Many members and allies of Winnipeg’s transgender community protested Germaine Greer’s sold-out appearance at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights Wednesday.
The Australian feminist, who wrote the landmark 1970 book The Female Eunuch and is regarded as one of the movement’s major voices, has been criticized for her views on transgender women — that they are not, in fact, women at all.
In a 2009 Guardian piece about Caster Semenya, the South African runner forced to undergo gender testing after her win at the 2009 world championships, Greer wrote: "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... Other delusions may be challenged, but not a man’s delusion that he is female."
That’s just one example Athena Thiessen, a Winnipeg transgender woman, pointed to in her May 3 op-ed for the Free Press protesting Greer’s appearance at the CMHR. "When you’re trans, you’re supposed to be grateful for crumbs," she wrote. "You’re expected to take it quietly when you’re harassed, be understanding when your family stops returning calls, keep your chin up when you find yourself unemployed, and not speak up when lauded thinkers say cruel and vicious things about you and your community. Or when others who purport to be on your side, like the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, offer them a podium and thousands of dollars to speak."
Greer delivered a speech entitled Women and the Struggle for Human Rights as part of Fragile Freedoms: the Global Struggle for Human Rights, a lecture series organized by the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics and broadcast on CBC Radio’s Ideas program. The CMHR has been the host venue for the series, which has also featured such noted thinkers as Steven Pinker and C.A. Grayling.
"The museum’s role is to inspire human-rights conversations. This is why we agreed to become the venue for the Fragile Freedoms lecture series," said Maureen Fitzhenry, the museum’s media-relations manager.
"Our participation as a venue should not be viewed as tacit endorsement of any speaker’s opinion. Rather, our goal is to be a place where many different viewpoints can be exchanged in an atmosphere of respectful dialogue. That is our hope for (Wednesday’s) lecture."
In a May 7 letter to the editor responding to Thiessen’s article, Arthur Schafer, the director of the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics, suggested audience members use the question-and-answer portion of the evening to "challenge arguments they see as mistaken."
Thiessen said she is disappointed by those responses.
"They said you can bring it up at the Q&A, which is disingenuous because, by then, (the event) was sold out. And the excuse that the museum is ‘just a venue’ is not a legitimate excuse," she said. "This is a museum for human rights."
Organizers planned the event to include different perspectives of the debate, including university academics with expertise in LGBT and gender issues.
Thiessen said it’s vital transgender people be included in such consultations. "So often, trans people are not included in the conversation."
She had hopes for Wednesday’s protest. "My ultimate wish is that Germaine Greer would apologize and say, ‘You’re right — trans women are women,’ " Thiessen said. "My realistic wish is that the museum and centre would say, ‘You’re right — this was a major oversight on our part and we apologize.’ "
Thiessen said she’s encouraged by the support she’s received from Winnipeggers from all walks of life. "As a trans woman, that’s not something I’m used to," she said.
"It speaks to the point that you don’t need to be trans to realize this isn’t OK."
Fitzhenry said the CMHR welcomes protesters.
"We welcome multiple perspectives and peaceful demonstrations that can promote human-rights education," she said.