In October 2015, writer, academic, cultural-commentator and intellectual provocatrix Germaine Greer was due to give a lecture at Cardiff University entitled ‘Women and Power: Lessons of the 20th Century’. When over eight hundred students at the university signed a petition accusing Greer of espousing transphobic views and demanding that her appearance be cancelled, however, Greer withdrew of her own accord, saying in an interview for BBC’s Newsnight, “I’m getting a bit old for all this… I don’t want to go down there and be screamed at and have things thrown at me. Bugger it.” Greer’s views on transgender women are not new, however. She wrote a short article for The Guardian newspaper in 2009 describing male-to-female transsexuals as “some kind of ghastly parody”, but has breathed new life into the debate with similar statements last month about Caitlyn Jenner (who, Greer suggests, “wanted the limelight that the other, female, members of the family were enjoying”). It is easy to demonise Greer for advocating such unfashionable views (that transgenderism is a “delusion”, for example), and tempting to feel that some sort of justice has been served by her own college at Cambridge University – Newnham – voting not to award her an honorary doctorate this year, but Greer’s comments should not be so readily dismissed. Polarised positions like Greer’s shed interesting light on the debate about exactly what it means to be transgender; how we would should define it; and what our aims are when we seek to change our gender role. In this posting, then, I attempt to reach my own understanding of what it means to be transgender, and argue that, from a certain point of view, Germaine Greer’s views about the transgender community are not entirely wrong.
In 2009, Germaine Greer wrote an article for The Guardian newspaper about the controversy surrounding South African athlete Caster Semenya, who was rewarded for her superhuman performance in the women’s 800m at the athletics World Championships that year by being subjected to a lengthy and humiliating investigation into how female she really was. Greer argued that Semenya was the victim of medical ineptitude from the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) that bordered on misogyny, and in her article she observed that Semenya’s treatment would cause outrage if it occurred in any other aspect of civilian life, including in the way society is conditioned to treat male-to-female transsexuals:
“Nowadays we are all likely to meet people who think they are women, have women’s names, and feminine clothes and lots of eyeshadow, who seem to us to be some kind of ghastly parody, though it isn’t polite to say so. We pretend that all the people passing for female really are. Other delusions may be challenged, but not a man’s delusion that he is female.”
Simply changing the way you dress and the pronouns you use about yourself, Greer argues, doth not a woman make. Consideration of the essence woman, furthermore, cannot ignore the biology of ovulation, menstruation or the menopause, and no surgical procedure for gender transition can ever transplant a working uterus or simulate periods. Not satisfied with that damning assessment of transsexuality, Greer then challenges the two social tenets of changing your gender: namely, that you are a woman (a) if you think you are, and (b) if other people think you are. “Unfortunately,” Greer writes, “(b) cannot be made to follow from (a).”
Germaine Greer’s comments seem designed to upset. On a bad day, when you’re worried about how convincingly you pass as female, or when you’re feeling shapeless and blokeish, you would be forgiven for wishing she’d just keep her opinions to herself, but Greer’s views cannot be divorced from her political philosophy and the moral context in which she espouses them. Germaine Greer is a feminist: by definition, her life’s work is concerned with the ongoing struggle for political, economic, spiritual, cultural, social and personal equality for women; for women to achieve equity with men’s opportunities for education and employment; for women to gain political and social recognition that is equal to that of men; for women’s accomplishments to be to be recognised with the same acclaim as those of men; and for this to be achieved by women who still remain true to the spirit of womanhood – not by women who become parodies of men, or adopt masculine traits in order to succeed in a world defined by men. (Feminists, therefore, must also seek to redefine the world so that men aren’t calling all the shots, and so achievement is not defined according to masculine norms and assumptions.)
From a feminist perspective, a male-to-female transsexual who asserts their right to be thought of as a woman is, by doing so, contributing to the oppression of women. Not content with dominating professional, political and cultural life, a man who then demands to be treated as female is trespassing on women’s turf; hijacking the privileges and pleasures of womanhood at the same time as benefiting from the social advantages of (once) being a man. Should men be allowed to dominate women to such an extent that, with a little bit surgery and a new wardrobe, they can even claim to be women? To add insult to injury, from Greer’s perspective, male-to-female transsexuals usually don’t even look, sound, or behave like women; they are, to use the phrase employed in an unpublished Observer article in 2013 by middle-class, middle-England mouthpiece Julie Burchill, “a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs.”
