About six weeks ago, Samantha Allen, a trans* activist and scholar in the US, published an incisive piece at Jacobin — a site I always find thought-provoking.
I’m an endangered species. Nearly half of people like me attempt suicide. Hundreds of us are murdered annually and, worldwide, that rate is only increasing. Those of us who have a job and a place to live often lose them both; too many of us can’t acquire either in the first place. What I am is a transgender woman, one of the lucky ones.
I’m lucky because I’m white, and because I have employment, housing and health insurance. I can’t get too comfortable, though, because every few days, a tragic headline reminds me of how fragile we are as a group: “Anti-Transgender Bathroom Bill Passes,” “Transgender Inmates At Risk,” “Transgender Woman Shot.”
What she runs up against is that it’s perfectly easy to be a victim in the US media, but once you start defending your life instead of letting it be described, all hell breaks loose.
While the article deals with many threats to trans* existence, her focus is not physical violence but political erasure. There’s still a strong phalanx of Western feminists who hate the idea of “gender.” They believe in woman as biological essence: they reject the notion that sexual roles are produced by social forces, and instead trace social repression back to women’s genital-given ability to make babies (which patriarchy needs to harness to keep going). This is at least a defensible idea, but one of its adherents’ traits is a deep loathing of transgender people, who embody, if that’s the right word, all the gendery blurriness they abjure and abhor. To them, trans* women are deluded men who want to weasel into women’s spaces, at best as spies, at worst as rapists.
Ideas exist not in an ideal but in the real world, and one way to judge them is not by their consistency with other ideas but by whether they have victims. By that standard, an idea that breeds hatred — in this case, against an already vulnerable group of people — has its problems.
Allen points to Catherine Brennan, a Maryland attorney, as an example among many. Brennan is fairly notorious. In 2011, she famously co-wrote a letter to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, opposing legal protections for gender identity, and asking the UN to condemn such anti-discrimination laws in the US. The appeal came at a particularly crucial time in the UN’s negotiations over sexual orientation and gender identity. As Allen says, Brennan “effectively allied herself with those on the Right who viciously deter trans* folks’ attempts to secure employment, housing and safe public spaces.” Brennan also descends to more individual forms of opposition. Recently, for instance, she posted online the court docket information of a trans* woman who was petitioning to change her legal gender, and encouraged others to ask the judge to quash the petition. Last year, she sent a trans* activist a weird but instructive picture:
Allen’s essay was mainly a positive call for the left to take trans* issues seriously. But Brennan, a litigious soul, particularly disliked the paragraph about her. She didn’t try to refute any of the points. She threatened to sue the publisher.
Brennan’s action was in obvious imitation of Peter Tatchell, who has threatened various people in the past — publishers both small and large, and, on at least two separate occasions, employers — with lawsuits in response to criticism of his work and tactics. (Some accounts of Tatchell’s attempts at censorship can be found here, and here, and here, and here.) Until it was partially reformed this year (after a number of researchers and scholars had been hauled into court, accused of defamation for disagreeing with others), England’s libel law was among the worst threats to free speech in any soi-disant democracy. As the UK’s Libel Reform Campaign (a joint project of Index on Censorship, PEN, and Sense about Science) said, the law was “chilling global freedom of expression, by silencing writers, journalists, bloggers and human rights activists in the UK and around the world.” It was Peter’s favorite weapon. Unsurprisingly, libel reform is perhaps the one widely popular campaign in Great Britain, short of the EDL, that Tatchell never endorsed.
Some activists oppose power instinctively. Some activists instinctively love power. There’s a long history, for example, of feminists who honorably oppose patriarchy turning to the patriarchal State, not just for protection but to silence their opponents. Real activism does not succeed through seizing power, though, but by transforming it. Its progress is impossible without critique and disagreement. When you shut down criticism by other activists and movements, and police your way into a specious authority beyond argument, you lose your claims to credibility. You also poison the atmosphere of diversity and debate, the only air that true thought and politics can possibly breathe.
I thought of this recently, after I wrote my own criticism of Hillel Neuer and his baltageya at “UN Watch.” Neuer’s group is not, in any proper sense, a human rights organization. Instead, they spend their time attacking human rights activists, mostly for insufficient adulation of Israel. In this case, Neuer had launched an assault on the reputation of Mona Seif, a heroic campaigner against military rule and military trials in Egypt. I pointed out the indefensibility and falsehood of Neuer’s allegations, and his obvious political motivations.
