#BoycottUnionDrinks Germaine Greer’s Union Invitation Unacceptable

And so do trans students. Credits: Devon Buchanan

And so do trans people. Credits: Devon Buchanan

It should say a lot that I’ve lived in Cambridge for just a single term and am already aware of the fact that the Union Society has a history of closing its ears to the voices (and to the safety concerns) of students at Cambridge. The invitations of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Julian Assange in past years are particularly striking; in both cases, Cambridge students disagreed with the Union providing a platform to accused rapists and – importantly – the effect that this might have on vulnerable students. In both cases, widespread protests were largely ignored or brushed off. It’s also common knowledge that the overwhelming majority of speakers at the Union tend to be straight, cisgender, white, middle-class men. This needs to change; that much is clear, and the Union knows it. We need more diverse speakers. We need more female speakers. Somewhere along the line, though, some wonderfully enlightened person decided that the best way to do this was to invite radical feminist and unapologetic transmisogynist, Germaine Greer.

For those who are not already aware, Germaine Greer believes, purely and simply, that trans women (women whose gender was assigned male at birth) are not women. She describes them in her book The Whole Woman as “men who believe that they are women and have had themselves castrated.” In her twisted and misinformed view, trans women are “wannabe women;” “man-made women.” In 2009, she wrote a piece for the Guardian (which has since been removed from the paper’s website) describing trans women as “delusion[al]” and “a ghastly parody.” These views are not merely contentious; they are violent. They are harmful. And they cannot be tolerated or given a platform in a university that has a duty to protect every student including its trans students.

The Facebook event for Germaine Greer’s appearance at the Union innocently describes her as having “received her PhD from Newnham College, Cambridge, later becoming a special lecturer and fellow of Newnham from 1989 to 1996.” The event description does not, however, note the reason for which Greer is no longer a fellow of Newnham College. In 1996, Greer resigned from her position following an unsuccessful campaign to prevent the appointment of transgender astrophysicist Rachael Padman as a fellow at Newnham college, on the basis that appointing a trans woman as a fellow of a women’s college was unacceptable.

For the Union – which has strong links with CUSU LGBT+, who host weekly drinks and other events there – to consider it appropriate to invite an openly transmisogynistic speaker is absolutely shocking. What really puts the icing on the cis-supremacist cake, however, is that the aforementioned LGBT+ drinks are due to take place at 8pm this coming Monday, 26th January. Who else will be present in the Union whilst these drinks take place? That’s right; Germaine Greer. Transgender students are expected to be perfectly fine with the idea of sharing a space with someone who would deny them their every basic human right, someone who outspokenly and unapologetically perpetuates and encourages their oppression.

I do not want to share a building with Germaine Greer. I don’t particularly want to share a city or even a planet with her, for that matter, or with any other person who contributes to the marginalisation, oppression, and death of my trans siblings. A survey conducted in 2012 by the Gender Identity Research and Education Society (GIRES) found that 84% of trans respondents had considered ending their lives, with 35% having made one or more suicide attempts. Worldwide, 226 people were reported as being murdered between October 2013 and November 2014 as a direct result of being transgender (and of course we can expect the real number to be much, much higher). These numbers are no coincidence. The horrific discrimination that trans people – especially trans women – face daily continues because of people who refuse to believe that the identity and personhood of a transgender person is valid. It continues precisely because of people like Germaine Greer.

There is no possible benefit to inviting Greer to speak at the Union that is not outweighed a million times by the harm her views will generate. Yes, she is – or at least she calls herself – a feminist, but her brand of feminism is not one that is welcome, acceptable, or deserving of any form of recognition or merit. CUSU Women’s Campaign have already stated plainly that “Greer does not represent feminism, and she does not represent us.” If the Union Society really is tearing their collective hair out over potential feminist speakers, I would be happy – as, I’m sure, would virtually every other female and/or LGBT+ student – to provide them with a (probably endless) list of more appropriate options. The Union is either being incredibly lazy, or deliberately contentious.

