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Gender is not a punchline

January 11, 2013

This week has been unusual for trans* people in the UK. Their existence has been noted and commented on in the press. There have already been a couple of people who have done good round up posts of this week. My small part in the story can be found here at the New Statesman

In predictable fashion, a bit of a web mob has formed against Suzanne Moore after her failure to apologise or engage with her critics over her original comment in this article

I got chatting about this with my trans partner and thought I understood what the problem with the original comment was. I missed it, by a country mile.

So, the original comment by Moore was:

We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.

Without going into any of the stuff about how and why trans* people reinforce gender stereotypes, and any of the other stuff brought up in later interactions, here’s where I got it phenomenally wrong. 

I thought that the reason why the line was so out of order was because it was using as a punchline a group of women who are murdered at a horrific rate. I thought that if the words ‘Brazilian transsexual’ were replaced by Katie Price, as someone who consciously plays up to gender stereotypes, that it would make it okay. 

At this point, I ought to explain something about the way that my partner and I communicate. We are aware that our mental training is different, and thus the ways that we look at the world are different. You can probably figure out the shape of the lenses I look at the world through from looking back through my blog, but generally it’s a bit feminist, a bit left, a bit economic and whole mess of other stuff. I don’t really have a specific training, but the reading I’ve been doing over the last few years has led me in the direction of an economic and left wing perspective. 

My partner sees the world through the lenses of gender. He sees gender the way the rest of us see road signs. And through those lenses he saw something I missed entirely.

Every gender expression is valid and should be treated as such. The gender and presentation of trans* women on Brazilian beaches. The gender and presentation of a British celebrity with variably-sized tits and frankly amazing skin. My gender and presentation which today includes scruffed-up hair with 2-month roots, a hand made dress and DM boots. The gender and presentation of the entire cast of TOWIE and Geordie Shore.

To use the phrasing Moore did in the context that she did, and particularly, to defend it in the way she did, was to use the gender and presentation of those women as the punchline to her anger, and to imply that they weren’t really women. 

Her implication was that certain forms of gender presentation are more valid than others, and that trans* women do not measure up, that their mere existence can be a cause of legitimate anger for cis women. Viewed this way, Moore’s comments cannot be anything but offensive.

Of course, now that I’ve seen this, I realise that whole swathes of my behaviour and conversation now need work. I have been taking the piss out of the gender and presentation of so many people. We are all a work in progress, and I’ve just realised a whole new area where my language and behaviour needs work. Moore does too. I hope someone shows her this and that it helps her identify the roots of the anger that have been directed at her over the last few days. 

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9 Comments
  1. jemima101 permalink

    There was another aspect I saw, which may have come from simutaneously reading #transdocfail Which was those bodies Moore saw as a punchline are themselves often imposed by a medical profession that sees gender in very limited outdated terms. If Moore had not been transphobic she would have perhaps seen that the pressures she was decrying are perpetrated on trans* men and women every day.

    I was wondering what you or your partner thought of this?

    • Definitely. One of the things that I’ve discovered over the last year or so is that access to treatment at gender clinics is very much dependant on the patient meeting the clinician’s idea of appropriate gender presentation. And these ideas often vary between professionals, sometimes within the same clinic, and are never codified, because of course ‘everyone knows’ what the markers of being a woman are, right? The sort of freedom that I have as a cis woman to play around with my presentation, and even to have short hair, are not even questioned for me, however could be enough for a trans* woman to be denied life-saving treatment now and forever.
      Edit: This is me, not asked any of my partners about this. Don’t know if my partner would be happy to comment himself due to fear of the gender clinic. I’ll ask him.

      • The partner in question permalink

        I’m commenting using an old email I set up which isn’t connected to my legal name.

        In response to your question, I currently shave my head. I am too scared to grow my hair out, because people will use it to refuse me treatment. Unless I look and present myself as a caricature of the masculine gender, it will be held against me. The implications of the system are that there are two gender expressions that are acceptable and all deviation from this is to be punished.

        This is both gatekeeping and gender policing: neither of which it is okay for the medical establishment to do.

