“T******s vs. Drag Queens” – A Response

Stuart Forward

Recent graduate living in Leeds. Lover of the Caribbean, obscure books, beer and things people don't give a toss about. Aspiring publisher. Wannabe Belgian. @StuForward

Yesterday Milo Yiannopoulos fired a flaming arrow in the latest battle in what he sees as “a burgeoning war that threatens to rip apart the gay Left.”

With his article ‘T******s vs. Drag Queens: How the Gay Left is Tearing Itself Apart‘, Yiannopoulos set out shop to tackle what he sees as a great injustice and hypocrisy left unchecked within LGBTQ circles.

Emblazoned with a header image of the now continentally recognisable Conchita Wurst, the article drew on the ambivalent reaction to Conchita’s Eurovision victory, by some in trans* circles, to bolster an understanding of trans* individuals and activists as not only separate from drag queens, but in essence contrary to a mentality of “liberation [and] free expression”.

In the world of this article, war is looming as divisions deepen and the rational, “normal” voices become increasingly shut down by the extremes of the other, the trans* activists. Yiannopoulos marks out the storms that have surrounded instances of overlooked transphobia, such as RuPaul’s Drag Race‘s adoption of “She-mail”, as “self-defeating absurdity, […] ally-on-ally carping”.

Yet, you have to ask, what is a greater challenge to unity within the LGBTQ community: defending a right to not be defined or restricted by words and imposed identities you find offensive, or lambasting the very people sensitive to such transphobic and homophobic undercurrents?

You see, it’s all in the words. Leading his piece’s title with the phrase “t******s”, a phrase reminiscent of schoolground hate, bar brawls, and heckling in the street, Yiannopoulos’ piece does not appear too preoccupied with upholding equality. Arguably straight-talking, and indeed shining a light on a knee-jerk reaction to such debates, the article does serve a purpose.

However, it’s the abuse of a word, and the misunderstanding of its intimate power, that ultimately renders Yiannopoulos’ perspective on this topic moot. When you are that word, you live it and own it. When you are not that word, you have no right.

For me the word is “batty boy”. The phrase in itself spirits me away to the top of a bus in South London in 2004, with a group from the year above throwing chewing gum in my hair, talking down at me, and throwing my school bag around. It’s that feeling of being utterly surrounded, utterly isolated, utterly undone. For me, it’s all in that word.

To casually use the T-slur in published form, a lynchpin for an argument, shows a disconnection with the very subject matter. The underlying force of Yiannopoulos’ contentions, as evidenced in his distaste for “off-the-wall pronouns,” is one that yearns for conformity in the face of difference. Difference on our terms is fine, but when the other group have the nerve to assert difference on their own terms, well, that’s just not cricket.

The article attempts to enter into a debate which quite frankly neither myself nor the article’s original author have a right to comment on. As a cis homosexual white middle class male I am fully aware of the privilege that I live by and the restrictions it imposes on my intimate awareness of issues and impulses outside that identity.

I could fall back and say that I have lived, worked and socialised with trans* individuals, but even then, my connection with the contention, and the reverberation of the word, will not be the same as that of any trans* individual. I do not begrudge this. It is not for the discriminated to defend their right to be offended.

While critics may be reading to this point and writing off this rebuttal as wordplay, a more concerning and potentially damaging belief held within the article states that “there’s a perfectly respectable argument […] that even post-op transsexuals aren’t really women.” In so citing, Yiannopoulos strays into supporting a discriminatory and regressive debate that connects gender irrefutably with your genitals. What have we been fighting for guys, seriously? For further insight into the absolute flawed nature of this transphobia, please read Roy Ward’s ‘Surf & TERF – Trans*-Exclusionary Radical Feminists‘ which does a far better job than I ever could.

Ultimately, far from the irreparable division between trans* activists and drag queens that the article would have you believe, the real threat to LGBTQ unity, and a source of increasing fractures within the community, is the perspective pronounced by this very article. It lives on division, creating monochrome boundaries between the left and right, trans* and drag, us and them, and ultimately “normal” against everything else. This is not an understanding of LGBTQ I recognise, nor one I want to.

Far from criticising trans* activists for wanting “to shut the world down” there should be a general understanding of an individual’s ultimate right to feel offence, act on offence, and exercise their right to definition, whether on a personal or principled level.

Shouting at each other does not encourage learning, which is perhaps the best point to take from Yiannopoulos’ article, but equally criticising those pursuing equality only serves to restrict it. A denial of any of these freedoms, whether actively or passively, is a bigger danger to maintaining a unified understanding of LGBTQ than anything else. But ultimately, I think Conchita will still be too hungover to care.

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