Earlier this month the punditsphere erupted in vicious back-and-forths over the (lack of) space for trans women in mainstream feminism and how to talk about transgender people to begin with.
The comment that led to the storm has since been described by its author, Suzanne Moore, as a throwaway line, and, though certainly thoughtless, it was indeed a minor and nonessential component of the essay in which it appeared. In short, in a Jan. 8 piece about the current state of women's rights activism, Moore described the perfect body that women are expected to have as "that of a Brazilian transsexual."
A Twitterstorm of criticism ensued, making the point that trans people are victimized and excluded by mainstream feminism. (I am paraphrasing the hostile tone of this debate, which went both ways.) The controversy peaked on Jan. 13, when the Observer published a retort by another writer, Julie Burchill, that included such offensive language about transgender people that the Observer ultimately took it down.
It is obvious that not all women face the same challenges. Every disadvantaged group of humanity has a different history of exclusion and suffers in different ways. How we see ourselves, how others see us and how we believe they see us all have an impact on our experience of discrimination and abuse.
As a result, the two main substantive points in this debate were not mutually exclusive, though they were presented as opposites. On the one hand, it is true that girls are treated differently (in most cases less advantageously) than boys practically everywhere, and that this suffering has an impact on adult women's self-worth, identity and ability to exercise our rights. It is also true that many transgender individuals suffer a different -- and often both violent and invisibilized -- type of exclusion throughout their lives, an experience that would color anyone's understanding of what is safe and what is not. This is so whether we are talking about trans women or trans men.
Add to any of these one-dimensional exclusion narratives issues such as age, ethnicity, nationality, education, money and religion, and it will be clear that discrimination varies greatly from sub-group to sub-group. This is hardly news. The point here is that entering into a debate over who is more excluded than whom is a nonstarter. The answer will always be that it depends, and it is hardly conducive to change to get into a war over wrongs.
However, there are two lessons to be learned from the Moore/Burchill-vs.-transgender-people debacle.
Lesson 1: We have a long way to go on trans inclusion.
I highly doubt that the editor of Suzanne Moore's original piece saw the troublesome comparison of "ideal female body" with "Brazilian transsexual" as anything other than descriptive or maybe funny. It would surprise me to learn that there had been any conversation about its potentially inflammatory nature. I imagine the same was true of the editorial process that led to the publication of Julie Burchill's piece, which has been made public. It is abundantly clear that no one thought to seriously question the taste level of the piece or consider the justifiable offense that would be felt upon its publication.
To be sure, both Moore and Burchill are free to express tasteless and insensitive views. The pieces may be offensive, even very offensive, but they don't incite violence or discrimination and so are publishable without criminal liability -- or should be.
My concern is that the trans community seems to be invisible or "other" to the editors. If these editors did think about the offense that the pieces or their mentions of transgender people would cause, that concern must have been dismissed as irrelevant. This happens most frequently when the butt of the "joke" is already in a disadvantaged position. For example, in a distant past, it was considered reasonable to publish offensively abusive language about Irish immigrants in the United States, because the Irish were seen as less than human and, in any case, not "one of us."
The sentiment that trans people are lesser, have brought marginalization upon themselves and should just get over it has permeated a good part of this debate, down to a very unhelpful conflation of "transsexual" with "trans women" with "cross-dressing." We can do better.
Lesson 2: We have a long way to go on trust and solidarity.
Suffering is felt subjectively. This is the very reason that the experience of the victim is central to the definitions of sexual and racial harassment in U.S. law. Imagine a situation in which the person who calls a colleague a "bitch" or a "sexy mama" gets to decide if that contributes to a hostile work environment or not. No one would ever get beyond the "you just don't have a sense of humor" defense.
Of course, identifying abusive language is easy when it oversteps existing ideas of propriety so far that the suffering it generates is "objective" or felt by most, and when the intention to insult is explicit.
It is much harder when the injury most probably is a result of ignorance rather than being intentionally injurious. In such cases, as when a mainstream feminist writer compares the ideal female body to that of a "Brazilian transsexual," for example, our law and practice should allow for trust -- not the kind of trust that leads to impunity and abuse but the kind of trust in which the first reaction to sub-par communication isn't to assume intentional insult but to educate and inform.
For example, the first time a former boss called me "sweetie," I didn't retort by calling him a sexist pig. I told him I preferred to be called by my name and not by terms that, to me, implied that he had little respect for my professional abilities. He never called me anything other than "Marianne" after that, and, at least in my presence, he started calling other female colleagues by their names, too.
In short: The invisibility of trans communities is real. So are unthinking insults. But by treating the latter as intentional, we do nothing to inform and educate about the first.
An earlier version of this post was published on RHRealityCheck.org.