a wide range of comments on irishtimes.com . Below is a selection.

Taking offence from Burchill’s article is the least of anyone’s worries. What Burchill wrote – I’ll use her article as an example before I get to Moore, because it’s so much more extreme – is not just offensive to trans people; it actively contributes to a culture which dehumanises them.

The reaction she got is the same as you’d expect if somebody wrote a horribly racist column. Racism, like transphobia and homophobia, is not merely about writing offensive words. It’s something which causes real harm to real people. So don’t claim it’s just “offensive” or “politically incorrect”.

Next: Moore. Do I really have to deconstruct the phrase “Brazilian transsexual”? I suppose I do. All right, kids, listen up. Moore was trying to put across the idea that women are expected to live up to an unrealistic ideal of beauty. Our age of implants and Botox and Photoshop teaches women that they must aspire towards something unnatural. She searched for a phrase, a one-liner, something which would get that idea across, preferably through an arresting image. And she settled on . . . Brazilian transsexual. Because “Brazilian” connotes toned beach bodies and waxed genitals, and “transsexual” here apparently implies something weird and unnatural.

Think about that last connotation. Think about how ideas like this help to reinforce popular prejudices, and think of the harm this causes people. Maybe Moore was working to a deadline, and maybe if she’d had more time she would have thought twice about that phrase. But when you say or do something hurtful to other people, and this is pointed out to you, the normal, decent, human thing to do is to listen and apologise. If you accidentally bump into someone, you reflexively say “sorry”, even if no harm was done. It’s the polite thing to do.

So the appropriate thing for Moore to have done would be to apologise for her thoughtless remark. The same goes for Ms Meredith: when informed that “transgender” is preferred to “transgendered”, the appropriate response is: “Is it? Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realise.” See? How difficult would that be? It’s not a very radical concept.

Don’t do things which hurt other people unless you have a really good overriding reason. EoinConway

Not more of this “the press has a right to offend” balderdash. The press offends me every day, and I respond by defending my right to be respected. Moore and Burchill caused offence; I have fought back against this – myself and many other trans men and women. The press might like to turn back the tide to earlier times when they could write whatever vile garbage they wanted to.

Social media has allowed geographically isolated minorities a way of fighting back against the vested interests of the press. The press don’t like persecuted minorities to have this tool at their disposal. Tough: get with the program, girls and boys; you ain’t gonna push us about the way you did April Ashley [a British woman outed in the Sunday People as a transsexual] 50 years ago. LesleyStafford

Is it really that difficult to grasp the idea that negatively objectifying an at-risk minority is irresponsible? Comments about censorship and political correctness run mad are entirely orthogonal to the issue. We were, till quite recently, a society that tolerated views of women and children that facilitated cruel and dysfunctional men’s gratuitous mistreatment of vulnerable members of those groups.

Trans people, by mere virtue of their identity, are disproportionally vulnerable to violence and discrimination. Would we have such difficulty apprehending the contours of the pain caused to trans people if we were equally vulnerable and the “harmless joke” was at our expense? MaxKrzyzanowski

Freedom of speech always needs to be related to power to be heard. Trans people have a history of going unheard (both as individuals and communities), of being talked about rather than talked to. I think that accounts for a lot of the emotion involved in situations like this.

I also think, sadly, that it accounts for the aggression shown by some trans people on Twitter. I suppose it’s ironic at one level, but finding themselves in a space where they speak without fear of violence tends to bring out the aggression in some people.

It’s no more acceptable for a trans person to call Suzanne Moore some horrible name or wish her an injury than it is for Julie Burchill to talk abusively about trans people on the Guardian website. IsaMcHugh

I hope The Irish Times is not going to allow the bullying of Moore to continue on these pages. She has been bullied and misrepresented in the most hateful, misogynistic manner by people from the trans lobby, and whatever comment they wish to make about language is lost amidst the nasty and aggressive way this issue was handled. Raggagirly

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