This week, a petition was circulated at Cardiff University to prevent Germaine Greer, feminist writer of The Female Eunuch, speaking there, because of her assertion that male-to-female transgender people are not women. Cue internet exploding.
As the author of a widely-published novel on the intersex experience, and a gender activist, I might have been expected to denigrate Greer with the best of them, but I will not.
Greer has always had controversial views. Her YouTube hits include a video entitled ‘F*** Equality’. She has self-defined as a radical feminist since the 1970s. It is unsurprising that she holds a radical viewpoint, but it is just that – a viewpoint.
Greer herself states that this is not her area of expertise, or interest. She hasn’t written a paper on transgender issues in some time. As Greer points out, what she has said about trans women “happens to be an opinion. It’s not a prohibition.”
Whether you agree with Greer or not, she is not inciting hatred or violence. She is not disregarding the rights of trans people to transition, or to be referred to by their chosen pronoun. She is exercising her freedom of speech.
Feminism is essentially about freedom. Freedom from oppressive gender roles, freedom to be who you are, and to say what you think. Trans politics have benefited enormously from feminist politics; because of feminist agitators, traditional gender boundaries have been destabilised, and legislation such as the Equality Act 2010 protects trans people from discrimination.
Not all feminists believe in LGBT rights, share the same views, or believe in the same problems, and solutions. Feminists aren’t angels. They have, in fact, been fighting for centuries for a woman’s right not to be an angel. Not to agree with you. Not to make you feel comfortable.
Asking a woman like Greer – a liberated woman – to shut up, sit down, and change her opinion because it offends people will not compute, and flies in the face of values generally espoused by the feminist and trans community.
The insults that have flown at Greer stink of misogyny, even by those defending her. Trans author James Dawson, who asks on Buzzfeed for Greer not to be demonised, nevertheless suggests Greer has been ‘left behind’, a sentiment which smarts of a society that devalues older women.
How can the gears of Greer’s brilliant mind have suddenly screeched to a halt at 76, when the male front runner in the USA’s Democratic party primary race is 74? Perhaps if we stopped shouting and throwing things, we would hear an idea in Greer’s statements worth discussing.
Trans women’s and cis women’s issues intersect, but they are not identical. Just as a woman born in a woman’s body cannot know how it feels to be trans, an MTF has not endured street harassment since puberty. She has not been repeatedly wolf-whistled at and grabbed in the street by strangers. She is not one of the 150 million girls a year who are victims of sexual violence. She has not been raised as a member of the sex more likely to be interrupted, patronised, and perceived as weak.
She is not represented in mass media as a sexual object, belonging to everybody. She has not been told as a child that her worth is seated in her looks and in her ability to please and attract. Neither has she grown up in a society that regards her natural bodily functions – her periods, her vaginal fluid, her womb – squeamishly.
When a male-to-female transgender person transitions to become a woman, there are questions to ask: what is a woman? Is she her experiences? Is she a set of values? Is she a vagina, or breasts? Is she a skirt, or a bra? Is she her chromosomes, or hormones?
There is a fascinating and worthy debate to be held here, that could expand our understanding, and move us forward as gender activists, as feminists, as trans people and allies, and as a society.
Sadly, Cardiff University will not be the venue for this debate. Signatories of this petition could have used their minds and voices to debate and, perhaps, persuade. All they have done is silenced another woman.
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