Comment is Free, to attack trans people

If you’re on Twitter you probably haven’t managed to avoid the discussion of Julie Burchill’s transphobic piece printed in the Observer today. Like many others who share outrage and disgust at the article, I refuse to post a link to it and thereby increase web traffic to the paper, so if you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a brief summary.

Last week, Suzanne Moore wrote an article about the pressures women face which included a scathing reference to their alleged pursuit of “the perfect body - I.e. that of a Brazilian transsexual.” Naturally, many in the trans community were incredibly offended and made their complaints known on Twitter. Ever the serious journalist, Suzanne Moore responded by making crude, transphobic remarks and closing her account. Enter Julie Burchill, whose strategy for defending her good friend Moore, it appears, was to simply try to outdo her in the offensive stakes, and that is how an article that is at once demeaning, dismissive and threatening to the trans community came in to being. How it came to be in the Observer is a completely different, and altogether more important question.

As you all know, I’m a singer, not a writer, and I wouldn’t presume to know more about Burchill’s craft than she does. Purely from a reader’s perspective I found the article so rambling in its indignation that her arguments were hard to distinguish, much less follow, and the odd bizarre simile that was thrown in for decoration only added to the confusion. It’s pretty badly written, it’s fundamental points are nonsense, and it uses language to describe trans people that is so childishly graphic and offensive as to make the Daily Mail look sophisticated.

To anyone who’s heard her name before, all this comes as little surprise. The transparency with which Burchill uses uninspired shock tactics sold as “controversy” to disguise a genuine lack of journalistic ability is ridiculous, but it’s nothing new. Indeed, I wonder how grateful “Suze” is for this so-called defence in the first place. Such a good friend Burchill is that she sought to drag Moore’s name further through the mud in her pursuit of the only flash-in-the-pan fame available to her: outraged infamy and derision. Even as I complain to the Observer editor I know that somewhere Burchill is just salivating at the thought of people talking about her. Mission accomplished.

So why give such an insignificant person the attention she so shamelessly craves? If everybody knows she’s a moron, why should we bat an eyelid?

Because The Observer needs to explain itself. Optimistic though I am for a more liberated future I am not naive to the plight of the trans community in the overly gendered and largely uneducated world in which we live today. But even I don’t expect to read a serious article that uses the words “trannies” and “shemales” - not even in the Sun, for crying out loud, let alone the Observer. Comment is Free, apparently to offend whoever and however it wants. As many readers have pointed out, if the same thing was written about pretty much any other minority, no editor outside of the BNP website would have touched it. The Observer and Guardian have a reputation for being more liberal, more intellectual and more left wing than any other large-circulation national newspapers. So how on earth was this allowed to happen?

At the end of a year which saw some truly monstrous failings of the British media exposed, there have been continued calls for more responsible journalism. That applies to more than Kate Middleton’s holiday snaps. Julie Burchill is a fool, but as a staunch guardian of free speech I’ll be the first to admit she has every right to be. What she doesn’t have a right to is a public platform which will reach millions. To be published is not a right, it is a responsibility, and while the justification for Burchill’s hate speech is far from clear, one thing certainly is: this mistake lies with the Observer’s editors. What’s more, we should not stop shouting about it until that’s acknowledged.

Already today I’ve seen the self-satisfied criticisms of those who look with amused condescension on people using Twitter to publish their anger. One compared the response to Mary Whitehouse’s campaigns of the 60s and 70s . And to those people that see this article as nothing but an opportunity to delight in criticising the Twitterstorm it caused - well done, you. How good it must feel to be so trendy that you can let something so unapologetically prejudiced slip by unchallenged.

For my part, I’m honouring my New Year’s resolution of expecting better, and demanding better. We are not a society that will allow a newspaper to publish a bullying, prejudiced attack on a minority community. That Julie Burchill has been peddling this type of drivel for years is more our shame than hers. Take a second before you automatically respond “that’s just what she does” and ask yourself what kind of country you want to live in. I want to live in one where the stigmatisation and ignorance aimed at the trans community is something to challenge, to be ashamed of, to eradicate.

Not be used to sell fucking newspapers.