Germaine Greer: glitter-bomb neither here nor there

by Fiona Rae / 26 March, 2012
Feminist academic Greer responds to being glitter-bombed in Wellington by protest group Queer Avengers.

There are some New Zealanders who are convinced I outed one of my colleagues at Newnham College as a transsexual, and that she lost her job as a result. This was the accusation levelled at me earlier this month when a group “glitter-bombed” me at a book signing in Wellington.

The colleague concerned is still at Newnham College; her name is Dr Rachael Padman. But from my perspective, it’s pretty clear that she was never “in”. I could only have “outed” her if she had deceived the principal and the council of Newnham College as to her legal status, a suggestion that would be defamatory of her.

Padman now says she thought that in 1996 the Fellows of Newnham were aware of her history, seeing as pretty well everyone else in Cambridge was. In fact they were not. The principal decided, anticipating perhaps the provisions of the Gender Reassignment Act, which would not be passed for another nine years, that the Fellows should not be told the new Fellow had spent years as a member of men-only St John’s College, where she was known as Russell Padman.

Some sources will tell you I opposed her election; there was no election. When I first realised Padman was not as other women, I thought I was the only member of the governing body who had guessed. In the weeks that followed I tried to work out who knew what, but before I could reach any conclusion, Padman had outed herself over half the front page of the Times.

Many of Newnham’s Fellows wanted the college to go co-ed, and at least as many did not. The college was under pressure to relinquish its single-sex status in line with EU human rights legislation, but before the Fellows’ latest vote on the issue, the members of the junior and middle common rooms had lined the corridors holding lit candles and signs begging us to vote “no” to the admission of men.

If the Fellows had discussed the issue of Padman’s membership of the college, I would have argued against it, but if a subsequent vote had gone against me, I would have accepted the situation. If the principal had explained what she thought she was doing, I would have held my tongue. Instead she ignored the governing body and committed the Fellows to a course of action that some of them could not in conscience support.

A day or two later, an extraordinarily defamatory article appeared in the Guardian, alleging not only that I had outed Padman, but also that I was an eccentric and unreliable teacher. The college could have dealt with the matter by issuing a statement, but it did nothing. I had no option but to resign my fellowship and train as a lawyer, so that I could afford to bring a suit against the Guardian, which took a year to cave in and pay up.

I gave the sum paid as damages to the college, but no apology was forthcoming. Writing this now I realise though I am once again a Fellow of sorts, I am still not reconciled. So having unseen assailants throw a bag of glitter over me in Wellington is neither here nor there. It seems a typically masculine over­reaction, though, when you think about it.
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