Papercuts: Transmisogyny, Western Atheists, and the Meaning of Oppression

[trigger warning for transphobia, transmisogny, discussion of gendered violence]

Over the weekend, a giant shitstorm erupted in feminist circles over an article by Suzanne Moore, a British writer, who, in a column for the New Statesman, which is most of the time one of the best news outlets in the world in this blogger’s opinion, made the following comment while talking about discrimination against women:

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.

Now, the rest of the piece being quite good, it’s entirely possible that it was just a case of using an easy stereotype to get a point across. Which still isn’t okay, but it would be miles better than what actually happened. What actually happened was that she doubled down on her bigotry, and she double down hard. From Nico Lang, who recaps the three ways she responded to her critics on Twitter:

1. On using the problematic “transsexual” instead of trans or transgender: “I use the word transexual. I use lots of ‘offensive’ words. If you want to be offended it your prerogative.”

2. When asked why her work doesn’t recognize the intersectionality at hand: “I dont even accept the word transphobia any more than Islamaphobia You are using ‘intersectionality’ to shut down debate. Its bollocks.”

3. When she’s run out of things to say, FTW: “People can just f**k off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me. Good for them.”

Then, it got even worse. Julie Burchill, another well-known British feminist, took it upon herself to defend Moore in a hate-filled screed that is more fitting for a right-wing message board than anything, much less The Observer, a reputable British paper whose editors clearly left their reading glasses at home that day. I’d recommend caution clicking that link above, because it is truly, truly appalling. So much so that The Observer took it off their webpage. And, hopefully, they’ll be hiring new copy editors sometime soon.

The worst thing about this whole debacle isn’t just that it happened in the first place, and in some of the most reputable progressive news outlets in the world, but the fact that it is nothing new. In fact, Burchill has a twenty-year long history of transphobia. This kind of demonization of trans* and non-binary people is a constant fixture of our society. Trans* women in particular are used as punchlines as a matter of course throughout media, as Nico recently explored in the show New Normal. They are exploited for their otherness, made objects, never given their own agency in our societal discourse. And this has an impact.

All in all, trans* people are completely ostracized from our conception, existing in a space outside the norms, where the wider world views them at best as objects of curiosity, at worst subhumans only worthy of exploitation and violence. Even with the passing into law of the Matthew Shepard Act, trans* people face overwhelming amounts of violence and abuse. It was estimated by the William and Mary Law Review in 2000 that murders of trans people worldwide are reported about every three days, and that it is highly probable that many more murders go unreported.* Especially in Brazil, the murder rate for trans* women is staggering, making Moore’s initial comment all the more awful. Furthermore, there are very few places where trans* people are allowed to exist at all, in any way approaching humane; in the US, only a few states and cities have set up laws to specifically prevent discrmination on the basis of gender identity, and most countries have none at all. In many cases, violence against trans* people comes not from the average citizens, but from the police.

I have no idea whether Moore and Burchill know anything about what trans* women face on a daily basis. I suspect they don’t give a damn. And that is a problem, and it’s one those of you reading this who are interested in social justice, and, hope against hope, those who generally are not can realize is one that needs solving.

See, when I came to Chicago three and a half years ago now, I had no idea any of this was going on. I wouldn’t call myself a transphobe or anything like that then, but I definitely had no conception of what transgender really meant, much less did I ever think about the issues involved or that trans* people even really existed. It just wasn’t something that I ever really thought about, nor had I ever received any kind of education on the matter. That in my second year of studying at DePaul, when I was introduced by my best friend here to a group of wonderful people who proceeded to completely change my worldview with their stories, their evidence, their resources, their voices. Old concerns, like those still tightly clung to by the mainstream atheist set who deride the idea of secular involvement in social justice activism,  now, as presented, with only the lense of Western secularism, seem naive and uninformed.

I would argue that there is a distinction to be made between discrmination on the one hand and systemic oppression on the other. Atheists and secular people are certainly not viewed with a great deal of positivity in the US or in most of the world; as Greta lays out, discrimination against atheists has recently turned violent in many parts of the globe, particulary in the Middle East. In every case she lists, it is the police or state criminal justice system that is responsible for the punishment of atheists. In the cases of Alexander Aan and Albert Saber, the police turned a blind eye to violence inflicted upon them by civilians, arresting not a single one of either man’s attackers.

Haven’t we heard something like that before? Systemic violence and incarceration of a dehumanized group? Oh yes, right, when I was discussing trans* oppression a few paragraphs ago.

I would put forth that those like Maria Maltseva who are up in arms over the fact that they Totally Suffer Really Awful Oppression by being atheists in America are out of their damn minds. Yeah, religious people are the majority in this country, and Christian interests in particular exert a huge and unwieldy influence over our politicians. But honestly, to look at the kinds of things that are happening to women, people of color, and trans* people on a daily basis in this country and, frankly, everywhere else around the world, and insist that that Nativity scene on the lawn is a Real Problem, but then not lift a hand to fight against the oppression and war against entire groups of people by our police and criminal justice system is unethical at best, criminally negligent at worst.

