Germaine Greer Paints a Portrait of Transphobic Feminism

On Thursday, feminist Germaine Greer published a short article in the Guardian about Caster Semenya, the woman who is being forced to undergo gender testing by the IAAF because she won a race while having an appearance that is considered masculine. As a result of the case, many are writing about the question of “what makes a man or a woman,” and, of course, that can be a recipe for disaster.

Greer’s piece is a perfect example. After reading it over several times, I honestly haven’t the slightest clue what her overall argument is. One moment she seems to rightly accept that a person who understands herself as a woman and identifies as a woman is a woman, and the next she is mocking and undgendering women who don’t meet her own personal, cis-supremacist standards. I don’t know what she ultimately thinks about Caster Semenya, but I do know blatant, unapologetic transphobia when I see it screaming out at me from the page.

In plainer terms what the academic feminists could be taken to be saying is that (a) you’re a woman if you think you are and (b) you’re a woman if other people think you are. Unfortunately (b) cannot be made to follow from (a).

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.

Let’s add it up, shall we? She starts out with 1) “you can’t make me call you a woman, nyah nayh nyah, nyah nyah nyah,”* easily segueing into the ever popular bullshit line 2) “trans women are really men,” which then is precariously propped up with the myths that 3) “you can easily tell a trans woman from a cis woman!” and 4) “trans women are all hyper-feminine (no such thing as a butch trans woman, no-sirree!),” giving way to the age old implication that 5) “trans women are not only really men, they’re misogynist men who want to co-opt the lives of us normal women,” and ending in a lament that 6) “the only reason we [cis people] treat trans women as women is because we’re being held hostage to the transgender tyranny (which is really the same as patriarchy).”

The above assessment could also probably be taken as a rough summary of Janice Raymond’s infamous 1979 book The Transsexual Empire. Greer’s thinking on the subject seemingly hasn’t evolved since that period a single bit.

The real kick of it is that Greer can whine about how she’s not allowed to say these things precisely because it’s so acceptable for her to say them. She can pretend that we live in a world where trans people’s gender identities are actually respected and not mocked and devalued on an everyday basis and then moan about how awful that is for her, because the vast majority of heads will be willing to nod along to this delusion with her. She can conjure up the image of “a man in a dress (and lots and lots of lipstick),” because most people still think of trans women that way, and fail to see it for what it really is — misogynistic as well as transphobic. She can “defiantly” say that a trans woman cannot make other people accept her as a woman because she knows there will be a loud and angry chorus of “yeah!” And she can pretend that it’s cis women whose gender identities are under attack because, as is always the case, there’s nothing a dominant group loves more than to pretend that they’re the ones who are really oppressed by minorities demanding their rights.

And yeah, unfortunately, a good number of those agreeing with her will be cis feminists.

My initial instinct was to respond to Greer’s “ghastly parody” line by quipping that her article is a ghastly parody of feminism. And indeed, I personally stopped taking her seriously as any kind of feminist spokesperson years ago. But I quickly realized that it’s just not the case. This isn’t a parody of my feminism — it looks absolutely nothing like my feminism. And it isn’t a parody of the feminism held by the most transphobic cis feminists; it’s an accurate depiction.

But that doesn’t mean we can let her speak for all of feminism and cis feminists, period. It doesn’t mean that we can stand by as she portrays feminism as a strictly cis affair, or tries to spread her ignorance as the official feminist line. This article doesn’t speak for my feminism, and I don’t want a single thing to do with a feminism that it does.

via the F-Word


*EDIT: It seems that I may have misunderstood what Greer was getting at here, as I already stated that I found the article rather incoherent. It was pointed out in the comments that the section from the first quoted paragraph might have been referring to Semenya, who Greer seems to agree is a woman. If that is indeed the case, she’s setting up her means to throw trans women under the bus to make some kind of point with regards to cis women’s right to not be feminine, not saying that she doesn’t have to view trans women as women — and instead saving that point for a couple sentences later (“a man’s delusion that he is female”). Thus, “you can’t make me call you a woman” would be 6) instead of 1).

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36 comments for “Germaine Greer Paints a Portrait of Transphobic Feminism

  1. August 22, 2009 at 10:17 am

    Oh Germaine and her transphobic crap… Right up there with Camille Paglia’s “Matthew Shepard asked for it.” The only thing it’s good for is hours of endless mockage.

