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Review of the Bindel/Stryker Debate - Sarah, The Bringer of Tea
7th December, 2008
12:28 pm

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Review of the Bindel/Stryker Debate
Friday's debate between feminist academic, Susan Stryker and Guardian journalist, Julie Bindel, hosted by Stephen Whittle of Press for Change was a more or less predictable affair, and I think nobody came out of it well.

Susan Stryker opened and started to take apart various things Bindel has said in a rational and scientific way. She demonstrated several areas where Bindel was factually incorrect (such as her position that medical transsexualism was a model "invented" by heretonormative psychiatrists in the 1950s, when the work was actually pioneered 20 years earlier by a German Jewish sex researcher and gay-rights campaigner), and suggested that in holding trans people responsible for the attitudes of medical gatekeepers, Bindel was engaging in victim-blaming. She spoke about how Bindel's argument is not reasoned; rather it comes from a position of ideology and projection of her own feelings about sex-reassignment onto other people. Bindel, she said, fails to realise that other people may have different feelings and motivations to herself.

Bindel responded true to previous form, by ignoring anything inconvenient and restating her ideological agenda. She seemed rattled, and as with previous occasions when she's apparently been on the defensive (such as just after the Stonewall protest in November, when in her column she dismissed queer identities as being all about kinky sex and implied connections between bisexuality, "devil-worshipping" and something which may or may not have been bestiality), she started lashing out at her own side.
  • On women's rights, Bindel betrayed her own ivory-tower detached privilege by claiming that the struggles of millions of ordinary women for equal pay and childcare "bored her" and "left her cold".

  • On homosexuality, she reiterated and reinforced a stance she'd previously hinted at, claiming that it was "impossible" for there to be even a tiny part of biology behind same-sex attraction and that sexual "preference" (her word) was a choice. Apparently proving Stryker's accusations of projection accurate, she suggested that ex-gay style therapies actually work because she herself, were she so-minded, could go to a therapist and be turned heterosexual with "no problem".

  • On transphobia, she dismissed her ideological allies who want to exclude trans women from women's space (she cited the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival in particular) as "moon worshippers". She dismissed sexual violence against trans women, one of the defining issues of trans feminism, with a simple, "men are raped too".

  • On journalism, she said that after conversations with her mother, she realised that previous claims that she had not been a gender stereotypical child, claims on which she seems to base her idea that of she'd gone to the wrong psychiatrist, she could have ended up being talked into FtM transition, were in fact not true. Apparently she loved playing with Barbie dolls and had loads of them. She went on to say that she wasn't going to change her journalistic stance on this though, because the lie made for a better story.
On a personal note, I do wonder just how outrageously offensive Bindel has to get before the lesbian and gay establishment get too embarassed to court her. Through her Guardian column, she seems to occupy the position of the establishment's caricature of a man-hating feminist - an easy target for those wanting to dismiss the women's movement as raving ideologues. As someone who is both a queer lesbian woman and a feminist, I cringe at the idea that someone like Bindel is giving ammunition to those who feel able to just dismiss us as man-haters, as women who just "need a good man to straighten us out", and who "complain too much" about having to "live in a man's world".

Getting back to the debate, while Susan Stryker scored some good hits (at one point she drew attention to the fundamental impracticality of Bindel's holy grail, "an end to gender" by pointing out that Bindel was as heavily invested in gender as anyone else, echoing Frank Zappa's "Everybody in this room is wearing a uniform" by pointing out that she could walk down the street, see Bindel and immediately think, "Dyke"). Ultimately though, she tried to debate Bindel academically, and Bindel isn't about rational debate, she is about dogma.

Bindel brushed aside specific points she found inconvenient. As well as dismissing any possible biological involvement in gender identity and sexual orientation by stating that such things are "impossible", without explaining why, she waved such inconveniences as the scientific method and studies on sexual dimorphism in the brain out of the way, stating that she didn't believe them, or "wasn't convinced". Science doesn't work like that.

