Bindel in trans debate

Over on Comment is Free, Julie Bindel revists the topic of transgender people, in anticipation of a Radio 4 debate going out tonight.

A couple of years ago, Bindel wrote a thoroughly objectionable column called Gender benders, beware. She’s certainly softened her position since then:

The then readers’ editor, having received 200 letters of complaint, wrote, “[This column] abused an already abused minority that the Guardian might have been expected to protect.”

In hindsight, the sarcasm I used in my column was misplaced and insensitive (“Imagine a world inhabited just by transsexuals,” I wrote, complaining about the way many transsexuals parody traditional masculine and feminine styles of dress. “It would look like the set of Grease.”). However, the hundreds of angry emails I received, and the levels of vitriol contained within them, made me realise just how much of a sacred cow – at least among us liberals – the issue had become.

As a result of the article I was firmly branded “transphobic” by the community. No other topic I have addressed in this newspaper has attracted such fury, even though I regularly express controversial opinions.

But, sadly, all of this criticism has just made her curious as to why this was seen as so objectionable, rather than re-appraise her views:

This realisation made me determined to further explore why any criticism of transsexuality seems to be deemed unacceptable outside of homophobic, rightwing circles.

Bindel says that the “diagnosis” of transsexuality “arises from the strong stereotyping of girls and boys into strict gender roles”, and that gay and lesbian people are getting sex change operations in order to fit into hetereosexual society. But this ignores the fact that far from slotting into the straight world, many transmen and transwomen face discrimination. Press for Change has an A-Z of discrimination against trans people in the UK, which I recommend readers check out, if they have any doubts on this score.

On one level, I can see why Bindel feels the way she does: in that a transwoman or a transman may seem to be “performing” the stereotypical gender roles set down by society, and saying that it’s an innate, perhaps biological drive. But what this ignores is that we are all performing gender, all the time. It might be more visible in trans people, because they seem to be swapping one set of these gender roles for another, but I really don’t see that it makes it any worse.

There’s some element of the unknowable here too: if I can paraphrase what Lynne Miles said on our recent podcast, there’s so much social conditioning involved it’s basically impossible to tell what men and women are “naturally” like, as opposed to what men and women are conditioned to be like.

And, given that trans people are a minority subject to very real discrimination, it becomes difficult to see why Bindel sees them as a legitimate target. Although she does somewhat apologise for the tone she took in the original column, I can’t help but think that it would be possible to raise concerns about things like sex-change operations without receiving 200 complaints, if she hadn’t couched that concern in terms that she now admits were sarcastic, and I would call hostile, towards an embattled minority. If it’s all about concern for people undergoing unnecessary sex-change operations, or the way that psychiatrists may require transpeople to live in a very gender-typed fashion in order to qualify for that surgery, or the way that those stereotypes are called attention to by transpeople, then why the Grease ‘jokes’?

I agree with Bindel on many issues, but I can’t agree on this.

Photo by kaitlyn tikkun, shared under a Creative Commons license