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Controversy in the Classroom

Monday, 26 May, 2014

Trigger warning: Discussions of transmisogyny and transphobia

Late last year the University of Melbourne announced that it would become the global repository for the lifetime archives of notable alumna Germaine Greer. Greer’s 1999 book The Whole Women (a sequel to her 1979 The Female Eunuch) includes a chapter titled with the slur “Pantomime Dames”, in which Greer argues that trans women are an insult to femininity. “The insistence that man-made women be accepted as women is the institutional expression of the mistaken conviction that women are defective males.” Because she believes that transitioning from a man to a woman consists of superficial cosmetic surgery (the removal of the penis and the construction of a vagina) without the replication of female reproductive organs, Greer concludes that the resulting trans woman is simply a castrated man.

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Greer belongs to the school of second-wave feminism, which arose in the early 1960s as a movement seeking to destabilise the patriarchal oppression of women. Drawing inspiration from seminal texts such as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, second-wave feminism challenged legal inequality, the subjugation of feminine sexuality, and restrictions to reproductive rights. Following the decline of second-wave in the late 1970s, however, its once radical figures have become institutionalised, and are growing increasingly irrelevant. In the trans community, moreover—and to those who see being trans as a legitimate and necessary category of identity—Greer and some of her ilk are regarded as trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERF, for short).

While her views do differ substantially from Greer’s, the teachings of University of Melbourne gender studies scholar Sheila Jeffreys are often regarded as an embodiment of the second-wave’s more extreme elements. Over the course of a 35-year career, Jeffreys has relentlessly assaulted patriarchal domination in all aspects of society, particularly in sexual and bodily practises. Her books, arguments, and teachings have attracted both admiration and virulent criticism, and not always in equal measure.

On April 18, Jeffreys published Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism. The book is fierce and indignant, emblematic of her vitriolic brand of second-wave feminism. Gender Hurts is a culmination of two decades’ campaigning against the inclusion of the trans community in the feminist movement. Jeffreys’ premise is that all gender—including that of trans people—is conditioned. If gender were abolished, she argues, there would be no discrepancy between one’s internal self and the sex they were assigned at birth, and “no rationale” for transgenderism. Instead of altering their bodies to conform to a preconceived idea of gender, Jeffreys suggests, trans people should question the stereotypes that shape their definition of “male” and “female”. In short, Jeffreys sees being trans as a symptom of “a conservative ideology that forms the foundation for women’s subordination”, through the reinscription of traditional gender roles.

However, Jeffreys has come under fire for failing to acknowledge or adequately deal with trans people who sit outside the traditional gender binary. On 4 April this year, an article appeared in VICE magazine addressing the New South Wales High Court’s decision to grant Norrie, a trans person assigned male at birth, legal recognition as “gender non-specific”. When interviewed for the article, Sheila rejected claims that the move was progressive, suggesting it merely put “real” (i.e. biologically female) women at risk: “It creates an extra layer of confusion around important issues such as whether male-bodied persons such as [Norrie] should be entitled to access spaces in which women and girls are vulnerable and require dignity and privacy, such as toilets, shelters, prisons.”

Many of the ideas Jeffreys’ expressed in both the VICE article and Gender Hurts had their original airing in her second-year Sexual Politics subject, for which she is co-ordinator and principle lecturer. According to the handbook, “Students who complete this subject should be able to understand the ways in which issues connected with the body and sexuality are socially and politically constructed … and apply a variety of feminist approaches to analysis of these issues”. But the lectures are far less palatable than advertised.

Adam, a gay, male second-year arts student took Sexual Politics in the interest of becoming, in his words, “a better feminist ally”. In the first week of the course, he was shocked by what he perceived as Jeffreys’ marked insensitivity towards trans women. “She refuses to refer to transsexuals as women—it’ll be a male to ‘constructed female’. Or even in the reading, she’ll just refer to them as men.” Adam found Jeffreys intolerant of any opposing viewpoint. This includes dismissing other academics. “She puts on a derogatory voice when she’s reading the works of people she disagrees with”—and on belittling her students—“she raises her eyebrows and makes fun of the person who’s spoken up [against her].” Although Adam did not feel personally threatened, he says he felt for any transgender people in the lecture theatre. “I would have felt like I was being called a sexual pervert in a position where you really don’t have that much of an ability to defend yourself.”