In response to a point from the floor by Stuart Lorimer, a senior psychiatrist with the Charing Cross Gender Identity Clinic, that her claims about lax psychiatrists rushing confused people through sex reassignment couldn't be any further from the truth, and that trying to talk people out of being transsexual has a long history of being tried, and of not working, Bindel gave a hand wavy response that "some people" are rushed through, and that there is a "growing community of regretters".

I think that Stryker fell into the trap that biologists arguing with early creationists fell into. Like Bindel, the creationists were not interested in perusing the truth - it was unpalatable to them. Knowing they couldn't win the debate on an academically level playing field, they resorted to dogma. Modern creationists don't have any new arguments, but they have moved on and dress their dogma up in the language of science and rationality, to at least make it look like they're playing the game as long as you don't peer too closely. Bindel hasn't reached this level of sophistication with her debating style, and the result is painful to watch. I wonder if Stryker left thinking, "They dragged me all the way across the Atlantic for this?"

With more preparation, it would have been easy to highlight the massive hypocrisy and inhumanity in Bindel's position. Stryker admitted that until Stephen Whittle had contacted her, she'd known nothing about the Bindel/Stonewall controversy, and it showed. Bindel is keen on painting the whole thing as an overreaction to her 2004 "Cast of Grease" article about Kimberly Nixon, a survivor of rape who wanted to contribute to resources dealing with sexual violence against women by volunteering at a rape crisis centre in Vancouver. The horrible discrimination that Nixon faced from Vancouver Rape relief because she was a trans woman led her to question whether trans women who were victims of sexual violence could turn to resources which are supposed to be there to help all women. It's not just trans women who have this problem; Stryker made the point that such centres can be equally unfriendly to anyone who doesn't experience a particular white, middle-class, cisgendered version of womanhood.

Bindel always demonises Nixon whenever this comes up, and this time it was no different. She suggested that trans women should not expect to use generalised women's support resources, and that if we wanted support as survivors of sexual violence, trans women are on our own. With her "so are men" dismissal of the point that sexual violence against trans women is a huge problem (murder as a cause of death is out of all proportion for trans women as a demographic, and may actually be our main cause of death. Many trans women lack the relative privilege I enjoy and resort to dangerous sex work as the only way to fund their treatment. Sometimes, we are killed simply because the wrong man finds a trans woman attractive and lashes out in rage when he finds out she's trans), and this was exactly the same dismissal that Bindel used in the 2007 Heckler's debate. Her response was entirely predictable, entirely hypocritical, and yet Stryker apparently didn't see it coming.

On several occasions, Bindel stated that she "chose her battles" (remember, she's not interested in equal employment rights or childcare - those things don't affect her), but demanded to know what trans women were doing about sexual violence against all women. There are good responses to be made to this. Trans women are in general far more likely to be victims of sexual violence than cis women in similar circumstances. There is a long history of transphobic discrimination and exclusion from the women's movement when we try to engage (just ask Kimberly Nixon), and I know many trans women are frightened to participate in events such as anti-violence marches. Ironically, we fear violence against us from Bindel's own contingent within the women's movement.

Yet Bindel wants to know what we can do for her, and women like her, while all the time she uses her public platform to promote the attitudes which make violence against trans women seem acceptable. In the meantime, we are being raped and murdered out of all proportion to our numbers. After we've shown our commitment to the cause, even when we're told we're not wanted and threatened with violence by other women, what's the prize she's holding out for us in return? Is she going to stop being so utterly hateful about us from her privileged platform? Is she going to welcome us with open arms as sisters in struggle?

No - after all that, we get told we're not good enough to mix with the real women, and if we have a problem with being raped and murdered, why, we should just deal with that ourselves and not expect any outside help.

As I said above, this position just drips with inhumanity and hypocrisy. It wouldn't have taken much homework to predict that Bindel would probably say something like this, but instead of dismantling it, Stryker's response was more along the lines of, "Well, I've personally spent time knocking on doors to raise awareness of violence against women". Bindel then changed her accusation to "Trans women in the UK aren't doing anything about violence against women", which drew an audience response from a trans woman who has campaigned against violence against women in the UK's trades union movement. Bindel then changed her tune again - the people who had been mean to her on Facebook weren't doing anything about violence against women. Watching her make her argument squirm into new shapes when it could so easily have been decapitated was disappointing.

