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Friday, 6 November 2015

Germaine Greer and Rachael Melhuish: trying to think about it because they don't do that in universities now

Are we always who we say we are?

Are we always what we say we are?

Germaine Greer, writer and celebrity, recently cancelled [ but see Footnote] an invited lecture at a United Kingdom university (Cardiff, in Wales) because the women’s officer of the Student Union there, Rachael Melhuish, got up a petition against her:

“Greer has demonstrated time and time again her misogynistic views towards trans women, including continually misgendering transwomen and denying the existence of transphobia altogether. Trans-exclusionary views should have no place in feminism or society”

As an example of her “transphobia” I find cited - by the Internet sources I am using - the use of the expression “ghastly parodies” to describe those whose birth sex was Male but who subsequently choose to present themselves in society as women, either with or without surgery.

I have always understood that a man who dresses as a woman is correctly described as a transvestite and that a man who in addition has undergone hormonal treatment or surgery is usually described as a trans sexual. More or less the same distinction can be made in relation to women who present themselves as men. 

The distinction is not entirely academic. But neither category tells us anything about a trans person’s sexual orientation. Nor does it actually tell us much about their gender since it is not spelled out what it is to present oneself as a woman (or when the transition is made in the other direction, a man). Melhuish seems to treat it as unproblematic whereas I thought most Feminisms from Simone de Beauvoir (at the very latest) onwards were about it being extremely problematic.

Does it mean presenting oneself according to the local gender stereotypes of what it is to be a woman? Does it mean presenting oneself as a woman in one’s dress and the public toilets you enter? Does it mean signalling to men that they should treat you (according to the conventions in place) as a woman? And likewise, signalling the same to women – so that, for example, you can claim admission to “Women Only” meetings? Does it mean signalling to others that you feel more comfortable presenting yourself and being treated as a woman (whatever that happens to mean), pretty much regardless of how you dress, what toilets you use, what personality traits you display, and so on?

Presumably, in nearly every case it means more than asking to be labelled a certain way. The exceptions are provided, notably, by cases – largely in the past -  where birth sex women cross-dressed as men in order to gain admission to armies, medical schools, and so on, but who did not in any way feel that they were something other than women. There were also cases where men cross-dressed as women, usually for nefarious purposes like escaping military service or gaining access to places where young females could be found and, hopefully, available for heterosexual sex.

But the most obvious cases of cross-dressing occurred (and still occur) on stage where the Pantomime Dame or the burlesque Drag Queen have for a very long time (centuries?) presented a comedy of “ghastly parodies” . Sometimes these parodies appear off stage and may have been in Germaine Greer’s mind. Would Rachael Melhuish welcome a Pantomime Dame to a Women Only meeting?

That question is actually a way into thinking about the whole issue. If you would not admit a Pantomime Dame, my guess is that is because you think they are simply a man pretending to be a woman. Fine. Next question: How about an old-fashioned male - to-female transvestite who cuts a very striking figure in high heels and booming voice? Is that person more than a Pantomime Dame, but just off-stage? If so, what makes the difference?  or, What has to happen to qualify that person for a "Women Only" meeting? And what qualifies anyone to make up the rules? A degree in Gender Studies?

Germaine Greer has also said that "just because you lop off your dick it doesn't make you a woman". This is obviously true: men have their dicks lopped off in car crashes, industrial accidents and - most frequently - misadventures with military high explosives. Few if any of them breathe a sigh of relief or think "Now I can be the woman I always wanted to be". Greer is saying that even if you lose your dick as part of a self-mutilation or voluntarily undergone medical procedure, that in itself is not sufficient to make you a woman, not enough to get you into the "Women Only" meeting. That seems correct: you need a supporting story which explains why you did it and how it forms part of the "woman" identity you are claiming. It seems to me quite possible that someone whose dick is intact could have a stronger claim than the dickless person to be regarded as a woman - just as there are quite a lot of  people who are more expert in the study of History than some of  those who are titled Professors of History.

Less obvious but still relevant to this discussion is what happens in the private space of the bedroom where cross-dressing and gender play are common. There, they are not at all parodic but are devices for enhancing and exploring desire. Men put on fishnets and women put on strap ons. Unfortunately, we don’t have global output figures or know who buys what where but we do know it’s a big industry. Most of  those who play with sexual identity and gender roles in the bedroom almost certainly do not do so outside that  private space .Nonetheless, it may make them more understanding of those who have full-time trans- identities. I hope so. Rachael Melhuish is right in this: people who are gratuitously offensive to others generally deserve a put-down of some kind.

Freudian psychoanalysis is hated only and always by those who insist that we are always who we say we are and what we say we are. I am a kind and loving person, always – and if you dispute those Facts, I will cast you into outer darkness.

But most aspects of our selves are not things we can will, and those who believe that the will can always triumph are doomed to failure. My will won't triumph over my toothache and I can’t will away primary sexual characteristics or even many of the secondary gender characteristics I have acquired. Several critics of Rachael Melhuish, including other feminists, use the word “fascist” or allude to it (as I have done) in describing her politics. I think this is because of a suspicion that she believes that life is about decisions and will-power.  ( Take away the reference to Fascism and an alternative might be to call such beliefs the Anorexic's Mistake). 

I realise that I have introduced my discussion with examples which may seem trivial, but it's a device philosophers use to try to clarify complex issues and it sometimes works.  But in reality, from what I read, Trans people have much more difficult lives than the Pantomime Dame, as do Hermaphrodites (who I am not discussing in this piece). It is hard and often enough anguishing to realise that you are only going to feel more authentic, more comfortable, more desirable if you shift into a mode of self-presentation which asks other people to reclassify your gender, more or less regardless of the state of your sexual organs. But just because it’s hard does not mean that a Narrative of Suffering or a Hard Luck story on its own should open the doors to the Women Only meeting. The narrative needs to be convincing and the story true. Rachael Melhuish needs to tell us what sort of story she is looking for.

As it is with stories, so it is with reactions. Just because you may encounter hostile or dismissive reactions does not mean that you are morally superior to those around you. You will still have your own weaknesses, vanities, unkindnesses – things which make everyone uncomfortable with themselves at one time or another, things which we would like to wish away with a “No, that’s not me”. But we can never be entirely who we say we are or what we say we are. That's just one of life's unfairnesses.

At the back of my mind I have this thought. The history of medicine is littered with histories of doctors doing terrible things to people, supposedly to "cure" them of this or that. Some of the medical techniques employed to enable gender transitions have been around a long time: sheikhs had eunuchs in their harems, the Vatican had castrati in its choirs (until very recently), chemical castration was already around to deal with homosexuals like Alan Turing. Now we have a wider range of surgeries and chemistries. But there is a possibility that a hundred years from now, those who by then believe themselves to be  progressive and humane may regard at least some of those techniques as barbaric, even when chosen, and falsely offering cures for catastrophic dilemmas which require other modes of approach.

Meanwhile, if you don't make it into the paradise of the Women Only meeting, there are still places you can go where people are too lazy to ask  you for your Identity but where, hopefully, at least most people will welcome you.


Footnote: After receiving reassurances from the University that her personal safety would be guaranteed, Greer did in fact deliver the lecture she had been invited to give and which was not about transgender issues

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