Over the last couple of weeks, several events have proved, as if we needed it to be proved, that hate speech and prejudice is alive and well in 21st century Britain.
Last week, Pink News reported a disturbing, angry and hate-filled transphobic rant by Julie Burchill which appeared as a comment on an article by Paris Lees. Paris had written of her delight in being catcalled and wolf-whistled while on holiday in Ibiza and asked if that made her a bad feminist. Burchill’s reply seemed to be trying to make out that she was a bad human being.
I don’t necessarily agree with Paris’ article but although she was being provocative, she balanced it out and showed respect to those who had an opposite view.
But Burchill’s comments, not for the first time, go way beyond disagreement. Graphic personal insult should have no place in civilised debate. We know that the presence of Section 28 on the Statute Book made many young LGBT people fearful in the 80s and 90s. In the same way, how is a young transgender girl going to feel when she reads Burchill’s bile? And might her words encourage the intolerant to abuse, either verbally or physically.
As liberals our commitment to free speech is written into every cell in our body, but with it comes a responsibility to protect others from that sort of hate speech. I was slightly annoyed that no Liberal Democrat came forward to speak out against Burchill’s comments. Lynne Featherstone has done so before, but it shouldn’t always be her. Nick Clegg rightly condemned the outrageous Paddy Power advert offering bets on the Oscar Pistorius trial like it was a game rather than the aftermath of a young women being killed. I’d have liked to have seen him do the same to Burchill and those like her. Nick has a perfectly good record on tackling homophobia in word and in deed. He’s attacked the way the Conservatives talk about people who come to live in this country. He needs to do the same about transphobia and other kinds of prejudice.
We really should have learned. We know what happens when this sort of stuff goes unchallenged. Immigrants and welfare claimants have been the subject of so much insult and misinformation in the media that people actually believe the myths. And what happens when people believe the myths is that those mythified get hurt. 1 in 8 LGBT people, 3 out of every 4 transgender people have been on the receiving end of hate crime as Pink News reported last year. We know that the “benefit scroungers” narrative led to an increase in attacks on disabled people. We can’t stand by and let that happen.
When I talked about this on Facebook, I was surprised to see quite a few people suggest that ignoring Burchill was the best thing to do, that challenging her made her a victim. Well I wasn’t suggesting using the sort of angry language and action that we’ve come to expect from her and others. But here’s what a friend had to say about the precautions trans people have to take when they go out:
Transwomen *may* undoubtedly share Paris’ delight in being wolfwhistled as it validates their outward appearance. They *will* most certainly have experienced the fear when they have been called-out for being trans.
They *will* have learned to plan their routes to avoid known “hot spots”, they *will* have grown eyes in the back of their head to keep a wary eye out. They *have* learned a temporary deafness when the name calling starts. They *will* have their handbag slung cross their body and walk in the centre of the pavement on well lit streets, ready to run. They *will* keep £20 for the taxi stuffed in their bra.
How on earth can we stand by when we read that? We should not rest while others live in fear. It really is that simple.
Last week Stephen Glenn recounted how his photo had been taken from Facebook and reposted by someone who then subjected the Faith and Pride organisation to homophobic abuse. I also know of the debilitating effects of persistent transphobia experienced by another friend.
For me, this is all about the old “all that is required for evil to flourish is for the good to do nothing” idea. If we don’t stand with our fellow human beings when they are under attack for being who they are, then we legitimise those attacks. My experience of being bullied as a child has made me determined to stop anyone else go through that exhausting, debilitating despair that incessant abuse induces.
I also think it might be an idea for Nick as Deputy Prime Minister to go noisily hunting in the long grass for the Transgender Action Plan produced by Lynne Featherstone when she was Equalities Minister.
And all our elected representatives should sign up to Stonewall’s well-timed new No Bystanders campaign. You have to make a simple pledge:
I will never be a bystander to bullying and teasing language. If I hear it, I will call it out and if I can I will stop it. By adding my name I promise to stand up for fairness, kindness and never be a bystander.
If you’re reading this and agree, then you probably live out those values anyway, but add your name to show your support.