In October 2015, students at Cardiff University submitted a petition arguing that Greer should be barred from delivering a lecture there on the grounds that she holds “misogynistic views towards transwomen”. With characteristic wisdom, Greer cancelled her lecture, saying that she was not confident she would be able to enter into reasoned debate with opponents of her views, and that her appearance in Cardiff would almost certainly degenerate into heckling, being shouted down, and, in all likelihood, threats to her physical safety. While this storm in a teacup raged, Greer was interviewed by Kirsty Wark for BBC2’s Newsnight programme. During this interview, Greer was asked for her opinion on the probability that Caitlyn Jenner would receive an award from Glamour magazine as one of 2015’s ‘Women of the Year’. Greer’s response to Jenner’s accolade was, predictably, incredulous, and she questioned the legitimacy of describing Jenner’s transition as ‘brave’. The decision to change one’s gender does demand an enormous amount of courage (as anyone who has tried it knows), but the presence of an entourage paid to be supportive must have helped cushion the blow for Jenner considerably. The decision to transition, additionally, cannot be said to be more brave (or likely to attract more criticism and abuse) than sticking your head above the parapet on behalf of any other minority group, as Greer pointed out to Kirsty Wark on Newsnight: “It is simply not true that intersexual people suffer in a way that other people don’t suffer… Try being an old woman”.
Then there is the likelihood that the eagerness of popular culture to take Caitlyn Jenner to its bosom depends, to a great extent, on Jenner’s glamorous, red-carpet strolling, bare-all, lavishly expensive version of womanhood. If Jenner had not spent the best part of $200,000 on surgery in order to fit the Hollywood ideal of what a woman should look like, would she be being lauded as loudly as she is in gaudy, celebrity-obsessed publications like Glamour magazine? With this in mind, how much of a role can toilet-paper-for-the-eyes like E! Network’s ‘I am Cait’ really play in educating the viewing public into a greater understanding of transgender people? ‘I am Cait’ can no more claim to be teaching people about transgender than it can claim to be enlightening them on what it’s like to be vastly wealthy, completely obsessed with your appearance and public image, and inexplicably famous.
Caitlyn Jenner has no more in common with me than the people who shop at the same supermarket as I do. Just because both of us have made the (courageous) decision to change our gender does not make us comrades, colleagues, soul-mates or similars. And because the version of femininity Jenner promotes is so far removed from most women’s everyday experience of struggling for equal pay and equal representation – at the same time as creating and maintaining a family – Jenner cannot be said to be a shibboleth of the ‘normal’ woman either. In fact, Jenner’s pop-cultural status means that she is contributing to a view of women not as artistic, scientific, political or social pioneers, but as decorative clothes-hangers, sex-objects and eye-candy. You don’t need to be Germaine Greer to believe that that is a retrograde step for the feminist cause.
In October 2015, the Dutch version of the TV series ‘America’s Next Top Model’ (called, predictably, ‘Holland’s Next Top Model’) crowned the franchise’s first transgender winner: 20 year-old Loiza Lameras. This ‘event’ was hailed by commentators on this sort of thing as a victory both for the transgender community (who can now pass themselves off almost flawlessly as beautiful women), and for the magnanimity of TV producers and the general public (who can now accept transgender people as one of their own). But why celebrate a victory by anyone in a contest that is, by definition, a shallow display of skin-deep beauty? Forums of competitive sex-appeal are quintessentially misogynous; Miss World pageants are tawdry, outdated, end-of-the-pier shows sponsored by phallo-ratchiks like Donald Trump – who is someone you wouldn’t let your daughter go on a date with, let alone entrust with defining what it means to be beautiful or, indeed, female.*
If Greer is simply stating that fashion shows and beauty pageants are sexist; if it is her view that everyone who participates – including transgender people – is complicit in the perpetuation of that sexism; if she holds that transsexuals’ problems are no greater or smaller than those of any other social group; if she believes that male-to-female transsexuals in the public eye are compounding the perception that women need to be young, skinny and beautiful in order to find acceptance; then she is absolutely right.