    Funny thing is, I’m sure Greer thinks she’s being glamorously provocative when she spews hatred such as this. Makes you wonder what planet she’s ultimately living on, ’cause it sure ain’t this one.

  2. El
    August 22, 2009 at 10:19 am

    What Greer tried to say in this article is that our society defines femininity (maybe it’ll be more correct to say femaleness) by appearance – that it quickly bestoves the title “woman” on anybody who wears “feminine” drag (even for a biological male) but questions femininity of “unfeminine-looking” woman (whose biological status is of yet unclear). I agree that the reference to transpeople is inapropriate and irrelevant to the issue of Semenya, and seems to be just an attack due to her personal issue with them. However she didn’t imply any of the things you said she did: Where did you see her saying that “you can easily tell a trans woman from a cis woman!” or “trans women are all hyper-feminine?? She only spoke about transwoman who perform femininity. I don’t think that making such unbased calims helps you to communicate your point.
    Maybe instead of self righteously and longwindedly lashing out on yet another obscure article by second wave offender who “doesn’t quite get it” you could discuss some actual real-life issue (as opposed to discussing an article about it)? For example this issue with Semenya which wasn’t discussed on this blog at all?

  3. August 22, 2009 at 10:21 am

    In one of her books she said something about how in other cultures there is a third gender for people who are trans, and how she resents that anyone who isn’t a typical male automatically is deemed female, and that she resents being expected to like having all non males being put into her group. The argument of hers that I understood from the book is that the 3rd gender option is a lot better in her opinion.

  4. August 22, 2009 at 10:35 am

    Where did you see her saying that “you can easily tell a trans woman from a cis woman!” or “trans women are all hyper-feminine??

    Right here:

    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.

    See how that perpetuates the idea that you can spot a trans woman? After all, how can you meet people who “think they are women” but are actually ghastly parodies, by which in the context of the article she clearly means trans women, if you can’t easily tell cis and trans women apart? And by portraying trans women as hyper-feminine and nothing else she is perpetuating the stereotype. Kind of like if she was talking about gay men and said “nowadays you’re like to meet men who think they are men, who seem to us anything but when they’re flouncing around with their lip wrists.” Would you say “well, she didn’t mean ALL gay men!” Or would you say “Hmm, that’s a really bigoted stereotype, and she just reinforced it, not to mention acted like it was a problem even if it was true, and that was a really prejudiced, asshat thing to do”?

    Maybe instead of self righteously and longwindedly lashing out on yet another obscure article

    Yes, from now on I’ll stick to real publications. Silly self-righteous me, thinking that a major UK publication is relevant.

    by second wave offender who “doesn’t quite get it”

    If this is what you call not quite getting it, I’d really hate to see what your version of really not getting it is.

  5. August 22, 2009 at 10:53 am

    No Nails. She wasn’t making some crypto pro genderqueer argument for third genders. She was saying that trans women’s identifications – which we fucking die for – aren’t worth shit to her. That we should have asked permission to transition, that she can ungender us as she has *throughout* her career at the drop of a hat. That she is owed respect where she won’t even grant us human dignity. Oh, and she’s been only too happy to work with the trans women = serial killer meme too.

    Shockingly given how outspoken she is, her actions actually speak louder than words to me. Outing a trans woman to the UK tabloid press in the 90s, actually willing to fight tooth and nail for transphobic discrimination in her immediate circle, that shows me exactly what kind of a person she is. That cis feminists so frequently ignore, gloss over or defend her hateful ideas isn’t surprising to me, but it is disappointing.

  6. Sahara
    August 22, 2009 at 10:55 am

    To state that a third gender is preferable is transmisogynist and transphobic to men who transitioned because it is implying that we are born into being a man or a woman and cannot transition, feel it in your headspace and body yet a third gender is attainable.

    Greer is known for her transmisogynist views. The article is nonsense.

    • August 22, 2009 at 11:01 am

      When I first scanned Nails’ comment, I thought that she was just making a further argument about Greer’s transphobia, rather than defending it. Huh. Thanks to Emily and Sahara for covering it.

      Going back to El’s comment briefly, until that comment it didn’t even occur to me that Greer might have been actually referring to Semenya in the first quoted paragraph (lamenting that some people don’t view her as a woman), rather than referring to the trans women who she attacks in the next paragraph. Accordingly, I added a note to the end of the post clarifying this . . . and then explaining why it ultimately doesn’t change the analysis very much at all or make the piece any better.

