Students at Cardiff University recently started a petition demanding that Germaine Greer be banned from speaking at the university.
They have, as a result, brought the opposing political perspectives of trans-exclusive radical feminists, and queer and trans activists into the public eye. Greer is rightly criticised for a long history of transphobic remarks, both in her books and in public statements. She has consistently denied that trans women are women, having called trans women a “ghastly parody” of femaleness. “No-platforming” is more and more being adopted as the weapon of choice by proponents of feminist, queer, LGBT and anti-racist politics on university campuses. The narrative used to justify the tactic is one of “preventing violence” and keeping minority groups on campus “safe”.
These are laudable aims on paper, but the strategy of “no-platforming” raises some important questions. Firstly, who gets to judge who is “violent”? Students are increasingly passing policy in their students unions and the NUS, or petitioning university managements, calling on politically ambiguous and bureaucratic organisations to ban “harmful” speakers. Surely, this is worse than having the debate, whether from the event floor, through articles and blogs, or militant protests? As a result of building a culture where banning speakers is the go-to solution, and passing policy enabling organisations like the NUS and our students unions to deliver judgements from on high, these fights could become less and less public. We shouldn’t be flippant. We might think it is self-evident that Greer is hateful, while someone else is not. But by shirking our responsibility to make these decisions ourselves through honest, public, open debate, we may find ourselves in a situation where controversial people we agree with are also being prevented from speaking. In fact, this is very much a pressing issue of the day as speakers are being rejected by universities under auspices of counter-extremism, and the term “extremism” is becoming synonymous with “opposed to the government, or powers that be”.
The point is then, that even when we deeply disagree with someone, we should be in favour of them having the right to speak, and our having the right to disagree. Secondly, what do we mean by “violence” and “safety”? Ultimately, our society will only be truly “safe” once we rid it of misogyny, transphobia, class, etc. Preventing Greer from speaking is not a strategy for achieving that goal. Greer’s views are, shamefully, not uncommon. She represents one side of a (largely) generational divide between second-wave radical feminists and younger feminists who adopt a more trans-inclusive perspective. This tension has been incredibly cruel to trans and queer people, who are shamed, erased, denied, and excluded by so-called feminists on a daily basis. But it is precisely for that reason that this debate needs to be had out, not shut down. Furthermore, while Greer’s remarks have been particularly reprehensible, we know transphobia is not just limited to the right-wing press and vocal radical feminists, but is perpetuated to different degrees by all of us. The strategy of “no-platforming” argues that by exorcising people with bad ideas from our spaces we can create safe havens for minority groups. In this case, this is being attempted for an entire campus. But in doing so we deny and fail to challenge transphobia more broadly. Greer is prevented from speaking, but what about all those people who share her views in some small way? We should all see Germaine Greer for what she is, a vile transphobe. We should rally together to oppose her when she speaks at our universities. This shouldn’t mean calling on our universities, student unions or the NUS to decide for us whose ideas are acceptable or not, but rather demonstrating through force of argument and force of numbers that modern-day feminists welcome trans and queer people into our ranks.
Identity and politics
I am amazingly proud of Laurie Penny for writing their article, and being open enough to offer their own personal trauma and history. However, I do think that identifying politically as a woman is problematic, insofar that it doesn’t fully realise the political implications of being non-binary and genderqueer. I used to feel like they did, too. I was worried that because I didn’t categorise myself as “woman” anymore then I no longer had a legitimate claim to feminism. Part of that is due to ideas within second-wave feminism of “woman” as a biological category, oppressed only on the basis of that bodily attachment. It imagines that without a feminine body one cannot experience gendered oppression. She mentions Germaine Greer and I don’t feel that she has fully out-grown those ideas. Gender and the body intermingle but they are not necessarily an essential part of one another, nor is all oppression against the feminine purely biologically or bodily based.
The reason Greer and co. are so vehemently against trans women is because they see what they’d describe as “the female body” as an essential part of women’s oppression; the main and only part of it. It’s not. Bodies vary wildly, they function differently. They have commonality, sure, but also difference that is erased by this narrative. Being genderqueer, for me, is letting go of this “wounded attachment” to the body and expanding and understanding gender as manifest in more than simple bodies. As Penny says themselves “even trousers are political”. So why identify as politically a woman when she claims the category is not succinct? For me, it is a way of clinging to essentialism.