However: Germaine Greer’s definition of womanhood seems predicated on characteristics determined by biological sex. What she ignores in her allegations that transsexuals are deluded in thinking that cosmetics and surgery are all that are required to change from one sex to another – and in her stubborn refusal to use the pronouns transgender people choose for themselves – is that gender is not the same as sex. While sex is chromosomally determined, gender is traditionally held to be culturally constructed. When a transgender person chooses ‘he’ or ‘she’ as the way they would like other people to refer to them, they are not staking a claim to a particular biological sex, but to a preferred gender role. In her book ‘Gender Trouble’ (Routledge, 1990), furthermore, Judith Butler argues that gender cannot be taken as a binary distinction between male and female. In Butler’s view, gender is a social performance, but not one given according to a script that represents a predetermined gender identity: the performance is all there is; there are no concrete truths concerning what it means to be male or female hiding behind it. Gender is, therefore, what we make it via our enactment of it, and if the performance of gender is not an expression of universal laws, then it must be an act that results in the constitution of gender itself.
Where does that leave me and my attempts to understand what being transgender means for me? I do not, for instance, hold with the idea that there is, and always has been, a woman inside me, and, in order to let her out, I have to modify my body and my wardrobe accordingly. I have no more idea what it means to be – or feel like – a woman than I have to be (or feel like) a man. I cannot begin to differentiate between thinking like a woman and thinking like a man, and so it seems ridiculous for me to claim to be a woman trapped inside a man’s body. I agree with Germaine Greer that the media’s coverage of Caitlyn Jenner contributes to – rather than goes some way towards alleviating – sexism in those sections of the media and popular culture obsessed with fashion, body image and physical beauty. I do not sanction Greer’s semantic refusal to grant people the right to self-identify in the way that is best for them by selecting their own gender-specific pronouns, but I do find myself seduced by Judith Butler’s argument that gender is a social performance that leads to its own creation. I would not deny that sexism is a deep-rooted and invidious social issue, but I do not think the balance can be redressed by taking swipes at transsexuals.
I was not born a biological woman, and I know that I never will be completely satisfied with my own body. But I also know that that is true of anyone who would like to lose a little weight, have bigger boobs or smaller boobs; wishes their nose was straighter; uses moisturisers to try and arrest the physical rigours of age; goes to the gym; or who has straight hair permed and curly hair relaxed. No-one is ever one hundred percent happy with the way that they look, and transgender people cannot claim to suffer more than most in that regard. What I can do, however, is exercise some control over the way people treat me. If I want the world to treat me less like a man and more like a woman, then there are things I can do to help lend authenticity to my performance. I can dress in a way that suits me, undertake voice coaching to feminise the way that I speak, acquire the appearance of breasts, and behave in a way that matches my preferred gender role. I can, in short, help other people perceive me as more female than male by mediating how the world responds to the face I present to it. And that, for now, is the closest I can come to defining my own version of being transgender: I can’t expect people to understand (or care about) how male or female I feel inside, but I can have a direct impact on how female is the social space created for me; and I can go on being good at the things I’m good at, loving the people who matter to me, and liking the things I do, in order to ensure that my chosen gender isn’t the only thing about me that people notice.
Germaine Greer’s 2009 Guardian article about Caster Semenya can be found here…http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2009/aug/20/germaine-greer-caster-semenya
Germaine Greer’s interview with BBC Newsnight can be viewed here…https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdxCXlENgT4
Julie Burchill’s calm and measured comments about transsexuals can be read here…http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/13264#.Vs2LiI9OIjY
Caitlyn Jenner’s shopping list can be studied here… http://www.mirror.co.uk/3am/celebrity-news/caitlyn-jenner-spent-4million-transformation-5824012 and here… http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-3111436/Caitlyn-Jenner-six-surgeries-spent-70-000-new-face-says-one-doctor.html
*Since I wrote this article, over a year ago, Donald Trump has gone far beyond the remit of his original programming, and is now President Elect of the United States of America. Fancy that!