  7. Sahara
    August 22, 2009 at 10:59 am

    And I think it is disgusting that she is talking about ‘other cultures’ to bolster her transphobia!

  8. August 22, 2009 at 11:44 am

    What I don’t get about Greer’s argument, and that of maaaaany others who make the same one, is what great societal advantage they think is being conferred by “pretending” to be female.

    If you are going to embrace a part of your life that will open you up to the kind of violence and marginalization that women are subject to IN ADDITION to the even more extreme penalties for being a trans person, it’s probably something that really matters, no? Something that feels incredibly, deeply true? If it were just a game of make believe, given the enormous potential penalties, would anyone do it?

  9. August 22, 2009 at 11:47 am

    * Where I wrote “trans person” I meant “trans woman.” My fingers got ahead of my brain. I did not, in any way, mean to imply that trans women are not women, I just leapt ahead to general transphobia instead of the specific transmisogyny at work.

  10. oldlady
    August 22, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    I think it is unfortunate to focus on Greer when the focus should be on the degrading and humiliating process Caster Semenya is being forced to go through. As Greer does point out in her essay, testing that was forced upon athletes years ago produced only embarrassment and an unfair disqualification. The testing being imposed on Semenya today is far more extensive, and–I think–more cruel.

  11. Sahara
    August 22, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    Hi oldlady, there are other posts in the feminist blogosphere – especially black women blogs! that are discussing it. I think both issues – Greer and Semenya can be covered, especially as Greer used the Semenya case to spread her transphobia.

  12. beth
    August 22, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    yay, i’m not the only one who objects to Greers views on this.
    I found out about her outing that physicist a while back, and i agree with queen emily that her actions are worse than anything she says. Also Dr Padman so obviously not in these stereotypes, becoming one of the first women at that department of the uni in a (then) male-dominated field.
    Mainly as a physicist i just identify when any physicist is hurt. Padman spoke about her difficulty of working and concentrating for quite some time after she was outed. And this was someone who was reasonably open with it from the start.
    Out of interest, what does she think of transmen? Something just as horrible?

  13. eastsidekate
    August 22, 2009 at 6:49 pm

    I’m not sure what you mean. I think it’s really unfortunate the Greer seems to use the Semenya debacle as an excuse to rehash her decades old attacks on transsexual women. As the OP and most commenters have noted, she’s making a nasty, bigoted argument that has very real consequences for very real people. In the process, she’s also failing to make a coherent argument about why the “gender testing” Semenya is enduring is demeaning to both her extensive training regimen and to her very identity.

    This catastrophe of an essay is a case study in the lunacy that insues when you try to have things two (or more) ways. As Laura Woodhouse points out in her f-word post, Greer makes a sexist argument while trying to make a point about trans women (as Woodhouse puts it: ‘People who don’t ovulate or menstruate will probably always physically outperform people who do’). I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t have said something so blatantly sexist had the topic been different. Greer also seems ready to defend cis women’s identities while denying trans women theirs. This contradiction corners Greer to the point that she can’t craft a coherent defense of Semenya’s womanhood, which, IMO, is pretty embarrassing.

    In short, Greer’s piece unintentionally highlights the impossibility of respecting some women’s identities but not others. If women aren’t defined on their own terms (“you’re a woman because you think you are one”), then all women’s identities are up for debate. I’m pretty sure that’s somewhere that none of us, Greer included, wants to go.

  14. K
    August 22, 2009 at 7:07 pm

    The real kick of it is that Greer can whine about how she’s not allowed to say these things precisely because it’s so acceptable for her to say them.

    This. And, my! Look where she gets to say them, and earn money for saying them, too. This is not someone scrambling to hook up AdSense to her blogspot page, which might be why I’m unmoved by the just-some-fool-second-waver, ignore-it position advocated above. This hatred is Greer’s meal ticket.

    Also: Wake me when commenters at a liberal dude blog complain that the blogger is always picking on [fauxliberal pundit name here] instead of focusing on the important stuff. Few commenters do this, because it’s recognized that the propagation of bad ideas leads to bad policy leads, eventually if not immediately, to dead people, and that therefore picking on those who help propagate bad ideas can in fact be important stuff.