  2. jemima101 permalink

    Thank you for the reply, i am only just beginning to realize how much a privilege it is to be able to wear corsets or Tracksuit bottoms, that people might judge what sort of women I am, bit never question my right to dress as I please, or my gender due to it.

  3. NMJ permalink

    Hi,
    I will start by saying that I clicked through to this blog post having read quite a lot about Moore and Burchill today – and that I have very little prior knowledge of trans* issues other than what I have picked up today. I do understand the many problems with Burchill’s article and its publication.

    What I hope someone can explain further is the reasoning for the upset caused by the line in Moore’s article: “We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.”

    It was talked in this blog post but I’m still wondering: if the words “Brazilian transsexual” were replaced with “supermodel”, the sentence would, I think, have the same meaning – that women would like to have “better-looking” bodies. And if the sentence read that way then it wouldn’t be inferred that supermodels are not women, or that the existence of supermodels is a cause of legitimate anger for cis women – but that the societal pressure on all women is to look a certain way, and this is what causes anger.

    Of course, the problems faced by Brazilian transsexuals mean that this shouldn’t have been used as an example, and that an apology should have been issued as soon as it became clear that the term was used in ignorance – but this doesn’t seem to be the whole problem.

    I hope I haven’t offended anyone, that’s not my intention at all. I rarely engage in this type of debate but I’ve seen today as an opportunity to further my understanding of the issues faced by the trans* community and would really appreciate some clarification on this point.

    • Hi there NMJ,
      I think that for a lot of people, the storm over the last week will be the first time that they have encountered trans* issues, so firstly, thank you for taking the opportunity to educate yourself.
      The question you ask is kinda the question that I was trying to answer in the main post, but I might have used some language and jargon which is common when you’re discussing gender and identity, but may be more obtuse if you’re new to the field.
      The situation you suggest, of substituting one type of woman for another in the original comment Moore made, is the one that I originally thought of. Like you, I thought that the problem was that the comment referred to a group of women who were already the subject of oppression and violence.
      The point that I missed, and that I was trying to record in this blog post, was that it was less the women who were being made fun of here, and more the way that they presented their gender.
      Gender is a very complex arena, and there are so many different aspects to it that it’s no wonder that it’s so commonly misunderstood. There are the obvious markers of gender that we can point to immediately; dresses, beards, high heels, hair styles, vocal register. But there are so many more subtle markers which we use to decide whether to use ‘he’ or ‘she’ when talking to or about someone. These include the way in which someone speaks and whether they interrupt other people, the way that you hold yourself or sit on a sofa, your height.
      The sum of all these and many other factors are you gender presentation, which may or may not be the same as your actual gender. The process of transition for a trans* person is the process of changing that outward gender presentation to be as close as possible to their actual gender, which is an internal thing.
      The reason why it does not remove offense to substitute one group of women (Brazilian trans women) with another (supermodels) is that in both cases the implicit message is that these presentations of femininity are both unattainable, and somehow place those who present in this fashion outside the group of ‘woman’. Substitutions that would make sense would be Jessica Rabbit, or Betty Boop, who are both fictional, and consciously play up a pantomime presentation of femininity.
      The answer to your question is that because every gender presentation is (or should be) valid, to put any real life woman or group of women in the comment Moore made is to imply that they are not really a woman / women.
      Of course, the whole fuss is over far more than this initial comment, and reading this storify may help you to see where it all started getting a bit more serious: http://storify.com/stavvers/suzanne-moore-s-transphobic-meltdown
      (Oops, unintentional essay!)

  4. NMJ permalink

    Thank you, so much, for taking the time to explain the language you used. All too often I find myself confused when reading about issues which are new to me such as gender and feminism – and unfortunately I sometimes see exchanges where questions like mine are answered rather combatively, which can be intimidating when I’m trying to understand.

    I can understand this is because often people ask questions deliberately to goad, which must be very frustrating for people who really care about the issues being discussed, it’s frustrating enough for me!

    Anyway, I really do appreciate your friendly response. It is an excellent point, very well made, and having that understanding of gender presentation I agree with jemima101 in that I am incredibly lucky to be able to wear what I want and behave how I want, without anyone passing judgement on my gender.

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