The rules of the game have changed

Transgender symbol and butterfly, by Zoe Kirk-RobinsonI’m going to start this post by saying I was an activist during the first wave of trans activism. I campaigned for better treatment of trans prisoners. I was heavily involved in the running of, at its peak, five information and support groups for trans people. I also successfully conducted court battles against government departments to achieve fair treatment of trans people in employment.

In terms of my sociopolitical viewpoint, I was not a true First Wave activist. I was never well-liked by the mainstream of trans activism; in fact I was kicked out of and banned from a couple of the larger activist groups for saying it was a really, really bad move to refer to a psychiatrist as “God”. Apparently that wasn’t showing due deference to authority.

I stand by what I said.

The first wave of trans activism ended years ago in the UK. I would say it ended around the time Press for Change sent out an email bulletin saying they were no longer going to counter every case of transphobia in the media. I can’t blame them for calling time on that activity – it was never their primary concern and there was an awful lot of transphobia in the media back then so if they spent all their time on it, they would get nothing else done.

Their core interests were political, not ideological, and changing the media requires an ideological change in society; something the first wave were not geared up to handle.

There still is a lot of transphobia in the media but it’s handled by a larger group now. The second wave of trans activism is very much alive and kicking. Its goals are ideological and political, its activist base far wider and more diverse than the first wave could have ever hoped for. Thanks to what the first wavers achieved, we have a firm legal base to work from, but we have different goals and very different methods to achieve them.

This is why I get so annoyed when the first wavers pop up and tell us we are “doing it wrong”. We aren’t. The rules of the game have changed and people have to understand that before criticising us. I’m very happy to see that first wavers are still around and still want to be part of the activist community, but they have to realise that while we thank them for everything they achieved, that doesn’t necessarily come hand-in-hand with agreeing with anything they have to say right now.

The second wave questions everything, and we call everyone out when they are wrong. That’s how ideological change will be achieved – by not giving anyone a free pass. Hence what I’m here to talk about today.

Christine Burns, MBE – a woman who is rightly viewed as one of the biggest contributors to the first wave of trans activism – wrote an article saying we are using “transphobia” incorrectly. I’ve long been a big fan of Christine Burns and her recent book on the history of trans activism in Britain, Pressing Matters (Volume 1), should be required reading for anyone who wants to discuss activism in the UK. I’m going to call her out on what she’s said in that article, however.

In her article, she argues that the word “transphobia” is “not a term we needed”. She talks a lot about how “[a] word like transphobia has always seemed to me about apportioning blame and explaining the irrational behaviour that trans people describe seeing in others.” and this is quite right. It is about apportioning blame, in the same way as the word “homophobia” is about apportioning blame – and she defended that use of “homophobia”.

Apparently that’s not an acceptable use of “transphobia”, though. Why? Because she is used to dealing with judicial cases and the more polite, stand-offish manner in which legal arguments must be phrased. I can understand that. I’m a lawyer and I will back up anyone who wants to make the argument that the law requires a very different approach to language and debate than the average online discussion or letter-writing campaign.

The law is about reason, not passion. So was the first wave. But the first wave is over.

Her analysis of the Wikipedia definition attempt to explain to what she calls the trans people who “came out and started becoming politically active in the noughties” is nothing short of useless in this context. What Wikipedia thinks transphobia means is irrelevant. Wikipedia is institutionally transphobic.

Christine talks about the use of transphobia from the point of view of “will the person the term is applied to understand it?” but this is the wrong way to look at the issue. They do understand it – implicit understanding is there through its relationship with the word “homophobia”. This isn’t an apples and oranges issue and it’s wrong to frame it in that context.

To argue that there is something wrong with how “transphobia” is used – or overused, which seems to be Christine’s reason for wanting us to hold off on using it – is to give ammunition to the kind of person who thinks the word “cissexual” is an insult. The only people who are confused by the modern lexicon are the people who want to be confused. We don’t need to give those people ammunition; those people are the enemy.

As a final word on this subject, I want to talk about Christine’s “unintended offence” argument. She says “as a diversity specialist, I’m painfully aware of the potential for unintended offence which I may give to other communities, regardless of how well-intentioned I may be” and she is to be applauded for this.

Giving unintended offence is a bad thing but since she is arguing that we should hold off on occasions where a second wave activist would tweet “hey, do you know what you just said looks a little transphobic?” then it looks an awful lot like she is asking us to stop calling out the newspapers on their transphobia again. It’s not going to happen.

The world has moved on and those who use the term “transphobia” know that only pig-headed transphobes won’t (not can’t, won’t) understand what we are saying when we use the term. If she had asked that people exercise restraint while combating transphobia (as in “hey, don’t just scream at people, explain the problem as well!”) then I would back her up.

But that’s not what she’s asking. She’s arguing from an outmoded position and what she’s asking for is the same “oh don’t offend them or they won’t play nice with us and give us our rights” argument that has meant we’ve seen next to no progress in trans rights for a decade.

The world has changed. The next step toward equality requires us to act differently and engage in different ways to how the first steps were taken. I would be happy if she would join us in our campaigns again, but if all she’s going to do is ask us to march to a tune that no longer works, then I’ll politely ask her to step aside and let us get on with our work unimpeded.

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