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COMMENT: There’s no place for transphobia in the press

Posted on Wednesday, 16 January by

The Observer and Guardian office

Usually a Fleet Street favourite amongst left-leaning readers, the Observer came under fire last weekend as one of it’s columnists, Julie Burchill, penned an article that was criticised for its treatment of the transgender community.

Burchill was writing in defence of her friend and colleague Suzanne Moore, who had herself been immersed in controversy following a New Statesman piece in which she said that in today’s image-driven society, women are expected to look like “Brazilian transexuals”.

In response to the “bullying” that Suzanne Moore claims to have suffered as a response of her original piece, Burchill launched a furious tirade against the transgender community, labelling them as “screaming mimis”, “bed-wetters in bad wigs” and “dicks in chicks’ clothing”.

Sensing that the fury from within the transgender community was about to boil over, The Guardian’s website withdrew the article and John Mulholland, editor of the Observer, issued a formal apology: “We have decided to withdraw from publication the Julie Burchill comment piece ‘Transsexuals should cut it out’. The piece was an attempt to explore contentious issues within what had become a highly-charged debate.”

“The Observer is a paper which prides itself on ventilating difficult debates and airing challenging views. On this occasion we got it wrong and in light of the hurt and offence caused I apologise and have made the decision to withdraw the piece.”

But, with the press being under scrutiny and perhaps on the brink of reform following the Leveson Inquiry, is it right that the article was even published at all? It’s nothing but an ill-advised rant swirling in emotion. What pushed it over the edge was the abusive language that it contained. Everyone is entitled to their opinion but finding the balance is essential.

It’s no secret that The Observer, sister paper of The Guardian, is a respected title and is perhaps more left-wing than any of the others in the market. The freedom of expression and its relationship with defamation can sometimes be on a fine line, especially when talking about minorities or certain communities within society. There is never an excuse for those of minorities to be picked on publicly, even though we see it regularly, but perhaps more subtly.

Burchill was, and still is, thoroughly entitled to her opinion but the publishing of it could have increased the already hostile attitude that some people can have to the transgender community. And, at the end of the day, is it really worth it for a by-line? Couldn’t she have kept her opinions to a personal blog, or even her diary?

The Observer did the right thing taking down the article, but it should never have made it onto the site in the first place. Everyone slips up occasionally and fortunately the newspaper had the right attitude and issued an apology before anything major came to be.

Let this be a lesson to the past, present and future of the industry.

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Tabitha Langley



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