Veteran LGBT and socialist activist Peter Tatchell is no racist or transphobe, and we should defend him against those charges.
His alleged racism and transphobia were the grounds on which an NUS LGBT officer refused to share a platform with him at the “re-radicalising queers” event at Canterbury Christ Church University on 15 February.
The LGBT officer was, in their view, following the policy passed by the LGBT conference of the National Union of Students which could be read as obliging an officer of the union not to share a platform with an “oppressor”. Of course they are entitled to follow the policy of their organisation and, in fact to refuse to share platforms with another speaker on many grounds. But Tatchell, an “oppressor”?
The evidence cited by the LGBT officer in private emails was not Tatchell’s alleged racism, but an open letter Tatchell signed which opposed “no-platforming” of some feminists such as Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel. The letter argued Greer, Bindel et al were being silenced on the grounds that they are “critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists”. In reality, Greer and Bindel’s political stance is at lot more than this in relation to transgender. Both have denied trans women are women. Still, why is Tatchell being labelled a transphobe for signing a letter defending freedom of speech?
Speaking on Newsnight (15 February) the journalist Paris Lees, herself a transwoman, argued that it was indeed ludicrous to characterise Tatchell as a transphobe; to make him “guilty by association” by signing that open letter; to assume or act as if he agreed with feminists such as Greer, whilst he is on record with directly opposed views. Yet Lees did understand why people were angry with Tatchell for signing the letter. By doing so he was implying that it was easy for transpeople to “engage” with the likes of Greer. Lees went on to say, “… more broadly, yes I think it is right that people should not engage with transphobes... marginalised people have had to explain themselves over and over again. engage “There are certain people who are just not willing to engage in debate. They have heard the arguments. This person [Greer] has made personal attacks on individual trans people before. “They have argued for conversion therapy, which has proved to be very dangerous. Those people should not be given platforms to air their prejudices.”
Lees is wrong in her conclusions, but she has, of course, made an important point here. For any human being, to have to justify their very existence; to experience, as a consequence, constant dehumanising harassment, is intolerable, and must make you feel very vulnerable indeed. Nonetheless there are real problems with “outlawing” the views of people like Greer.
As we have previously argued in Solidarity, Greer and others are not simply bigots (though in their absolute refusal to interrogate their views they give a good impression of being bigots); nor are they people who follow through on prejudice by beating people up on the streets. They are, as Kelly Rogers put it, “one side of a (largely) generational divide between second-wave radical feminists and younger feminists who adopt a more trans-inclusive perspective”.
Will radical feminists of this sort ever change their opinions? Doubtful. Should we care if their views become so marginal they cease to get invited to conferences and seminars. No. Should we advocate that other people, better people (how about trans activists, trans-inclusive socialist feminists!) get more invitations, a bigger platform. Yes!
Nonetheless as long as people continue to be persuaded by their views, and unfortunately I believe they may be, we absolutely need to debate these views. It is only by “winning the battle of ideas”, making constant and sustained ideological challenges and explaining why equality, tolerance and respect is important, that we can begin to marginalise transphobia, not only in universities but also in wider society. That will not of course take away Paris Lees weariness, take away the crushing effect of always having to explain, of never being allowed to get on with your life.
That is why we need more discussions about how to build a collective fight against oppression, where the oppressed do not feel it is always their responsibility alone to take on the fight.