Bindel did partially clear one thing up though - previously she has expressed the apparently self-contradictory position of not supporting "ex-gay" style therapy under any circumstances, and saying that surgery for trans people should "not be available", and that we should be given "talking cures" instead. On Friday, she tried to square this circle by saying that she doesn't regard "curing" trans people as ex-gay style therapy (which she inaccurately refers to as "aversion therapy"). She also left further confusion by refusing to clarify whether she still thinks surgery should not be available, saying that "in some cases" ex-gay style therapy might be more appropriate. This gives wiggle room for her apologists, but a cynic might suggest the implication is that "some cases" get talked out of it, and those who prove stubbornly resistant to such brainwashing get nothing at all.

Finally, in a move that will likely get me off the Christmas card list for good, I want to talk about Stephen Whittle, who arranged the debate, and Christine Burns, who was very active in it. These two figures occupied a controversial position in the run up to the Stonewall protest, with Whittle being silent in public, while acknowledging having had closed-doors meetings with Ben Summerskill in private (such as the email he sent to my wife talking about the meeting he'd had with Summerskill under "Chatham House Rules", to which he added a request not to "tell the protesters"). Burns courted Bindel with her amiable chat over cucumber sandwiches podcast.

I've previously stated that I thought this debate was a very bad idea, because lends legitimacy to Bindel, gives her a platform and suggests that we owe her a justification of our existence. Whittle claimed he was not giving Bindel a platform, so it must have made him wince every time Bindel thanked him and Christine, during the debate on Friday, for "giving her a platform to express her views" (note not giving her the opportunity to listen to the other side - she was there to "express her views", as if we didn't already know what she's about). His pre-debate meanderings about the Stonewall protest, continuing on the theme of misrepresenting what it was most of us were actually angry about, had the air of "too little, too late", and served only to pour fresh petrol on flames of discontent which had been starting to die down. Meanwhile, Christine Burns and Julie Bindel seemed at points to be doing some bizarre double act:

Bindel, "Christine tells me off so nicely"
Burns, on the Stonewall protesters said that behaving with "Bad Manners" towards Bindel was "unforgivable"
The videocast-watching audience at home, "Get a room already"

I'll end where I came in. Nobody came out of this well. Stryker was dragged across the Atlantic to be the "straight-woman" in a cringeworthy double act, Bindel got to alienate a few more people, Burns and Whittle got to reassert their roles as focal points for the anger and disillusionment many in the grass roots trans community feel right now. Most of all, though, the trans community are the losers. Bindel gets new ammunition to write about how, on her crusade to eradicate our identity (at one point she tried to appropriate a "transgender" identity for herself, presumably because of her "regulation dyke" approach to her own gender presentation). Look forward to a divide-and-rule column in the Guardian soon about how she found "common ground" with the "more reasonable" members of the trans community, and uses that favoured tactic of the misogynist down the ages to silence the rest of us - that we're shrill.

christinaalley has posted her own analysis of the debate, which I think is excellently written and well worth a read.

(108 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments
 
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From:spittingkittens
Date:7th December, 2008 03:27 pm (UTC)
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quick point. magnus hirschfield only performed the initial orchidectomy on lili elbe. the really cutting edge stuff, like the ovary transplants and the peneoctemy, were performed by Dr. Warnekros at the Dresden Municipal Womens' Clinc. if you believe her biography, it was Warnekros she was most indebted too as well.

sorry, just wrote an article on all this. so. i was also pleasantly suprised to discover that magnus was gay. every day = school day.
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From:auntysarah
Date:7th December, 2008 03:38 pm (UTC)
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That I didn't know. Thanks!
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From:knirirr
Date:7th December, 2008 03:32 pm (UTC)
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claiming that it was "impossible" for there to be even a tiny part of biology behind same-sex attraction

Speaking as someone with a higher degree in a biological subject I think I can safely say that Bindel is full of crap.
However, lack of understanding of the scientific method has never stopped those with some sort of bigoted axe to grind, as the rest of your report makes clear.
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From:dyddgu
Date:7th December, 2008 03:46 pm (UTC)
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Are there any papers on homosexuality/biology, btw?
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From:dyddgu
Date:7th December, 2008 03:33 pm (UTC)
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It's not just Bindel now - Zoe Williams in the Grauniad on Friday (I think) let Bindel put her oar in in an article about Facebook :-/
Birds of a feather...
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From:auntysarah
Date:7th December, 2008 03:39 pm (UTC)
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Yeah. I believe it included the lovely line from Bindel, "What are they going to do, throw their wigs at me?"

