THE BLOG

Trigger Warnings and Twitter Wars

03/02/2015 11:41 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Clashes over gender politics test the civil rights community.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny." But recent hostilities between radical feminists and transgender activists have pulled some loose threads.

For years, some radical feminists have vociferously opposed transgender people. An example is Janice Raymond, a lesbian ex-nun who wrote in her 1979 book, The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, that trans women, whom she regarded as male predators, were the "avant garde of the patriarchy invading women's spaces." As a liberal feminist and a supporter of trans equality, I very much disagree with Dr. Raymond. Dana Beyer, executive director of Gender Rights Maryland, explains, "[G]ender identity (the sex of one's brain) drives trans persons to transition, regardless of genital anatomy."

For the LGBT advocates with whom I work in Washington, D.C., that ship has sailed. We do not sit around discussing gender theory. We take it as a given that trans people are citizens entitled to equal protection. We work in coalition to ensure that the "T" is included in legislation, data gathering and public services (and D.C. is among the top states in the Human Rights Campaign's State Equality Index). Science is on our side: the American Psychiatric Association declassified transgender identity as a disorder in 2012, as it did homosexuality in 1973.

For some, this is not enough. There is a movement to "no-platform" trans-excluding radical feminists (TERFs), that is to bar them from campuses and deny them a platform for their views. This is part of a broader and distinctly illiberal trend whereby universities are seen not as centers for the robust exchange of ideas, but as frightening places full of triggers and microaggressions. Students are seen as fragile flowers who must be protected from views that might offend them. This is an assault on learning, and those of us who are not professional victims need to fight it.

Enter Peter Tatchell, a British human rights activist who has supported trans equality for decades. As an LGBT rights advocate he has scaled the wall of Lambeth Palace to confront the Archbishop of Canterbury; taken a brick to the head at a gay rights march in Moscow; and received a savage beating for attempting a citizen's arrest of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe. This brave and principled man believes in debating his adversaries rather than silencing them. He wrote on February 17:

"For me, free speech is one of the most precious of all human rights. It is the foundation of a democratic, open society. It should be defended without exception, unless it involves threats, harassment or incitements to violence."

In line with this, Tatchell recently joined a sign-on letter defending the right of the TERFs he disagrees with to present their views. For this he was hit with thousands of vituperative Twitter messages calling him transphobic and even including death threats.

A similar controversy recently engulfed playwright Eve Ensler, whose award-winning play, The Vagina Monologues, was canceled by the student theater board at Mt. Holyoke College with the charge that it was "blatantly transphobic." Ensler found it necessary to write a reply titled, "I Never Defined a Woman as a Person With a Vagina."

Beyer writes, "I believe the current P.C. agenda, by demanding purity from its allies, is showcasing its inherent weakness." She is right. We do not advance the cause of justice by censorship or by claiming to be traumatized by other people's opinions.

Granted, that is easy for me to say as someone who has not been assaulted, harassed for using public restrooms, or driven into survival sex by job discrimination. But firing fusillades in 140-character bursts and blocking those who disagree with you is no legislative strategy.

Tatchell writes, "The most effective way to defeat bigoted ideas is not by proscription but by challenging and exposing them -- and by presenting better, non-bigoted ideas. That's why I've often accepted invitations to debate homophobes, misogynists, transphobes and anti-Muslim zealots. The feedback I've received nearly always suggests that they've come out of such debates damaged and discredited."

But hey, go ahead and zing him (@PeterTatchell) with another nasty tweet. He's had worse.

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Blade and Bay Windows.