Our existence is not up for debate: A reply to Germaine Greer and her defenders

Activists at Cardiff University started a petition a week ago to cancel a talk by Germaine Greer on the grounds of Greer’s transphobic hate speech. Greer has since cancelled, but not before many liberal and left commentators came to her defence. Sølvi and Shanice argue that with violence against trans people at appalling levels, solidarity with them should be our starting point.

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Trans people shouldn’t have to restate our right to exist. The comments made in BBC interviews by Germaine Greer unfortunately show us we still do. That’s no surprise to those of us used to Greer and her arguments. The sympathy she’s received however, especially from some on the left, should deeply concern us.

This argument should never begin with what a trans-exclusionary feminist says. It should begin by stating the material oppression trans people face. The violence, sexual assault, the mental ill health, the lack of opportunity, the curtailing of life and potential – for example, the survey which found that 48% of trans people under 26 said they had attempted suicide, and 30% said they had done so in the past year, while 59% said they had at least considered doing so.

This is a material reality justified and reinforced by ideology: a system of structural oppression. There is nowhere that trans people dominate society; except in the statistics of those suffering sexual and physical violence. In the US trans people, most often transwomen women of colour, have been murdered on an astonishing scale this year. At least 17 people, that we know of, had died by August. Earlier this month, Kiesha Jenkins became the twentieth. Just this week in Britain, Tara Hudson has been ordered to serve a prison sentence in an all-male prison, despite the fact that incarcerated trans people are substantially more likely to be sexually, physically and emotionally abused in prison. The dehumanisation of trans people makes it more likely that we will suffer violence. That phenomenon is no way particular to trans people, but the idea that a supposed “debate” about Greer’s comments has no effect on people’s lives is deeply wrong. These truths, it seems, cannot be restated enough.

What Greer has said is the problem that we need to address first. Any discussion of free speech and platforming is secondary, but more on that below. We wish that we didn’t have to respond to the content of what Greer is saying but, sadly, people seem to be taking it seriously. People who understand the material basis of race and class suddenly falter when it comes to the material construction of gender. Feminist, Marxist and trans theory has shown time and time again that gender, and especially a binary gender, is a historically constructed phenomenon. During World War Two, for example, what it meant to be a woman changed from the weak, cared-for housewife to women as powerful, independent and strong enough to carry on the manufacturing work left behind by men at war. After the war and into the 1950s the return of men led to the intentional re-establishment of woman as a docile, sensitive housewife. The assertion that there is anything essential and eternal to men and women, and that gender assigned at birth determines almost every aspect of your life, is a political ideology. Gender is constructed.

When Greer says that trans women don’t “look like, sound like or behave like women” she is trapped in an ahistorical idea of an essential woman. And yet, what is biologically essential about a woman? Will Greer tell a woman who has a hysterectomy she is no longer a woman? Recent science has also demonstrated that sex (our biological bits) is a far more varied phenomenon than the binary society has imposed on it. The existence of men with XX chromosomes and women with testes should shatter the idea of their being a natural, biological rootedness to gender in biological sex. At least 1 in 2000 births are considered intersex – from the appearance of the child’s genitals, it’s difficult to classify them as male or female. Other authors put the frequency much higher, depending on how you define intersex. Scientists and gender theorists are increasingly cohering around biological sex being a complex spectrum, not a binary of male and female.

It’s particularly galling to find Greer and others position themselves as advocates against the gender binary. Their argument seems to be that, by seeking to become a gender they “can never be”, trans women (who, Greer claims, are deluded men) are cementing a misogynist idea about what women are. They should instead, by this argument, understand themselves as non-binary – neither a man nor a woman. Were those claims in any way sincere Greer’s political narrative would not be based around the validity of trans lives. Yet the people who get targeted as the problem are those who are at the bottom of the social pile. There’s no recognition that Greer’s ideology will also make discussions about transgender and non-binary even more dangerous. They force people into stealth, into trying as hard as possible to pass in order to avoid potential violence.

Another accusation is that trans women contribute to women’s oppression by aiming for a “misogynistic” image of a woman – presumably this means due to choosing to wear makeup, bras and having bodily aspects that are socially associated with women. Ignoring the fact that this itself reifies the idea of womanhood, and the fact that it effectively tells millions of cis women that they are also misogynist for conforming to society’s norms, it ignores the pressures that trans women face in order to survive. Too femme and you’re misogynist. Too butch and maybe you’re not sincere in your gender identity. Too early in your transition and you don’t pass. Too late in your transition and you’re trying to be a “better” woman than cis women.  All of these are used to justify sexual harassment and physical violence against trans people.

