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