You might not agree with 'transphobia' but don't curb free speech
Published 26/10/2015 | 02:30
Oops! Germaine Greer is in trouble again! And once more, for her strong views: students at Cardiff University have campaigned for her to be banned from speaking there in November on the subject of women and power.
Feminist students, led by the women's officer at the Cardiff students' union, Rachael Melhuish, organised a petition to stop Dr Greer from speaking, claiming that her opinions on the transgender issue are "transphobic". GG, they alleged, has "demonstrated misogynistic views towards trans women, including continually misgendering trans women and denying the existence of transphobia altogether."
In plain English: Germaine doesn't agree that men can become women by surgery, and for this opinion she should be muzzled from speaking at a uni campus. As a matter of fact, Greer has been critical of the concept of "trangendering" since the 1970s, when the renowned Welsh author, James Morris, had a sex reassignment operation and become Jan Morris, writing a book about the journey called 'Conundrum'. While many applauded Morris's openness about his decision to go to Morocco (where the operation had to be performed), Dr Greer wrote at the time that while he was entitled to do whatever he liked with his body, she did not accept that such surgery made Morris a woman.
She has never altered her views on this subject. She reaffirmed again recently that the transgender operation "doesn't make (a man) a woman. That happens to be an opinion. It is not a prohibition - carry on if that's what you want to do." A transgendered man to woman, she has said, "is essentially a man's delusion that he is female". This has prompted "outrage" - as did her view that Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner - voted by 'Glamour' magazine in America as "Woman of the Year" - was not a woman.
Moreover, Germaine has said, many "real" women privately agree with her "but don't dare to say transgender people don't look, sound...or behave like women". But cultural values - and "gender politics" - have moved on since the 1970s, and the transgender operation is now almost routinely performed in many European and American locations. Greer's approach - which has some scientific and biological credibility, since no surgical operation can change a person's male or female chromosomes - has been sidelined by the gradual acceptance of transgendering. Many legislatures, including Ireland, now allow transgender people to obtain an altered birth certificate which officially acknowledges the revised transgender identity.
For some, "transphobia" has now joined "homophobia" as a "hate crime".
Tolerance and kindness is, of course, a very decent motivation, and there is a lot to be said for the principle of "live and let live". If a man wants to be a woman (or vice-versa), who is anyone else to judge?
And yet, that doesn't mean that everyone must be forced to accept the now predominant values on this issue. While more psychiatrists and other medics are now inclined to accept that there is an authentic, brain-sex compulsion to change gender, there are still some who regard such a compulsion as a mental dislocation, akin to anorexia nervosa - where an individual imagines they are repulsively fat, even though the facts don't accord with the delusion. In the United States, Dr Paul McHugh of Johns Hopkins University has repeatedly published papers and articles describing transgendering as a "mental disorder", often associated with depression. Other psychiatrists have contested his evidence, which they say is selective.
Whatever the psychiatric, medical, or social consensus, it is certainly unacceptable that anyone should be banned or prohibited from arguing their viewpoint; and it is particularly ironic that a legendary feminist like Germaine Greer should be the subject of a campaign by students to silence her. It is also ironic - not to say topsy-turvey - that Greer should be castigated as a "misogynist" by some of her opponents, while Caitlyn Jenner, who has disclosed that he/she is still in possession of a penis, should be elected "Woman of the Year".
Fortunately, the authorities at Cardiff University have rejected the students' petition on the grounds of upholding freedom of speech. Yet the rumpus does represent something of a trend at various university campuses, where speakers have been disallowed on the grounds that what they might say is "hurtful".
When Greer first made such a contribution to women's liberation, back in the 1970s, one of the slogans that entered the lexicon of feminism was "The personal is political". But maybe today the personal has become too political. To state that you do not accept that transgender surgery turns a man into a woman is not necessarily a "personal" statement designed to be "hurtful" - any more than dissenting from the theory of same-sex marriage is "personal" or "hurtful". It's simply the affirmation of a political and social opinion.
Greer now says she's so fed up with the hullaballoo around this episode that she's minded to steer clear of such public discourses altogether - which would indeed be a sad day for public intellectual life.