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Transgender master’s student and the Graduate Students’ Association Queer Officer Lex attended one of Jeffrey’s Sexual Politics lectures in the second year of his undergraduate Arts degree, before he decided to transition. The lecture was centred on gay male misogyny, but he confirms feeling alienated by Jeffreys’ comments about trans men. “She said, ‘they are an epidemic in the lesbian community,’ and ‘they just want the privilege of patriarchy’.” Despite strongly identifying with the queer community, Lex’s confidence and self-esteem was rocked by Jeffreys’ views on being trans. Lex is concerned that Jeffreys’ attitude to trans people might encourage a non-inclusive university environment.

When asked for comment on Jeffreys, Student Union Queer Department Officer Cin Templeton expressed concerns about campus safety, especially for trans people and women. They said the Queer Department had received several reports of Jeffreys “shaming those who engage in ‘patriarchal’ sexual practices, those who work in the sex industry, and feminine-presenting people in general,” in addition to “Jeffreys’ feminism silencing the voices of women of colour, and her support of the NT intervention”. The Queer Department are emphatic in their condemnation of Jeffreys’ teachings. “Obviously her work is transphobic and transmisogynist in the extreme. It’s troubling to think that the university still employs and endorses someone who has sought to make a career out of demonising trans people as predators or deriding them as victims.”

While many students find her views repugnant, Jeffreys’ colleagues are hesitant to condemn her methods outright. Dr Fran Martin, coordinator for the Thinking Sex subject at the School for Culture and Communication, admires Jeffreys’ commitment to challenging her students. “The point of what we do is to shake up what [students] think at the beginning of the subject from what they think at the end, so that’s necessarily going to be uncomfortable.” However, Martin underlines the importance of ensuring all views are respected in the classroom, stating that “you don’t want to get into nasty arguments between two students where people’s feelings get hurt and it gets into a disrespectful mode of interaction”.

Dion Kagan, sessional lecturer on gender studies, likewise warns against a blind commitment to a mollycoddled student populace. He fears “a situation in which certain radical and challenging ideas stop being taught entirely because educators are stifled by the need to pander to student sensitivities”. Kagan argues that “there is a long history in women’s studies and gender studies of people feeling challenged, alienated, and offended by radical feminist critique, however sensitively or aggressively it is delivered”. But similarly to Martin, Kagan is at the same time committed to nurturing “pedagogical spaces that are productive, rigorous, sensitive, and respectful of students and the range of experiences and needs they bring [to the classroom]”.

The very existence of trans people brings into question the neat alignment of sex and gender that Jeffreys resists so fiercely. Trans people exist in a legal and physical limbo. Everyday tasks such as using a public toilet, filling out a tax return, training with a single-sex sports team and entering a licensed venue put them at risk of discomfort, discrimination, and violence, both physically and ideologically. Indeed, Jeffreys’ ideas of “transgenderism” as a social construct and political ideology warrants further thought, but when these ideas become indistinguishable from transphobic and transmisogynist vitriol, things become problematic to say the least.

Of course, the university’s encouragement of lecturers with unique points of view is not a bad thing in and of itself. Indeed, students in Jeffrey’s classes are provided with opportunities to debate the content of her lectures in tutorials and essays. Without unique lecturers, there would be nothing to distinguish our teaching staff from the readers they might assign. But it does not seem precious to suggest that idiosyncracies cannot come at the cost of bigoted marginalisation of certain groups.

Until we are delivered from this world into Jeffreys’ “ungendered” utopia, it must be acknowledged that this more than just a case study—it is a reality for some students. Trans people who are trying to achieve an education should not be pilloried for being, as Jeffreys would have it, complicit in female subjugation. It goes without saying that variation and contestation are at the heart of academic practice, but these values cannot precede the dignity and respect owed to people of all identities.