Yesterday came with some depressing news for trans voters, as the Green candidate for Cambridge, Rupert Read, came out with some, at best, ill-advised statements about the word “cis”, during an argument with a Cambridge resident who was challenging him on the word “moron”. As a philosopher of language, Dr. Read should know better than this, and his attempt at citing the dictionary to prove “moron” is not an ableist term may go down as one of the biggest amateur mistakes of this election campaign. Other people have written about Read’s statements, but I’d also like to go into the implications of this for the Green Party.
The Green Party have received a lot of credibility as of late, especially by positioning themselves as a genuine left-wing alternative to an increasingly rightward-taking Labour. The progressive nature of Green members has led to a not-unfounded impression that the Green Party stands for the rights of women and LGBT+ people. In general, this tends to be correct, but their policy is rather light on the ground and, in practice, there are some rather worrying bumps in that road.
The worrying trend of transphobia in feminism, LGBT activism, and in the Left has been touched upon many times in the past. Trans activists have to be constantly alert to signs of betrayal from people who should be our natural allies, where it’s from a green activist group in America or from charity heads in the UK. The famous words of Ronald Reagan of “trust but verify” ring true here.
Rupert Read, in attempting to clarify his statements, it’s not really his place to dictate precepts of feminism. Which is an understandable point, but Read should have stopped there. Instead, he talks about how trans women and cis women need to “negotiate” the place of trans women in areas such as feminism or toilets. This is an incredibly dangerous proposition, as it’s not really a negotiation if one side has all the power and privilege; it’s basically a form of demanding.
Even worse, this exposes a view of trans women as “really men in dresses”, a transphobic canard that has made it into law. Trans people are at higher risk of suicide, discrimination, and hate crime, primarily because of this canard. And when we are attacked, we can be refused access to sheltered accommodation because of this transphobic canard. All this, done in the name of feminism and equality by a stealth-transphobic Labour Party.
Read could’ve easily stepped back by saying, “sorry, I was wrong” about the words he both used and criticised. It’s understandable for people to see the word “cis” and be confused about it. But there’s no reason other than ignorance or bigotry to claim that “cis” is a slur. As much as Sarah Ditum wants it to be, it’s not. It’s an antonym for “trans”. “Cis” is, ultimately, as much of a slur as “straight” or “white” is.
After being roundly criticised by most of the Cambridge political scene – which has an accord against transphobic campaigning due to the city’s history of trans representation – Read gave a classic non-apology apology. Like all non-apologies, he blamed “misunderstandings” and said that he was sorry for any offence caused. But, importantly, he didn’t say he was wrong. Indeed, he repeated his views, just mere sentences away from claiming he was against all transphobic discrimination.
Nor was this a slip of the tongue for Read. After all, you can’t claim that writing three thousand words about this same issue in response to the infamous Julie Burchill Observer column is a slip of the tongue. And while what he said last night was bad, what he said then was worse. It’s an incredibly dull and pretentious read, but the gist of it is that Read thinks being trans is a choice, and that trans women are just former men. Read sees the identity of trans women a matter of debate, and throws his lot significantly towards the exclusionary side. Even despite claiming that, as a man, it’s not his place to dictate feminism, he does a lot of dictating.
This would be embarrassing for the Greens if Rupert was a backbench councillor, as he was in Norwich for seven years. But Read is a celebrity figure in the Greens. He’s their East of England co-ordinator, twice candidate for the European Parliament, parliamentary candidate in a target seat, and their election spokesperson on transport issues. This is despite many Green members coming forward today and saying that Read is a generally unpalatable person to be around. But more importantly, what a shadow minister says reflects on the party. That’s why Read should’ve stuck to speaking about the party’s (populist and unenvironmental) transport policies.
The Green Party has to ask itself why it let Read get so high in the party in the first place. And at the very least, they need to distance themselves from his statements. That doesn’t appear to be happening, though; on the contrary, the Cambridge Young Greens seem to think that he said nothing wrong, and that saying a cis person is cis violates their safer spaces policy as much as transphobia does.
This is a thorny problem for the Young Greens, and one that needs to be taken carefully. Either the safe space policy does see transphobia and describing someone as cis as equivalent, which shows how unsafe the Young Greens are for trans activists, or that’s just the view of the Cambridge Young Greens, which puts them as a less progressive voice for LGBT Cantabragians than Labour.
I think it would be fair to say that people are disappointed. The Greens should not be squandering their reputation in the defence of a candidate. They should take this opportunity to flesh out their policy and present actionable proposals for the advantage of the trans community. The ball is in their court now and they should be incredibly careful how they serve it.