Critics say it is hate speech: now a coalition minister has called for Observer columnist Julie Burchill to be sacked, accusing her of a “disgusting rant” against transsexuals.
It began with a comment in an article on female anger: now the editor of the Observer and even a government minister have become embroiled in the row.
The whole issue began with an essay by writer Suzanne Moore, published last week in the New Statesman. In it, she wrote that women were angry with themselves for “not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual”.
This sparked a stream of comments on Twitter, many from transsexual people who said the use of the phrase was hurtful and offensive, and calling for an apology.
Instead, Moore wrote a second article, saying she had been accused of transphobia. “I made it worse – well why not? – by saying that I don’t like the word. I don’t think it adds to our understanding of the complex webs of hatred it invokes, but instead closes down discussion.”
However the second piece provoked an even bigger storm on Twitter, as Moore insisted “I am not going to apologise. Get it?” Eventually, she said the backlash grew so bad, she was forced to leave the social messaging site altogether.
Fellow writer Julie Bindel joined the argument, accusing the “trans-cabal” of “running a witch hunt every time they get offended.”
At this point, Observer columnist Julie Burchill came to Moore’s defence, with a highly opinionated and provocative column in Sunday’s paper, with what many considered was tantamount to hate speech about members of the transsexual community.
“Rather than join her in decrying the idea that every broad should aim to look like an oven-ready porn star,” she wrote, “the very vociferous transsexual lobby and their grim groupies picked on the messenger instead.”
The Observer later took down the column, and replaced it with a statement from editor John Mulholland, which said: “We have decided to withdraw from publication the Julie Burchill comment piece ‘Transsexuals should cut it out’.
“The piece was an attempt to explore contentious issues within what had become a highly-charged debate. The Observer is a paper which prides itself on ventilating difficult debates and airing challenging views.
“On this occasion we got it wrong and in light of the hurt and offence caused I apologise and have made the decision to withdraw the piece.”
Former equalities minister Lynne Featherstone, now at the Department for International Development, joined the furious reaction on Twitter, describing Burchill’s article as “bigoted vomit” and calling for her to be sacked.
Julie Birchill rant against transgender community is absolutely disgusting – a bigoted vomit for which the Observer should sack her. -lf
— Lynne Featherstone (@lfeatherstone) January 13, 2013
Guardian News and Media said they acknowledged that there had been a strong reaction to the piece, which they were taking extremely seriously. The paper’s independent editor Stephen Pritchard has been asked to carry out an urgent investigation.
But relations between feminists and transsexuals have often proved highly complicated. Germaine Greer has long been an outspoken critic of the role of transsexual women in gender politics, at one stage describing them as a “ghastly parody”, who were invading female space.
Transsexuals believe that although a lot of feminists are happy to support their cause, their very existence challenges the idea of gender far beyond what many people are comfortable with.
Sara Savage, who took part in a Channel 4 documentary series called My Transsexual Summer, told Channel 4 News that she had experienced almost universal respect after appearing in the show. “People respected us for standing up on national television and coming out as transsexual. We gave up any hope of living in stealth, but they respected that.”
I can think of no other minority about which a piece of that venom would be acceptable. Jane Fae, feminist writer
By contrast, she said, the negative reactions had poured out on Twitter: “There is always a lot of hatred there. I stopped searching for comments after a while as I was just winding myself up.”
However she said she hoped the Julie Burchill article would make people think twice. “I hope it will be a watershed moment: that was out and out hatred, it was disgusting. I hope that people think before they type. You can make a statement and put across your opinion in a way which doesn’t demean and insult the people you are talking about.”
Jane Fae, a feminist and writer on gender issues, told Channel 4 News it was important for journalists to choose their words carefully, to ask whether a point could be made without being rude. “I can think of no other minority about which a piece of that venom would be acceptable,” she said.
But she felt that beyond the storm and fury over the Burchill piece, there could be a long term benefit to discussing an issue which rarely gets media coverage. “This has been an eye-opener for a lot of the non-trans world,” she said, “They have had to read about the issues, so in the long term it could even do some good.”
A report carried out by the Universities and College Union into transphobic hate crime found it was responsible for at least two deaths a month across the European Union.
And Brazil has the world’s highest recorded murder rate for trans people. According to the Latin America Centre on Human Rights, figures between 1980 and 2011 show 962 trans people were killed there, “an average of one homicide every ten days”.
But whether the Burchill article, and the furious reaction, is just a consequence of free speech, or some kind of hate speech, is now a matter for the Observer’s own ombudsman to decide.