For those of you who prefer to spare yourself the irritation of news stories about squabbles involving well-known figures, a couple of weeks ago, students at the University of Cardiff opposed a talk by feminist writer Germaine Greer because of her views on trans-women. In Greer’s opinion, trans folk who identify as female are not “real” women. Although the talk itself wasn’t about that, her views were seen as deeply offensive and a potential spur to oppression of and even violence against members of the transgender community.
Personally, I disagree with the students who moved to no-platform Greer, as it victimises her and adds to the widespread hostility towards contemporary social justice movements in society as a whole. Yet again, those of us who care that people are treated with respect regardless of their identity are seen as petulant whiners, looking to silence anyone who disagrees with us. I like to think that engaging with Greer would be a great opportunity to get such voices heard in the context of a dialogue with a successful, authoritative figure.
However, I have a far greater problem with Greer herself in this case. For many, she represents the feminism which is so important to my personal and political identity, and she is using her influential position to judge and limit people rather than empower them. My feminism is about fairness and justice; it’s about allowing everyone to live the life that suits them, regardless of appearance or what’s between their legs. Greer says that trans-women “don’t look, sound like, or behave like women”. To me, that sounds like some Victorian grandmother insisting that trousers aren’t ladylike.
I don’t know if Greer has noticed, but there are billions of women on this planet. We belong to every race and culture; our appearance varies according to our unique genetic make-up; our voices are influenced by the languages we speak and regional accents; we behave in ways which relate to the times and places in which we developed our personalities. Some women have speech impediments, others cannot speak at all. What, then, does “a women” look, sound, and act like? By suggesting that we are bounded by our gender in these regards, Greer is adding to the alienation many women feel from feminism right now.
Those who, like Greer, reject transgendered people’s identities actually end up oppressing others by trying to slot them into the same restrictive little boxes which have hindered both women and men for centuries. Trans-people grow up with all the same preconceived ideas about “masculinity” and “femininity” as cis people (people whose sexual organs and personal identity fall broadly into the same gender category), but with the added difficulties of being pushed towards the category which works least well for them.
According to figures used by Public Health England to advise nurses dealing with young trans-people at risk of suicide, 73% of trans people report harassment and 10% report experiencing threatening behaviour in public spaces. This is the context in which Greer’s opponents at Cardiff feared that her position may pose a risk to members of the trans community – as a respected public figure, her comments add to the constant, corrosive discrimination which pushes so many trans people to take their own lives. It is unlikely that Greer is ignorant of this; how, then, can she justify making such views public? Even if she doesn’t accept trans-women’s gender identities, why become just another voice putting them down? I also find it strange that she focuses on those who transition from ‘male’ to ‘female’, ignoring those who go the other way. Is identifying as a man so much more acceptable? Perhaps we still have a long way to go in terms of seeing maleness as ‘neutral’ while females are cast as the ‘Other’.
As far as I’m concerned, this is not a freedom of speech debate. The fact that Cardiff students sought to no-platform Greer actually says a lot about the power transphobic voices still have in feminist discourse, as trans issues are often drowned out of the debate. Perhaps those involved felt they would be fighting a losing battle if they tried to tackle the renowned feminist head-on. The real issue here, however, is the wider debate about what feminism means today, and whom it includes. As more and more of society becomes aware of alternative ideas on gender, it is up to our generation, and not Greer’s, to decide that movements for justice and equal rights belong to trans-people too.