Trans activists really need to lighten up
Transsexuals’ histrionic response to every slight only confirms how flimsy their identity is.
Why are transsexual activists so sensitive to criticism? This is a serious question, not an insult. There must be some reason why the trans community, as it calls itself, is worse at taking criticism or tolerating insulting commentary than, say, the Christian community or the butch lesbian community, both of which also get flak on the internet and elsewhere but don’t tend to respond to it in the way trans types do.
Over the past fortnight we’ve had loads of histrionics from trans activists. Feminist Julie Bindel was hounded off a panel discussion at a British university because she once criticised trans people. Roseanne Barr, maker of the best sitcom of the Eighties, currently stands accused of ‘transphobia’ basically because she tweeted favourably about someone who criticised the trans identity. This follows the trans community’s successful removal of Julie Burchill’s trans-slamming article from the website of the Observer earlier this year. When I wrote a piece arguing that Bradley Manning is not a woman, despite his claims to the contrary, I was bombarded with suggestions that I should kill myself. This from trans activists who (ludicrously) held Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn responsible for the suicide of a trans schoolteacher and said the media must be careful never to criticise this community lest its members feel tempted to kill themselves.
Of course, ours is an age of super-sensitivity, when feeling offended, and more importantly loudly and proudly declaring your feelings of offence, has become the lifeblood of public discourse. But there are different degrees of offence-taking. Some groups seem more capable of riding out criticism than others. Yes, Christian outfits play the victim card and bleat to officialdom about feeling offended by an ad or an article, but mostly they just ignore web-based Christian-bashing, which is voluminous. Islamists are more sensitive, hollering for beheadings whenever someone mocks Muhammad or says the Koran is cobblers.
And the trans lobby is even more sensitive than that, reacting with censorious anger not only to insults but also to people’s allegedly incorrect use of language, to being called ‘a transsexual’, for example, rather than ‘a member of the trans community’. They even picket the offices of newspapers that have the temerity to piss them off. Why the extraordinary touchiness?
I think it reflects the fundamental flimsiness of the trans identity, the fragility of this so-called community. Transsexuals’ hopping-mad reaction to any perceived slight doesn’t confirm that they are a well-organised, increasingly cocky gang holding the world to ransom, as some have claimed. Rather it reveals the opposite – that this is a ‘community’ so sadly uncertain of its own claims, so instinctively aware of the largely phoney nature of its arguments, that it must protect itself from any form of public ridicule or questioning lest its facade be knocked down.
The rule of modern-day identity politics and offence-taking seems to be this: the less rooted and real one’s identity is, the more obsessed one becomes with erecting a forcefield around it in order to keep at bay awkward query-raisers.
Transsexualism depicts itself as a cultural or personal identity on a par with being black or female. Trans activists ask, ‘Would you be as insulting to black people as you are to trans people?’. But this is disingenuous, because transsexualism is based, not on culture or history or nature, but on individual self-loathing. The starting point of transsexualism is contempt for one’s own body. As the male-to-female character in the popular indie film Transamerica says with a shudder when asked by a doctor how he/she feels about his penis, ‘It disgusts me’.
This is the essence of transsexualism – not community pride or a history-derived sense of belonging, but self-doubt, even self-disgust, a feeling of extreme alienation from one’s own body. To elevate such sad feelings into an identity, so that a personal crisis of the mind and body gets transformed into a celebratory sexual orientation, is effectively to valorise alienation and glamorise psychological disorder.
The real problem here is not the trans lobby, which is small, but the inability of society more broadly to make judgements about people’s behaviour, and its corresponding relativistic acceptance of every way of life as a ‘new identity!’. The transformation of bodily alienation into a sexual identity – transsexualism – reflects society’s refusal to say, simply, ‘Look. You are confused. Let’s talk about this and find a way to alleviate your alienation from yourself.’ Instead we effectively say, ‘Congratulations, you are a transsexual! Go and have your body drastically modified by a doctor.’
A hospital in Holland even gives out puberty-stopping drugs to 11- to 16-year-olds who believe they have the wrong gender – which sums up brilliantly how incapable we are of telling people to get a grip or think hard about their alienation, and how willing we are to doll up even teenage confusion as the expression of a natural orientation or inspiring identity.
It is this fundamental hollowness of the so-called transsexual identity, the fact that it is in essence self-loathing dressed up as a positive way of life, which explains the sensitivity to criticism of trans activists. Communities or groups based on more meaningful, substantial, historical things than simply individual alienation potentially have the moral and intellectual resources needed to withstand ridicule – trans activists do not. They have a powerful instinct to guard their ‘identity’ from mockery or critique because they recognise that, at heart, there isn’t much to it.
The rise of touchy transsexualism reflects, not the emergence of a new community demanding liberty and respect in the way that gays did in the 1960s, but rather that modern society is so relativistic that it is willing to treat even individuals’ personal crises as the expressions of a gloriously interesting identity and that ‘communities’ now think nothing of shutting down any criticism or mocking of their way of life. Touchy transsexualism is the bastard offspring of the twin modern evils of relativism and a po-faced, ban-happy allergy to ridicule.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.