Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Peter Tatchell's account of the NUS disagreement

There is a storm over Peter Tatchell and the NUS LGBT+ officer, Fran Cowling. It is being presented as if Peter refused to speak on a platform with her. In fact, the opposite is true: she refused to share a platform with him, and in subsequent emails, she called him a racist and a transphobe. He asked her to substantiate that claim, and she would not. She has since gone off-line, but Twitter is still reverberating, in a quiet way, with the issue.

Because of the misrepresentations that the "debate" is based on, I paste Peter's account here.

My take is that Peter, being human, is not infallible, but in view of his lifetime of dedication to the cause of human rights, he deserves respect, and he clearly is not racist or transphobic.

Peter Tatchell's account:


*I support feminism and trans rights. I also support free speech and
protests against misogyny, racism and transphobia. I oppose all prejudice
and discrimination. Bad ideas are best and most effectively defeated by
good ideas, rather than by bans and censorship – except when people endorse
violence against others. That is my red line. *

Free speech and enlightenment values are under attack in our universities.
In the worthy name of defending the weak and marginalised, many student
activists are now adopting the unworthy tactic of seeking to close down
open debate. They want to censor people they disagree with. I am their
latest victim.

Student leader Fran Cowling has denounced me as racist and transphobic,
even though I've supported every anti-racist and pro-transgender campaign
during my 49 years of human rights work.

This is not quite the Star Chamber but it is the same intolerant mentality.

Fran is the LGBT+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) Officer of the
National Union of Students (NUS). She refused to speak at a LGBT event at
Canterbury Christ Church University last night unless I was dropped from
the line-up.

This is a variation of the NUS ‘no-platform’ policy; only instead of
blocking me from speaking Fran is refusing to share a platform with me.

She has every right to refuse to speak alongside me but not to make false
McCarthyite-style smears. When asked to provide evidence of my supposed
racism and transphobia, she was not willing to do so. There is none.

Since 26 January, I four times politely emailed Fran and other NUS LGBT+
officials asking them to substantiate the allegations against me. Playing
the victim card, her allies now denounce these mild, courteous emails as

Fran failed to reply. After making outrageous, libellous allegations, she
provided no evidence of my transphobia and racism. Then she blocked me
online; spurning all my attempts to resolve this matter amicably and
privately. It is only then that I went public.

In retaliation, some NUS activists are resorting to a dirty tricks
campaign, trying to portray her as the victim of my ‘abusive behaviour.’
They claim I outed Fran. Not true. She outed herself when she accepted the
public position of NUS LGBT+ Officer. Since then, she has courted the
national media and been quoted as a LGBT spokesperson.

This sorry, sad saga is symptomatic of the decline of free and open debate
on some university campuses. There is a witch-hunting, accusatory
atmosphere. Allegations are made without evidence to back them – or worse,
they are made citing false, trumped-up evidence, as in my case.

Fran claimed in an email to the university that she was speaking for the
NUS and its policies; suggesting that she was acting on behalf the NUS
“membership” who “believe” me to be racist and transphobic. I challenged
the NUS over when and where this decision was taken by the membership and
why I was not allowed to defend myself before the vote. They conceded that
the membership had never decided against me.

In another email to the LGBT event organiser, Fran made the allegation that
she has personally witnessed me using racist language. Untrue. I challenged
Fran to produce evidence for this claim. She has failed to produce it -
because the accusation is baseless.

Fran also said that I signed a letter to The Observer last year supporting
the right of feminists to be “openly transphobic” and to “incite violence”
against trans people. The letter did not say this. Written in support of
free speech, it did not express any anti-trans views or condone anti-trans
violence. For decades, I have opposed feminists such as Germaine Greer who
reject and disparage trans people and their human rights.

Disappointingly, Fran and the entire NUS leadership have turned down media
requests to be interviewed and to debate the issues involved. It looks and
feels cowardly. When challenged, they run, hide and denounce from the ‘safe
space’ of their laptops. This is the antithesis of the free and open
inquiry that is supposed to be the hallmark of university learning and

I don’t see the NUS as the enemy. I support their efforts to defend student
rights and back their opposition to tuition fees and education cuts. I just
disagree with the way some of them choose to deal with other people’s

Anyone who doesn’t toe the line politically, risks being denounced, even
over the tiniest disagreement. The race to be more left and politically
correct than others is resulting in an intimidating, excluding atmosphere
on campuses. Universal human rights and enlightenment values – including
John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty - are often shamefully rubbished as the ideas
of Western imperialist white privilege.

I am all in favour of protesting against real racists and transphobes. Even
then, the most effective way to do this is by exposing and countering their
bigoted ideas rather than by censoring and banning them. I’ve often debated
religious fundamentalists and homophobes. They’ve lost the argument;
leaving them weakened and discredited.

Bad ideas are best and most effectively defeated by good ideas. NUS, please
take note.

* For more information about Peter Tatchell's human rights work, to receive his email bulletins or to make a donation:

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