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27 October 2015

Let Germaine Greer speak. It’s the fastest way to discredit her

If Greer wants to say that I am a man because I do not conform to a definition of sex/gender which she and an ever-shrinking number of people subscribe, so be it. She will not be the first, or the last.

By Alex Sharpe

The row over Germaine Greer’s right to speak at Cardiff University is in fact two. (i) how do we define sex and gender? and (ii) what are the limits of permissible speech?

It is important to disaggregate these questions. 

The question of how we define sex/gender has, of course, produced an enormous academic, including feminist, literature to which Greer herself has made a notable contribution. For present purposes, let us consider her two main objections to accepting transgender women as ‘real’ women: (i) transgender women are not ‘real’ women at some fundamental level (let us call this a biological argument, albeit that its logic is not grounded in biology) and (ii) transgender women have not been socialised as girls from a young age and therefore have not had to contend with ‘negative’ gendered experiences through which the right to call oneself a women is earned (let us call this the socialisation/victimhood argument). OK, so we understand the arguments. Do they stack up?

Let’s begin with biology. Obviously, there are some anatomical birth differences between cisgender and transgender women. The question is, should these differences be viewed as crucial in defining sex/gender?  And, if the answer to that question is yes (as Greer thinks it ought to be), can sex/gender change if those differences are eliminated or reduced (Greer says not)? Both these positions reveal a highly essentialised view of sex/gender, now given little credence within the humanities and social sciences, not to mention medical science. In the first place, a view of ‘woman’ as a particular configuration of chromosomes (XX), gonads (ovaries), genitals (vagina) and hormones (estrogen) overlooks the problem that there any many intersex women who lack one or more of these biological characteristics at birth. This raises the problem of which biological characteristics, if any, should count.

By the same token, transgender women who have undergone genital reassignment surgery and a regime of hormone administration (let’s put to one side growing evidence within the field of endocrinology suggesting a biological account of transgenderism) are essentially no different anatomically to cisgender women, apart from lacking an XX chromsome (though, in reality, hardly anyone ever discovers their chromosomal make-up). In relation to female reproduction, it is true that, currently, transgender women (and many intersex women) lack this capacity. However, no cisgender woman would be denied membership of the“woman club” on this basis. The only difference between transgender and infertile cisgender women is the different degrees of empathy they illicit from people like Greer.

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In any event, what might be described as her “olfactory feminism” (“real women have smelly vaginas”), tends to conceal Greer’s more dominant objection, which travels along axes of socialisation and desert. This is a feminism rooted in victimhood and so welded is it to victim status that it resents the arrival of “new” women whose personal stories are, to say the least, always likely to give cisgender women’s pain a run for its money.

The socialisation argument is faulty because transgender women undergo a female socialisation experience as soon as they transition, and increasingly this occurs at younger and younger ages (let us not forget trans kids). In relation to desert and relative victimhood (an unhelpful approach to social justice), the argument is that transgender women have enjoyed “male privilege”. The difficultly with this claim is that it elides the very real and debilitating effects of having to deny who you are, especially over a prolonged period of time, a fact attested to by the high rates of suicide within transgender communities. 

Taking on Greer is a little like taking on someone who believes the Earth is flat. Which, of course, brings me to the second important issue. Does she have a right to say it?

When it comes to this issue, I should perhaps state from the outset that I have some difficulties with censorship and, to that extent that a distinction is drawn, no-platforming. To this extent, I am perhaps in a minority among my trans sisters. This issue is a very important one, and needs to be situated within the context of growing concern about the closing down of debate within universities, and society more generally, across a range of issues, as illustrated by the recent case of Maryam Namazie and Warwick University. However, in relation to Greer, we should not concede too much on this score. We need to recognise that Greer does not have a right to inflict her bigoted views on audiences at large. She does not have a right to an audience, crave one though she does. By the same token, other people have the right to protest and demonstrate when bigots speak. However, what if she is invited to speak at a university by a particular faculty or, more typically, a student society?

For me, this is when things become difficult, given the idea of the university as a marketplace of ideas, especially unpopular ones. That said, it must be recognised that for many young trans people, university is where coming out is first possible and this is not supported by a hostile environment which Greer engenders. And yet, we need to balance potential offence and distress caused against the right to say unpopular things. Of course, if speech incites violence or intimidation it has met its limit. Beyond this we need to be more robust (albeit that this is not always, if ever, an easy thing for vulnerable groups).

If Greer wants to say that I am a man because I do not conform to a definition of sex and gender which she and an ever-shrinking number of people subscribe, so be it. She will not be the first, or the last.

At the end of the day, if we restrict Greer’s right to speak it will likely prove counter-productive. Censorship always tends to electrify the mundane, and Greer is a case in point. In one sense, she is gaining a reputation for being the kind of celebrity who possesses a secret that can never be told.

On the other hand, and contradictorily, whether she is denied a podium or not, her views spread like wildfire. Indeed, censoring or no-platforming Greer serve only to make what is really banal, newsworthy.

To the more censoriously inclined, I say: for God’s sake don’t encourage her. Let her speak, for her speech will travel in any event. It cannot be contained or put back in a bottle. Rather, let us meet her arguments with more convincing ones – it is an easy, if somewhat tiresome, task – and as importantly, let her hoist herself on her own petard. 

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