Event: Trans Feminism talk at University of Wolverhampton (10 March)

Friday 10th March, 2017
City Campus, University of Wolverhampton
1.30pm in MD165

I will be talking about some of the key issues and debates in trans feminism as part of the University of Wolverhampton’s International Women’s Week programme, highlighting areas of commonality and difference between the political struggles of trans women and cis women. I will also explore both historical and contemporary disputes over the place of trans issues (including challenges faced by trans men and non-binary people) within a women’s movement.

(Free) registration for the event is available here.

Certifying Equality? A critical perspective on Athena SWAN (17 February)

certifying-equality-posterI’m currently part of a team working on an Athena SWAN submission for the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick.

Many of us are feminist academics. The process has got us thinking both about how equality accreditation mechanisms such as Athena SWAN can create space for new ways of thinking and tackling sexism, and also about what can go “missing” or get “lost” in such processes. For example, there isn’t much space for an interrogation of intersecting inequalities in Athena SWAN (or Race Equality Mark) submissions.

We’ve therefore decided to organise an event to think about and discuss some of these issues. It will be taking place on Friday 17th February in the Wolfson Research Exchange, University of Warwick Library.

Further details and a registration form can be found here.

I have seen the future of feminism, and it is beautiful

Yesterday’s social media furore over a dodgy letter to the Observer left me questioning my place within the women’s movement for the umpteenth time. However, within hours I was powerfully reminded that those who advocate an exclusive feminism are less influential and important than they might like to think.

Last night I joined a room of people committed to building a feminism that is compassionate, reflexive, inclusive of all women and sensitive to our different experiences.

Last night I found myself in a room of brown, black and white faces; gay, bi and straight; cis and trans; working class and middle class; disabled and abled. Last night I heard a teenage Muslim woman speak out about the importance of representing all faiths in activism after a question from a Jewish woman in the audience. Last night I heard from a white middle-class straight woman who has turned up to learn with an open mind. Last night I heard cis women talk about about trans rights, and felt that my identity and experience as a woman was simply not in question.

I had been invited to contribute to a panel discussion at the University of Bristol Students’ Union (UBU). Entitled How do we make the Women’s Movement intersectional?, the panel was was of UBU’s “Festival of Liberation“, which also includes events looking at the challenges faced by LGBT people, disabled people, and people of colour. I was honoured to share a panel with three truly awesome women: Susuana Antubam and Sammi Whitaker of the NUS Women’s Campaign, and Fahma Mohamed of Integrate Bristol.

Panellists at UBU's intersectional feminist event
Last night was promising and encouraging and heartwarming, and was not unusual in being so. I have seen similar scenes repeated across the country over the last few years at talks, workshops, protests and riot grrrl gigs.

This is the new feminism. A feminism that is discarding the model of monolithic female oppression and in its place building a movement around diversity and inclusion. A feminism that seeks to base both theory and action upon what different groups of women have to say about their lives and experiences, rather than imposing a top-down model of liberation drawn from academic theory. A feminism that sees cis and straight women take responsibility for supporting the work of their trans and queer sisters, white women take responsibility for supporting the work of their sisters of colour, abled women take responsibiity for supporting the work of their disabled sisters and so on.

Last night we talked about the importance of intersectionality as feminist praxis: of putting ideas into action. We talked about the importance of education: of sharing the knowledge and tools necessary for women’s liberation with people of all genders. We talked about the importance of representation: of working to ensure that women of all backgrounds feel welcome and able to attend feminist events through the use of accessible venues, ensuring diversity within organising teams and (where relevant) speakers/acts, and thinking about the language we use. We talked about the benefits of building groups around intersectional identities (such as black womanhood); groups that can then work alongside other bodies of people with a broader remit, feeding in ideas and holding them to account.

We talked about calling people out and challenging oppressive behaviour both within wider society and within the feminist movement. We also talked about being kind and prepared to forgive, and allowing people space to learn and grow. We talked about how everyone will make mistakes, because intersectional feminism is a constant experience of doing and being, rather than a closed process where you jump through a series of hoops and then become a Good Feminist who is capable of always passing judgement upon others.

