It can feel ironic when someone embodies the thing they are trying to convince us doesn't exist. Like when people hurl sexist insults at those who fight sexism, or racist slurs at people speaking out about racism... Or Germaine Greer declaring to the world that transphobia doesn't exist.
She said to an audience at the Cambridge University Union: "I didn't know there was such a thing [as transphobia]. Arachnaphobia, yes. Transphobia, no." For those who don't know, transphobia is the discrimination against transgender people, whose gender identity does not conform to the sex that they were assigned at birth.
It's ironic, because asserting that transphobia doesn't exist is, well, transphobia. Denying and ignoring the voices and stories of trans people today and throughout history is transphobia. Erasing their struggles and identities with one entitled, dismissive remark is a classic textbook exercise of prejudice and wilful ignorance. Didn't someone once say that privilege is when you don't notice it? Maybe Greer doesn't notice transphobia because she's never taken the time to actively listen to trans peoples' stories and challenge her own privilege as a cisgendered woman (that's someone who's gender identity is in line with their assigned sex at birth).
One might defend her by protesting her ignorance - maybe she just hadn't heard of transphobia before. We're all in a process of educating ourselves and making mistakes along the way. But there's no excuse when you see that she has a pretty gross history of perpetuating exactly that. She unashamedly showed her lack of support for the trans community in 1996 when she opposed the election of Rachael Padman, a transgender woman, to the staff of Newham College which is women-only. She has repeatedly expressed toxic, scornful judgements towards trans people in her book The Whole Woman and her infamous 2009 article for the Guardian, with trans women receiving the brunt of her prejudice. She has vocally tried to delegitimise the existence and identities of the trans community, and the place of trans women in the feminist movement. She of all people should have a pretty good idea of what transphobia looks like, because she's a main offender.
Well, if she's still struggling to understand whether transphobia exists, here are some helpful facts. Transgender people disproportionately face more bullying, harassment, discrimination, homelessness and unemployment than the general population. A 2011 American study by the National Center for Transgender Equality that surveyed 6,450 transgender and gender non-conforming people found alarming results. The level of unemployment among those surveyed was double the rate of the general population, and 47% said that their job prospects had been affected by their transgender or gender non-conforming status, such as being fired or not hired. 19% had experienced homelessness due to being transgender or gender non-conforming, and the rate of HIV was four times the national American average. Over half had experienced some family rejection and a huge amount had been bullied and harassed at school. 41% had attempted suicide. A UK survey backed this up, reporting that 48% of trans people under 26 had attempted suicide. Trans people of colour experienced all of these problems to a higher degree.
Transphobia has been in the headlines a lot recently too, with the merciless dissection of Bruce Jenner by the press, whom they believe may be transgender. Then there were the hateful posters put up in women's bathrooms in Bristol University which imply that transgender women should not use them. (Did you know that 54% of trans people surveyed reported health problems, like urinary tract and kidney infections, from avoiding using public bathrooms?). And of course the tragic suicide of trans teenager Leelah Alcorn in December last year, whose suicide note blamed transphobia from society and her parents, as well as awful "conversion" therapies.
So that's what transphobia looks like, and that's just the headlines and the statistics. We need to look at more than that: we need to listen to trans people's voice and stories, and work with them to create safe environments within which they can express themselves without prejudice. Germaine Greer should take note.
If you would like to learn more about transgender issues, please check out the NHS webpage. Trans Lifeline offers a hotline for transgender people run by transgender people, and The Angels is a forum for 'supporting the transgender community'. More links can be found here.