    What I read when someone says “picking on Greer isn’t important stuff” is “trans misogyny is not important enough to me to combat, but you observing it is important enough for me to criticize.”

    Anyway! Sorry for the digression. Great post, Cara.

  15. Azalea
    August 22, 2009 at 8:48 pm

    There is a STRONG sense of irony in Caster Semenya’s case. You can only get the full gravity of the iron of it all after truly understanding more about the culture and the mindset of where she grew up on transpeople. Here is a quote fro the guardian concerning claims that Caster is a man:

    “I say this is racism, pure and simple. In Africa, as in any other country, parents look at new babies and can see straight away whether to raise them as a boy or a girl. We are now being told that it is not so simple. But the people who question these things have no idea how much shame such a slur can bring on a family…”

    So there s a claim made here that there is no such thing a parents raising a baby born male as a female because well, having male parts means you are undeniably ale and having female parts means that you are undeniably female and nothing you ever say or do will change that. Of course WE know that assessment to be false but this is from Leonard Chuene, the head of South African athletics.

    She dosn’t deserve this treatment regardless but at the very least this will seriously question that sort of mindset and how dangerous it could be.

  16. K
    August 22, 2009 at 9:51 pm

    Of course WE know that assessment to be false but this is from Leonard Chuene, the head of South African athletics.

    –whom you would rather cluck and sigh at (poor savage! Of course WE know better) than the white woman who described trans women as “a ghastly parody.” I don’t know that I see irony in quite the way you seem to see it, but perhaps I am not “truly understanding of the culture.”

    I do understand the frequent phenomenon in which criticism of a white person gets derailed into criticism of a person of color, though. This I blame on unicorns.

  17. August 22, 2009 at 10:01 pm

    queen emily- I was talking about what she said in one of her books, not this article. The author of this post said greer’s stance is incoherant and I thought perhaps that might give some background to what she has to say. iirc it was in the female eunich, but she changed her opinions a lot by the time The Whole Woman was published.

    And for fucks sake, I was not defending or attacking ANYTHING being said. I was providing another piece of information about greer’s stance on THIS specifically.

  18. August 22, 2009 at 10:06 pm

    OH YEAH- also, I remember something that may be relevant to the ‘caricature’ thing she said. from what I recall it seemed like she was way more offended that performing femininity in a socially accepted way is what counts as being a woman by itself. Like she sees people who want to pass for women and she thinks ‘that isn’t what makes me a woman in society’.

    AGAIN, NOT AGREEING/DEFENDING, just adding extra stuff to the discussion.

  19. August 22, 2009 at 11:00 pm

    Sorry Nails. It sounded like a defense, clearly I got the wrong end of the stick.

    She’s actually been fairly consistent across the years, there’s a pretty horrible review from the 80s about a trans women’s book that repeats the same accusations (sorry, dehumanising “critiques”) as in the Whole Woman. She’s repeated the caricature thing, a lot.

  20. Sahara
    August 23, 2009 at 1:17 am

    Hey nails, yeah I didn’t get the impression you were defending Greer :)

    I have a problem with the idea of performing femininity as well – for e.g. some forms of misogynist drag, but I separate this from the lived experience of a person who identifies and/or lives as a gender different from what they were born into.

  21. Sahara
    August 23, 2009 at 1:19 am

    And many ciswomen perform femininity as well… hmmm.

  22. August 23, 2009 at 2:30 am

    Yes, definitely. I’d probably go further – most (all?) women perform some kind of femininity, even if it’s just for the

    Also, I think we probably need to separate “femaleness” from “femininity.” Germaine Greer and some other likeminded writers seem to think that trans women are too gauche or stupid to make that separation, hence this repeated assertion that we’re all parodies of hyper-femininity. Like Cara said, it’s just not true, I see as much as variety in trans women’s gender presentations as in cis.

    And in any case, Greer has a chronic lack of compassion for the risk of violence that may cause some trans women to accentuate their femininity.

  23. August 23, 2009 at 2:34 am

    Uh woops, left that hanging.

    I’d probably go further – most (all?) women perform some kind of femininity, even if it’s just for the compulsory femininity required by many workplaces..