We talked about our experiences of activism. Fahma talked about giving a piece of her mind to a nervous Michael Gove, resulting in a letter to every school in the country about FGM. Sammi talked about productive conversations with working class male friends, and building liberation into the very fabric of Anglia Ruskin’s fledgling Students’ Union. Susuana talked about her work on addressing lad culture as a gendered, racialised and classist phenomenon. I talked about my contributions to trans and non-binary inclusion within the NUS Women’s Campaign, and how we seek a diverse range of performers for Revolt, Coventry’s feminist punk night. We heard stories and ideas and questions from the audience, and I reflected on how we were not “experts” with a monopoly on solutions, but just one part of a wider movement.

These are just some of the things that we talked about.

So why have I been led to question my place within the women’s movement?

Because I see Julie Bindel referring to other feminists as “stupid little bellends” whilst misgendering trans women, arguing that bisexuals do not experience oppression, and stating that Muslim women who wear religious dress are necessarily oppressed. Because I see Rupert Read suggesting that trans women should not be allowed to use public toilets. Because I see Beatrix Campbell repeating and defending these ideas.

When I read things like this, I am repelled by a feminism that is harsh, bitter and exclusionary.

When feminists gaslight me by claiming repeatedly that the individuals who wrote these articles are not transphobic I am saddened and confused.

When I hear about feminists disrupting conversations at events such as AFem in order to promote an agenda that excludes trans people and sex workers, I am disappointed and worried.

When I see exclusionary events like Radfem 2013 and Femifest 2014 promoted within feminist spaces and supported by organisations like Women’s Aid and Reclaim The Night London I am alarmed and concerned.

When I see feminist women and men – including both public figures as well as personal friends and acquaintances – sign a misleading letter that condemns attempts to debate and contest the above, I wonder how voices of those who work for an inclusive and diverse feminism can possibly stand against a “letter mob” representing the discursive might of the liberal Establishment.

The stakes are high. Too many of my friends have considered suicide. Too many of my friends have died. When I talk to my trans friends and fellow activists, I hear about fragile mental health, doctors and shopkeepers refusing to provide services, threats of violence and attacks in the street. All of these things are fuelled by the dehumanisation of trans people, the idea that we require intervention to save us from the misguided path of transition, the implication that we do not deserve to exist within public spaces. These discourses are perpetuated by feminists and defended by liberals in the name of “free speech”.

I don’t believe in historical inevitability and don’t buy into progression narratives. I had a debate about trans-exclusive feminisms with Jack Halberstam recently. Jack echoed my PhD supervisor in arguing that trans-exclusive feminisms are outdated and irrelevant, long-dismissed within the academic world. But the academic world is often divorced from the reality of the feminist movement on the ground. In this reality, exclusive feminisms continue to fester.

In spite of all of this, last night reminded me of the power and appeal of the new, intersectional feminism. It is this feminism that is popular amongst young people who are more interested in working together than apart, and veteran activists with the humility to share their ideas and wisdom with newcomers on an equal footing.

This feminism requires work and nurture, but – as I argued last night – this does not need to be an entirely arduous task. Working together across our differences and ensuring that more people feel welcome and included makes us stronger. Learning new things from others can be interesting and exciting. Having the strength to learn from our mistakes solidifies friendships and alliances. Discovering a more diverse range of feminist histories, activisms and performances can be fun and empowering.

The new feminism is beautiful. Let’s keep building.

Misogynists who know nothing about music shame Courtney Love for not being an entire band

Some sound guy who was hired (by who, it’s not entirely certain) to record a Hole show a few years back has put isolated vocal and guitar parts from Courtney Love playing “Celebrity Skin” up on Youtube.

This video is now being gleefully shared around by mainstream music websites and blogs that invariably describe Courtney’s performance as “terrible” or rhetorically ask if it is “the worst thing ever”.

The answer, to anyone who has the slightest clue about how live music happens, is “no, this really isn’t the worst thing ever”.

Why? Well, firstly, because Courtney actually sounds pretty good here if you like raw vocal parts. But let’s set that aside for a moment.

