I just walked out of a talk by Peter Tatchell at the LGBT History Conference in Manchester. He was talking about colonialism, and I was hoping to ask him some uncomfortable questions about his own colonial attitude to working with LGBT groups in the global south (many prominent LGBT African activists refuse to work with him because he is so paternalistic), and about his views that many people consider islamophobic*. Unfortunately I didnt get that far, because he started off his talk with a lengthy discussion of the recent transphobia scandal he has been embroiled in, and how trans people were making him so anxious because they have been tweeting about the open letter. As one of the few openly and visibly trans people in the room, I felt eyes shift to me, and I got up and left.
Peter Tatchell had recently signed an open letter to the Guardian condemning student’s unions no platforming trans- and sex worker- exclusionary feminists such as Julie Bindel. The letter is littered with mistruths of recent “no platforming” scandals, such as suggesting that the comedienne Kate Smurfwaite being cancelled by Goldsmiths uni comedy society has more to do with institutionalised silencing of feminists than the fact they only managed to sell 8 tickets. This and the other claims of the letter are quite successfully debunked by Sarah Brown’s blog on the matter.
For students unions and societies, no platform is literally the equivalent of saying “hey, we arent going to invite you to speak, and we’re not going to speak at the same event as you”. This is not a free speech issue, no-one is stopping Julie Bindel et al. from speaking in general, they literally are just not inviting her to speak at events in their own building. Its like me turning up to a complete strangers houseparty and being offended that I wasnt invited. No-one owes anyone an invitation or a platform.
Most of the people signing that letter are academics or activists who frequently get platforms to speak at conferences and events in universities and students unions, and no doubt found it easy to get their open letter in one of the countries largest newspapers. As people who are familiar with the university world, all of the signatories will know the difference between students unions and the university itself. Yet the letter seems to imply that its the university institutions who are silencing feminist critique, rather than the student body organising to make universities a safer space for students who are trans or engage in sex work. This is a convenient way of implying that trans people have a lot more power than we actually do.
Tatchell had been invited to speak at two sessions across the weekend of the LGBT history conference. Across the whole conference, the T seemed to fall off end of the acronym a fair bit and very few sessions seemed to address trans history. Tatchell decided to use his platform at the conference to talk about how trans people, by tweeting about the letter, were making him anxious. He positioned himself as a defender of free speech, against a hoard of nasty trans people. But the thing is, Peter, free speech works both ways. It applies just as equally to our tweets as it does about your access national newspapers or big conferences.
*I would word this more strongly but unfortunately Peter Tatchell is notoriously litigious. He loves free speech, that guy.
– Jess Bradley