Photo: Helen Reddy on Twitter
On Being ‘Cancelled’
It’s been recently reported that Richard Dawkins has been stripped of his ‘Humanist of the Year’ award from the American Humanist Association for comments he made online about the current trend of ‘identity politics’. The AHA had honoured Dawkins for his work in 1996 for books such as ‘The God Delusion’ and ‘The Selfish Gene’ which helped to introduce scientific concepts to the general public. In April 2021 the AHA announced it was withdrawing the award in protest at his tweet, which read, “Some men choose to identify as women, and some women choose to identify as men. You will be vilified if you deny that they literally are what they identify as. Discuss.” He had compared this to the case of Rachel Dolezal, a former president of the NAACP, who lived as a black woman for many years before being outed as actually being the white daughter of white parents. In response to the subsequent outcry, he stated “I do not intend to disparage trans people. I see that my academic ‘Discuss’ question has been misconstrued as such and I deplore this. It was also not my intent to ally in any way with Republican bigots in the US now exploiting this issue.”
(The Guardian, 21-4-21)
To my mind, there was nothing ‘hateful’ in what Dawkins has said. And I’m not the only person who thinks this. Even my friend, Tim, remarked: ‘I have always found Professor Dawkins to be measured, analytical and ethical in all he does. As a parent of a trans child I didn’t perceive his comments to be anti trans. It made me think, which is his gift’. But this doesn’t wash with the ‘Cancel Brigade’.
I’m a product of the 1960s and 70s, and I’ve had some really unpleasant interactions with younger feminist women over the last year that have left me despairing. I recently left an Australian Women Writers’ group when they started debating removing the word ‘women’ from the group’s name, claiming it was ‘trans exclusionary’. Questioning this dogma saw me threatened with expulsion, and so I reluctantly left this pretty essential networking group voluntarily. Their desire to create a ‘safe space’ for trans women is commendable, but for some reason this noble intent had devolved into vilification of anyone who questioned their ‘language policing’. Sneering hatred towards ‘second wave feminists’, and accusing ‘women’ of being right wing fascists and trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) for asserting their biology as their identity is rife in these circles. For me, a lifelong feminist, and very far to the left politically, who has always advocated and fought for the rights of minorities, including trans people, this depiction of me and those who think like me is laughably untrue.
What’s odd is that these language police seem to be mostly heterosexual women with kids who work in the literary and academic worlds, who seem to think they are defending trans people by spouting this bullshit. To them, it is wrong to refer to ‘menstruating women’ because ‘not all women menstruate’. The word ‘women’ is ‘trans exclusionary’ and should be replaced with ‘person with a uterus’. Men dressed in traditionally female attire who still possess penises should be admitted to ALL women-only spaces (including prisons and domestic violence shelters) without question. It’s become near impossible to converse with most of these ideologues, so hung up are they on semantics, catching people out for using the ‘wrong’ terms or for ‘misgendering’ people whose identities may not be readily observable.
I’ve also had these people tell me they refuse to discuss these issues because to do so is ‘emotional labour’ and that I should do a course on it or otherwise ‘educate myself’. To which I’ve replied, ‘Well, I’m a disabled person, but I don’t expect YOU to be all across disability politics and all the current discourses before I’ll talk to YOU’. It is a fact that sometimes we HAVE to do this ‘labour’ in order to change hearts and minds, and I know I’ve been doing it with feminism and with disability my whole life. It shouldn’t be seen as ‘offensive’ to ask sincere questions, and people are always free to refuse to engage if they’d rather not have these conversations. But to insist that asking the questions is ‘hateful’ and is ‘doing harm’ is utter bullshit.