Live vocal feeds usually sound pretty terrible. There is a lot of processing that happens in a studio, and a reason why slick-sounding albums tend to take days, weeks or even months to record. It’s a very rare singer who can pull off perfect vocals live – particularly if they’re playing rock or punk, which tend to rely on energy rather than technical perfection.

We don’t tend to notice this when we see live bands – because if they’re a decent band, they will have that energy, and the singing will be good enough. This is one reason why you can see a phenomenal live performance at a gig, then watch an imperfect live recording on TV a couple of days later and wonder why it doesn’t seem anywhere near as good.

Similarly, guitar parts tend to undergo a lot of processing even in a live setting. Many professional bands don’t have pedals on-stage, and will rely on a sound technician to process any distortion or tone effects for them. Moreover, amps will be adjusted for the acoustics of a venue. Unless you apply serious production to a live recording, it will tend to sound a lot more tinny and empty than a studio recording.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Courtney isn’t even really playing much guitar in this video in part because she doesn’t need to. “Celebrity Skin” relies largely on one guitar part and the rhythm section (bass and drums) to provide the bulk of the song, with the second guitar throwing in a bit of additional “oomph” now and again. Of course the guitar parts in this video are minimal and imperfect – quite aside from the sound issues, Courtney is pretty much smashing the strings for occasional effect. This would sound a lot better if you were doing this in your room because you’d have the volume, distortion and acoustics that were clearly present in the room at this gig. But it’d sound even better if you had an entire band filling out the rest of the song for you.

Surely, the guitar could have been played a lot better here, but it’s clear from the audience response that no-one actually in the venue cares. Why? Because there’s an entire band filling out the sound, which means that one punk musician’s performance doesn’t have to be perfect. Besides, she’s still pretty tight with the rest of the group.

So why is this even a big deal? I’m sure there are those who will claim that this video is just being shared because it sounds shit, but there are plenty of musicians who would sound shit if you shared isolated guitar + vocal parts around the Internet.

Courtney Love is no angel by any stretch of the imagination, but I feel it’s no coincidence that she is being targeted. She’s one of the very few women to ever maintain a relatively high profile as a rock star for the duration of her career, and that has made her the target for the kind of judgementalism, conspiracy theories and ill-informed criticism that just doesn’t stick with well-known male performers.

And that’s misogyny.

edit 15/11/14

This post wasn’t particularly well thought-through – I wrote it in a brief fit of annoyance and threw at at the Internet, not really expecting it to stick. I stand absolutely by what I said – it’s just that if I was expecting to deal with the snobby pedant parade in its full uptight glory I probably would have spent some time making the argument really watertight. Oh well.

Still, since I’m currently getting yet another spike of several thousand hits, I figured I’d address a couple of things that people seem to be massively missing the point on.

Firstly, the guitar. Of course it’s out of tune and sounds shite. I’m a musician, and I’m not deaf. The implicit question in this blog was intended to be – do you think this never happens to other musicians? Love, like anyone else at her level, will not be tuning her own guitar – it’ll be done by a guitar tech on tour with her. And mistakes will be made. If you’re in the middle of a song and attempt to play a nice, big power chord only to find out that it sounds awful, you’re gonna barely play it. Alternatively, if you’re in the middle of a song and can’t hear yourself properly through the monitors and suspect something might be wrong, you’re also barely gonna play it. Were these the reasons Love played in the way she did? Or was it something else? There are many ways this could have played out. Honestly, I don’t actually really care, and I’m baffled at why everyone else does. Which leads me on to…

Yes, of course the coverage of this is misogynistic. There’s some more discussion of the double-standard in rock music at play in this discussion here. This isn’t about whether or not the performance was objectively good or objectively awful – it’s about how this one incident fits into a wider pattern in which female musicians are, as standard, treated differently to male musicians and subject to different expectations. Incidentally, the men who comment on my blog calling me a “bitch” for writing this or declaring that I “HATE MEN” are not gonna convince me that they’re somehow sensitive to the nuances of sexism.

Anyways, I’m off to do some research and listen to Against Me! because I have a life outside the Internet. Toodles.

Comments on this post are now closed, as I have better things to do with my time than approve dozens of comments with exactly the same content.

