There’s a bit of controversy brewing in the UK press, as a result of a letter from academics and activists (including noted LGB activist Peter Tatchell, as well as some recognized trans-exclusionary reactionaries) published in The Observer (“We cannot allow censorship and silencing of individuals“). In it they call for universities to stand against what they felt was intimidation, specifically pertaining to discussions on trans* issues and sex work.
As a freelance writer and journalist, I could normally understand the concern of what they term no-platforming (alienating speakers like Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel because of past controversial remarks). And I can’t speak to the history of the controversy in the UK (of which this letter is just a part) as well as someone who has lived through it. But as a woman of trans* history and a former sex worker, however, I see that there is also some important context which is being forgotten.
In principle, of course, free speech is ideally responded to with free speech. Yet, when it comes to debates on issues pertaining to them, sex workers are typically either not given a platform at all, or else their perspectives are dismissed by default. Sex workers’ perspectives are systematically eliminated from the debate either by claiming that people who choose to engage in commercial sex are the exception and statistically unimportant; or by acting like they’re too silly to realize that they’re victims; or by claiming that a woman is somehow incapable of making a decision to consent to sex the moment money is involved.
Meanwhile, trans* people are starting to find public venues in which to speak, but this is still tentative, a novelty, and not always available. Trans* people have for decades been ignored or told to shut up and just deal with it, and after decades of being excluded from the discussion about them, all while facing a constant barrage of ignorance and invalidation, barbs eventually get through and wound. This is why trans* people react, and often with a lot of anger.
It’s also important to take into account the context of the debates in question. Debates on trans* issues (or at least those being protested) are often ones about whether trans* people should be accommodated within society — whether in womens’ spaces, in the health care system, in institutions like prisons (in which trans* women are often incarcerated with men or serve out entire sentences in solitary confinement), or in public spaces in general. Other arguments are be about whether or not trans* people are mentally capable of determining who or what they are, and whether that self-determination should be respected, rather than treating them as deluded dupes who should simply be disregarded (or grateful for no longer being institutionalized and/or lobotomized). And when it comes to sex workers, the debate is about whether they should be allowed to exist at all. These are not merely polite academic discussions. They directly pertain to trans* people and sex workers, and potentially affect their lives. There is much at stake.
Opinion columnists and speakers today do not usually make generalizations about or flippantly taunt most marginalized people. This isn’t because they fear the dreaded banhammer, but because we as a society have learned enough about many minorities to realize the need to show a little decency, empathy and respect. And if that line is crossed, the public usually understands the outcry.
Freedom of speech is not simply a question of saying anything that one might wish to say, but instead comes with a responsibility to face consequences when others call out attitudes that need to change. This calling out is precisely what is taking place when trans* people and sex workers protest the failures to extend the same balance, empathy and respect to them. While censorship may not be the ideal outcome (and violence or threats are unacceptable), outrage is often the only response that gets heard. And perhaps debating a minority’s rights without that minority having a significant voice in the process is becoming something that is no longer reasonable.
The authors of Sunday’s letter have failed to realize that crass invalidation, ridicule and indifference already stifles conversation, thus maintaining a status quo in which trans* people and sex workers remain the stuff of lurid sensationalism, cheap stand-up comedy, and demonization. Defending it all by crying freedom of speech abdicates any responsibility to be conscientious about the harm one does to entire minorities. It is also blissfully ignorant about the imbalance that exists between the reach of these speakers, versus the dearth of trans* and sex worker voices in mainstream discourse to act as a counterbalance.
And that risks becoming a case of “a little free speech for me, and a little shut-up-and-take-it-like-a-man for you.”
(Crossposted to The Bilerico Project)