As the row over Germaine Greer refuses to go away, Jonathan Boniface writes in response to New Statemen commentator Helen Lewis about the continued failure of cis people to truly empathise with what’s at stake here.
PLEASE NOTE – This article makes direct reference to transphobic comments, violence and sexual assault.
As a white cis gay man, I found #fuckcispeople uncomfortable. I’m not saying that because I want anyone to feel sorry for me, or to make any apologies for it. I mention it because, in recent weeks, I feel like I’m starting to understand what motivated it. I stress starting because even though I pride myself with having empathy, I can never claim to understand what it feels to be trans.
Recently, I wrote about how, in my opinion, calls to “no-platform” Germaine Greer at Cardiff University were completely justified. The debate over this issue has continued to spin, with Greer herself responding in the manner of a wounded animal *slash* petulant child by adding fuel to the fire with even more transphobic remarks. This doesn’t seem to matter to her apologists, who have been happy to leave it to trans voices to point out what should seem obvious to all.
More and more, the whole dynamic of the debate has been derailed, with far too many people being outraged by the perceived curtailment of Greer’s ‘rights’ than the impact of her rhetoric on furthering and deepening the transphobia in our society. But yet again, it seems that it has been mainly left to trans voices to point this out.
This has led to me to the conclusion that just as I believe many gay men need to do better by the rest of the LGBTQ+ community, so too do we cis people (whatever our orientation) need to do better by trans people. The frustration I have felt with cis commentators in recent weeks is what has led me to begin to appreciate how #fuckcispeople came about.
The catalyst has been Helen Lewis’ article in the New Statesman, which completely misses the point in so many ways. I’ve selected merely a handful of excerpts to illustrate why I feel that this illustrates that cis people, in general, quite simply let down trans people.
More and more, the whole dynamic of the debate has been derailed, with far too many people being outraged by the perceived curtailment of Greer’s ‘rights’ than the impact of her rhetoric on furthering and deepening the transphobia in our society.
First, when discussing calls to “no-platform” women such as Julie Blindel and Greer herself, Lewis has the following to say:
‘Neither of these women has advocated or incited violence, which used to be the old rationale for “no platform”. Their words are the problem.’
Does anyone else feel like they’re banging their head against a brick wall? Is the inherent contradiction here really not obvious? Put simply, I find it pretty poor that Helen Lewis doesn’t seem to recognise the power of words in legitimising viewpoints that can lead to violence. Germaine Greer doesn’t need to stand up and directly advocate violence against trans women; the fact that she speaks in such derogatory terms about them is enough to reinforce attitudes that lead to violence. As far as making apologies for transphobes go, this is pretty weak.
Even worse is what she says, and what she appears to imply, about trans women and the level of access they should have to services dealing with sexual assault:
‘Should a person with a penis and beard (no surgery or hormones are required to legally transition) be allowed into a women-only rape shelter?… I hope that all of these questions can be resolved with respectful negotiation; but there will have to be compromises between competing interests… God save us from all the progressive men who will never face the sharp end of such questions – who have never had to think about rape shelter policy, for example – using this issue to show how right-on they are.’
Yes, she really ‘went there’. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Lewis appears to be advocating that a trans woman should be denied access to a women-only rape shelter because of her genitalia. Or put another another way: that a trans woman should be denied the support which is appropriate to her because she hasn’t reached a certain level by which Lewis believes she is ‘enough’ of a women. You really shouldn’t have to be trans yourself to stop and ask yourself at this point: are we really having to have this conversation? Really?
Germaine Greer doesn’t need to stand up and directly advocate violence against trans women; the fact that she speaks in such derogatory terms about them is enough to reinforce attitudes that lead to violence. As far as making apologies for transphobes go, this is pretty weak.
Furthermore, what sort of ‘respectful negotiations’ and ‘compromises’ are we supposed to expect to happen in this sort of situation? I suspect that the sort of ‘compromise’ we are talking about is one where trans people are expected to put up with being treated as different to, or less than, cis people. Is there any wonder that trans people get justifiably frustrated and angry? The only ‘interests’ in this sort of situation are the ‘interests’ of the person who needs access to service being provided, and if we can’t accept that a trans woman has the same right to these services as a cis woman, what chance do we have of true equality in our society?