American atheists are not oppressed. We are not the Other. We are not dehumanized as a matter of course. We aren’t fetishized objects for audiences to drool over. Our agency and identities are not lampooned and erased because of our atheism. We have blogs read by millions. Heads of our nonprofits get on the mainstream media regularly. Those organizations, for the most part, have good-sized budgets, ranking in the millions of dollars. We’ve got some issues to overcome before we have a truly equal footing in society, yeah. But pretending like getting “In God We Trust” off the money won’t do a damned thing to change the world. We have to use our positions to tackle real oppression, or we’ll never live in a truly free society. In the grand scheme of things, we as Western atheists have some minor, papercut level inconveniences. To pretend that papercut is a gaping head wound is patently absurd, and we need to stop it.

* Frye, Phyllis (Fall 2000). “The International Bill of Gender Rights vs. The Cide House Rules: Transgenders struggle with the courts over what clothing they are allowed to wear on the job, which restroom they are allowed to use on the job, their right to marry, and the very definition of their sex”. William and Mary Journal of Women and the Law 7: 139–145

11 thoughts on “Papercuts: Transmisogyny, Western Atheists, and the Meaning of Oppression

  1. Pingback: Is Anti-Atheist Bigotry A Papercut? A Conversation with Andrew Tripp » Greta Christina's Blog

  2. Pingback: Responding to Greta: The Scale of the Thing | Considered Exclamations

  3. Pingback: The Scale of the Thing: Andrew Tripp’s Reply » Greta Christina's Blog

  4. Pingback: “Whatever activism gets them excited”: A Reply to Andrew Tripp » Greta Christina's Blog

  5. A papercut?? Wow! Okay. Spending a week in solitary confinement without my medicine is slightly more than a papercut. Getting labeled a pedophile because I sent public records requests to the evangelical sheriff for his illegal transfer of public property to the local churches is hardly a paper cut. having my reputation smeared for 2 years is more than a paper cut.
    No, there may not be reported systemic discrimination across the US, but it happens, and it happens blatantly in some places.

    http://free2think.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=30&t=1458

  6. “But honestly, to look at the kinds of things that are happening to women, people of color, and trans* people on a daily basis in this country and, frankly, everywhere else around the world, and insist that that Nativity scene on the lawn is a Real Problem, but then not lift a hand to fight against the oppression and war against entire groups of people by our police and criminal justice system is unethical at best, criminally negligent at worst.”

    THANK YOU.
    I’ve tried to explain it to other atheists who insist that atheist oppression in America is the most horrible thing on the planet, worse than trans* oppression, racism, classism, and misogyny – especially when they go on a tangent about how things are so bad for them (typically it’s usually white middle class atheists, many cismale, but some cisfemale). Not many people get it that.
    That’s not to say that atheist issues aren’t important (and for some people they might be), but if your atheist activism isn’t intersectional, you run the high risk of perpetuating oppression of other (more) marginalized groups (granted, I have not met one non-intersectional atheist activist who doesn’t perpetuate racism, xenophobia, transphobic, and often misogynistic cycles of oppression). If you’re activism is perpetuating oppression against other people, your activism isn’t worth it. You aren’t attacking the systems of oppression when you at best ignore and at worse support other oppressions that are worse than your own. Sadly, many in the atheist community have fallen into that place and it’s something that turns a large amount of people off from being active in the atheist community. It’s part of the reason I don’t make youtube videos anymore or really speak out about atheist issues, because the entire thing becomes advancing white middle class cisgendered atheists while leaving everyone else behind. No one is here for that.

    Thanks Andrew, for another wonderful piece.

  7. Pingback: Intersectionality’s The Thing: Responding to Greta | Considered Exclamations

  8. Pingback: Intersectionality’s The Thing: Andrew Tripp’s Reply » Greta Christina's Blog

  9. Andrew. I think that you are making an error in your desire to compartmentalize “otherness”. Read Phil Zuckerman’s “Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings
    of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions”, and take note of his statement in the conclusion which asserts that, “Atheism and secularity have many positive correlates, such as higher levels of education and verbal ability, lower levels of prejudice, ethnocentrism, racism, and homophobia, greater support for women’s equality, child-rearing that promotes inde-pendent thinking and an absence of corporal punishment, etc.” Note that what this implies is that religion tends to foster an attitude of discrimination, not just against the atheist “other” but against so much that is apart from “self”. The separation, which you seek to create, between different forms of oppression, of “othering”, functions to empower the oppressor, as the oppressed become more isolated in their response to power. But as it seems that you are not concerned with atheist’s/secularist’s position as silenced, excluded individuals; perhaps you have no problem with that.

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