Payton Quinn on Germaine Greer, trans rights, and the weaponisation of free speech.
During this year’s Trans Awareness Week, Cardiff University will be honouring Germaine Greer as a ‘Distinguished Lecturer’, despite Greer’s long history of dehumanising rhetoric against trans women, which includes an attempt to get a trans woman academic sacked from her post for being trans. Shortly after the news of Greer’s engagement became known, trans activists and allies began circulating a petition calling on the University to reconsider. Since then, numerous articles have appeared in the corporate and left press arguing that Greer and others like her are being ‘silenced’.
Screaming Violets editor Élise Hendrick speaks to Cardiff-based non-binary comedian and activist Payton Quinn, who has been a driving force in the campaign against honouring Greer, about what is wrong with this picture.
ÉRH: Why is the issue of Germaine Greer being honoured as a ‘Distinguished Lecturer’ by Cardiff University important to you?
PQ: Cardiff University has committed itself to being a proud Diversity Champion, boasting about its recognition as such by Stonewall as enticement for potential LGBTQA+ students (as well they should). This runs completely counter to their choice to not just host Germaine Greer but to honour her (and for a speaker fee too) given her long history of comparing trans women to rapists and matricidal killers and of campaigning against trans women in education.
ÉRH: Now, I imagine you’ve followed what’s been written and said on the subject over the past few weeks quite closely. What do you think of the state of the discussion? Is there anything that’s being overlooked?
PQ: There has been a lot of cases where people who are in no way involved with the movement have either elected to not research the situation or are purposely omitting the full story for the sake of turning the focus of the conversation towards “free speech” or “the role of academia”. While these are both important conversations to be had, it has little to no relevance in this instance.
This is about students and members of the wider community (trans and cis [i.e. not trans, Ed. Note]) raising their voices to oppose the choice of an institution that claims to be an ally of LGBTQA+ people to fund and honour someone who uses their platform to spread gross and harmful rhetoric about trans people.
We are collectively using our right to free speech to oppose her and our right to protest to do just that.
ÉRH: Let’s talk about the ‘free speech’ aspect of the discussion. I’ve seen people argue that Germaine Greer (and others like her, such as Julie Bindel) are being ‘censored’ and ‘no platformed’ and otherwise ‘silenced’. What do you reckon?
PQ: If they truly were being silenced we wouldn’t continue to see them running to the media claiming that they’re being silenced. By being silenced, I’m sure what they mean is that they’re upset that so many people have expressed a disinterest in the things they’re saying.
Within two days of our campaign being noticed by media outlets, Greer gave a statement to The Guardian and appeared on Newsnight, as well as sending additional comment to the Victoria Derbyshire show. Are those not platforms? Can you really claim that she is being silenced when she’s still being publicized?
ÉRH: Going on television and radio and the print media to announce that one is being silenced is rather an interesting statement in itself. What about the voices of trans people, particularly trans women, since they’re the main target of Greer et al.? Are their voices getting an equal hearing, from what you’ve observed?
PQ: From what I’ve observed, no.
I’ve seen only one article posted by Rhyannon Styles for Elle Magazine and Rebecca Root was interviewed for the Victoria Derbyshire show. There are plenty of trans women out there writing blogs, making YouTube videos, expressing themselves all over the internet but it’s not getting featured by larger and/or more established media companies and publications.
So, largely all the pieces I’ve seen written on transphobia are written by cis men and women. There is a fundamental inability for them to understand the extent of the damage inflammatory rhetoric about trans people (most commonly trans women) has on the daily lives of trans people.
ÉRH: On the subject of the daily lives of trans people, according to a report that came out in the US a couple of months ago, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that violence against LGB people was decreasing, whilst that against trans people, particularly trans women, was on the rise. How do you think that fits in to what we’re talking about here?
PQ: The root of this issue is that there isn’t enough protection in place for trans people. We are not represented, we’re not particularly present in the media, and we are simultaneously dehumanized which directly contributes to a culture in which our lives do not matter.
Trans women are killed at an alarming rate but it hardly makes the news. Trans people are achieving great things worldwide with virtually no mention.
This is why it makes me so furious when pieces about free speech pop up, it’s all detraction from the main issue which is that we need more protection for trans people.
ÉRH: In the Guardian, Kate Lyons wrote a response to the petition against honouring Greer at Cardiff University, a campaign in which you’ve played a major role. In the article, she describes petitions like the one against Greer as part of a disturbing tendency in what she reckons is ‘young feminism’, and writes:
‘[Cardiff University Women’s Officer Rachel] Melhuish labels Greer as “transphobic” and I imagine that for her, having Greer come to give a lecture would be akin to having an openly homophobic or racist speaker on campus. For the young feminists it’s not a matter of weighing up the sum of Greer’s work and deciding that on the balance of things she has done more for women than not, but of drawing a line on behalf of transgender friends and saying that despite all Greer has done, as long as she speaks in certain ways about trans issues, she will not be listened to on anything.
But there is a danger to this new brand of feminism as well: in its carefulness to include everyone it may end up excluding anyone who offends or dissents. It’s a style of feminism in which, if you break the rules, or hold an unpopular view, the answer – as was the case with Greer – is to kick you out of the sisterhood.’
There are actually a number of issues raised at once in that quote, so let’s break it down. What do you think of this remark that, for Rachel Melhuish: ‘having Greer come to give a lecture would be akin to having an openly homophobic or racist speaker on campus’?