Such a lovely woman.

BTW, Julie (and I know you're an avid reader - it's very flattering), it's all my own hair, moron.
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From:phonemonkey
Date:7th December, 2008 04:05 pm (UTC)
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Apparently proving Stryker's accusations of projection accurate, she suggested that ex-gay style therapies actually work because she herself, were she so-minded, could go to a therapist and be turned heterosexual with "no problem".

Hang on a bit...didn't she threaten legal action against anyone on Facebook who said she was a political lesbian?
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From:andrajames
Date:7th December, 2008 04:11 pm (UTC)
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So she could potentially be attracted to men and women but makes a conscious choice to only have relationshipa with women?

I wonder if she also chooses hair styles that don't make her look androgynous and expends considerable effort avoiding ogling attractive felines?
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From:rozk
Date:7th December, 2008 04:55 pm (UTC)
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People may remember that Stephen Whittle posted a comment to my LJ report on the demonstration here indicating support for the demonstration in the following terms: ' I think we were all very pleased to see the success of the protest, and if work commitments and other issues had not prevented me from attending, I would have been there, as all PFC VP's were free to do so. Unfortunately only one of us lives in London, and 3 of us are disabled, so such events are very hard for us to attend, with health often being the final factor.' If Christine Burns is shocked, shocked!, at our bad manners, perhaps she should have been ticking off her old friend as well...
From:(Anonymous)
Date:7th December, 2008 06:36 pm (UTC)

It's a shame..

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judging by the various FB threads there seems to be a minority, of whom CB seems to be just one, who are willing to play "good germans" and act as scolds of the TG community. I'm worried that SW is showing similar signs

Some seem to believe that, if only we'd be nice, people like JB wouldn't hate us. Well, I'm proud that we showed that we aren't going to take it anymore. I'm proud it was us here in the UK cos I know we sent a message heard elsewhere. And, like a lot of people, CB and SW are just gonna have to get used to it.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:7th December, 2008 05:56 pm (UTC)

Oh, Stephen !!! Why ??

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I wrote a rough transcript here;-
http://www.eurotrib.com/story/2008/12/6/11152/8407

But one point that intrigued me was when she said this;-
"Further, she says that the only thing that all women have in common is a fear of sexual violence. Brought up with the fear that they will be violated by men to keep them in their place."

However, if all women suffer from the threat of male violence, then it follows that all those suffer that threat are women. This would necessarily include all abused children of either gender and all out LGB people who fear violence for being gender transgressive. She hasn't got a leg to stand on by using this definition for excluding transgender women from 'Category : Woman', even from Vancouver rape crisis centre. It's far too broad and self-defeating.

Equally, her definition of women's lives is too brutally dystopian. I doubt few women would recognise themselves in this, but it's a standard she only measures MtF women by.

I felt sorry for SS. She looked jet-lagged and badly under-prepared, as you noted, she brought a knife to a gun fight.

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From:cangetmad
Date:9th December, 2008 01:12 pm (UTC)

Re: Oh, Stephen !!! Why ??

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However, if all women suffer from the threat of male violence, then it follows that all those suffer that threat are women. This would necessarily include all abused children of either gender and all out LGB people who fear violence for being gender transgressive.

No it doesn't. All robins are birds, but all birds are not robins.
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From:auntysarah
Date:7th December, 2008 07:17 pm (UTC)
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I do sometimes wonder if Bindel did a front page photo in the Guardian of her bathing naked in the blood of freshly squeezed orphans while sticking pins in a voodoo doll of Gandhi, she'd still have editors of lesbian and gay magazines fawning over her.

