Cis People Know Best, They Tell Us

Surely as night follows day, support for a cause leads to a backlash. The huge outpouring of sympathy and support for trans people that came from the sad death of Leelah Alcorn was inevitably going to lead to attacks on trans people. Unsurprisingly to any trans activist in the UK, the first salvo has come from the New Statesman.

On the face of it, Sarah Ditum’s article is supportive and caring, but it is actually a very clever piece of concern trolling. What Ditum wants to happen, is for people to stop writing about Leelah. Her excuse for this is that it is against Samaritans guidelines to publicise suicides, least this encourage copycat attempts. Technically, of course, this is correct, in that yes, the Samaritans do advise this. Practically it is quite another matter.

To start with, Leelah did a darn good job of publicising her suicide herself. She posted her suicide note on Tumblr, and by the time I woke up on Tuesday morning my Twitter feed was full of the story. Many young trans people have few friends outside of the Internet because they dare not tell anyone who might gossip about them to their parents, their teachers or other kids at their school. The bush telegraph of Tumblr and similar sites is very effective. Any additional publicity was mostly going to reach cis people, who are not the people at risk.

Secondly, many of the trans activists who covered the story (myself included) deliberately pointed to Leelah’s own words because we know how badly our stories can be mis-represented in the media. If a community is used to having news sources tell lies about it, then it will want the right to speak for itself.

Then again, there’s the question of least harm. If a teenage girl had killed herself because her parents were sexually abusing her, would people want this made known so that the parents could be brought to justice? I’m pretty sure that most of you would say yes. Well Leelah wanted the world to know that she was being abused too. Her parents had forced her to undergo “therapy” to “cure” her feelings. I don’t think they use electric shocks like they did when I was a kid, but this sort of thing is still very much psychological torture. The aim is to make the kid associate having the “undesirable” feelings with pain and unhappiness. In many parts of the world, using these methods on gay and lesbian people is banned by law. It is still commonly advocated for trans people.

By the way, while Leelah’s parents certainly bear some responsibility for what happened, personally I would prefer to see the blame land squarely on the preachers and quack psychiatrists who peddle these supposed cures. They prey on worried parents for profit.

But couldn’t the publicity that Leelah’s death has got encourage other trans kids to kill themselves so they could become famous too? If you believe that trans people are all attention-hungry and mentally ill — and many radical feminists do appear to believe that — then maybe yes. However, trans kids are killing themselves in ridiculous numbers anyway. As recent surveys have shown, the number of suicide attempts per head of population for trans people is over 40%. Roughly speaking, a trans person is 10 times more likely to attempt suicide than a straight cis person, and twice as likely as a gay or lesbian cis person.

As this Salon article notes, “Trans people don’t commit suicide because they’re trans; they commit suicide because the rest of us don’t treat them like people.” Leelah knew this, and said so. Her eloquently written note ended with a plea for trans people to be treated like human beings. It led to exactly the sort of outpouring of support from the mainstream media that she must have hoped for. No wonder some people want her silenced.

Given that the trans community was all getting the story on social media anyway, a deafening silence in mainstream media would have confirmed everyone’s worst fears. Publishing supportive articles was a far better way of preventing copycats than silence.

Like all good pieces of concern trolling, Ditum’s article contains some good points. She certainly sounds like she cares. But what she doesn’t say is also very telling. For example, she makes use of the #TransLivesMatter hashtag, but says absolutely nothing about the #RealLiveTransAdult hashtag that was very popular in the wake of Leelah’s death. Why did she fail to mention it? Could it be that it was because it was solid proof of the trans community doing something positive to try to prevent further tragedies? That would hardly fit with the narrative of people needing to be protected from themselves now, would it?

The real viciousness of the column, however, will be invisible to most readers, because it lies in the choice of author. You see, Sarah Ditum has a reputation amongst trans people in the UK as a leading TERF. In fact it would be hard to find any journalist more hated by the UK trans community. I guess they could have asked Julie Burchill to write that piece, but she’s incapable of the sly subtlety that Ditum has mastered. If the New Statesman’s editorial team (and yes, I do mean you, Helen Lewis) wanted to commission something guaranteed to cause hurt and anger amongst the UK trans community, they could not have done better than to ask Ditum to write it. This looks like Fox News level viciousness.

