Writer and activist Sam Hope discusses why Barrowman’s ‘transgender tardis’ comment was certain to bait the trans community.
Note: This posts includes discussion of transphobia and violence.
It’s a clever trick, really, doing something that you know is going to really hurt someone but only they will know. Like the ex of mine who had me crying in the loos at an event by saying something innocuous-sounding and casual that she knew had a devastating hidden meaning. Everyone thought I was making drama over nothing, but I knew and she knew full well what had happened.
There’s even a term for this kind of thing. It’s called dog-whistling; inaudible to some listeners, but not to those being targeted. If you are a fading star, or academic, or journalist, or anyone really who wants to court positive media attention, dog-whistling at trans people, in particular trans women, is currently a really low-risk, high-yield way to go about it.
Now, I’ll give John Barrowman the benefit of the doubt; maybe he stumbled on this trick by accident. In 2014, he used a slur that is to the trans community today a “just no” term, as awful as any slur you can possibly think of. It’s the word that many trans women, particularly marginalised trans women, hear as they are being beaten and murdered. It’s a word we all hear shouted at us on the street if we don’t appear cis, although it particularly targets trans women. It is a word that has become deeply associated with hatred and violence.
It’s a clever trick, really, doing something that you know is going to really hurt someone but only they will know.
Lots of us were Barrowman fans, Dr Who fans, Torchwood fans. We were willing him to say “gosh, I hadn’t realised how upsetting this was to people, I’m really sorry”. We were waiting to forgive him. But what did he say instead? “Lighten up.” And so many (cis) people loved him for it. Because let’s face it, if they hadn’t, his publicist would have been on the phone to him in a jiff, saying “John, you messed up here and it’s made you unpopular, you better apologise sharpish”.
The trans community didn’t love him for it, but hey, we’re less than one percent of the population and not all that many people are on our side. Many people are just looking for their confirmation bias that we are unhinged. When someone says something that doesn’t sound awful, hurtful and violent to them when it does to us, that proves how irrational we are, right? Surely it couldn’t be that trans people are right, that some things specifically harm us that don’t harm others, like a weapon that has a particular target?
Perhaps Barrowman’s agent called him and said “John, we can play this. If you do things that signal your allyship to the trans community but don’t actually rebuild relations with them, you will be the hero and we can cast the whole lot of them as the villains in your story.”
Barrowman’s gay, so most people probably don’t even understand that far from being all part of the same happy community, trans people are the much-marginalised and erased minority within the minority. Most cishet folk have no idea of the battles the trans community has gone through to get any kind of understanding, inclusion or respect from LGBTQ+ organisations and the community at large.
The trans community didn’t love him for it, but hey, we’re less than one percent of the population and not all that many people are on our side.
So maybe it was a happy accident that Barrowman had people rally around him, desperate to assure him those nasty over-sensitive trans folk were wrong in their opinion that they are better qualified to know what harms them than people who know very little about trans lives.
Perhaps that was just a mistake, but surely not this time. This time looks like pure provocation, and, predictably, people who are not trans are once again rallying the troops to defend the heroism of Captain Jack while the trans community and their actual allies hold their heads in their hands.
He put on a dress. Which is fine, by the way. Drag is fine, gender play is fine. I actually really liked the dress and he looked cute in it. I have no problem with a man in a dress. In fact, I would like to see more of it. But a man in a dress is a man in a dress. Unless there’s something Barrowman isn’t telling us, it has absolutely nothing to do with being trans. So when our hero called himself a “transgender tardis” no amount of “but the tardis is a girl and he’s a man so technically that’s right” is going to erase what that “screw you” moment meant to many in our community.
For people who care about the violence targeted at trans women, particularly trans women of colour, disabled trans women, poor trans women, in other words some of the most marginalised women on the planet, putting the word “transgender” alongside a man in a dress is not just hurtful and upsetting, it’s downright dangerous. Because it is the belief that trans women are “really men” that underlies the majority of transmisogynistic violence.
It’s really simple, how this plays out. An ally would have contacts in the trans community that will talk through the issues honestly. In other words, not just token friends who will say what pleases. An ally would hear what’s being said, and at the very least, mull it over and talk it through. A trans ally is not performing allyship for the benefit of other cis people, an ally is actually on your side.
Withstanding the strength of feeling that comes in response to harmful behaviours is part and parcel of being an ally. Because no amount of Twitterati are ever going to make you feel the way it feels to be walking in an unsafe neighbourhood, hear the “T” word and wonder if you’re going to get home alive.
And honestly, a sincere apology wipes the slate clean pretty easily. Especially if you happen to be a Dr Who star and seriously cute.
This time looks like pure provocation, and, predictably, people who are not trans are once again rallying the troops to defend the heroism of Captain Jack while the trans community and their actual allies hold their heads in their hands.
No doubt there will be no talking to the trans community, no listening, no apology from Barrowman. And we as a community will be subject to weeks of being told we’re “overly touchy” by mentioning that we are not happy about this. And we will be repeatedly told that Barrowman is our ally. I mean, there’s even a picture of him in a supportive T-shirt, so he must be, right?
There just aren’t enough good allies out there, particularly in the LGB community, where we desperately need them, so this sort of stunt is much too easy to pull off, garnering attention and praise and support at our expense.
Until we have sufficient allies, there will always be power in attacking our community. And so, uncomfortable though it is, we have to fight back. Not with our fists, but with words. With information that – repeated a thousand times – might finally be understood as true. We can’t just let stuff like this pass; we have to back each other up and say “this is not OK”.
Patiently, determinedly, but not necessarily calmly, we push back until it is no longer a comfortable and successful tactic for people to “put us in our place” or scapegoat us. Because change is never going to be comfortable or easy. There needs to come a day when it’s not okay for people who are self-titled allies to perpetuate harmful and violent ideas about trans people. When they don’t get away with it. When they apologise quickly, or deal with the consequences of not doing so. That day is not going to magically land in our laps by us meekly taking all the crap that’s thrown at us and swallowing it down like it doesn’t matter.
We as a community will be subject to weeks of being told we’re “overly touchy” by mentioning that we are not happy about this.
Much as it pains me to dance to Barrowman’s tune, it ultimately benefits us to protest against this and keep speaking up until people finally understand the issues. Because every time someone pulls a stunt like this is a chance for us to educate. We may not have Barrowman’s reach, but we can still use his slipstream to get our message out if we just hold our nerve and don’t let the “you’re not helping your cause” brigade silence us.
So thanks, John Barrowman, for presenting a teachable moment even if you yourself are unlikely to ever learn.
Follow Sam on Twitter (@Sam_R_Hope)