These recent ideologues mean well, but they forget that they themselves are benefiting from battles my generation fought, and instead of being grateful for this, they come across as disrespectful and ageist. Younger feminists don’t seem to understand that in the 1960s world I was born into, women couldn’t even get a cheque book or bank account of their own, much less a mortgage. In most fields, getting married and/or pregnant meant forfeiting your career. Husbands were free to rape their wives with impunity, domestic violence was considered a ‘private matter’, and unmarried women’s babies were routinely taken from them and put up for adoption. As for women of colour, they weren’t even considered to be ‘people’ by a system that afforded them no freedom of movement, no right to their own wages, and refused to include them in the Census. First Nations people didn’t even get the vote until 1967. In schools we were taught that Aboriginal people were ‘savages’ from a ‘Stone Age’ culture, and that the arrival of white people did them a favour.
Third wave (and later) feminists need to realise that not everyone is a 1990s era ‘gender studies’ graduate and not all of us are comfortable with the current craze for ‘identity-first’ rhetoric if it denies US our lived experience of our own biology. That doesn’t make us bigoted OR hateful. It might surprise them to read that it IS actually possible to respect trans and intersex peoples’ identities without nullifying our own.
Being howled down and ‘cancelled’ (and in my case actually threatened and stalked and forced out of my own field) for even trying to discuss these issues is not a good look for contemporary feminism. The notion that language changes over time seems to have escaped the notice of these people and they are contemptuous of those of us who are taking a little longer to catch up with the more recent changes. Some of the abuse I’ve copped makes me feel that these people have forgotten that our common enemy is PATRIARCHY, and that as feminists and progressives we all have much more in common than not. Older feminists paved the way for those coming after and deserve a basic modicum of respect, and the assumption that our attempts to engage with our granddaughters’ ideologies are well meaning. It should not be automatically assumed that we are bigoted.
I was speaking recently with a psychotherapist about some young clients who were totally hung up on their sexual identities. She discovered these kids had never even HAD sex, so didn’t actually KNOW what they enjoy sexually. Yet they were very busy loudly proclaiming a sexual identity based on what they ‘think’ they might be. It seems it’s become an obsession to label oneself before there’s even been any lived experience of actually having sex with another person.
If the radical Trans Rights Activist (TRA) lobby want to deplatform anyone who doesn’t buy into their dogma hook, line and sinker, there are going to be a LOT of cancelled writers, artists, and academics. Labelling people hateful and assuming they are right wing fascists for any hint of questioning their insistence that simply saying you are something makes you that something seems like an Orwellian nightmare. I for one am heartily sick of it. It’s got to stop. I want ALL people to be accepted for who they are. But these people seek to shut down all discussion, and the worst of them seem pretty damned hell bent on cancelling ‘women’ in general. We older feminists DO actually care about others, and we ARE trying to get our minds around the pronoun thing, so it would be nice to be afforded the benefit of the doubt instead of being lumped in with right wing fascists.
Put it this way: If a man in a dress wants to identify as a woman, I’m fine with that and will respect them and use whatever pronouns they want. But some TRAs have gone as far as telling me that I’m not allowed to call MYSELF a ‘woman’ because it’s ‘transphobic’. I’m sorry, but I am not a ‘person with a uterus’ or a ‘person who menstruates’. I’m a WOMAN. This is MY ‘self identification’. Surely if we want to allow LGBTIQ people to ‘self identify’, then straight women should also be afforded this right? I really do fear that this semantic idiocy will wind back much of the gains the women’s movement has fought so hard for, and for so long.
And yes, I have read J K Rowling’s essay too – unlike so many who’ve jumped on the ‘J K Rowling is a TERF’ bandwagon – and indulged in actual book burning, of all things! The vilification Rowling has endured is utterly ridiculous, and all over one sentence in a crime novel in which a murderer adopts a ‘female disguise’ (with no claim that the character is trans), and a couple of innocuous statements of the bleeding (sorry!) obvious, that women’s biology cannot be denied and is a fact. For some reason the activists in this area don’t seem to understand that it IS possible to afford rights to minorities, such as trans and intersex people, without cancelling out the majority. Even trans people have said so. (Google, for example, Debbie Hayton’s RT article, ‘I’ve read J K Rowling’s ‘transphobic’ new crime novel. I’m transgender & sensitive to such abuse – but there is NONE in this book’.) Could it possibly be that Rowling’s REAL crime is simply being successful and rich? Could it be that the ‘performatively woke brigade’ actually think such people deserve rape and death threats?
