13 January 2013

RE: Julie Burchill. An open letter to The Observer reader's editor

Dear readers' editor,

I am writing to you to express my anger, disappointment and sadness that Julie Burchill's piece 'Transsexuals should cut it out' was allowed to appear in The Observer today, and on The Guardian's Comment is Free website. I've never written to complain about an article in a newspaper or magazine before, and it's particularly dispiriting that I have to do so to the group that gave me my break in journalism, something they did for reasons which I thought were sound.

As you may know, I spent more than two years working on a rolling blog for The Guardian called 'A Transgender Journey', commissioned by Rachel Dixon and Kate Carter, and hosted at Life and Style. (If not, it's here.) I wrote a blog post elsewhere explaining why I did this, giving background on The Guardian and Observer's historical record on transgender issues, which is here - to condense the post, the newspapers had published a number of pieces over the years attacking transgender, and in particular transsexual people from an ostensibly ethical, socialist and 'radical feminist' position, and that the structure and ideology of the publications and the newspaper industry had allowed them to continue abusing positions of power to ridicule, mock and attack a historically marginalised group of people. (I've lectured on this, too - here.)

As a result, I thought the Guardian Media Group were improving on trans issues - it published my comments pieces, people such as Roz Kaveney, Jane Fae, Paris Lees and Natacha Kennedy, and covered transgender and genderqueer artists such as EVA & ADELE. Also, your counterpart at the Guardian, Chris Elliott, contacted me for some advice when writing an open letter promising that the Guardian would improve its attitude towards trans people - so it's particularly embittering that these principles do not seem to have been adopted at The Observer. I have registered my feelings on a comment on Burchill's piece and on Twitter, and I am talking to other trans contributors to the Guardian/Observer, and to non-trans people I know who contribute, about the best course of action.

At the very least, I really feel that someone of seniority at The Observer should offer a full apology and an explanation of how this came to appear in the newspaper. The sooner the better, obviously - I'm very proud to have written for GMG, and of the specific pieces that I've contributed, but at the moment I'm trying hard not to feel that all of my work for you has been a waste of time.

I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Yours sincerely,

Juliet Jacques.


  1. I am not trans-gender, although I have some friends who are. I found Julie Birchill's article offensive, not because of the target as such, but because such a bullying attitude to anyone is unacceptable. It is beyond my comprehension that she should pretend that being working class gives her a right to be so unpleasant to people who disagee with her and her friends. Her intemporate language does her no credit.

  2. A very thoughtful and eloquent letter. I hope it gets the response it (and every other complaint on this matter) deserves.

  3. Today was a first for me - writing to an editor of a newspaper. But, I did, same as you. Burchill's hate speech justifies and normalises violence against trans women, and that's before the threat at the end. I told them they were allowing her to make a mockery of them and their "liberal" publications.

    Have you seen the editor's tweet? https://twitter.com/jnmulholland/status/290465267291672576

    Thank you for your post and your response.

  4. Thank you for writing this. I am eagerly awaiting, as we all are, their response...

  5. I have complained to the Press Complaints Commission
    and to the Guardian
    I encourage everyone to do the same.
    This article clearly counts as a hate crime which should be reported to the police.
    An apology is not really enough, but it is a start.

  6. Glad they *did* publish it. Shows her up for what she is!

  7. I am not transsexual, though many of my friends are. I have no great torch to carry for the attitudes of certain transsexuals who see their status as some spiritual metaphor for the human condition.

    But the Julie Birchill article was grossly offensive, needlessly crude, thoughtless and cruel. I know there is a difference between academic argument and popular journalism. But there is also a boundary between popular journalism and sheer invective. This went beyond it.

  8. In my opinion, Ms. Burchill responded in kind to a vicious collective attempt to defile and censor her friend Suzanne Moore by people claiming to advocate for a community but with no mandate to do so from their peers.
    Ms. Moore's initial comment, the one that brought upon her the hell-and-brimstone these activists presume to rain upon anyone critical of their misogyny and antifeminism, was actually quite trivial - women and MtoF transsexuals *are* oppressed by society's body image prescriptions - and undeserving of the hatred that followed it from some quarters. As was her later appeal to common cause in opposition to a patriarchal system that hates women, both "born" and "trans".
    Personally, as a gender dissident, I found Julie Burchill's response spirited, in-your-face and worthy of publication in a publication that is used to spirited no-hold-barred debates.
    I hope to see the failure of the current attempts to hound her voice out of The Guardian/Observer, along with any critical examination of some activists' tactics.

  9. Martin, the Burchill piece was a vicious pub rant with no redeeming features - and, for the record, I had and have no axe to grind with Moore, who I imagine is thinking 'with friends like that, who needs enemies?'. It was more characteristic of the Sun in 1982 than how I, perhaps wrongly, would imagine the Observer in 2013 likes to think of itself. It's horrible.

    Nice measured response, Juliet. Thanks.

  10. Juliet, tremendous, eloquent, and poignant response. Martin, the fact that you can find anything redeeming in any part of the Burchill/Moore vindictiveness is in itself deeply disturbing. The fact that you do so claiming to be a "gender dissident" is appalling.

  11. Yes...well. I advised Ian Beales of the PCC about coverage of these matter after writing to him on 14/10/2004.

    You can read the letter about human rights and privacy on PP 38-40 of the following document. It was published without consent and ironically "outs" me. Squeaker Burns sent me and email saying in effect that it doesn't matter and she couldn't be bothered to reformat the document:


    I was extremely upset about her bullying attitude but was not in any position to do anything about at the time.

    Please publicise my blog and expose the attitude of the authorities to criminal abuse and medical sex criminals


  12. Juliet - very eloquent and concise response. As a transgendered person, I found Burchill's article... There isn't even a word for it. It is heartening to see that so many other people feel the same, though it's unfortunate that a newspaper has to be told an article like that is grossly inappropriate.

  13. Well written Juliet. I see the Observer has referred the matter to their Reader's Editor, who'll of course write a piece about how it all came to pass. My suspicion is that's as much as they'll do, but we'll see.

    In answer to anonymous, it's almost certainly not a hate crime and not reportable to the police. Saying hateful things isn't illegal, nor is bigotry (and nor should they be). None of that means of course that the Observer (of all papers) should provide a platform for bigotry.

    Martin, would you support them publishing a piece about why gays or blacks should shut up, or Jews, complete with relevant epithets? If not, then why this? Burchill has a right of free speech to say what she wants, however unpleasant, provided she isn't actually threatening individuals or inciting violence (which she didn't do). She doesn't though have a right for the Observer to publish it. That's why God made the Daily Mail.

    Also, I'd note that Juliet's letter doesn't call for Burchill to be driven out (which as a freelancer I don't actually think she can be). Juliet here challenges the article, not the writer, which is I think the right approach.

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