February 24, 2015 at 11:08 am EST | by Richard J. Rosendall
Trigger Warnings and Twitter Wars
Twitter, gay news, Washington Blade, TERFs

(Photo public domain)

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” But recent hostilities between radical feminists and transgender activists have pulled some loose threads.

For years, some radical feminists have vociferously opposed transgender people. An example is Janice Raymond, a lesbian ex-nun who wrote in her 1979 book, The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, that trans women, whom she regarded as male predators, were the “avant garde of the patriarchy invading women’s spaces.” As a liberal feminist and a supporter of trans equality, I very much disagree with Dr. Raymond. Dana Beyer, executive director of Gender Rights Maryland, explains, “[G]ender identity (the sex of one’s brain) drives trans persons to transition, regardless of genital anatomy.”

For the LGBT advocates with whom I work in Washington, D.C., that ship has sailed. We do not sit around discussing gender theory. We take it as a given that trans people are citizens entitled to equal protection. We work in coalition to ensure that the “T” is included in legislation, data gathering, and public services (and D.C. is among the top states in the Human Rights Campaign’s State Equality Index). Science is on our side: the American Psychiatric Association declassified transgender identity as a disorder in 2012, as it did homosexuality in 1973.

For some, this is not enough. There is a movement to “no-platform” trans-excluding radical feminists (TERFs), that is to bar them from campuses and deny them a platform for their views. This is part of a broader and distinctly illiberal trend whereby universities are seen not as centers for the robust exchange of ideas, but as frightening places full of triggers and microaggressions. Students are seen as fragile flowers who must be protected from views that might offend them. This is an assault on learning, and those of us who are not professional victims need to fight it.

Enter Peter Tatchell, a British human rights activist who has supported trans equality for decades. As an LGBT rights advocate he has scaled the wall of Lambeth Palace to confront the Archbishop of Canterbury; taken a brick to the head at a gay rights march in Moscow; and received a savage beating for attempting a citizen’s arrest of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe. This brave and principled man believes in debating his adversaries rather than silencing them. He wrote on February 17:

“For me, free speech is one of the most precious of all human rights. It is the foundation of a democratic, open society. It should be defended without exception, unless it involves threats, harassment or incitements to violence.”

In line with this, Tatchell recently joined a sign-on letter defending the right of the TERFs he disagrees with to present their views. For this he was hit with thousands of vituperative Twitter messages calling him transphobic and even including death threats.

A similar controversy recently engulfed playwright Eve Ensler, whose award-winning play, The Vagina Monologues, was canceled by the student theater board at Mt. Holyoke College with the charge that it was “blatantly transphobic.” Ensler found it necessary to write a reply titled, “I Never Defined a Woman as a Person With a Vagina.”

Beyer writes, “I believe the current P.C. agenda, by demanding purity from its allies, is showcasing its inherent weakness.” She is right. We do not advance the cause of justice by censorship or by claiming to be traumatized by other people’s opinions.

Granted, that is easy for me to say as someone who has not been assaulted, harassed for using public restrooms, or driven into survival sex by job discrimination. But firing fusillades in 140-character bursts and blocking those who disagree with you is no legislative strategy.

Tatchell writes, “The most effective way to defeat bigoted ideas is not by proscription but by challenging and exposing them – and by presenting better, non-bigoted ideas. That’s why I’ve often accepted invitations to debate homophobes, misogynists, transphobes and anti-Muslim zealots. The feedback I’ve received nearly always suggests that they’ve come out of such debates damaged and discredited.”

But hey, go ahead and zing him (@PeterTatchell) with another nasty tweet. He’s had worse.

Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at rrosendall@starpower.net.

Copyright © 2015 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.

  • Dana Beyer has no credibility, as she engages in the exact same silencing behavior–that is, when she isn't busy trying to oust openly gay legislators from office.

  • Isn't the campaign to outlaw 'reparative therapy' an even more forceful form of 'no-platform'-ing?

  • No one has the right to not be offended. On the other hand, once one is offended, one has the right to pursue whatever means she has against the offender short of mental and physical harm. "Free speech" means the government can't silence you. "Free speech" does not mean you are guaranteed a platform from which to speak, nor an audience to listen; it most certainly does not mean you can say what you want without push back. It amazes me that white gay men have such difficulty understanding intersectionality. They think the oppression they've received from society gives them license to tell all other oppressed people how to think and behave. White gay men don't examine the privileges they have from being white and cis. It is at best unwise and uncaring for a white gay man to try to tell trans people or gay people of color how to think, what to feel, or how to behave.

  • Steve: Dana ran for public office; whatever one thinks of her choice of whom to challenge, to suggest it is a form of silencing makes no sense.

    Katrina: no, the right to express one's views does not include the right of licensed therapists to be free of regulation. Prohibiting a practice which has been shown to be harmful from being foisted on minors is about licensed healthcare, not speech.

    Kyle: if I were talking about the First Amendment, I would have said so. You are right that private organizations are not legally compelled to give others a platform. But free speech is a broader concept than the First Amendment. I agree that no one has the right not to be offended. I do not agree that silencing disagreeable views is appropriate. As to your sweeping racial generalizations: like Peter Tatchell, I have a long record of productive coalition work across lines of race, religion, and gender. If you think that being a cisgendered white gay man makes me clueless about trans people, you should go to glaa.org and look at our trans-inclusive policy brief, as well as our record of accomplishment in concert with our allies. If you think I don't examine privilege, you can't have read much of my recent writing. As to allegedly telling people "how to think, what to feel, or how to behave," what you mean is that I have expressed a viewpoint you don't like. Coalition work in a diverse community is a challenge (one that I have been facing for over three decades), but one sure way of sabotaging it is to pretend that respect and communication must only go in one direction. I cited a prominent trans activist in part to show that the different camps on no-platforming are not monolithic.

    We cannot move forward together without having difficult conversations. Those conversations must be mutually respectful. Making sweeping and false generalizations about white people as a way of shutting down a contribution to the discussion is no way to treat a proven ally or to win more allies. We have to make our case. Banishing obnoxious viewpoints from academia will not prepare students to confront and change the reality outside the university walls. One of the TERFs is Germaine Greer; do you really think she can be silenced? No, she has to be refuted.

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