Three reasons Greer is wrong (and three response fails)

October 29, 2015
Germain Greer's transphobia needs to be challenged. Photo: TransGriot

Feminist author and career academic Germaine Greer has sparked outrage once again following a controversial interview she gave to the BBC on October 24 where she reaffirmed her position that transgender women are not “real” women.

Greer's devolution from an ideological pillar of the 1960's women's liberation movement to a source of loathing for sections of the feminist community needs to be discussed. Her comments provide an important opportunity for putting forward a clear argument against trans-exclusionary feminism.

Unfortunately however, some of the criticisms levelled at Greer have tended to resort to apolitical (and often sexist) jeers about her being ugly, old, crazy and irrelevant. They represent a lazy way out of challenging Greer's discriminatory theories head-on, and fall far short of the kind of critical analysis that the women's liberation movement needs today.

If feminists are going to win more people to what has to be a movement for the liberation of all women — including transgender women — we must address the substance of Greer's arguments.

Reason #1: Transgender women are women

Greer argues that transgender women are not women because they do not look like or act like “real women”. She infamously went as far as saying they are not women, “because they don't know what it's like to have a smelly vagina”.

Women are not the sum of their parts. Women are not women because of their genitals, hormones, reproductive capacity or any other part of their body. Nor can they be defined by any measurement of adherence to the hugely amorphous definition of femininity.

We need to reject the idealistic gate-keeping of womanhood, especially on the basis of something as trivial and derogatory as appearance, and celebrate women in all their forms.

Greer's biological determinism fails to account for the many experiences associated with womanhood, spanning history and culture. It exaggerates the existence of universal experiences held in common by all people who were designated female at birth that justify an exclusive “Girl's Club”.

Fail #1: 'Greer is ugly'

Sexist slurs against Greer's appearance are cheap shots that do nothing to fight transphobia. Rather, they actively exacerbate it.

Using arbitrary definitions of beauty to judge whether someone is worth listening to — rather than the content of their speech — hurts transgender and cisgender women alike.

Responding to transphobia with sexism only reinforces the bureaucratic monitoring of a woman's presentation. It also allows Greer to present herself as a martyr, battling a tirade of misogyny and conservatism.

Reason #2: Transphobia is real

The oppression of gender variant, non-binary and transgender people is real.

Transgender people suffer disproportionate rates of hate crimes and discrimination, resulting in a heightened vulnerability to abuse, homelessness, mental illness and suicide.

Transphobia also manifests itself in day-to-day micro-aggressions like misgendering, dead-naming, bullying and exclusion.

Greer's ignorance on the question of transphobia shows how out of touch she is with the queer and feminist communities. By denying transphobia, she perpetuates harmful and invalidating attitudes towards transgender people.

Fail #2: 'Greer is old and crazy'

The “hysterical old woman” cliche is also a derisive and misogynistic silencing tactic. Attributing Greer's hostility towards the transgender community to mental illness or age does more to excuse her politics than to challenge them.

It also falsely implies that Greer's theories sprung up out of nowhere and are disconnected from her earlier work. Rather, the conclusions Greer has drawn later in life are better understood as the inevitable progression of her life-long trajectory as a separatist feminist.

Reason #3: Feminism and transgender rights are on the same team

Greer's theories undermine the women's liberation movement as a whole. Greer's transphobic deterministic line is buttressed by gender binaries promoted by the sexist capitalist system.

The revolutionary potential of women and queers stems from their ability to collectively challenge capitalism's need to keep women performing “reproductive labour” — which generates about 50% of GDP — for free within the home.

Trans-exclusionary feminism also misplaces blame for women's oppression. Falsely targeting transgender women as members of an oppressive group distracts from the real enemy, and lets the patriarchal capitalist system off the hook.

The strength of the feminist movement is in our numbers, our solidarity, and our alliances. The exclusion of transgender women only weakens our collective struggle.

Fragmenting the women's movement into “real” women and “not real” women means we stand to lose some of our staunchest feminist fighters and community leaders.

Beyond offensive and hurtful, Greer's animosity towards the transgender community is detrimental to building the united, inclusive feminist movement needed to take on sexism and transphobia.

Fail #3: 'Greer is irrelevant'

The argument that Greer as “irrelevant” just doesn't hold up and only serves to deny the need for presenting an adequate alternative.

The attention she commands is proof of her ongoing relevance to feminist politics. Clearly, she consistently interests an audience of young feminists who see her as a leader and her opponents as “anti-feminists” who are shouting her down for all the wrong reasons.

The “no platform” campaign to ban her from speaking at public events only exacerbates this. Greer will continue to speak and because she has a huge platform — at venues or on the airwaves — we need to articulate our political criticisms of her divisive strategy and not resort to trying to shut her down.

Greer is taking feminism backwards, but so too are her opponents if they fail to take her on in the political arena, and instead settle for heckling from the seats.

Winning the argument against Greer's ideas requires articulating a coherent, convincing, and viable case for a different kind of feminism. And it is an argument worth having if we want to seriously tackle transphobia and misogyny.

[Mia Sanders is a member of Resistance-Young Socialist Alliance.]

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