There Is No Hole

In The Matrix, the hero Neo encourages himself as he leads a seemingly impossible rescue attempt by repeating a line that he heard earlier in the film from a boy philosopher; “There is no spoon.” The journalist Suzanne Moore would have done well to have learnt from Neo and realised that, in the dispute raging between her and a segment of the online trans community, there is no hole. This dispute began over her excellent article “Seeing Red: the power of female anger,” and where the debate is currently at is well summed up by Roz Kaveney in a response to an ill-advised defence of Suzanne by Julie Burchill.

The launch-pad for the dispute was a telling line in Suzanne’s article “We [women] are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.” That is a telling line in terms of how it encapsulates body fascism, but it tells us nothing about whether Suzanne is transphobic or not, as the statement is the very opposite of being transphobic. It reminds me of a witty response a non-trans woman made to a series of transphobic comments by non-trans men on an article about gender reassignment: “Transsexuals: tall, long legs, slim hips – what’s not to hate?” That riposte to male transphobes was not transphobic and nor was Suzanne’s reference to Brazilian transsexuals. The true cause of the dispute was not Suzanne’s article, but the strong reaction from a section of the trans online activist lobby that is so trigger-happy that it often shoots itself in the foot. The comment was not transphobic, but Suzanne Moore’s response on Twitter apparently was and led her to close or suspend her account on that social media network.

In a comment piece by Zoe Stavri about Suzanne’s original article and angry response to criticism, she accuses her of digging a deeper hole in the subsequent article. It would appear to me that Suzanne’s real problem is that she did not tell herself at the outset of the dispute, “There is no hole.” For Zoe’s article is wrong in interpreting the original article as containing a transphobic comment. Indeed, Zoe repeats a transphobic line that so many of the trans lobby have been putting out, that of reducing all Brazilian transsexuals to the status of murder victims. Suzanne reduced them to the status of conforming to the beauty industry’s projected ideal of what a woman should look like. No group should be reduced to any stereotype, but if I was a Brazilian transsexual and given a choice between being an aesthetic ideal and a murder victim in waiting, I know which I would opt for. For the record I am over-weight London Irish transsexual and as far from being an aesthetic ideal as I am from being Brazilian.

When I first became aware of this dispute between Suzanne and a section of the trans online community, I was taken back to the memory of a colleague at Chester University. In a staff meeting, she railed against using the term “blackboard,” because apparently the term “black” was offensive. I was given short shrift for pointing out that “black” was not offensive to black Britons and, as a white Briton, she should not be banning a term in defence of the black community. In this online storm, much has been made of the fact that so many Brazilian transsexuals were murdered in the last year. Yet, from those contributors whose ethnicity I am aware of, these comments seem to come from the same ethnicity as my erstwhile colleague. I suspect that most Brazilian transsexuals do not want to be reduced to being apprentice murder victims, but as this dispute is a recent one, I have not had the time to research Brazilian transsexual responses to Suzanne’s comment.

Unfortunately, Suzanne thought that there was a hole and dug herself not a trench, but an unintended escape tunnel from Twitter. Of course, the handy things about hidden tunnels is that until they are discovered you can go back to where you started, and Twitter accounts can be re-activated. Indeed, it might be argued that Suzanne’s subsequent article (“I don’t care if you were born a woman or became one” ), which prompted Zoe’s riposte, is not further digging, but Suzanne retreating back up the tunnel in the realization that maybe there never was a hole. In that article, Suzanne maintains that she was not saying that she was against transgender people, but in favour of preserving the gains made by women in recent decades. Zoe’s interpretation of this as Suzanne furthering her transphobia is a justification of the article’s central point: that identity politics becomes irrelevant when it fails to engage with issues other than that of defending the group’s identity.

Zoe, and Roz Kaveney, call Suzanne to task for not apologising, but it should, in fact, be the trigger-happy trans commentariat who should say sorry. They owe an apology for needlessly taking offence and not being prepared to acknowledge their over-reaction. For Suzanne to apologise would be to admit that Brazilian transsexuals should be seen as murder victims rather than as an aesthetic ideal, while ignoring the fact that the people to judge on this matter would be a representative sample of said Brazilian transsexuals.

Dear unrepresentative sample of the trans community, please stop digging. There is no hole. Accept that reality and maybe you can do something seemingly impossible for the wider trans community.

© Mercia McMahon 2013