So why does this happen? On the face of it, the New Statesman is a very liberal, progressive newspaper. It publishes some great articles by Laurie Penny, who is a good friend to the trans community. Why do they have this hate on for trans people?

It would be simplistic to say that they are all radical feminists stuck fighting a battle that they lost back in the 1970s. It is certainly true that Ditum believes that trans women are “really” men. I’m sure she’ll take any criticism by trans folk of what she writes as “male bullying”. But that’s not the whole story. If it was she wouldn’t be able to do the concern troll thing so well, and Lewis wouldn’t think she was doing right by publishing it.

No one thinks of themselves as a villain. Conservatives tell themselves that they are following the world of God, or that the oppression of the poor is simply the Law of the Jungle in operation. When liberals want to oppress someone, they tell themselves that they are doing it for that person’s own good.

What I see here is a deep-seated belief that trans people are mentally ill; that they are not capable of speaking for themselves, because they are so clearly deluded. They need protecting from themselves, and curing of their sickness. When I see Ditum say that she cares about trans people, what I hear is that she wants us in asylums, where she hopes that we can be made to be not trans. I hear exactly the sort of dehumanising behaviour that drove Leelah Alcorn to take her own life.

So yeah, if there is anything at all written about this case that is likely to cause more trans suicides, it is that piece in the New Statesman. And they will tell themselves that it is for our own good.

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19 Responses to Cis People Know Best, They Tell Us

  1. Emma says:

    Thank you so much for this concise and well written rebuttal. Far too often, the lies told by cis folks are believed as truth.

  2. Carol Steele says:

    Excellent rebuttal of Ditum’s article Cheryl – thank you for enlightening people who do not know what Ditum really stands for. Those crocodile tears flowing from Ditum’s eyes can be dried now and she is exposed as the hateful bigot that she really is.

  3. Sarah AB says:

    I very much agree that the main problem was the choice of writer and that, as you say, this element will not have been apparent to many. I am sure that the Samaritans’ advice should be attended to, in general, but when a suicide is caused by a particular phenomenon or type of bigotry (homophobic bullying or pressure caused by honour codes or arranged marriages) then I think it can certainly be argued that the need to publicise the problem, and the harm it causes, outweighs the downside to such publicity.

    I don’t think it’s very helpful of Emma to make generalisations about ‘the lies told by cis folks’.

  4. Fay says:

    Fucking WHAT?! Exactly *no* responses I’ve seen to her death have glamorised it or called it anything other than the tragedy it is. This Ditum woman needs a word had.

    Oh, wait – that would be your excellent rebuttal which needs signal boosting… Will share.

    (For disclosure: am cis.)

  5. amanda groves says:

    This is excellently put, although i do have to say, please be inclusive of female to male transgender people too, they have an even harder time being accepted.
    Sad to say that the attitudes of the parents and people providing a ‘cure’ are disgusting and when i read about Leelah i felt physically sick that these victorian methods were being used to abuse vulnerable people. She shouldn’t have been made to suffer that and neither should anyone else.

    • Cheryl says:

      Point taken. I talked exclusively about MtF people here because those are the people that Ditum attacks. Like most TERFs, she has a blind spot when it comes to FtM (in that she doesn’t see them, except when she wants to claim that she’s trans herself). I could equally have talked about non-binary people, who get ignored in most such discussions, and intersex people, who often are forced through surgery by parents and doctors when still babies.

