Scott McLaughlin before and after transitioning
Artillery Row

Inconvenient victims

A woman deserves more sympathy than her killer

Here is a story you will hear from feminists, time and again: a woman breaks up with a man who has a history of violence. Unwilling to accept it is over, he stalks and threatens her. The woman contacts the police and obtains a restraining order, only this is not enough. Her ex-boyfriend rapes and murders her. No one can have her now. 

There’s a pattern to this, a particular form of escalation known to researchers into men’s fatal violence against women. Jane Monckton Smith documents it in her book Control, laying out an eight-stage timeline for domestic homicide. In See What You Made Me Do, Jess Hill describes how “domestic abuse almost always follows the same script”. 

One of feminism’s most important achievements has been to note down this script, highlighting the features common to each “isolated incident”. This matters not just in order to prevent further killings; it matters because all women murdered by men are owed this level of respect. Their deaths are not just personal, but political. They should be remembered this way. 

Beverly Guenther’s 2003 death is not remembered this way, even though hers followed the pattern outlined above. On 3 January this year, her killer was executed in Missouri, US. I am not a supporter of the death penalty; I do not think it honours victims to enact more violence. To treat murder as something that may be legitimised, providing the state is doing it, degrades the original crime. 

Nonetheless, to read certain reports on the execution, one could be forgiven for thinking the punishment was not in response to a horrific act of male violence at all. A piece in the Guardian opened with a stress on the perpetrator’s gender identity — “the first transgender woman to be executed in the US” — and ended with some fond reminiscences from fellow inmates: “She always had a smile and a dad joke … If you ever talked to her, it was always with the dad jokes”. 

There is humanising victims of capital punishment in order to emphasise its calculated barbarism, and there is minimising the cruelty and barbarism of stalking, rape and murder. I think the Guardian article veers into the latter territory. Beverly Guenther’s ex was not a smiling woman who made dad jokes; Guenther was terrorised and slaughtered by a man she knew to be Scott McLaughlin. We can deplore McLaughlin’s own execution without robbing Guenther of her story and what it means. 

Guenther is one of the women I have come to think of as inconvenient victims of male violence. Of course, all victims are inconvenient to someone, but there’s a particular subset who pose problems to those most invested in polishing their progressive credentials at every opportunity. The complications of Guenther’s story — in this case, her killer’s later claim to be a woman called Amber — render her a low-value option for many would-be allies. There’s more status to be had in minimising her suffering while emphasising McLaughlin’s inner trauma. Thus news reports erase Guenther’s own perception of her last moments, describing her killer using female pronouns; Guenther’s experience of being murdered by a man doesn’t matter. 

I understand the impulse here. There’s a type of excessive, visible empathising with perpetrators over victims — providing these are the right type of perpetrators — that flatters the liberal ego. Empathising with Beverly Guenther is a bit Daily Mail, a bit “won’t somebody please think of the children?” basic. Trying to put oneself in the shoes of McLaughlin requires higher-level faculties. 

It’s a test: can you overcome your knee-jerk disgust — such a lowly response! — and put the murderer first? Or are you some string-em-up pleb still weeping over some woman who’s long gone anyway? Are you a true progressive, who can see beyond the obvious, boring injustices to get to the ones that really matter, or are you one of the carceral state’s useful idiots? 

To many, any focus on Beverly Guenther is seen as a transphobic dogwhistle. In the retrofitted story, it’s almost as though she got herself killed in order to facilitate state violence being enacted on one of the most marginalised people of all.  

It’s almost as though men’s fatal violence against women isn’t a tragedy in its own right

In the male-dominated progressive culture into which liberal feminism has been absorbed, good women – those who deserve to be mourned, and whose killers deserve to be forgotten – get themselves killed by useful villains, such as policemen or Andrew Tate devotees. It’s almost as though men’s fatal violence against women isn’t a tragedy in its own right. It must also be useful to the promotion of more important political objectives, which should prioritise stopping bad things happening to male people. 

I recently read We Keep The Dead Close, Becky Cooper’s true crime exploration of the 1969 murder of Harvard student Jane Britton. Throughout the work, there’s a real interest in drawing political parallels between then and now, particularly regarding the experiences of young women in relation to male authority. Unfortunately — spoiler alert — the author’s desired ending is marred by her eventually discovering that Britton’s killer is not a white academic, but most likely a black serial killer. 

Cooper is clearly mortified by this. It risks changing her #metoo-infused feminist reckoning into something far more unpleasant: the story of a white female victim of a violent black man. Cooper becomes incredibly apologetic, in a way I found deeply disconcerting. Britton’s murderer, like Guenther’s, was doing something that is typical not for black men or trans people, but for men who already have a history of violence against women and girls (which both killers did). Yet in falling over herself to apologise for Britton having had the “wrong” kind of murderer, Cooper herself sounds suspicious, as though she does not truly believe this. 

I can understand the risk of publishing such a story in case it is misused. However, I think any author who is worried about this should also take care not to portray the murder victim as complicit in bigotry due to having died the kind of death right-wing racists might exploit. Britton had no say in any of this. 

I do not think it is okay for we, the living, to offload our concerns about being seen as bad — as transphobic, as racist, as in league with an oppressive prison system — onto those who have suffered more than us and cannot answer back. I do not think it is okay for us to temper our compassion as a way of demonstrating some higher, purer commitment to social justice. We should not be picking and choosing which dead women show us in the most flattering light. 

There’s a space between exploiting violence against women to demonise particular groups, and treating women whose deaths could be used in such a way as lesser victims, whose suffering is not so much tragic as politically embarrassing. 

I sincerely hope never to be murdered, but if I am, I would like to reserve the right to be considered more of a victim than the person who kills me. I’d be the one who couldn’t speak any more. Feminism, if it means anything, has to mean telling the story for the women who no longer can.

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