Looking at both an alt-right attack on trans woman Sophie Labelle, and an attack by another trans woman, India Willoughby, on non-binary people, guest writer Sam Hope uses these unconnected incidents to examine some important questions.
It’s such an easy trope to throw around, the one about the “dangerous” former victim. Victims are portrayed as becoming murderers (Beth Jordache), developing superpowers (Jessica Jones) or worse, becoming monsters (just about every monster or twisted villain in every film you ever saw). Add in the default “dangerous” status of trans people in the popular imagination (Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, The Daily Mail) and you have a potent formula for easily casting members of my community as the villains of the piece.
Sophie is one of my heroes. I quote her in my trans awareness training. I tell my trainees to follow her if they want to learn about our community. Sophie has done incalculable good to our community, and I suspect her affirmative messages have saved many lives in a community that suffers from terrifying suicide statistics that are directly related to the way society stigmatises us.
My experience of Sophie is that she takes great care with her community. She grew in my estimation some time ago when she quickly changed a poorly worded comic after I gave her feedback about its unintended impact. She apologised for getting it wrong. This kind of sensitivity, kindness and responsiveness is refreshing from a person in the public eye.
What’s best about Sophie is she does not just narrowly address the concerns solely of people like her, but makes room for and considers other marginalised people, and includes non-binary people in her work.
About a week ago, word went round our community that a far-right group was organising to launch a concerted attack on high profile transgender Facebook pages. I personally saw screenshots of these conversations that used extreme homophobic and transphobic language and stated that the aim was to get pages closed down. Soon after this, Assigned Male Comic‘s Facebook page was deluged with a mob attack of hundreds of horrific and often full-on fascist messages, including pictures of Hitler and statements that trans people should be gassed. The mob attack quickly escalated to publishing Sophie’s home address, and she had to cancel a speaking event after threatened disruption.
More insidious than these attacks and threats were the comments in between the more extreme messages. These were reasonable-sounding statements such as “wow, just because someone doesn’t agree with you, you call them a Nazi, this is disgusting!” and “Sophie Labelle is a professional victim who manipulates people by instigating these ‘attacks’”. Many of these messages sounded earnest, and plausible. And there were lots of them, which made them even stronger. In some ways, they were more devastating in impact than the threats and Nazi propaganda itself.
If you didn’t know the situation, you might be fooled that this was some legitimate protest that extremists had just happened to turn up at. If you harboured any even slight prejudices about trans people, that might make it even easier to believe. If the “victims become dangerous monsters” trope is embedded in your brain, then this mild young woman might morph in your mind into some sort of threat to . . . well, something or other. Honest decent people, family values or freedom of speech, probably.
I admit, even I had my seconds of doubt, despite having seen the whole story unfold. Because when people say things enough times we can start to believe them no matter how untrue they are. I have experienced this many times when I raise my head above the parapet. Bullies are so good at undermining any challenge to the status quo – they will preserve their power at all costs. And the best way they have is to make you look dangerous. If you’re trans, or have been victimised, or both, this becomes quite easy to do.
Because here’s the thing: our society is steeped in transphobia. We are up to our necks in it. Yes, all cis people are influenced by it because none of us lives in a vacuum. And trans people are smothered in it too; it is easy to doubt ourselves or fall into shame, particularly if we mishandle bullying.
Some of us deflect that shame onto others in our community, in a desperate attempt to be the acceptable face of trans.
Which brings me to the quite vile piece in The Mirror by high-profile trans woman India Willoughby defending Piers Morgan’s even more hateful “interview” of non-binary couple Fox and Owl.
If the “victims become dangerous monsters” trope is embedded in your brain, then this mild young woman might morph in your mind into some sort of threat to . . . well, something or other.
Willoughby is the type of minority person who often makes it into the public eye or into power – people who are happy to throw more marginalised community members under the bus in order to be acceptable to the establishment. We’re not going to rock the status quo, we will assimilate and smile and distance ourselves from protest and dissent. Never mind that protest and dissent got us our rights in the first place.
What hurts is when a trans person is using her relative privilege to defend “poor Piers” and to monsterise Fox and Owl and non-binary people in general. She even went way over the line by referring to the “gender-stasi” – yes, Willoughby, a trans woman, compared members of her own marginalised community to one of the most terrifying police corps of all time. Because sure, India, we are so very powerful, what with all that representation we have in media and places of power.
Willoughby has somewhat fragile civil rights. Her identity is protected, and I’m glad of that. I have always fought, and will continue to fight, for trans women’s right to be recognised as women, for trans men to be recognised as men. Non-binary people like myself have no such rights or recognition. Willoughby disingenuously accuses us of wanting to erase the categories of “man and woman”. Not true, we simply want the categories we exist in to be recognised equally. She wants to be able to say “men and women” and for this to be enough. This erases the existence of other possibilities – of non-binary and intersex people.
Willoughby is the type of minority person who often makes it into the public eye or into power – people who are happy to throw more marginalised community members under the bus in order to be acceptable to the establishment.
I want to say “people” when we talk about, well, people – not in order to abolish gender, but because it’s a word that includes my own gender. “men, women, intersex and non-binary people” would do just as well, but it’s a little clunky.
To preserve a status quo that works for her, Willoughby is happy to monsterise non-binary people in exactly the same way that others monsterise trans women like herself. Seemingly oblivious to the people who would name her as one of the “transgender lobby” for wanting to be recognised as a woman, Willoughby invokes the same hateful language to erase people like me, pretending we are a threat in order to drown our voices.
“Why would I be interested in fighting to scrap gender? I’m happy being a woman. It’s not my fight.” Willoughby says. It’s not my fight – and it does not matter enough to listen or get her facts straight. This is the second time she has attacked us in as many months, but her alarmist idea that we want to scrap gender is a disingenuous lie. We simply want to be recognised. To have the same civil rights she has herself.
But folks will buy the trash she is spouting about non-binary people because people believe what they want to believe without really giving it that much thought.
Her betrayal cuts deep because the hate she throws is the same hate that could just as easily come after her. If we just united against it, we might better resist it. We might make things liveable for all of us.
To preserve a status quo that works for her, Willoughby is happy to monsterise non-binary people in exactly the same way that others monsterise trans women like herself.
There are shadier figures inciting people like India, or the LGB people who bully trans people, perhaps even some of the alt-right juveniles mauling Sophie Labelle. These people are doing their very best to keep us at each other’s throats, to convince us we can only have what we take from each other, that we are in competition with each other.
Wise Akala says that hate comes from the top down, is planned and incited by an elite who want to preserve a rigid hierarchy. The elite are good at inciting those with marginal status to tear into those below them on the ladder out of manufactured fear. The lie is that we are a frightening mob who will pull them down from their own precarious place on the ladder. The truth is that if we helped each other up, we might unite to safely confront the real monsters who sit smugly at the top.