      • amanda groves says:

        I didn’t want to trivialise anything mentioning FtM and glad to see you didn’t take it that way. The whole thing is abhorrent, people are people and have rights regardless of gender and seeing what people are going through breaks my heart, non binary gendered people also have it so tough. At the end of the day if you’re a good HUMAN BEING that’s all that matters, and that *ahem* “journalist” merely spreads hate and lies and misconceptions, if it was about a ‘race’ of people she’d be arrested…

  6. Marti386 says:

    I can’t say I’m surprised to see Ditum chiming in on a matter of the trans community that has nothing to do with her. I’m not surprised at the recent, pathetic attempt by the radfem community to smear the trans community. I’m not surprised by the monstrous attempt by radfems like Linda “Gallus Mag” Shanko to victim blame Leelah. I’m not surprised by the vile attempt by gay male radfem Justin Norwood to disregard Leelah’s suicide note, and try to claim she was a gay male who committed suicide because of homophobia.

    Really, I’m not surprised at all. In fact, when I first got word about it, I began a mental countdown to see how long the TERFs would take to start trying to spin this. Sadly, I didn’t have to wait long.

    I knew it would happen, because this is what happens anytime a corporation or political movement gets caught doing something reprehensible. It’s called “damage control”. And right now, the TERFs are in full blown damage control mode.

    See, the TERFs are absolutely TERRIFIED of what happened in the Leelah Alcorn story. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them more in a tizzy than they are right now. They’re terrified because this one simple act by Leelah has galvanized and united the trans community like no other in a long time. They are terrified because this act has made the trans community angry like no other in a long time. They are terrified because this act has brought the plight of trans people into the light of the mainstream media like no other in a long time. They are terrified because TERFs have spent years claiming that trans people don’t commit suicide because of being trans. They are terrified because TERFs have spent years claiming that misgendering and failing to recognize trans people’s gender identities does not lead to suicide. They’re terrified because they’ve spent years claiming that the horrendous toxic environment they contribute to with startling regularity doesn’t result in the suicide of trans people. They’ve been claiming that they have no blood on their hands. And Leelah, a 17 year old kid who they’ve never heard of, just proved them wrong. So utterly, horribly wrong.

    They are terrified of Leelah. They are terrified of what she represents. They are terrified of what she makes their TERF movement look like. They are terrified of the scrutiny she brings to their “trans critical” theory. In one simple movement, Leelah just took them apart like a clock. So of course they would be in damage control right now.

    So I’m not at all surprised Ditum wants to shut this down. She and her TERF buddies don’t want the message of Leelah Alcorn to get any more widespread. She doesn’t want cis people to be moved to help us. She doesn’t want the trans community fired up. She doesn’t want this opening up discussions on how to better help trans people, or our rights. And especially, she doesn’t want the world to notice how much her “trans critical” radfem theory is total hogwash.

    So the best thing we can do is NEVER forget Leelah Alcorn. Never stop fighting for trans youth and trans rights. Never stop trying to make this a better world for all trans people. And never stop until the TERF movement is long gone and forgotten.

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  9. Adrian says:

    A mostly good article, but the fact that you several times make rather pointed comments about feminists shows that, in the end, you are succumbing to the exact same thing as the people you are speaking out against.

    Would it really have been that hard to write this article without needing to make inaccurate and hurtful generalizations about people? Just because a few are cruel and vocally abusive doesn’t mean that all feminists are.

    • Cheryl says:

      I use the word “feminist” twice in the post. Both times it is preceded by the word “radical”, which very clearly indicates that I am not referring to all feminists. I certainly don’t think all feminists are cruel and abusive because I proudly count myself as one. Go away and practice your trolling for a little while and come back when you are less incompetent at it.

  10. Jazzlet says:

    “When liberals want to oppress someone, they tell themselves that they are doing it for that person’s own good.”

    Indeed.

    Thank you for another informative post. As a cis female I have no experience of what trans individuals or the trans community go(es) through and it is only though learning what you want that I can be truly supportive. I am not sure why we find it so difficult to ask ‘what can I do that will help?’or ‘where can I find out how to help?’ rather than assuming we know, but they are questions that should be asked, along with not assuming our experience is universally applicable.

    • Jazzlet:

      Ah, you’ve summed it up in your last sentence. It is so much easier to see where someone else is coming from if you assume that the person honestly believes that they are the only real person in the universe, and that everyone else is a “non-player character.”

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