Friday, March 16, 2012

Greer gets glittered

The Queer Avengers “glitter bomb” Germaine Greer
Germaine Greer glitter-bombed in Wellington

From the point of view of someone, ie me, who's keenly interested in style and feminism - note: not style or feminism - yesterday was very interesting.
I arrived at the Embassy in good time to buy a ticket for the Germaine Greer, Marilyn Waring and Sandra Coney Writers and Readers Week panel, rather cringingly entitled "Where were you in 1972?". Then I withdrew to Ka Pai on Courtenay Place to enjoy a latte before it began.
I sat at the window and toyed with the Dominion-Post. A group of six or seven people had convened at the pavement table just outside. I noted only one obvious man; the rest appeared to be women. "Obvious", "appeared to be" - why so circumspect? You'll see why. Just let me say now that none of them looked in any way out of the ordinary.
They were planning something. Quite what, I couldn't tell - partly because of traffic noise, but partly because they all knew what it was and didn't waste time explaining it to eavesdroppers.
There was talk of having texts ready to send, questions ready to ask and media back-ups sorted. Pretty soon I decided their target must be the panel I'd be attending. This was confirmed when they dispersed with obvious sense of purpose in the direction of the Embassy.
One young woman lingered, and I asked her what they were up to. She looked a bit surprised - probably by my blatant acknowledgement of eavesdropping.
Turned out she wasn't taking part in the protest herself because she was exhausted, and needed to go home. But yes, the others would be creating a stir at the panel session, and I would have to wait to discover what it would be.
We talked for a while, and I enjoyed the exchange, in spite of her kindly meant but rather frequent repetitions of the view that "it was a different world now" to the one "the older generation of feminists knew."
She said that in the 90s Greer outed a transsexual who applied for a job at the all-female Newnham College, Cambridge. I felt uncomfortably out of touch, but asked what she thought the philosophical basis of Greer's actions was.
My nice informant was understandably more interested in telling me what she and her fellow protesters - the Queer Avengers - felt about this kind of "transphobia", so I gained no insight into Greer's position, which did sound disturbing. The young woman worked with gay youth, she said, and saw first-hand the dreadful damage done by low self-esteem and social ostracism. She was sincere and likable.
She was also rather nicely turned out, street-wear style. But it was probably a little mischievous of me when, as our conversation was coming to an end, I said I'd quite like to take her photo for my blog. She looked as surprised and as marginally disapproving as I'd expected. But it was no good her pretending - as I once did myself - that she'd paid no attention to self-presentation. Her hair was shiny black and cut cleverly short. Her eyelids were rimmed exotically in black. And she wore a black sleeveless tee shirt (better not referred to it as a wife-beater).
The session itself was entertaining, but that's another story. One of the cafe-table conspirators was first on her feet at question time, and, reading from a prompt sheet, asked why Greer was so transphobic as to out another academic.
Wrong question.
Greer's response came hot and fast - words to the effect that the questioner shouldn't believe everything she reads in the paper, and that the academic in question had gone on to take up the position at Newnham. 
And that was the end of that. I heartily wish now, having done some reading, that Greer had been asked to air her views on this topic, rather than directly accused of a specific - deniable - action. This would have opened up the debate, and allowed the huge audience - almost certainly as uninformed on this issue as I was - to weigh it up for themselves. 
I was seated within a few rows of the highest seating, and (god help us in a fire or an earthquake) it took a good ten minutes to get out into the foyer. By that time the protest action was over.
Greer was seated at a table signing books, and her immediate surroundings were a riot of glitter. It looked too festive to have been thrown in protest. But I did like the stylishness of the gesture.
Greer has been outspokenly negative about transgender people and cross-dressers. As here, for instance, in a widely quoted 2009 Guardian opinion piece:

"[A]cademic 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."

Elsewhere, she has argued - rather more convincingly - that what lies behind so-called sex-change surgery is the belief that all a man has to do to become a woman is to get his genitals cut off and start wearing high-heels and lipstick. In other words, a woman is a second-rate, damaged man.
It's an interesting point. But an intellectual one only. Brutal to elevate it to some kind of principle by which to judge others' behaviour.
If I were a man, I'd wish I could get myself up as a girl, too, without causing World War III. Choosing each morning how to present myself to the world is one of my pleasures, and it's one that strait-jacket definitions of manliness prevent most men from enjoying. If I were to leave the house dressed as a man, I doubt anyone would turn a hair, and I've written elsewhere about my enduring admiration of the the pantomime principal boy. But to have been born a man and feel yourself to be a woman, rather than just wanting to present yourself as one, is something else altogether, and I'm completely unqualified to discuss it.
If those who do feel this way should have the means and determination to follow the dictates of their instincts, why on earth should I or anyone else want to stop, or even discourage them?
My informant and her Queer Avengers colleagues claim that transphobia is a manifestation of "20th century feminism". I guess, being young, they would say that. But I'd like to state for the record that it was no part of my feminism, then or now, to dictate that anatomy is destiny. Quite the contrary. It has always been my earnest desire to break down those watertight categories of male and female into something more fluid, more forgiving. And much more enjoyable.
The Female Eunuch meant a great deal to me when I first read it back in the early 70s, and I wanted to mark the occasion of being in the same room as its author. So I waited patiently in the queue by the signing table as those ahead engaged Greer in admiring conversation. When it was finally my turn, I said I wanted to thank her, rather belatedly, for the book that changed my life.
She looked slightly bemused but nevertheless took my proffered hand. It was then that I experienced one of those pangs of misgiving familar from my early feminist life: "Will she think I'm not a real feminist because I wear lipstick and have blonded hair?"
Old habits of thinking die hard. But die they must.

A man who knows much more about
applying make-up well than I do

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