October 21st, 2008
The gay rights organisation Stonewall has recently caused a rather nasty argument among the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans community by nominating journalist Julie Bindel as one of their nominees for their 2008 Stonewall Awards.
Ms Bindel was nominated for being a well known lesbian journalist. Many may know her work in establishing Justice for Women and her feminist activism. Ms Bindel represents anti-porn and anti-prostitution feminists, and while her activism against domestic violence has been praised, concerns over her approaches to porn and prostitution have also been raised. In particular her involvement in poorly conducted and badly managed research into sex work and lap dancing have recently overshadowed some of her earlier achievements for the rights of women.
As a researcher Ms Bindel has been accused of poor practice, reaching pre-determined outcomes (specifically to ‘prove’ all prostitution/pornography/lap dancing is bad), and misrepresenting marginalised groups. As a journalist it has sometimes been questioned whether she applies similar standards to her work and lacks objectivity and investigative skills. As a columnist Ms Bindel certainly fits the model of other right and left wing male and female writers by making sensational statements that are often unexplained or unsubstantiated.
Which is where this current argument has sprung up.
Aside from the research and writing about sex work, in 2004 Ms Bindel wrote a now infamous piece Gender benders, beware where she outlines her theories around the construction of gender – and her opposition to gender reassignment surgery. The tone of the article and Ms Bindel’s latter refusal to retract statements made in it (not to mention other similar media reports by her) caused a lot of upset within the trans community. Particularly among Trans women whom Ms Bindel appears to hold in particular contempt. The result of this led to Ms Bindel being sanctioned by organisations such as the National Union of Students LBTG body, and for many feminists to distance themselves from her.
Perhaps unsurprisingly transsexual and transgender groups, some feminists and some lesbian, gay and bisexual organisations and individuals have all complained that Stonewall – as a gay rights organisation – should not be putting someone up for an award if they apparently disapprove so strongly of trans folk. Stonewall’s politics and motives have been called into question, and some of the resulting debates have become increasingly ugly.
Predictably a lot of the argument has been around Ms Bindel, her politics and what she thinks about Trans men and women. In fact this has been more of the focus than holding Stonewall up for account. Stonewall’s defence has been that they did not nominate Ms Bindel but that her name was suggested to her by her supporters and therefore they included her within their nominees. When asked to remove her nomination the organisation refused.
It is unclear whether Stonewall made a genuine but very misguided choice in allowing Ms Bindel’s nomination, or whether this was a more deliberate attempt to include a highly controversial candidate in their awards shortlist. Presumably Stonewall couldn’t have envisaged the unpleasant results of their decision.
Unfortunately Stonewall’s actions have led some bitter and very unpleasant battles to re-emerge between the trans community and feminists, gays and lesbians – and even among trans folk. These have mostly centred around Trans women with arguments over whether trans folk can be included within LBG and feminist organisations. For some lesbians and gays trans folk can never truly be considered ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ because of their origins in a different sex. Some feminists are wary of or reject Trans women as they were raised male. Even if said Trans women or men never felt they belonged in their bodies the fact they were raised as a particular gender has made it difficult for others to accept them. And it is fair to say being trans doesn’t stop people holding misogynist or homophobic views.
For many years trans folk have complained they have been sidelined or excluded by LBG or feminist groups where they expected to find a welcome, and the current nomination of Ms Bindel by Stonewall has indicated these debates are both unpleasant, deeply embedded within particular communities – and are far from resolved.
Within the trans community there have been discussions over whether Ms Bindel should be ignored as there are more important problems facing trans folk, or whether Ms Bindel’s view represent the very cause of problems trans people face – the abuse, mistrust and exclusion.
Ms Bindel was invited to explain her stance on trans people following her Stonewall nomination, which can be heard at this podcast Lunch with Julie Bindel over at Just Plain Sense. It’s worth listening to, although it seems Ms Bindel isn’t about to change her opinions on trans people any time soon.
Meanwhile a petition has been set up against Stonewall – accusing the organisation of transphobia. A demonstration on the night of the awards against Ms Bindel has been organised, with a counter demonstration arranged by her supporters. Througout this debate Ms Bindel has remained uncharacteristically quiet, although has threatened some opponents with legal action over comments made about her.
Many blogs have been documenting and discussing the case, and the following are well worth reading (both the blog and comments): Pam’s House Blend – Honouring the wrong kind of journalist, Sarah: the bringer of tea, and Transadvocate.
What will happen at the awards (particularly if Ms Bindel wins) is anyone’s guess. My sadness over this whole situation is that Stonewall’s nomination has revealed there are still deep and nasty divisions between trans folk and other groups/individuals one might think would be supportive. We clearly haven’t moved on as much as we would like, and we definitely have not completely resolved some of the problems around where trans folk fit both in wider society and lesbian, gay, bi and feminist groups.
I think the resulting fuss has overshadowed some of the positive work Ms Bindel has done (specifically around Justice for Women) and overlooked some of the damage she has caused with poorly conducted research.
I have read with increasing concern the comments from many trans folk in blogs and forums discussing this issue – particularly around their anger over this case, and feelings of hopelessness and marginalisation.
Perhaps Stonewall have done us a favour in shining a light under a rock where a rather unpleasant issue still resides. But isn’t it sad that in this day and age we still haven’t sorted out our gender politics?Tweet