For the record, I’ve known plenty of trans people over the years. As a young woman I used to frequent the gay bar at the Prince of Wales Hotel in St Kilda, where many, many gay people, trans people, and local sex workers hung out. It was somewhere I could drink and socialise with my friends without being sexually harassed, and was a welcoming and friendly place. I met some fine, funny, non conforming people there whom I was proud to know. In more recent years, I have friends who have transitioned, friends with non binary children who are thinking of transitioning and are delaying puberty while they decide, and any number of variants of LGBTIQ friends. I’m also not a right winger, do not think any of these people pose a threat to others or to the social fabric (in fact they’ve always existed), and fully support their push for basic rights to be who they are, present how they choose, and get access to the health care we are all entitled to.
I’ve recently read the highly praised novel, ‘A lonely girl is a dangerous thing’ by Jessica Tu. For some reason, nowhere in the multitude of glowing reviews was mention made of the frequent and close-to-pornographic depictions of rough sex in this narrative. It surprised me. I noticed the same thing with Emily Macguire’s first couple of books. It appears to me that these young women seem to write about their own sexual degradation as though it’s some sort of badge of honour, and there seems to be a strong element of self hatred mixed up in it all. (Oddly enough, Ocean Vuong’s gay novel/memoir, ‘On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous’ was equally sexually explicit but the emotional connections between the characters made it feel truthful and representative of the gay experience. Vuong’s novel is about love as much as it is about identity. Not so with these young women writing about violent casual sex that they don’t appear to enjoy, and with men they don’t appear to even like. Have I missed something? Is reading about young, insecure women being anally raped by much older men suddenly ‘cool’? Whatever happened to the ‘joy of sex’?)
To me, who as a young woman wore the dubious honour of being labelled ‘Melbourne’s most hated feminist poet’ through the 1980s, (and boy, did I cop some hardcore abuse, for daring to express my horror at being continually sexually harassed), it’s decidedly odd to now be deplatformed, labelled as ‘hateful’, and told I can’t call myself a ‘woman’, simply because I refuse to deny my own biology and lived experience of existing in a female body. Oddly enough, this dogma seems to be mostly coming from people I perceive to be privileged white private schoolgirls with kids who enjoy policing the sisterhood and seem hell bent on cancelling second wave feminists and lesbians. Why do they hate us, while at the same time enjoying the rights we fought for on their behalf before they were even born? Can’t they love and show kindness to minorities without demonising the majority? Are we all in this together, or not? And why the hell aren’t they going back and reading Friedan, Brownmiller, Greer, Piercy, ‘Sisterhood is Powerful’, and all those other books that people like me cut our teeth on?
The recent documentary, ‘Brazen Hussies’ (now on ABCiview) should serve as a very good reminder of the hard work second wave feminists did in the 1960s and 70s, and I wish more young feminists would watch it. I’ve been struggling to understand how the current ‘wokeness’ can be so concerned with the ‘feelings’ of a tiny percentage of people (some of whom actually appear to hate us while simultaneously wanting to BE us) that they are prepared to throw straight women under the bus. I personally believe ALL women (cis, trans, lesbian, whatever) need to stick together if we are to bring down patriarchy and achieve equality, and I feel uncomfortable with what I perceive as non-trans people using trans people as a cipher for their contempt for their ‘boomer’ elders. It’s possible for a straight ‘female’ born woman to have pride in their own biology/physical body and still be accepting of other people’s difference. Isn’t it? Do we have to choose between defining everyone according to ‘biology’ or ‘identity’? Isn’t this also a ‘binary’? Why can’t we allow both to coexist in whatever way works for individuals? And why should this be seen as a radical and fascist position?