And I think she probably would. It seems professional courtesy gives her free rein to do what the hell she wants, without consequence.
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From:vyvyan
Date:7th December, 2008 06:20 pm (UTC)
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Excellent discussion - as is the other analysis you link to, which tipped me off to this hilarious article from Bindel on vegetarianism. As a trans vegetarian, I can't help wondering if there's anything else I am or do that she disapproves of to a similar extent...

(Comment replaced to fix broken link.)
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From:paulathomas
Date:7th December, 2008 06:32 pm (UTC)
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When I clicked on that link the tab on my browser read "Julie Biindel: Why I hate..." - caused a bit of a chuckle that...
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From:_moggy_
Date:7th December, 2008 07:22 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for another fascinating post on this subject. I'm so annoyed that she was given a platform to spout by PFC, but I think she's exposed her own hypocrisy even more - especialy the 'how dare you call me a political lesbian?'/'all sexuality is a choice' thing.

I can't stand Zoe Williams either, mainly because smugness but also becuase of the vile socks in that byline photo.
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From:auntysarah
Date:7th December, 2008 08:25 pm (UTC)
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how dare you call me a political lesbian?'/'all sexuality is a choice

You can imagine the scene in the High Court can't you:

Bindel's barrister: "M'lud, the defendant claimed my client was a 'political lesbian', that is someone who appropriates a lesbian identity for political reasons.

Judge: "But after reading her column, I thought she was!"
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From:moonspark
Date:7th December, 2008 07:31 pm (UTC)
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Man. What an asshat Bindel is.

I love Stryker. I wish we could have talked more when I met her. She wrote her PhD on Mormonism.
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From:auntysarah
Date:7th December, 2008 08:26 pm (UTC)
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I felt quite sorry for her - she's basically been played.
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From:mordantcarnival
Date:7th December, 2008 07:41 pm (UTC)
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Susan Stryker opened and started to take apart various things Bindel has said in a rational and scientific way.

Sheesh, don't you realise that this is a BAD thing? Rationalism, science, and evidence-based understanding are patriarchal and fascistic.
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From:paulathomas
Date:9th December, 2008 12:52 pm (UTC)
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Rationalism, science, and evidence-based understanding are patriarchal and fascistic.

Kinda why I don't like post-modernism. I am reminded of 11th century Baghdad when the followers of al-Ghazzali were declaring maths to be the work of the devil. There is a strong argument that this brought the great liberal Islamic civilisation (which had lasted since the 9th century) to an abrupt end. The Middle East has never properly recovered. Let's not have the same in Europe please.
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From:1ngi
Date:7th December, 2008 07:47 pm (UTC)
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I do wonder just how outrageously offensive Bindel has to get before the lesbian and gay establishment get too embarassed to court her?

If it had been a more public forum, that line would have been severely crossed with this:

she suggested that ex-gay style therapies actually work because she herself, were she so-minded, could go to a therapist and be turned heterosexual with "no problem.

A HUGE percentage of gay people would be appalled. Without getting into whole the 'which bits of nature and nurture do stuffs to people's sexualities', I suspect the majority of gay people being very certain that they didn't become gay through making a preference, but that they grew up knowing that they were different and that their preference was pretty much pre-determined! Sound familiar?

If there was a way you could get that little snifter of 'tude out there, I think she may suddenly lose some of the support she has had up until now.
From:squigglefish
Date:7th December, 2008 08:21 pm (UTC)
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Yes, I thought that comment was perhaps the most striking thing to come out of the 'debate'. Very revealing indeed...
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From:velvet_tipping
Date:7th December, 2008 08:34 pm (UTC)
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I think everyone's high.
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From:auntysarah
Date:7th December, 2008 10:03 pm (UTC)
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We do live in interesting times, for sure.
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From:natalie_456
Date:7th December, 2008 08:54 pm (UTC)
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sounds like we could have forseen this outcome. Bindel gets platform, expresses uninformed views, informed person makes her look silly, Bindel feels victimised, PFC look bad due to their involvement.

sigh. One day Bindel will stop digging and find herself in a very very hot place.
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