Newspaper hides its trans hate

The Observer publishes a scathing, transphobic editorial, then deletes it. Which is worse?

Topics: Media Criticism, LGBT, Transgender, Julie Burchill, Transphobia, The Observer, Twitter, Suzanne Moore, Toby Young, The Telegraph,

Newspaper hides its trans hate

On Sunday, the London-based newspaper the Observer published a truly vile, transphobic column by outspoken journalist Julie Burchill. And then, in the face of a storm of controversy, it made the whole situation worse: It took down the piece.

The 53-year-old Burchill is famed for her brash, confrontational style. If you’re unfamiliar with her work, imagine a less pleasant Glenn Beck. It must be exhausting having one’s professional reputation based on a propensity for fit-pitching. So imagine the dander Burchill had to work up to file a column that would far exceed the controversy her friend Suzanne Moore stirred when she wrote flippantly that contemporary women are angry at “not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.” So intense had the response to the piece been that Moore felt compelled to quit Twitter, citing a stream of “threatening, ignorant and nasty” responses, saying, “I am sorry to those that I misrepresented.” It was quite a turnaround from the way she’d, not long before, complained about detractors who think they can “cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me.”

Burchill, meanwhile, “indignant” at the firestorm, decided to thoroughly one-up Moore in a scathing retort to “a bunch of dicks in chicks’ clothing” and “screaming mimis.” In her Observer piece, she declared that “a gaggle of transsexuals telling Suzanne Moore how to write looks a lot like how I’d imagine the Black & White Minstrels telling Usain Bolt how to run would look.” She went on to rail about “the stand-off with the trannies,” arguing, “We are damned if we are going to be accused of being privileged by a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs.” And for her big finale, she said, “To have your cock cut off and then plead special privileges as women – above natural-born women, who don’t know the meaning of suffering, apparently – is a bit like the old definition of chutzpah: the boy who killed his parents and then asked the jury for clemency on the grounds he was an orphan.”



It’s an evil, bile-filled screed, full of a flabbergasting amount of ignorance and anger toward a community that deals with far too much of both on a regular basis as it is. For the Observer to have published it in the first place, without any apparent compunction, is a real testament to its editorial blindness toward a celebrity writer. The Observer’s editors clearly got a sense of this out as soon as the thundering outcry of disgust began to rise up. But what’s a paper to do when the vitriolic horse has left the bigot barn?

On Monday, editor John Mulholland made a clumsy stab at amends. In a statement, he explained, “We have decided to withdraw from publication the Julie Burchill comment piece ‘Transsexuals should cut it out’. The piece was an attempt to explore contentious issues within what had become a highly-charged debate. The Observer is a paper that prides itself on ventilating difficult debates and airing challenging views. On this occasion we got it wrong and in light of the hurt and offence caused I apologise and have made the decision to withdraw the piece.”

But misdeeds do not magically disappear with a stroke of the delete key. Toby Young promptly republished the piece, with Burchill’s permission, in all its hate-traffic attracting entirety in the Telegraph. In a companion piece, Young editorialized that for the Observer ”to muzzle one of its own journalists – albeit a freelance contributor – on the grounds that some people on the Left found her views distasteful is a betrayal of everything the paper is supposed to stand for.” He called the act “sinister” and declared the entire affair “a bad day for journalism.”

I didn’t go to journalism school, but I was not aware that spouting off any old mean-spirited, factually incorrect crap you feel like, toward a group that is frequently the target of prejudice and terrifying violence, constitutes journalism. Thanks for the lesson, Toby Young.

The Observer erred, mightily, in publishing the Burchill piece at all. Living in the free world and having opinions does not grant any person an unrestricted platform for expressing them, even if you’re a famous, attention-getting writer. But in its hasty attempt to placate its readership and do damage control, the Observer erred again by thinking it could just make the story go away.

Imagine if instead it had modeled its actions on those of the New York Times, where public editor Margaret Sullivan regularly displays an admirable knack for transparency, revealing how rarely publishing is an easy, “black and white” affair. From the moment the Observer published the Burchill piece, the paper became part of the story, a story that ethics demand it follow through on. Not with blunt strokes, but with debate and dialogue. Once published, better to the let the story stand, in all its repulsiveness, and keep the conversation going about what makes it and the original choice to run it so sloppy and misguided. It was Burchill’s and her editor’s choice to shine a light on the depths of her hatefulness. And when something that grotesque happens in the name of “journalism,” real journalism demands that the light keep shining.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>