I got a number of poison-pen letters, but at the bottom of one threat there was … Peter Tatchell. Literally. The following e-mail, from one S. Brodsky, offered the usual rhetoric:
Fine. (It’s the Southern Poverty Law Center, by the way.) This came at the top of a chain of forwarded emails urging people to “do something” about me, which the sender apparently forgot to delete. But when I scrolled to the bottom, through archaeological layers of abuse, I discovered that the originating email came from Peter Tatchell, imploring Hillel Neuer to sue me.
It may be true that I’m “impervious to criticism,” at least in comparison to Peter, who takes note of every mild demurral for future retaliation. I don’t think it’s possible to do human rights activism unless you have a thicker skin than that. On the “appeals to conscience,” though, I am in doubt. I have checked with my conscience, which is in session 24/7 with special judges on hand for night court, and it has no record of such a case being referred to its jurisdiction by a lower tribunal. I’d encourage Peter to pursue this recourse, and submit his documents as soon as possible. My conscience can’t wait to see what the appeal would look like.
This all serves as a reminder that the full documentation of Peter’s attempts to go after me deserves to be online, and I really should post it for the connoisseurs.
For the rest: it’s amusing to find Peter as the fairy, or toad, at the bottom of this particular e-mail garden. Yet it’s also sad. Peter’s been harassing me in his obsessed fashion — on occasion directly, more often through various minions — for years. Some weeks ago I found he turns up in my followers’ list on Facebook, as does the beautifully named “Patrick Lyster-Todd, Lieutenant Commander Royal Navy,” who is or was the “Acting General Manager” of the “Peter Tatchell Foundation.” My Facebook page is open to the world, you can check it any time, but Peter and his employees want to make sure they don’t miss anything I might post that could be employed against me. Lyster-Todd, whom I am afraid I can only envision as an evil twin of Captain Crunch, wrote a long email two years ago to Harvard Law School to complain that I worked there:
I am the acting General Manager for the Peter Tatchell Foundation, a small human rights non profit organisation in London, United Kingdom. …
May I ask – openly, honestly and without any hidden agenda – whether Mr Long is entitled to sign himself as a Visiting Fellow of the School and, if so, whether it can therefore be inferred that he [speaks] with the tacit or other support or authority of the Harvard Law School? I cannot believe that you would wish this. …
Harvard told him to climb back in his yellow submarine. Nonetheless, the whole thing suggests a degree of drivenness in Peter’s pursuit of me that pushes at the pale of sense.
When Peter reaches out to UN Watch, though, it’s not funny. For him to embrace that band of Likudnik thugs puts the lie, at a minimum, to his intermittent professions of support for Palestine. As I said above: bad ideas have victims. Tatchell allies himself with a State-sponsored enemy of the United Nations’s rights work, of Israeli civil society, of Palestinian aspirations for freedom, and of genuine human rights heroes like Mona Seif in Egypt; and what can you say? He reveals that his carefully cultivated idea of himself doesn’t care about the consequences. No rights activist should prefer Hillel Neuer to Mona Seif and the Egyptian revolutionaries. But Peter’s amour-propre is prepared to inflict collateral damage on anybody who gets in its way.
Peter obviously would like to scare me himself, and I doubt that his lack of funds is a deterrent; surely the “Peter Tatchell Foundation” could contribute its resources to a rights-advancing lawsuit. The reasons, rather, are twofold: my lack of funds, and the fact that he’d rather move furtively and through figureheads than in the open. But if he’s willing to come out, I can certainly help. I don’t take Peter seriously; most human rights activists don’t. He is primarily concerned with self-promotion. His advertisements for himself exploit the work of serious grassroots activists in the global South while disregarding their agency — and sometimes callously endangering their safety. For the most part, he puts out a stream of press releases with endless quotations from himself. These do little to dislodge injustice, but they do qualify him as what the French call, expressively, a pisseur de copie. Finally, like many so absorbed with themselves, he is deeply insecure; he tends the delicate flower of his minor celebrity with an intemperate rage at those who question or critique him. He’ll take down real activists like Mona Seif and others if they are in the line of fire.
Now, Peter: Please sue. I look forward to hearing from you. Hillel Neuer (and Catherine Brennan) will have to wait in line.
Meanwhile, there are constructive lessons. It remains important to defang these people who are too absorbed by the vicissitudes of reputation to address criticism or participate in discourse. You can learn about the UK Libel Reform Campaign (which still has work to do) here. To support Jacobin Magazine, and the principles of independent journalism, please donate to their legal defense fund here.