Image Credit: Ross Burgess
As an LGBT person, the intensified handwringing in the media over “gay issues’ hasn’t exactly gone unnoticed to me. I can’t recall a time since the legalisation of equal marriage that so many straight, white men have taken it upon themselves to debate my right to exist. Living at university, in what we are so frequently reminded is a “safe space”, these matters can feel a world away. Do not be deceived. Not all is well in our ivory tower.
No, we are not facing an outbreak of homophobic lynching in the leafy student suburbs of York. However, with the mishandling of several LGBT issues by the University over the last year, and given our political climate, I am far from confident going forward. The decision by the Philosophy Department to extend its platform to a prominent anti-trans thinker to deliver a talk on exactly that issue, namely why trans women are effectively not real women, is what has garnered the most attention. This speaker was paid by the University, was permitted to specify who could be in attendance, and refused to answer questions. Undergraduates who attempted to gain entry were simply sent away. This is clearly problematic. I do not intend to be another whinging leftist, demanding that we “noplatform” a controversial thinker. I, along with most sensible people, believe that university should be a space for the transmission of ideas freely. But that is not what takes place in a closed invitation, noquestions environment.
The University should feel free to invite and fund any and all speakers who are willing to engage in a genuinely open discussion where opinions and ideas can be challenged and tested. Or should they? I do not imagine that anyone would think it appropriate to extend an invitation to, say, a racial hygienist, regardless of whether they were taking questions. Perhaps you would say, well yes, but those people do not have a serious point to make. Neither, I contend, to TERFs or any other anti-LGBT activist. But here we are, and it is exactly that situation in which we find ourselves. There is, I would posit, a solution to this: quite simply, we need to establish far more rigorously the terms of the debate in which discussions about gender and sexuality take place. Extending my rather vapid analogy with ethno-nationalists, which I acknowledge is at best tenuous but at least is demonstrative, the reason we would feel so uncomfortable listening to a prominent far-right figure is because we know exactly where the line is.
Take as an example: a recent article published in the New Briton by a prominent conservative York student, entitled ‘Trans Activism is Becoming a Risk to Women’. In it, the writer referred to trans women as “biological men”; the piece elaborated that while it was a prerogative of anyone to “liv[e]… in a way they see fit,” it should not impact “real” women. The baseless assertions multiplied: the constabulary were being ordered to arrest those who “misgender”; that unisex bathrooms were the site of 90 percent of rapes. Ignoring the fallacious statistics and ludicrous argumentation, I would call attention to the very terms of the debate here. It would not be difficult, rather than throwing around terms like “biological men” or any other such term, to refer to people as ‘assigned male at birth’ (AMAB) or something similar. Why should the privileged majority be allowed to deny the agency and identity of one of society’s most vulnerable groups? Perhaps we have found a line. It would be disingenuous to point the finger at militant conservatives as the sole or even primary instigators of problematic discourse. Many of those who are perfectly liberal, intersectional and compassionate err in much the same way.
The fact that the establishment is primarily composed of these types institutionalises and reproduces the issues our allies seek to combat. A prime example of this would be last year’s decision to redesignate the YUSU Women’s Officer as Women’s and Non-Binary. Obviously, I was delighted at the progressive step to extend representation. However, I ask readers to pause and consider the optical and structural implications of such a move. Nonbinary people effectively become a footnote, permanently othered as a consideration for women to resolve. How, exactly, would a heterosexual cisgendered woman would be appropriate to address my concerns as a non-binary AMAB, is impossible to tell; it would be equally ridiculous for me to seek to remedy the ills women face on campus. I suspect that, as with the semi-literate ramblings of our friends on the right, it stems from not only a lack of understanding but an unwillingness to understand. It seems perfectly logical to think: “Ah yes, nonbinary people. I respect them; but I’m never going to be non- binary, so I’ll never get it, so they can do that in a special safe space away from our concerns.” It is there, in that liminal site, cast out and misunderstood even by our allies, that gender and sexual minorities fall prey to attack. It would be very well to simply critique the dynamics of oppression at play and offer no practical solutions. However, I like to think I leave my intellectual masturbation behind in the English classroom, and can hopefully deal in the concrete still from time to time.
The principal obstacle to real progress in debates surrounding gender and sexuality is clearly a lack of understanding of not just how to “handle” these matters, as in tiptoe around offence, but an actual grasp of what is being discussed, the intellectual grounding of gender studies. If the big wigs in YUSU grasped the meaning of their actions, I do not think they would have proceeded as they did. Obviously, the University needs to allow open invitation and questions to any speakers they invite, but there must be an insistence that intellectual debate be held in the terms of the minority whose agency they can so flippantly query. Those on all sides of the debate can no longer push gender minorities into a vulnerable, other space; respect us, embrace us, understand us and then we can talk.