I’m aware that I am probably one of those ‘progressive men’ that Lewis refers to here. As much as I hate to burst the bubble, men actually do have to think about rape shelter policy because men suffer from sexual assault too. My point is not, however, to derail, but to point out that it is possible for men to empathise with a rape shelter policy that affects women because sexual assault does not discriminate between gender, age or sexuality. To put forward a view that men cannot empathise with the needs of a trans woman because they don’t have to think about rape shelter policy is woefully short-sighted and painfully patronising. I don’t think I’m ‘right on’ for thinking that trans women should have access to women-only rape shelters; I just think it’s the only right and decent thing to do. Considering the deficiencies of the 2010 Equality Act in this regard, no one can deny that there is a long way to go in this area.
I suspect that the sort of ‘compromise’ we are talking about is one where trans people are expected to put up with being treated as different to, or less than, cis people. Is there any wonder that trans people get justifiably frustrated and angry?
Not to be put off, Helen Lewis revisits her assertion that ‘sticks and stones’ break bones but that ‘words’ do not hurt:
‘Yet there is now a strange conflation of rhetorical with actual, physical violence. Such views are said to lead directly to the dehumanisation of trans people that puts them in danger of street attacks and death. It is a difficult point to argue when confronted with the facts: the only person convicted of murdering a trans woman in Britain this year is Joaquin Gomez-Hernandez, who killed his wife, Vanessa Santillan, after finding her in bed with a client.’
Quite apart from picking an example that associates trans women with sex work, reported in a right wing publication, what exactly is the point that Lewis is making? Are to we to assume that ‘not enough’ trans people have been attacked for her to take seriously the idea that there is a link between transphobia and actual violence against trans women.
If we can’t accept that a trans woman has the same right to these services as a cis woman, what chance do we have of true equality in our society?
If Lewis wishes to be ‘confronted with the facts’, then here is some compelling evidence that she appears to have overlooked: firstly, the fact that the Metropolitan Police reported a 44% increase in transphobic hate crime in 2014 and; secondly, Galop estimates that as much as 80% of offences against trans people go unreported. The situation is even worse in the US, where violence against trans people frequently results in loss of life. Just because there isn’t evidence of widespread homicide in the UK, it doesn’t mean that the link between transphobic rhetoric and violence against trans people is disproven. Or do we need to be at the stage where people are actually losing their lives before writers such as Helen Lewis take seriously the link between hateful words and acts of violence?
Lastly, there’s nothing more infuriating than a good old-fashioned bit of derailing, and there are two excerpts that serve to demonstrate this:
‘This battle against Germaine Greer is driven, at least in part, by sexism.’
‘It is ironic that this debate has focused around the idea of accepting trans women as women, because it also seems to me that we have a problem accepting non-trans women as fully human – a mixture of good and bad, wrong and right.’
There are any number of male commentators that Lewis draws upon to prove that Greer is being treated unfairly when compared to male counterparts. An awful lot of what she says, however, is subjective, but let’s take one of her examples – Richard Dawkins and what she describes as being ‘obsessed with proving that a teenage Muslim American boy suspended for bringing a clock to school should not be an object of pity and is instead a cunning hoaxer”. I can only judge from my own experience of this on social media, but it seems to me that Dawkins has been pretty roundly vilified for those comments, and rightly so. Such comparisons do not really seem to hold water, and serve no other purpose but to derail.
Do we need to be at the stage where people are actually losing their lives before writers such as Helen Lewis take seriously the link between hateful words and acts of violence?
Similarly so, the ‘dehumanisation’ argument. Mentally, I feel like I need to take a deep breath. On the one hand, I feel that there’s something of a rueful irony here; namely that someone like Germaine Greer, whose comments persistently dehumanise trans women, is being dehumanised by those who object to her. Surely, you reap what you sow? If you consistently denigrate a group of people, treating them with disrespect and censure, surely you dehumanise yourself? No, I won’t feel any sympathy with a cis person who feels they’ve been dehumanised by others’ reactions to their intolerance – cis people aren’t the victims here.
I suppose I can sum it up by saying that what I feel from all of this is anger. I desire neither praise nor congratulation, and I don’t feel particularly self-righteous about it. I just see it as empathising with others. Maybe that makes me one of those smug ‘progressives’ that Helen Lewis seems to have a problem with. If it does, I actually really don’t care.
As angry as I am, I can never understand how a trans person feels about this – I can only imagine. Like I said earlier, I found #fuckcispeople uncomfortable to deal with but, as this debate has been shoe-horned and distorted, with apologist after apologist wringing their hands over the so-called violation of Germain Greer’s free speech, I feel like I’ve peaked behind the curtain of privilege. I’ll never be in a position to pull the curtain back, but I know one thing – I’m no longer surprised why #fuckcispeople becomes a thing.
Cis people – we need to do better.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter (@gaes_elskhugi)