For a week in August, Peter Tatchell fell afoul of trans Twitter. A man with a long history of campaigning for LGBT rights since the late 1960s.
He agreed to a debate with Professor Kathleen Stock, a leading Gender Critical/Terf, on the alleged conflict between trans rights and women’s rights.
His critics argued that Peter was harming trans people by lending legitimacy to bigoted views which could not be countered by reason and that as a cisgender man, he had no right to speak for trans people. After initially standing firm, Peter eventually gave in to pressure and withdrew.
His critics argued that he was normalising dangerous viewpoints by agreeing to appear in a head-to-head debate with Stock. Indeed, could it be argued prejudice and bigotry cannot be countered by rational argumentation?
The comparison is often made with debating racists, and nazi’s that they can spread their message and recruit by giving them a platform. This comparison doesn’t hold because of some critical differences.
First of all, Nazism and racism are highly stigmatised and enjoy no legitimacy amongst the mainstream media, political parties or the general public and open neo-nazi’s perhaps like Richard Spencer, rarely get sympathetic coverage. Could debate with Spencer be doing him a favour by giving him a platform to reach people he would not otherwise reach?
On the other hand, Gender Critical views are held by a sizeable portion of the media class, from the far-right Spectator to the more liberal Guardian.
GC ideology and talking points are reproduced daily by the media to influence public opinion. Our refusal to engage in this transphobic “debate” is not going to prevent it from happening. Also, unlike Richard Spencer, who (it appears) is opposed to both feminism and the rights of minorities, Stock at least, professes to care for both.
The purpose of debate should be threefold.
Firstly, to get transphobes to address our actual positions, not the strawman positions they would prefer to argue against. Secondly, show how the TERF agenda is fundamentally at odds with their professed claim to be both feminists and to care for the rights of trans individuals. Thirdly to unmask the bigotry and intolerance that is at the core of the ideology.
Nobody should enter a debate expecting to change minds straight away.
Still, it can, over time, lead to the discrediting of leaders like Stock and plant seeds of doubt in her audience that may eventually contribute to that moment where a complex mix of material conditions, personal relationships and experience combine to cause someone to move away from Trans Exclusionary Feminism and towards Trans Liberation.
Debates are important ways of challenging and discrediting the dominant political narrative of the gender-critical movement.
We all know the familiar story often told from articles and op-eds of major national newspapers about how the scary and authoritarian trans lobby uses threats and abuse to silence women for merely saying that 'sex is real.' Another narrative often used is concern about 'women’s safety'.
The trans community faces a choice.
It can opt not to debate them and, in our absence, allow transphobes to reinforce their narrative in the audience's minds, or it can engage and make their political narrative far less credible to reasonable people.
And if it is conceded that we ought to debate our opponents, we should argue that a cisgender man like Peter Tatchell should not speak in our place, but should use his own platform and clout to elevate us trans people on the basis that it is we who are experts in our own oppression.
Are we, therefore, best placed to engage in the debate, unlike cisgender advocates who, even with the best intentions, are going to struggle to understand what it means to be trans? But all this just begs the question just whose voices do cis people want to represent us? Debbie Hayton a gender-critical TERF? Blaire White - a trans medicalist? Or maybe Abigail Thorn - a philosopher? Indeed why not myself? Cis people will cherry-pick the trans person that most resonates with their views on the subject matter.
So why not allow cis people to dispense with using trans people as ventriloquist dummies and make the arguments directly themselves? We can always criticise them whenever they go astray. Sometimes their privilege affords them access to education and opportunities to develop skills that trans people don’t have.
Having a cis perspective can help develop the arguments that seem to resonate most with the reasonable people we hope to persuade who are cisgender. Not being trans has the advantage of not suffering from gender dysphoria, making them far less vulnerable to abusive tactics that transphobes levy against any trans person who pokes their head above the social media parapet.
Cis people outnumber trans people at least a hundred to one (and I think this estimate is ambitious) so allowing cis people to go out to bat for us in debate gives a larger pool of talent to draw from.
Of course, this isn’t to suggest that trans people can’t and shouldn’t debate our opponents.
We can and should.
But we ought to be honest about the difficulties of doing this as a tiny marginalised group and organise to overcome it.
In the meantime, there already is an existing pool of cis talent such as Peter Tatchell, who is more than willing to step up if only we as a community would give them the green light.
Authored by Sophie W @precarious_girl