Sunday, August 10, 2014

(Trans)Misogyny on BBC Woman's Hour

Hi guys, it's been a while.  There have been things that I have wanted to write about here and there, but I haven't really had the time to do it.  The continuing genocide in Gaza.  The fifth anniversary of my Aunt's death (and still no trial for her killer).  Police violence.  Changes in how I think about my gender.  Wrinkles.  Sadly in the job I'm in now I don't really have the opportunity to scribble in my notebook as I once did when confronted with thoughts/moments I want to hold on to.  But this week I am here, because I heard something so upsetting that I really couldn't let it go.

I clean houses these days.  For an eco focused company who pays me decent.  It's not a bad gig.  We're allowed to listen to stuff with headphones while we work, and podcasts have been the perfect thing for me.  If I tune out for a second, unlike with an audiobook, I don't really lose my place.  And I don't have the temptation to sing along, like with music (we're not allowed to).  So I've been devouring podcasts!  Mostly these are BBC podcasts, as I find them largely more enjoyable than ones here from the US.  I like hearing perspectives on things from outside my own culture, and the accents, and feeling like I'm learning about another culture sometimes.

The one I've listened to the longest, in fact, for many years now off and on, is "Woman's Hour" on BBC Radio 4.  I looked for USian takes on this idea and really didn't find much.  But this is basically a one hour show, five days a week, that takes a feminist look at current events, primarily in the UK but they do draw stories from around the world.  The topics are as diverse as anyone who has spent time in Women's Studies or the like might expect.

From my perspective this show is not perfect, but it's often interesting.  Much like NPR in the States, Radio 4 seems to be a moderately left-leaning liberal type of environment, and Woman's Hour generally takes a similarly liberal feminist or old school radical feminist perspective on most things.  So, obviously, coming from an anti-kyriarchal feminist perspective I often want to respond with "yeah...but" to their segments.  From the way FGM and hijab are addressed, or the way they interview sex workers and trans women I can tell there is a deep discomfort with things I take for granted as obvious (like that sex work is work and trans women are women, full stop). I don't love this, but I can live with it most days.  Honestly it's often a good reminder about what big F Feminism looks like and values, and clarifies my fundamental differences with them.

But the episode I listened to on Friday was a whole new level.  I actually started crying while I cleaned I was so upset and angry, and I had to turn it off at one point.  Once the episode was over I cleaned in silence for a while just to clear my head.

As soon as I had read the episode description that morning I knew it wasn't going to be good.  "The politics of transgenderism" was the title of one of the segments.  OMG, "transgenderism???"  It was a huge red flag.  That wording is only used by two groups of people: transphobic Radical Feminists, and those who are largely ignorant of what it means to be a trans person and don't know any better yet.  After being in the feminist broadcasting business for a long time (decades, I've gathered) I doubted the latter could be the case here.  I wasn't wrong.  The episode started up and I heard who they had on to discuss their new book during this segment: Sheila Jeffreys.  If you're not familiar with her, like Janice Raymond and Germaine Greer, she is a well known feminist whose work has stigmatized, attacked, denigrated and dehumanized trans people (particularly trans women).

But it was worse than I feared, as the host (Jenni Murray) not only let Jeffreys speak at length without interruption even when she was saying incredibly transphobic things, but then repeatedly interrupted Zowie Davy* when she was finally given the chance to reply.  It was horrible.  It was violent.  And while Natacha at UnCommon Sense has already done an incredible job with her article A detailed response to Sheila Jeffreys on Woman’s Hour, I also feel the need to respond with my thoughts to a few things.  Thank you also to Melissa Tsang who transcribed the segment, which I have used here.