Reflecting on “​My message to those who would attend Radfem 2012”

Note: this is the second part of my response to transphobia during Feminist Times’ “Gender Week”. You can read the first part here.

It’s been almost two years now since I published the most widely-read piece I’ve yet written: “My message to those who would attend Radfem 2012“.

I actually wrote this piece quite quickly. I remember turning it over in my mind for a few hours, and then writing it up and posting it to my blog without any inkling of how it would be read by thousands of people. I was angry, but also upset, with part of my upset arising from a sense of empathy for those I disagreed with. You, like me, are damaged. You, like me, are hurt. Why is it that we must hurt one another so?

Ironically, it was also this piece that helped me come to the conclusion that I was right to engage in ideological struggles against transphobic forms of radical feminism. Engaging in this struggle is – in a sense – an attempt at self-preservation, as well as an act of solidarity with other trans people.

I don’t personally participate much in the never-ending arguments between trans people and trans-exclusive radical feminists (“TERFs”) across Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. I don’t have the energy, and I’m not sure that it’s always productive to argue with individuals who are never going to be persuaded to change their views.

But I do think it is important to intervene on many occasions – for instance, when transphobic views are aired by TERFs in the mainstream media, or when TERFs are afforded platforms at feminist or LGBT events. The point is not to deny people the freedom to express their awful views: instead, the idea is to always contest these views. To ensure that anti-trans perspectives don’t start gaining additional traction.

In light of this, I’ve strived to keep “My message…” alive, in one form or another. I’ve performed bits of it on a number of occasions with Not Right (ironically, this frequently does not go well as references to feminism have riled cis men in the audience on a number of occasions). I’m hoping to read the whole thing out during an upcoming feminist event at the University of Warwick. And I’ve recently been working on a number of revisions, as I hope to create a new version with the same sense of flow but a somewhat wider outlook.

It was in this spirit that I granted Feminist Times permission to republish the piece as part of their “Gender Week”.

I wondered initially if I perhaps should have thought this through better. There was some confusion as I was originally asked to write a companion piece to accompany an article by Finn Mackay, but (due to external circumstances) wasn’t able to meet the deadline.

In retrospect, I feel I should have ensured that my article was published as a stand-alone piece. I feel like both my article and Finn’s attempt to “talk to” the other “side” in the supposed trans/radical feminist debate, but the way in which both pieces were written independently means we’re kind of talking past one another. This is a pity. Finn and I have a lot of common ground, and I feel we could have a productive and interesting dialogue about our differences.

Whilst the comment sections on many of the Gender Week articles have seen some extremely unpleasant views aired, and the Twitter hashtag (#GenderWeek) has spun horribly out of control, I’m glad to see Feminist Times offer a platform for trans voices in an attempt to thoughtfully address transphobia in the feminist movement.

It’s important that we create safe spaces for trans people to discuss gender, identity and politics. It’s also important that we reach beyond these spaces, lest trans discourse becomes an echo chamber. I’ve experienced quite serious burnout recently, but fully intend to keep talking about the place of trans people in feminism. Keeping “My message…” alive is an important part of this.

Of course, the resulting attentions of both male misogynists and the TERFs are horrific. One lesson we can learn from this is that trans people who gain a platform benefit from content warnings, strong moderation and (during offline events) “no tolerance” door policies, lest we buckle under the pressure of hatred received.

“Gender critical feminism” is ideological war

Trigger warning for transphobia, suicide, violence, bigotry.

Today I was accused – in a comment, on a blog – of the “appropriation of women’s lived experiences”.

It’s a very small thing. Another mean comment from a mean person, in a vast Internet of bigots and bullies.

But it’s also a very big thing. It’s another microaggression in a larger struggle, a wider war. I don’t use the metaphor of “war” lightly: this is serious.

Some social historians might refer to this struggle as a front in the “sex wars”. Many radical feminists refer to this as a struggle against the language of “gender identity”. Medical practitioners regard us as one set of lobbies amongst many.

I call this struggle the war of trans liberation.

People are wounded, damaged.

I am damaged. My friends are damaged.

People die.

My friends have died.

There are many ways to die in this war.

