The University of Melbourne has been criticised for promoting a lecturer’s “hateful” book.
Sheila Jeffreys, a sexual politics lecturer at the University of Melbourne, is the author of Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism.
In the book Jeffreys argues against society’s acceptance of transgenderism, saying it is a “hugely harmful phenomenon” that is “invariably born of severe psychological distress”.
Professor Jeffreys says the book “highlights the distress caused to the partners and families of transgender people, and the agonizing regret sometimes felt by people who switch gender”.
Executive director of Transgender Victoria Sally Goldner says these views are incorrect and possibly dangerous.
“It’s certainly not accurate, it’s spreading prejudiced information,” she told Catalyst. “Sheila’s views simply do not represent the realities of transgender existence, and a vulnerable person questioning their gender identity that hears that could be severely damaged.”
But Jeffreys says the book is not a direct attack on transgender individuals.
“The book is a political, historical and sociological critique of the practice of transgenderism,” she said via email. “It says nothing negative about persons who transgender, although it is critical of the published ideas of some of those who transgender.
“I argue that transgenderism is a harmful practice and that has nothing whatsoever to do with hating those who transgender. In the book I show considerable sympathy with the harms that those who transgender experience, particularly those who change their minds and detransition.”
The University of Melbourne’s newsroom promoted Jeffreys’ book in a press release, and Goldner says she is concerned the university is associating itself with these views.
“In human terms, it is disconcerting that they would promote a book that probably does not have an opinion backed by facts, logic and evidence,” she said. “Possibly there is an argument about academic freedom, but let’s put a hypothetical. Let’s say someone at the university published a book saying people with a certain skin colour were less intelligent, would that be allowed to be published or promoted? Probably not.”
But this sort of comparison is a “character assassination”, according to Jeffreys.
“There is absolutely no comparison whatsoever with being racist,” she said. “It would be useful if some of my critics read my work and then took issue with particular ideas.”
She says there should be no problem with the University of Melbourne being associated with the book.
“Of course I think it is reasonable for the university to promote my book,” she said. “It is extremely scholarly, like all my nine books in my long career.”
However Goldner says university students need to voice their concerns about the book.
“The only positive that may come out of it is it may prompt some trans students to take a stand against that sort of stuff,” she said.
Gender Hurts, published by Routledge Press, was released on 15 April. In it, Professor Jeffreys claims radical feminism sees transgenderism as damaging to women’s equality.
“When transgender rights are inscribed into law and adopted by institutions, they promote ideas harmful to women’s equality,” she says in the University of Melbourne press release.
Transgender historian and editor of The TransAdvocate Cristan Williams says although Professor Jeffreys is referred to as a “respected feminist theorist” in the press release, her views are not widely held.
“She is referring to it as a feminist critic, when in fact the vast majority of the feminist community reject her views,” she said. “Sheila Jeffreys is very good at equivocation and cherry picking, using personal stories to make sweeping generalisations about an entire population of human beings.”
Williams says she acknowledges Professor Jeffreys and the University of Melbourne’s freedom of speech, but the ensuring criticism must not be silenced.
“If the university wants to support that type of hate, that type of strong rejection of trans people, then trans people must have the right to strongly push back against that,” she said. “I certainly support freedom of speech, and I support her right to put her views out in the marketplace of ideas, because I think that it needs to be exposed and critiqued. What I would have a problem with is silencing the critique that is bound to follow, and framing the critique as censorship and silencing.”
Jeffreys says she thinks transgender students should read her book.
“I hope they will read the book because knowledge is power,” she says. “More and more persons who transgender are detransitioning and more and more blogs and websites are devoted to this It is important that those considering embarking on this practice have all this information to inform their choices.”
Sheila Jeffreys has been at the University of Melbourne since 1991.
By Denham Sadler