Tatchell – Post script

After my earlier post about the no-platforming of gay and civil rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, I had the advantage of seeing him interviewed on Newsnight (from 32:00) opposite trans-activist Paris Lees, and this experience both settled some of my questions and raised others that I can’t help sharing. I think I might try to shut up about this topic at least for a while after this, because there must be other things to write about.

Despite the so called ‘no-platforming’, Tatchell did indeed appear at the event, and only the grumpy Union rep who had called for him not to be heard was silenced, by her own choice, by not turning up. This is, of course, entirely as it should be, but does make me wonder what on earth is the content of the phrase ‘no-platforming’. Doesn’t it just mean exactly the same as ‘not turning up to’, or ‘choosing not sharing a platform with’? The answer, I think, was that the woman’s call was made in the hope that everyone else would also stay away, and render the event either pointless or impossible.

Second, the issue which had apparently led to the no-platform bid, which was a letter to the Guardian which Tatchell had signed calling for no-platform to be used sparingly, particularly deploring its attempted use against Germaine Greer, who had incurred the wrath of trans-activists and non ‘TERFs’ by repeatedly saying that surgery, hormones and a self-declaration do not make a man into a woman, was quickly dispelled on both sides. Lees said that she[1] didn’t believe that Tatchell was transphobic, and Tatchell said that he didn’t agree with Greer.

Third, Kirsty Wark put the question of whether trans-activists ought not to engage their opponents in debate instead of simply publicly refusing to do so. Tatchell said that he realised that not every one has the confidence and experience that he does, and he sympathised if they felt unable to debate people who hold opinions that they find repellent. I do too. Not everyone, whatever their experience or confidence, has the emotional fortitude to engage in a robust exchange of views in a public forum. But Paris Lees responded with ‘marginalised people have been asked to justify themselves over and over again’ She also said that free speech has been given to a broader range of people, and surely that is precisely the point. Given a platform, use it. Yes, it may seem as if the downtrodden are being asked to explain how they are downtrodden, which itself seems grotesque, but saying ‘Look, I’m downtrodden, okay, and having to explain why is just wearing me out. So I’m not coming to your talk,’ is not going to convince or convert anyone. Imagine Martin Luther King standing at the podium and saying ‘I have a dream – but I’m not going to tell you what it is. Because after all, why should I? Work it out for yourselves. Educate yourselves about black rights, okay?’

Lees said that Germaine Greer had said some ‘disgusting de-humanising things about trans’ over the decades. I’d like to know what they are. Here are some samples[2] of things she’s said about transitioning:

‘I’m not saying that people should not be allowed to go through that procedure, all I’m saying is that it doesn’t make them a woman.’

‘Just because you lop off your penis and then wear a dress doesn’t make you a fucking woman’

‘I’ve asked my doctor to give me long ears and liver spots and I’m going to wear a brown coat but that won’t turn me into a fucking cocker spaniel.’

‘I do understand that some people are born intersex and they deserve support in coming to terms with their gender but it’s not the same thing. A man who gets his dick chopped off is actually inflicting an extraordinary act of violence on himself.’

These are, to me, (and I would like to consider myself trans-sympathetic, and certainly not trans-phobic if that phrase has any useful non-circular definition – I am not frightened of trans, and I don’t fear or hate them) bold, stark, and in some cases, quite funny. They are only offensive in exactly the same way that it is offensive to tell people that the God they believe in does not exist. It must be upsetting – up to a point – to be told that something you want to be true is not, in fact, true, but since the eighteenth century, we have expected people to deal with it. It is, after all, possible for such people to go on believing the things that they want to in the face of opinion to the contrary, and even for them to debate with their would-be reality confronters – Dawkins does it all the time. These are not ‘disgusting and dehumanising’, they are simply not what trans people want to hear. Lees said that when she transitioned, she was in a fragile emotional state, and that had someone told her that Germaine Greer was coming to speak at her university, it could have pushed her over the edge, and ‘I’m not a weak person.’ I suggest that those two statements are at odds, and that someone who claims not to be a weak person ought to be able to bear the presence on their campus of another person who disagrees with them about the status of their gender; in short, perhaps Paris and the trans community are just a touch hypersensitive?

The interview ended with Paris making a point which almost made me howl with a mixture of frustration and amusement. ‘I wouldn’t sweat about it,’ she said, apparently to Tatchell, who she clearly admired, ‘you’re no one in Britain if you haven’t been no-platformed.’

Right. So let me get this straight. These people whose opinions are so offensive that they cannot even be engaged in rational debate, are in fact, the only ones whose opinions matter. Does that not tell us all we need about the tactic?

A postscript to the postscript. When I was typing the first paragraph above, I contemplated changing ‘trans-activist Paris Lees’ to something like ‘a beautiful trans activist called Paris Lees.’ Why would I even dream of doing such a thing? No way this side of 1980 would I write something like ‘beautiful Kirsty Wark’ or ‘the lovely Laura Kuenssberg’. Women are not to be assessed on their appearance just as men are not, but on the quality of their contribution. This has been one of the mantras of ‘mainstream feminism’ (scare quotes necessary – see TERF wars) for decades. And yet, somehow, trans women seem to want to play by a new and different set of rules. Their status as women seems to be defined by the attention they take with their appearance, by how much like a ‘real woman’ they can look, by how much, if you like, they can prove Germaine Greer incorrect when she calls them ‘parodies’. By referring to Lees as ‘beautiful’, am I not just saying that she is convincing as a (perhaps stereotypical) woman, which surely is a compliment. But then this led to my wondering what it would mean to be a ‘bad’ trans-sexual: not bothering with make-up or hair, wearing dungarees and flat shoes, not caring too much about personal hygiene. There are, after all, such women. Why should a man not transition into such a woman? Does this happen? If it did, would anyone notice?

[1] I toyed with ‘they’ here. I like it when it is impersonal and describes a general person of unspecified gender, but when we actually use a name it doesn’t quite seem right, whether the gender is specified, self-declared or simply indeterminate.

[2] Not necessarily a representative sample.

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