I challenged Germaine Greer over her transphobic comments this week. Here's what happened

“If you didn’t find your pants full of blood when you were thirteen, there’s something important about being a woman that you don’t know. It’s not all Caitlyn Jenner.”

Tansy Hoskins
Friday 20 November 2015 12:20
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Germaine Greer called trans women ‘parodies’ in 2009
Germaine Greer called trans women ‘parodies’ in 2009

This week, Germaine Greer came to speak at Cardiff University. Her lecture, called ‘Women and Power’, covered issues like the Suffragettes, the Dagenham Ford workers, and sex-selective abortion. There was, however, a giant elephant sat in the room. Greer’s history of transphobic remarks had led to a petition against the meeting taking place and her pulling out of the event, before she was eventually reinstated.

During the Q&A session, I asked Greer the following question: what do you say to the idea that language which attacks transgender people leads to discrimination, exclusion, and often fatal violence? She did not seem happy about the question and largely dodged it, denying that she ever talks about transgender people. She added that while calling people names can add to their misery, this is something “old women” face every day.

I decided to press her on the question of language and whether she should be showing solidarity with transgender people in light of the dangers and violence they often face. I pointed out that 21 transgender people have been killed in the US this year alone.

It was this that caused Greer to make some of her strongest comments: “I don’t accept transgender males post-operatively as female because I don’t believe a woman is a man without a cock.” She also stated: “If you didn’t find your pants full of blood when you were thirteen, there’s something important about being a woman that you don’t know. It’s not all Caitlyn Jenner.”

I felt that her response to my question, and the audience’s response, was supposed to be intimidating and to silence questions that did not fit the status quo of the room. The to the whole exchange was mixed: scattered applause at some of her statements; the person next to me whispering, “That was brave”; two women approaching me at the end to say they were glad the issue had been raised; and a man from the audience haranguing me as a journalist and demanding to know where I was from.

Outside the lecture theatre were about 25 people – students, Cardiff locals, and trans activists who had come to bear witness to the event. Cardiff local Payton Quinn said they were there because of Greer’s “20-year history of violent language”.

Much has been made about Greer’s right to free speech; these activists have faced more criticism for campaigning against Greer than Greer has for her views. But transphobia is intense prejudice against transgender people, and it did not take a question for Greer to make her views on transgender people clear. During her lecture, while discussing low-paid work and how receptionists ‘are all female’ she quipped: “XX female if you get me” – a reference to chromosomes, which caused some audience members to laugh.

The audience was predominantly women, and the majority came from Greer’s generation. Some people I spoke to were there because they considered Greer an ‘icon’, others said she was ‘brave.’ One woman who remembered Greer from the 1970s said “I’ve come because I’ve never agreed with anything she’s said.” Clearly there are people with whom she continues to strike a chord.

But most of the young women I spoke to said they completely disagreed with Greer on transgender rights, or denied that she was transphobic, instead saying that her previous comments had been taken out of context.

The event was not a debate or a discussion, it was a single set of views from a household name and none of it felt particularly free. Asked who she admired as a feminist, Greer dismissed Emma Watson who she dislikes (along with Harry Potter), and picked the head of the IMF Christine Lagarde, praising her for looking fantastic and going to the gym every day. An odd choice for someone who seems passionate about labour rights. Women comics were also dismissed for not being funny enough.

Would I therefore encourage someone who might be affected by the ridicule of transgender people to attend a Germaine Greer lecture? Absolutely not. Why enter an isolating situation to be belittled and insulted? Greer is caustic and last night the majority of the audience was sycophantic. There was a lot of laughter at the expense of the transgender community. In the interests of balance, it would be nice to see future events perhaps composed of a panel, perhaps with Laverne Cox, Paris Lees and Judith Butler in attendance.

But does discussion surrounding Greer need to move on now? Of course – largely because her views on transgender people belong firmly in the history books.

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