All evidence points to the latter explanation. An email was sent yesterday on behalf of the CUSU Trans Campaign, detailing various examples of Greer’s transmisogyny, comprehensive statistics and explanations of the ways in which trans people suffer from such beliefs, and a plea for her invitation to speak to be rescinded to protect the welfare of Cambridge University’s trans students. The reply was, predictably, negative. Greer’s talk will go ahead.

This response is not good enough. It’s time for people to need to sit up and take notice: trans students are tired of feeling unsafe. We are tired of members of our university disregarding our welfare by expecting us to share spaces with people who consider us subhuman. CUSU LGBT+ needs to take a stand against such negligence by boycotting drinks events and all other events due to take place in collaboration with the Union. The Union, meanwhile, needs to consider the effects of its choices upon some of the most vulnerable members of this university, and sort out its fucking priorities.

Em Travis

5 thoughts on “#BoycottUnionDrinks Germaine Greer’s Union Invitation Unacceptable

  1. I don’t think she should have been invited, but this is not a fair comparison: “The invitations of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Julian Assange in past years are particularly striking; in both cases, Cambridge students disagreed with the Union providing a platform to accused rapists and – importantly – the effect that this might have on vulnerable students.”

    These are also two men in highly political spheres with many enemies. Also, neither have been proven guilty, and the accusations are particularly suspicious in the case of Assange. They are only accused rapists – guilty until proven innocent – and yet they are being judged in this article as if they are guilty. How is it fair for them to lose this platform to speak, if they are in fact entirely innocent?

    1. It’s about the effect that inviting speakers like that has on students. How is a student who has experienced sexual assault going to feel about accused rapists being invited, even if they aren’t convicted? That said, I can’t claim expertise because I wasn’t at the University at that time. I’ve only heard/read about those occasions.

  2. The concept of “safe spaces” as currently applied by certain powerful lobbies at Cambridge is inconsistent with the principle of free speech. Because it is possible to claim that someone’s “safe space” is being infringed by almost any guest speaker. What are we to do? Ban everyone except people we agree with? It’s unacceptable, unintelligent and frankly unbecoming that students attending Cambridge would trample on such important rights as free speech, free association and rational argument in the mistaken belief that they are somehow advancing the LGBT cause. And especially ironic considering that LGBT freedoms and acceptance in modern liberal democracies arose from the very right to free speech now under threat.

    Banning certain people from speaking at the Cambridge Union, an organisation which has invited heated debate for decades, is also criminally destructive to the system of arts education at Cambridge. People of all genders, race and sexual orientation need to feel valued at here, and there is no widespread support for that principle. But it is unacceptable and unnecessary for that to come at the cost of important elements of the education this institution is set up to give its students.

    It’s not all about DNA sequencing and tensile strengths of materials, alright? Some of students study subjects which require these debates to take place.

    As a vulnerable member of the university, if you feel that someone invited to speak at Cambridge will upset you, you are entitled not to attend their talk. You are entitled to protest (within the law) that their views on the subject you care about are unacceptable. But that is the extent of your rights on the matter. You have no right to impose on others a restriction in their free will to listen to who they want to listen to, whether by physically restraining them or through emotional blackmail. And you certainly have no right to muzzle an individual invited to speak and set forth their views, assuming they are not breaking any laws.

    On innocent until proven guilty, the question “how is a student who has experienced sexual assault going to feel about accused rapists being invited, even if they aren’t convicted?” is a staggering attitude to take. Not only does it assume that a person who has experienced such attacks has an automatic right to walk around in a bubble of protection from any further contact information that might trigger them, even where this blatantly tramples on the rights of hundreds of other people. But it also, as Realist points out, assumes guilt. Let us hope that Em Travis never has to sit on a jury deciding such a case. The rationale put forth would probably be “how would the victim feel if I let this person walk free, even if I personally think he’s innocent? I’d better find him guilty”. Such an attitude is not just or fair, in or out of the courtroom.

    Protecting people is laudable – but not a the cost of damaging a thousand others a little or one person a lot. Rights must be balanced.

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