This is an ideological war. It is fought in the media, where conservative commentators, radical feminists and uninspired columnists alike dehumanise us by lying about our lives, joking about our appearances, questioning the idea that we should have civil rights or even receive respect from others.

This is an ideological war. It is fought in the home, where many of us are not welcome. Where trans people are frequently rejected by parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles who believe the lies in the media. Where trans people are cut off from family events, or otherwise told to deny themselves.

This is an ideological war, but sometimes it is fought with fists in the streets and in schools and in public spaces, by those who do not regard us as human because they believe the lies told in the media and by our families. A disproportionate number of trans people are verbally assaulted, physically assaulted, sexually assaulted and raped.

This is an ideological war, but it is also fought in our heads, by those of us who come to believe the lies told in the media and by our families and by those who wish to visit violence upon us in the streets and in schools and in public spaces. We grow up responding to those who would dehumanise us by dehumanising ourselves. We learn to hate ourselves. It is no coincidence that at least one in three trans people have attempted suicide.

I have received an incredible amount of support and warmth from my own family and my friends. I have learned to love myself, and love the things that I stand for. I have built a fulfilling life for myself, a life of joy and creativity.

But I will never be free of this struggle as long as it continues.

And I will always resist.

For my own self-preservation and sanity, I mostly stay out of scuffles between trans activists and radical feminists on social media. Sometimes I disagree with particular trans activists: with the language they use, with the way in which they understand gender, with their perspective on feminism. This is not a disagreement based on fear of real harm.

But when I am accused of the “appropriation of women’s lived experiences”? Ah, now this goes to the core of our struggle.

Quite frankly: how dare they? How dare they accuse me of appropriation for the way in which I move through the world?

My lived experience is my own. I live as a woman. I go to work as a woman. I enjoy my hobbies as a woman. And what I mean by this is that I am perceived by others as a woman. It takes many to  construct this social reality of “womanhood”, which is real to me because I interact with many others on an everyday basis.

I receive sexist comments from men in the street for existing as a woman. I am aware of how being a woman limits my opportunities, and places me at risk of gendered violence.

This is my life experience. The experience I have had my entire adult life.

By conflating trans struggles with “appropriation”, (or worse, “rape”) and trans agendas with the agendas of the medical profession, so called “gender critical feminists” visit a symbolic violence upon trans people that ignores and perpetuates real, everyday threats and experiences of violence.

This is why trans women find themselves being denied a space in feminism. This is why trans women are kicked out of women’s shelters and rape crisis centres. This is why trans people learn to hate themselves. This is why trans people kill themselves, or are killed violently by others, or die in the streets.

I can empathise with “gender critical” feminists, and I have written in the past from a place of attempted understanding. And I’m always happy to be critical of gender.

But I have no interest in a truce.

This is an ideological battle fought over my life and my body.

I intend to win.

In solidarity with Julie Bindel against rape threats.

Some things are more important than existing disputes, regardless of how deeply-felt and powerful those disputes are. I fully back the press release from Protest Transphobia (see below). No-one should ever, ever be threatened with rape or violence and we should stand by those who receive such threats.

Press Release from Protest Transphobia:

In solidarity with Julie Bindel against threats

Members of Protest Transphobia were shocked and dismayed recently to read that the commentator Julie Bindel had been threatened with violence including rape, allegedly by a transgender person, in relation to the University of Manchester debate on the pornography industry next week in which she had planned to take part as a panelist.

A protest at the event had been organised by a group of transgender students in Manchester, due to legitimate concerns about her writings on matters related to transgender identity and transition-related healthcare, and the impact of providing a platform to a speaker with a known history of making transphobic statements.

We understand rape and threats of rape as a vicious form of torture and a patriarchal weapon for the preservation of male dominance in society, and with some exceptions, an overwhelmingly male crime against women, both cisgender and transgender.

Regardless of the source of this threat, we fully support Ms Bindel’s action in reporting the incident to the authorities. Whilst transgender people may be directly endangered by certain points of Ms Bindel’s ideology, we unequivocally condemn the threats she has received and regard threats of rape to be categorically reprehensible.

We wish to take this opportunity to offer solidarity to Ms Bindel against any and all threats of violence.