On Suzanne Moore, gender identity and penis fixation

Francis Sedgemore, Saturday 12 January 2013 at 13:58 UTC

The Twittersphere, or at least the often tediously parochial British annex of it, was yesterday ablaze with comment about the latest writing of Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore on gender identity politics. Moore’s Guardian article on Wednesday of this week is an attempt at clarifying remarks made the previous day in a piece on female anger published in the once mighty but now largely unread and increasingly contrarian New Statesman [!].

I have to say that I’m not in the least bit interested in Moore’s writing. I can appreciate well-written feminist polemic, and have done so since I first engaged with identity politics in the early 1980s peace movement. But as a middle-aged grump with a disdain for collectivist ideologies, I find it difficult to discern any substance in Moore’s output.

There is little to distinguish Moore’s journalistic output from that of any number of commentators who are interested more in themselves than the subjects about which they write at considerable length. Moore is an example of the narcissistic, angst-ridden petite-bourgeoisie. Her work is journalism of a kind, but not as we used to know and love it.

I cannot be bothered to deconstruct Moore’s New Statesman article, or her tortured defence of same in the Guardian. It is the reaction to Moore’s venting of spleen which interests me more, and her hyperbolic response to sharp criticism.

The primary attack on Moore came from transsexuals, the transgendered and their supporters, who accused the Guardian columnist of “transphobia” for the following…

“[Women] are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.”

This didn’t go down well with what fellow Grauniad columnist Julie Bindel refers to as a “trans cabal”. It was a classic case of light the blue touch paper, stand back and enjoy the spectacle. Enjoy is the right word to use here, as Moore’s comment was in my view designed to provoke an outcry and draw attention to the person of Suzanne Moore. The writer engaged with her critics on Twitter, and fanned the flames further with such eloquent broadsides as…

“I don’t prioritise this fucking lopping bits off your body over all else that is happening to women.”

“People can just fuck off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me. Good for them.”

“I am not going to apologise. Get it?”

We get it, Suzanne.

Moore is correct in saying that her New Statesman article was not about transsexuals and transgender people per se, but it looks to me as if she used such groups to pick a fight for a selfish purpose. It is an old rhetorical trick, neither big nor clever.

Note that following this argy-bargy Moore pleaded persecution from online trolls, and promptly flounced off Twitter, a job well done. Such behaviour normally brings me out in a wry smile, but not in this case. I am deeply upset by the affair, for reasons I shall come to shortly.

Transgender and transsexual activists can be a bit gobby at times, but this is generally so among those who represent socially marginalised groups. It comes with the territory, and the gobbiness shouldn’t bother us unduly. Indeed, without such robust individual and collective expression the situation for transsexual and transgender communities would not be as healthy as it is today.

Transsexuals have come a long way in the past few decades. Gender dysphoria was until relatively recently seen as as a psychiatric illness. Gender realignment by means of hormone therapy and surgery has been carried out for decades, but social attitudes are only now catching up with changes in surgical, medical and psychiatric practice.

The thing about gender is that, while almost every human being belongs to one or other – male or female – it is not a binary thing. A small minority are to some degree transgendered. Freaks? In a sense, but, when accepted by themselves and others for who they are, transgendered people can lead lives every bit as happy and fulfilling as their ‘normal’ brothers and sisters. They celebrate their transgender identity, and so they should.

Transsexuals share a number of characteristics with the transgendered, but personal choice can affect their lives in a physically drastic way. That said, the penis seems to loom larger in the mind of Suzanne Moore than it does in those of transsexuals. We are talking about individuals and their human identity in total, not just the dangly appendages. Gender realignment is in moral terms no different from the eradication of suffering and disease by means of medical technologies.

Why am I upset about the confused wibblings of a newspaper columnist? It’s not just Moore and her latest outburst. What distresses me is to see transsexuals and transgendered people maligned as a “mob” by commentators who in an effort to distinguish themselves from the plebs of their trade display a perverse binary thinking that borders on misogyny.

The language employed displays a nastiness that, if it were directed at black people, gays or Jews might be described as hate speech. Some of the criticism directed at Moore may have been over the top, but much of it was reasoned, and ignored.

I shall now declare a personal interest in the matter. While I am entirely at ease with my male gender, I cannot say the same of my late father. John Pinnington suffered from gender identity disorder, and after many years living with this soul-destroying condition underwent surgical gender realignment. My father was a transsexual, and his suffering did not end on the operating table.

My father’s career as an academic historian was wrecked. This liberal Christian intellectual was cast into the professional and emotional wilderness by those who liked to think of themselves as progressive, and the exile extended to me and my mother. Judith Pinnington retained a few friends, among whom the recently released Archbeard of All England, Rowan Williams, and the leadership of a tiny and charmingly eccentric English branch of the Orthodox Church. But many shunned her. In later life Judith managed to reintegrate a little into polite society, and near the end served as a Liberal Democrat city councillor in Cambridge.

As for collateral damage, I was forced to leave my school, or rather it was decided that I would fit in better elsewhere. I was also advised by the deputy head to keep my head down in life, and lower my aspirations. That advice was heeded, I’m sad to say, and it took me 20 years to recover any sense of self-worth and realisation of potential.

This need not have happened, as can be shown by the example of one of my contemporaries, the Welsh poet Twm Morys, son of the journalist, travel writer and historian who for the dying embers of the British Empire narrated the first ascent of Chomolungma (Mount Everest). The way in which James Morris‘ transformation into Jan Morris was handled by all those involved kept the Morris family together and well-adjusted. The key to this was the acknowledgement, acceptance and celebration of identity. All Morris wanted…

“…was liberation, or reconciliation – to live as myself, to clothe myself in a more proper body, and achieve Identity at last.” [Jan Morris, Conundrum, 1974]

That was then. Today the social environment for transsexuals is much improved. Gender dysphoria is recognised as a medical condition that can be rectified through physical and psychological realignment, and social attitudes have moved on considerably since the early 1970s.

Part of this social transformation comes from the efforts of an activist mob decried by Moore, Bindel and other writers, some from the measured and improving commentary of the liberal-left intelligentsia, and the rest from tabloid journalism featuring images and life stories of eminently shaggable sex-changers, Brazilian or otherwise. Woe betide those who would undo this good work, whatever their ideological or personal motivation.

Am I annoyed with Suzanne Moore? Yes I am. A number of Twitterers asked sarcastically, “Who is Suzanne Moore, and should I care?”. In one case I was moved to respond…

“Suzanne Moore is a cunt with a penis fixation.”

…but thought better of it. Now that I have said my peace in this extended blog post, the comment deserves an airing. Apologies if you find it objectionable, or the whole thing tediously long-winded.

I’ll get my coat.