by Robyn Sands
At the end of last month Green Party parliamentary candidate Rupert Read caused widespread offence by posting a series of tweets appearing to question the validity of trans women’s gender identities and claimed to be ‘troubled’ by use of the word cisgender, in opposition to the term ‘transgender’.
He then tweeted a blog post he’d written in January 2013 in which he defended feminist writers, such as Julie Burchill, who had been accused of transphobia, and described trans status as a sort of “opt-in version of what it means to be a woman”. His tweets were a response to a controversial and transphobic poster seen in women’s toilets in Bristol University, which heavily implied that allowing trans women in to women’s toilets would lead to them assaulting cis women, and he seemed to be defending that position. He has since issued an apology, and responded to criticisms by saying that he only meant to “discuss a hypothetical philosophical position”. He further stated that “All that I have done is join many feminists in saying that it is up to women, not anyone else- and certainly not me- to decide who gets let in to women-only spaces, such as women’s toilets”.
Although he claims to recognize that the concerns of the trans community, and of decent people in general everywhere, about this kind of rhetoric are valid, he also claimed that his post had been “over-interpreted” and that the first lesson he had learned was not to talk about these sorts of things on Twitter. While I’m pleased that Rupert plans to conceal his bigotry in the future, I admit to being somewhat baffled by the tone of his apology, in particular the inconsistency with his original writing – which is still available online.
As a philosopher well versed in gender theory I can only assume that his views don’t come from a place of naïve ignorance about the state of gender politics today, and while he has agreed to meet with local LGBT groups to make amends, he does seem to somewhat defend his stance by claiming that “most of the offence caused by my tweets is a result of misunderstandings generated by the fragmented and angry nature of so much debate on twitter”.
So, perhaps he will appreciate this response in more than 140 characters.
What Rupert seems painfully unaware of is that while, for him, considering trans women to be ‘opt-in versions’ of women may be a hypothetical philosophical position, for many trans people not having your gender acknowledged is a lived and painful reality. The 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, answered by 7500 people across the US, found that a staggering 41% of respondents had attempted suicide (compared to 1.6% of the population as a whole), trans respondents were four times more likely than cis-gender people to make less that $10,000 a year, 65% of respondents reported discrimination in one or more public places. In education, relevant as Rupert is a professor at UEA, alarming rates of discrimination and harassment were reported, highly correlated with lower levels of educational attainment and lower income. Quite the contrary to being sex pests, trans people are among those at highest risk of sexual assault.
When public figures use their influence to defend a narrative that questions trans women’s right to safety, and places them below cis-women in a hierarchy of needs, it does real harm in the real, non-hypothetical world.
Arguing against his stance with more theory, then, seems irrelevant. It’s an argument that has been made many times before by better writers than myself, and trans women should have nothing to prove to somebody who claims to fight for social justice, but cannot recognise when their philosophy does further harm to some of the most oppressed people in society today. And even if this is a question that does need addressing? Rupert was right when he said it was up to women, and certainly not him, to have this conversation. It’s a conversation that will happen, and is happening, with or without him sticking his clumsy white boy philosophy oar in.
I think the Cambridge Green Party made the wrong decision in showing solidarity with Rupert Read, and I’m proud of the Norwich (University of East Anglia) Young Greens for distancing themselves from his views and making politics a more trans-inclusive space.