Remember that trans people are suffering. Remember that we can’t get jobs. According to Unite, 28% of trans people are not in work; the only other group more likely to be unemployed (all genders included) are black people. Remember that they’re regularly harassed, according to 79% of trans people in a recent survey. Remember that they’re being murdered. This sounds moralistic but its not, its desperation and fear. We must recognise that this is oppression, and that solidarity is meaningless if it comes boxed with a denial of your existence. There is no equivalent strand of trans politics that attempts to deny the systematic oppression of women, or to deny that cis women face oppression for being women.

Worryingly, what the publication of Greer’s comments have shown is that there are still far too many on the left who perceive trans issues as something to be tolerated, but not believed or seriously listened to. The implication seems to be that trans politics is almost delusional, a “first-world problem”. So some things need clarifying. Transgender lives have existed  – though of course rarely by that name – for thousands of years, across most cultures of the world. The hijras of India, köçekler of Ottoman Arabia, kathoeys of Thailand, basaja of Sulawesi, mudang of Korea, two spirit people of the Americas, Maori takatāpui or the mukodo dako of Uganda, to name but a few. It has primarily been the legacy of colonialism which has undermined, eradicated and made invisible that history. It is impossible to extricate this history from any current questions around migration. Anyone in doubt of this should read about the specific struggles faced by trans and LGB migrants from Syria. The construction of a gender binary, as something situated on the body around a particular set of biological determinants, is a modern, historically-situated and a colonial phenomenon. What it means to be a woman under capitalism is not a biological fact, but a socially constructed reality.

What about the argument around platforming and free speech? Sarah Ahmed has already exposed the absurdity of the idea that people like Greer are somehow being censored. It’s ridiculous to claim that trans people are somehow limiting the free speech of an influential successful mainstream white feminist, who can write columns and get television interviews with ease. This is someone who consistently shuts out trans women from stating their own case, and seeks to speak for them. It is certainly the case that appealing to the bureaucratic solution of academic authority is not a strategy that strengthens trans people in the long term. It’s also important to remember that, despite an organised campaign in the Guardian to assert the contrary, Greer was not no-platformed from Cambridge. Greer was not no-platformed from Cardiff. The idea that transphobic feminists are even subject to systematic no-platforming is a myth. After all, Greer actively campaigned for trans woman Rachael Padman to be sacked from a post at Newnham College in Cambridge University. Whose free speech is under attack again?

Some on the left, in light of the petition calling for Greer to be banned from speaking engagements, have been arguing that bans are not the way to confront oppressive ideas in society. We don’t disagree. But what cis-leftists making these criticisms don’t seem to realise is that in the absence of a militant trans movement that has the power to confront and politically defeat influential people like Greer, the question for most trans people becomes one of safety, not politics. In the absence of an alternative, bans are the only tactic trans students on campus see to keep themselves safe from the transphobia of people like Greer and their ilk. Unless the left can face up to this reality its criticisms will fall on deaf ears. We need to begin collectively building the infrastructure for a radical trans-inclusive movement that can oppose these oppressions where they manifest. Hashing out tired left arguments about “no platform” from the sidelines is not going to help make trans people feel safe and give them the confidence to fight back.

Thankfully, Greer’s politics seem at odds with a wider trend of greater sympathy to trans lives. In just 3 days 100,000 have signed the petition calling for Tara Hudson to serve her sentence in a women’s prison. However, that trend is in no way an inevitable march of progress. Greer’s politics represent a hardened version of the gender essentialism that is written into society in general. These are not new arguments – this isn’t a generational conflict. A certain strand of feminism has denied any need for an intersectional analysis for almost 50 years, denying the rights of disabled, black and trans women, and the rest of feminism and queer politics has largely moved on. People who can articulate oppressive ideas, supposedly in the name of liberation, are going to keep being given platforms, because neoliberalism functions by re-working and re-enforcing oppressions. We need to eviscerate neoliberalism in order to achieve any meaningful liberation, for these skeletons to stop poking their skulls out of the left’s closet. No-one is above or beyond the ideology of capitalism, which estranges us from our bodies in countless ways. Our understanding of how gender is used to oppress us needs to be able to tear apart the way it is constructed, and that starts with championing solidarity for the marginalised and oppressed, not by participating in denying their existence.

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