PQ: While it can be problematic to use another struggle to frame the current situation there really are striking parallels with Civil Rights protesters and resistance in the sixties and earlier in US history. The nonsense of, “I will use ‘she’ as a courtesy but of course they’re not a REAL woman” is exactly what you expect a bigot caught on the wrong side of history to say. There’s nothing wrong with calling bigotry what it is and it doesn’t mean we have to dismiss early work that was relevant in its time; either the work still stands or it doesn’t. The consistent using of platforms to spread hate-speech and close down dissent (done by Greer in the past) should not be condoned by any amount of good deeds.
ÉRH: My impression of that ‘akin to an openly racist’ speaker remark is that she’s basically saying – and it seems like an unspoken, but recurrent theme – that there is some difference between being bigoted against trans women and being homophobic or racist that is significant in deciding whether someone’s views are unacceptable or not. Do you think we’d be having this whole debate about ‘censorship’ if Greer had been talking about lesbians or BME women the way she talks about trans women?
PQ: Absolutely not. People may find it easier to understand our position if they imagine that recently contentious but renowned scientist James Watson were invited to a racially diverse university to speak on matters of genetic intelligence (even without specifically mentioning race in the title of the talk) in a week that celebrates cultural diversity. It’s an appalling betrayal of those attracted to that university for it’s historical fair treatment of students. Even Dawkins is on our side (despite his recent claims). He will not debate creationists because, “they may not win the argument – in fact, they will not win the argument, but it makes it look like there really is an argument to be had”. To allow Greer to turn up and exclude trans women validates her position, particularly when she remains such a prominent face of the populist media as she does in recent years.
ÉRH: What about this idea that there’s weighing to be done? She may say things about trans women that are well out of order, but look what she’s done for (other) women? Do you think that it’s reasonable to weigh things that way?
PQ: I don’t think that’s reasonable at all. Being exceptional in fighting for the rights of one marginalised group doesn’t excuse you then using that platform to perpetuate hatred towards another marginalised group. For all the good she has done for cis women, she’s actively contributing to a culture that excuses violence and discrimination against trans women. I don’t believe anyone deserves a pass based on previous accolades, especially given that she considers herself to be a feminist and heavily involved in women’s rights she can’t claim to be ignorant, in this the age of information, about the impact and consequences of hate speech.
ÉRH: On that point, I’ve actually heard it said that it’s ‘misogynist’ to suggest that the hate speech of Greer or Bindel, etc. against trans women promotes violence against trans women because it’s ‘blaming women for male violence’. What do you think of that assertion?
PQ: I will always be more critical of those who consider themselves (or should consider themselves at least) an ally. It’s not misogyny to hold a woman accountable for her own words and actions. Feminism should be intersectional, it should provide safety and resources and solidarity for all women and all victims of misogyny equally, it should raise the voices of further marginalised groups. We should know better and we should do better.
The violence against trans women has come from cis women as it has from cis men. There’s plenty of examples of second-wave feminist physically assaulting, harassing, doxxing and threatening trans women. I don’t agree with this dismissal at all. While it may not be promoted and widely encouraged by the gender expectations of women, cis women are indeed capable of violence towards trans women as cis men are.
ÉRH: One argument I’ve heard on the left is that calling on Cardiff University to reconsider their decision to honour Greer as a ‘Distinguished Lecturer’ constitutes ‘no platforming’, and it’s the wrong thing to do because ‘no platform’ is a tactic reserved for fascists. The argument, from what I’ve seen, goes: ‘Yes, Greer’s said some awful things about trans women, but we don’t no-platform fascists just because they say awful things, but because there’s violence backing it up.’ What do you make of that?
PQ: Surely the readily available statistics on the rise of attacks on, and murder of, trans women and the lack of protection for trans people against dehumanization and hate speech is a testament to the culture of violence against trans people that currently exists.
There’s a plethora of studies that indicate that it is easy to normalize and rationalize violence towards a marginalized group when you dehumanize them. Referring to trans people collectively as a “trans cabal”, comparing trans women to rapists and murders, purposeful comparisons to animals and even going as far as labelling trans women “unmen” is clear dehumanization.
A movement to “no platform” a speaker is a protest, often headed by marginalized groups to send a clear statement of condemnation. It’s largely used by groups who are not afforded platforms, whose voices are not heard, to insist that the consciences of the majority are active and considerate.
People have their platforms removed for a wide variety of reasons, however large publications and media companies only ever seem interested when it’s part of a movement for human rights (which is what this is) that they can mock or sensationalize.
ÉRH: And yet a lot of the same people have no trouble connecting the dots when it’s violence against cis women, say in the case of ‘rape jokes’ and the like.
PQ: Exactly. The same use of scare quotes and the same mocking language is used both against cis women in cases of violence against cis women, as is used by cis women about trans issues.
ÉRH: Almost as if what’s really making the difference to them is the identity of the target and not the nature of the attack.
PQ: Endlessly frustrating.
ÉRH: You’ve been involved in the campaign against honouring Greer more or less since her appearance at Cardiff Uni was announced. My understanding is that, as it currently (15.11.2015) stands, Greer is going ahead. Are there any plans to counter her appearance?
PQ: There is a protest that has been arranged to run alongside the talk and a few people have managed to get tickets to challenge her directly. The fight is far from over.
ÉRH: You mentioned earlier the example of having a racist speaker appear at a university during a week meant to celebrate cultural diversity. Greer is scheduled to come to Cardiff University at a rather significant time in the trans calendar, isn’t she?
PQ: It does. It falls in Trans Awareness Week (14th – 20th), which ends with the Trans Day of Remembrance (20th). It’s incredibly unfortunate timing.
ÉRH: In closing, what would you say is the most important thing on the issues we’ve been discussing that you’d like cis people and people who might be inclined to be allies but aren’t very knowledgeable about trans issues to take away from this conversation?
PQ: We’re here and we’ve always been here. Listen to trans people, seek out trans voices. Our lives matter.