It was at around 9:50am that I realised that yet another Sunday was going to bite the dust, hearing Prue Leith describe Jenni Murray as “brave” for entering the lions den of a debate around trans women. And so yet another of my rare days off was consigned to the dustbin of history.
The more I heard about what Murray had written, the more I saw the reactions of those around me, and the more I listened to the “debate” on social media, the angrier I got. This was one of the few stories like this that managed to worm its way under the armour.
So here are some rambling thoughts from the morning after the day before.
Murray starts her piece by trying to state that she’s not transphobic. This is a common mechanism used by someone who knows their argument is on shaky ground or has questionable morality. It’s an attempt to pre-emptively de-fang that particular line of attack.
What does saying trans women are not real women actually achieve? Is it a philosophical argument, or is it intended to start a discussion about what rights those people should or shouldn’t have? The former necessarily leads to the latter. So there’s a fundamental question about “realness”.
Then we have the criteria on which Murray bases “real-ness”. It seems to be thinking like her or having some level of common experience from an early age. A curate friend of mine posted on Facebook last night that she also had worried about what clothes to wear in certain ecclesiastical situations, as a direct parallel to Rev Carol Stone, so that maybe she’s not a real woman either. As the mother of three, that will come as a real shock to her husband and children. And in terms of common experiences, which ones? Or is it simply growing up as a girl in 1950s Yorkshire? Because my 18 year-old, Berkshire-born daughter certainly doesn’t seem to have had the same struggles as girls of the 50s and 60s. Maybe my 18 year old daughter isn’t a real woman either? So maybe Murray’s “tests” aren’t particularly good ones.
Murray’s position relies on a philosophical argument about who is entitled to define themselves – because it seems that trans people, almost uniquely, are not. Lord Cashman last night on Twitter recalled being called not a real man, because he was gay. That particular debate has gone away – but it persists for trans people. Somehow, we’re not allowed to call ourselves in terms of who we are, but are expected to be humble enough to accept some lower status, where one is gifted the crumbs from the equality table. In fact, why is it even acceptable to state in national media that one particular group of people isn’t real?
Then we have the “debate”. This wasn’t a debate. It was an opinion piece published by a Sunday newspaper. Any debate happened afterwards, largely pushed by those people directly affected by what she wrote who were trying to limit the damage post facto. Her Twitter feed shows complete radio silence for 2 days – so Murray isn’t entering a debate. It’s not the first such opinion piece in the press this year. The onslaught from the media since New Year seems incessant.
And “free speech”. Murray (so far) isn’t the one who is suffering the consequences of her (so far) unbridled free speech. Instead it’s (once again) trans women who are under the spotlight, who’s reality and validity is being questioned. Murray, and the media, are walking away (at the moment) scot free. The journalistic integrity and independence of Woman’s Hour has suffered.
In September 2015 I gave evidence to the new Commons Women and Equalities Committee. In that evidence I stated that “Woman’s Hour is a particular issue where every revelation that somebody is trans tends to get met with complete incomprehension by the presenting team, some more than others”. This made its way into the Committee’s formal report to the House of Commons. Murray has given those statements credence. The consequence of my free speech in Parliament is that I’m now involved in this discussion. The silence from the BBC so far is deafening.
It’s rare that I’m as angry as this. On a friend’s Facebook page last night, I was dismissed for being angry, despite being directly affected by Murray’s comments. That just made me angrier. It’s not about scales of oppression, or heaping more yet coals on our heads It’s about listening to the oppressed.