You never forget your first. Mine came attached to a selfie I’d posted on a small social media site – one where I had only 12 followers. I’d thought it the safest place, yet it only took 5 minutes for me to be proved wrong. The reply almost seemed automatic, like some mechanical response spat out by the algorithm. “I will cut your throat for the culture.” For a moment I was stunned, almost perversely impressed by the craft of it. No insult was needed, no reference to my appearance, no rant about ideology, no slur. It was clinical, clean, precise: my photo repeated back to me, altered only by the addition of one cold line of text.
As someone who is trans and online, this is a kind of interaction that has become a darkly comic routine. These sorts of people are the cartoon villains that pop up every weekend, only to be dispatched within twenty minutes. They seek us out, trawl the tag we use, looking for someone like me to break. This is their hobby. I know their types, their codes, their ways of working. My skin has thickened so that their random acts of violence barely leave a scratch.
I am not just trans and online, I am also British. So I know a second type of online hatred that shows itself not in isolated strokes of violence, but in a creeping poison running through everything, almost invisible to those who do not know its workings. This is a hatred that thrives in the equivocation of even the most liberal-minded publications, where editors wring their hands about the phrase ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminist’, but are more than happy for writers to elide ‘trans people’ and ‘trans activists’.
The vast majority of trans people are activists only in the sense that we are forced to argue the bare fact of our existence beyond the point of exhaustion. And it is that same exhaustion that makes this form of hatred all the more insidious. We can shrug off the threats of bullies, but this is akin to slow-working psychological warfare, and is increasingly impossible to block out.
Take for instance this Louise Perry article in the New Statesman, itself one of those ostensibly socially liberal publications. Perry gives us a master class in the rhetorical sleight-of-hand that allows for conceivably transphobic views second billing on the website of a left of centre magazine. The first example is in fact so well-rehearsed that one can imagine it as a hymn sung in harmony in the gender critical church: she pulls an unsolicited mention of Karen White into an otherwise unrelated piece. Indeed she gives White’s name as an example of “bad actors” in the question of trans self-ID. Karen White is a convicted sex criminal, who is also a trans woman.
To imply, as Perry does, that White’s identification as a woman was done to facilitate her crimes may seem like a logical step if you’re not looking closely. In truth, as all women trans and cis know, cis male sex offenders (that is to say, the overwhelming majority of sex offenders) do not regard their cis male-ness as any barrier to their actions. The link between White, an unambiguous villain, and all other trans people who have committed no such crimes, can feel to some as being in remarkably bad faith. Trans people have no more responsibility for Karen White than any other group is to blame for the evils of one of its individual members.
Perry goes on to dazzle us with another trick, this one subtler. She asserts: “It just feels very weird to look at a person who appears to belong to one sex and describe them as belonging to the other, or else to none at all.” The notion being that this is just common sense, it’s always been this way, we’ve always been able to faultlessly tell people assigned male at birth from people assigned female at birth. Invocations of a natural order are in fact very appealing, and are just one example of the ways in which columnists in centre-left are echoing old homophobic talking points.
I am, in fact, probably “very weird to look at”, it might be so for other trans people. What I find weirder, though, is the undignified spectacle of a contributor to a major national publication using her platform to parrot the language of a playground bully. Yet for all its cruel childishness, there is a sinister undercurrent to this that cannot be ignored: Perry demonstrates a total indifference to the possibility that there are cis men or women whom she might not be able to sex on sight. This is a common indifference rooted in a very narrow view of what a man or woman might look like. Alison Bechdel was writing about the consequences of this mindset 30 years ago: it explicitly threatens the safety of butch lesbians in public spaces.
Perry rounds off her piece by writing about the unnatural “compelled speech” of our inevitable trans-Orwellian future. To her, “[people] are being asked to insist that water isn’t wet, on pain of social censure, or even losing their jobs, depending on the professional circles they move in. Such consequences are common enough to produce a chilling effect on free speech.” Yet Louise Perry’s overlord is rather lacking in pizazz: There are no trans members of parliament, no trans regular writers on any major UK newspaper, no LGBTQ CEOs in the FTSE 100, only four openly trans councillors have ever served in the UK. What power do we have to compel? What is easy to find is cis men and women such as Perry, across the political spectrum, publishing their musings about trans people with extraordinary regularity. I don’t have to look far through Perry’s own catalogue of New Statesman pieces to find an article where Perry criticises mild-mannered gender theorist Judith Butler in the wake of a horrific misogynistic attack at an LA spa, on the basis that this attack represented “reality interjecting” to Butler’s “symbolic politics”. I find myself wondering what these pieces would look like once the restraints are off.
At the end of the piece I find myself exhausted. I drag out a notebook after work and try to make sense of my desperate frustration. I cannot post a selfie on social media for fear of receiving violent threats, and yet my insistence that colleagues and clients call me by my name is branded a “chilling” curtailment of free speech. Why are there so few trans writers in national papers anyway? Aside from the institutional suspicion, is it perhaps that so many of us are gasping for air between body-blows like Perry’s article? Perhaps many of us know that even the left cannot promise a safe work environment for us in the media. Perhaps we know that the colleague at the desk across from us might be cheerily penning a piece about how weird we are to look at.