First of all, Jeffreys attacks trans women who, as they begin to express their gender identity, sometimes rely on stereotypical or hyper-feminine expressions of femininity.  Jenni Murray reworded that "accusation" thusly: "Long nails, very painted, long hair, flicked, beautifully made-up. Why is there often an apparent need to become a stereotype of a very feminine woman or a very masculine man?"  I've seen this kind of accusation a lot from feminists.  And I can't remember who said this, though I think perhaps it was Julia Serano, but the concept of a "trans girlhood" seems very relevant here.  It was the simple act of pointing out that when cis** girls begin to mature into women, they begin experimenting with gender roles and different kinds of gender expression.  Usually, we start playing with the images of womanhood that we see around us.  "Around us" can mean in our families, larger communities, or in media (for a few examples).  At some point, at least once or twice, most of us will "try on" a hyper feminine gender presentation: copious makeup, high heels, painted nails, long hair and yes, maybe we will even "flick" it.  As children, this is considered perfectly normal.  We're trying to figure out how what we feel inside corresponds with how we dress and adorn ourselves on the outside.  Trying to figure out the responses we get to different expressions of ourselves and how that makes us feel.  Trying to figure out what we're comfortable with.***  And yet, when a trans woman does this very same thing, she is somehow pathological.

Maybe it is because when many trans women come to this girlhood stage, they are adults.  But tomorrow, I turn 30 years old, and I'm STILL messing with my gender identity!  So why the hell would we assume that a trans woman who has just started expressing her femininity outwardly would have it all figure out right off the bat?  Why wouldn't she do many of the very same things that cis girls do?  From personally knowing, reading about and listening to trans women, it doesn't seem like this stage lasts very long (again, just like with most cis girls).  In fact most, if not all, of the trans women I have known express a very toned down version of outward femininity.  The most hyper feminine women I know in real life are all cis women!  That Jenni Murray and Sheila Jeffreys both seem to believe that trans women stay statically in this place of hyper feminine expression suggests a real ignorance of lived trans womanhood.

Directly after this part of the discussion, Zowie Davy responds brilliantly to this accusation of hyper-femininity by pointing out two things that Murray ignores altogether.  1) That this focusing on "stereotypical" femininity "assumes that femininity is somehow bad" and 2) that it is GENDER CLINICS, aka the gatekeepers of trans people's access to vitally important medications, that absolutely demand very normative gender presentation to take trans people seriously.  This second point has been talked about by trans people in many places; it is the violence of the medical industry on gender variant people, and a real enactment of patriarchal understandings of gender by systems of power.  These are the exact same dynamics that harm cis women in incredibly violent ways within medicine.  Honestly, even the most basic RadFem should take this point very, very seriously because it's the exact kind of patriarchal power over women that they regularly debunk.  And similarly, the first point is one that also falls precisely within the RadFem wheelhouse, reclamation of "the feminine" is something I first came across in radical feminist writing!  Further, the denigration of practices, work and people designated feminine is exactly something Woman's Hour regularly fights against.

Just not when it comes to trans women, apparently.

Finally, the segment ends with the tired, played out fear mongering of "men dressed as women going into toilets and raping (cis) women!"  Look, this is a horrible, violent, demeaning accusation, and one which is totally baseless.  Not because some version of it has never happened, but because people like Jeffreys pretend that trans women are exceptionally apt to raping people, and because this accusation is largely a roundabout kind of victim blaming.  So, first of all, sexual assault happens amongst all genders.  This is a fact.  Queer and straight, cis and trans, women, men and all people in between; sexual assault happens, and the victim and abuser come from every group.  Yes, we know some kinds of violence are gendered, and that those gendered masculine are more often the abuser.  But, and this goes to my second point as well, trans women are THE MOST LIKELY TO BE SEXUALLY ASSAULTED.  Like, statistically, this is a thing we know.  And specifically, trans women of color with a disability are the most likely people to be assaulted.  Because they are on the lowest end of the social hierarchy, the most dehumanized, the most looked down upon.  To turn around and say that trans women, a group that is most likely to be abused, are the ones going around doing all this abusive behavior, is some of the most sick and twisted kind of victim blaming I've seen.  And Jenni Murray not only let this (and all the rest of this abusive tripe) slide, but posed it back to Zowie Davy as though it was some compelling kind of question.

It might be a while before I can bring myself to listen to Woman's Hour again.

* The sacrificial trans woman who was seemingly only asked on so Woman's Hour could claim the segment was "balanced" [which is a BBC requirement for most political stories, I gather].

** I'm going to use the simple binary of cis and trans in this piece, to mean people who ~roughly~ adhere to their assigned gender at birth (cis) and people who don't (trans), but the reality is there is quite a spectrum.

*** Total sidenote but this process is probably a FAR superior example of performativity than the one Butler actually used of drag performance....