  24. August 23, 2009 at 8:10 am

    queen emily:

    That’s what might be called the Brownmiller Theorem:

    “Women are all female impersonators to some degree.” ~Susan Brownmiller

    Which is pretty much the most direct riposte to feminist transphobia that I can think of.

  25. oldlady
    August 23, 2009 at 10:49 am

    Interesting–because that’s pretty much (“women are all female impersonators to some degree.”) what Greer said long ago in her book The Female Eunuch–she called it “the stereotype.”

  26. August 23, 2009 at 11:40 am

    Oh, Germaine Greer…if you ever get the chance to see her on the BBC panel Newsnight Review, please do so. Half the time I have no freakin’ idea of what the hell she’s on about. Frankly, she comes across as a bit of an elitist nut.

  27. August 23, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    How disappointing. Indefensible.

  28. Azalea
    August 23, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    K, I’m a black woman. Let me make that clear because the insinuation that I have an issue with addressing racist white people is inherently ignorant for several VERY obvious reasons.

    Ghastly parady vs transsexual being a “slur.” Those are some pretty strong convictions.

    Regardless of whether or not Caster is a cisfemale (which I truly think she is) the bigger issue is the poking and prodding to *prove* that femaleness and making it a global headline.

    However, my focus on CASTER SEMENYA, THE BLACK WOMAN WHO IS BEING TREATED LIKE A CHEAT is because there is a HUGE problem with that being overlooked by some known transphobic’s easily predictable comments. Or are you saying there is no surprise whatsoever in the gender testing?

    As I said, she doesn’t deserve this treatment but the irony- yes IRONY- in a woman from South Africa being accused of being a man is that her top defenders at home are JUST AS TRANSPHOBIC. They wouldn’t defend her if she were born male, they’d throw her under the bus and he made that inherently clear- I don’t know about you but I see a MAJOR problem with that. Just because the words used weren’t big or white enough for your liking doesn’t make it any less offensive in my book.

    I think Caster Semenya is a cisfemale but because she’s black and doesn’t appear female enough that it all comes to question. Usain Bolt contnues to break world record after world record and no one DARES questions his masculinity or even whether or not he’s taken some sort of performance enhancement drug and you want t make this all about a white woman?

    I truly do feel for her, because no one should ever have to go through this especially when we know that a male competitor HAS compete with the women before in the Olympics and pretty much everyone knew he was a male. But he was from Germany, Hitler was in power so no one said a word.

  29. August 23, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    I would say Ms. Greer is a ghastly parody of a feminist, but it wouldn’t be polite to say so.

  30. Jane
    August 24, 2009 at 4:58 am

    I’m so angry and upset about the way Caster Semenya’s been treated. I don’t care if she’s intersex, cis or transgender – nothing justifies this inhumane treatment. She’s only 18. Her only crime is being a gifted athlete and not looking like a blow up doll. This whole controversy’s highlighted the fact that if a woman is deemed unf@ckable by men her achievements count for nothing.

    I fear Caster will now think there’s something wrong with her. She seemed to me to be a young woman who was just being herself, quite comfortable in her own skin and proud of her remarkable talent. It’s sad and unfair that she’s now going to be hauled off to doctors to be violated and made to feel like a freak. All women should be outraged about this.

    I remember reading a scare mongering article in the (awful) Daily Mail newspaper years ago about Amelie Mauresmo. It said that some of Mauresmo’s opponents had accused her of being a man. The article said Mauresmo was probably intersex and that she’d likely dominate women’s tennis for years because of the inbuilt advantages she had because of being intersex (Well, she’s had a successful career but she hasn’t dominated, and I don’t even think she is intersex) But the point this article was making was that lots of intersex women were going to come along and take over women’s tennis and how unfair that would be for “normal” women. It’s sad to see this sort of hysteria happening again to Caster.

    I hope Caster is allowed to carry on competing. I want to see her winning more medals and breaking records.

    Germaine Greer is a fool. Don’t take any notice of her. She’s irrelevant these days.

  31. August 26, 2009 at 10:17 pm

    I honestly am unable to fathom the general hate people hold for other people they feel are outside of their own group. I for one love diversity and thrive on change. Good thing to since I am a transsexual woman. I can only hope that Germaine Greer will be able to let go of her hate before she sees the end of her days.
    As for Caster Semenya I wish her all the best and hope she is awarded for her prowess. Congratulations to her.

    September Meadows
    Ellensburg, WA

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