On transphobia, feminism and owning your mistakes

Last weekend The Observer published a piece by Julie Burchill about transgender people. Ostensibly written in support of Suzanne Moore (who has also said some horrible things about trans people) it was a vile piece, filled with transphobic slurs and hate language that upset and angered a lot of people. It upset and angered me, a white, cisgender (which means that my gender identity and my body/sex are the same) woman. Both Moore and Burchill’s articles pissed me off for a lot of reasons, many of which have been expressed in greater and better detail by other writers (see, for example, Roz Kaveney, Paris Lees, Jane Fae, Brooke Magnanti, another angry woman, Laurie Penny and Christine Burns, to name just a few). But, beyond the transphobia, one of the biggest reasons I was annoyed is because this is not my feminism. My feminsim does not exclude people because of the genitals they were born with; my feminism does not promote prejudice; my feminism does not tell you whether you are a woman or not. That is a kind of feminism that I want nothing to do with. I don’t believe that we can have feminism without including trans people (for a brilliant piece on transgender and feminism see Paris Lees, Jane Fae, CL Minou, and Stuart Crawford in The Guardian). My feminism has to be intersectional, by which I mean that it has to be aware that we all have different experiences and these experiences interact with each other. Where feminism is concerned, as That Pesky Feminist points out

we are not all just women; we have different ethnicities, different sexualities, different classes, different abilities, different identities, and we are affected by all of them, making everybody’s experience different. So, equality will mean very different things for different women, and we must take this into account if we wish to fight for it.

As a white, Welsh, working class, educated woman my experience of sexism will be different to that of a woman of colour, or an upper class woman, or a trans woman. That doesn’t mean that their experiences are any less valid or important than mine. It does mean that I may unintentionally hurt these women because my privilege and my experiences mean I navigate the world in a different way.  And here’s the thing: I fuck up. I’ve made mistakes this week, partly because I haven’t expressed myself as clearly as I should have, partly because I’ve made assumptions I shouldn’t have made, and partly because of plain ignorance. And yes, it’s upsetting when I’m told, especially by people I like and respect, that what I’ve said is wrong, or damaging, or hurtful. It makes me anxious, it makes me upset, it makes me worry that I’ll lose a friend or colleague. And so I understand that my first reaction will be to get defensive: I didn’t mean it that way! I’m not X, Y or Z-phobic! You misunderstood me! But here’s the thing – it doesn’t matter what I meant; it doesn’t matter that my feelings are hurt. This isn’t about me.

I try to remember that when I’ve said something wrong. I try to put my feelings aside and apologise, clarify what I said or examine it to work out where I went wrong, educate myself and change my behaviour. It’s not always easy but it’s an ongoing process. Today, for example, I read Deborah Jane Orr’s Guardian piece in which she writes

That’s why it’s so awful to talk of trans women as men who have been castrated. Such people are women who have had the biological misfortune to have been born with bodies that are out of kilter with the much more complex biology of their female minds. That too, is why the trans community prefers people not to talk of being biologically or born female as opposed to trans female. Trans people are biologically or born female, but with detail of the flesh that traduces their ability to be physically and socially accepted for what they are.

While I’d never refer to trans women as men it had never occurred to me that saying I was born a female might not be the best way to frame it (that hasn’t formed part of my experience as a woman). Now that I know that it’s my responsibility to avoid saying it and find another way to express that I was born with a physical female appearance. And that’s the other thing about educating yourself: you have to do it. While I’m grateful for the trans people I know who point out where I’ve gone wrong I don’t (and shouldn’t) expect them to do it for me. It’s my job to understand the issues before diving in and throwing my opinions out there. Just like it’s my job to deal with my reaction to being told I’ve said something hurtful. If I want my feminism to be meaningful and inclusive, I have to be able to own my mistakes. It’s not always easy, but it’s a lot easier than some of the experiences other women have had to deal with.

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