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.

The ‘West’ has much to learn from India’s anti-rape campaign

I’ve seen a lot of blatant racism around anglocentric portions of the Internet in the wake of India’s horrific rape scandal (if you haven’t read about it already, there’s plenty of information on this Wikipedia page – trigger warning for graphic description of sexual violence).

There are those who attempt to thinly disguise their racism by expressing a generalised horror at things that happen in other parts of the world. There are those who are more honest in their bigotry, suggesting that countries such as India are necessarily savage and backward. I even came across one sickening comment from an individual who suggested that the human race would be better off if most of Asia, Africa and the Middle East were simply wiped off the world map.

This kind of blinkered claptrap suggests a divide between “us” and “them”, the civilized “developed” world and the barbaric “developing world” – a divide in which the so-called West sets the agenda for women’s rights.

Of course, the reality is far more complex. This is not India’s problem – it is an international problem.

Yes, rates of sexual violence are horrifically high in India, but things aren’t exactly rosy in the rest of the world either. For instance, in a study of 33 countries it was found that the United kingdom has the lowest rape conviction conviction rate: only 6.5% of reported rapists are convicted, with an estimated 95% of rapes going unreported. By contrast, in India around 25% of rape cases that go before a court result in a conviction.

(It’s worth noting, of course, that these statistics don’t exactly match up – e.g. the UK figure of 6.5% rape conviction is so small in part because it takes into account that many cases do not go to court. The Times of India reports that police file chargesheets in 94% of reported rapes, but of course this does not mean that all of these cases go to court. Moreover, there are no doubt many more rapes that are never reported, just like the UK. Nevertheless, the implication is that – once a case eventually gets to court – a rapist is somewhat more likely to be convicted in India than in the UK.)

In the aftermath of the latest high-profile rape victim’s tragic death, Indian newspapers are highlighting the intersectionality of rape: the way in which individuals from marginalised groups are more likely to experience rape and less likely to experience justice, the fact that perpetrators are most likely to be family members rather than mysterious men on the street, the idea that consumer culture and political indifference play a role in enabling rape. Campaigners and journalists alike are suggesting that rape can be best addressed through cultural change. It’s utterly tragic that this discussion is taking place in the wake of a horrific attack, but it’s difficult to imagine a similar level of introspection in the UK mainstream media. Instead, victim-blaming remains the norm here.

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Of course, the wealth of thoughtful articles in the Indian media can’t simply be attributed to the individual initiative of journalists. The issue of rape came to mass attention and retained mass attention over the last few days because of ongoing protests for change. Thousands upon thousands of demonstrators have remained resolute in their demand for an India free of rape, a non-sexist police force that consistently supports women, and a political class who actually give a shit.

In the West we have so much to learn from the power and tenacity of this movement. The mass  protests have continued as politicians promise change and police respond brutally. The sheer unyielding resolve of those involved is incredibly inspiring.

In spite of this, I’ve seen some discomfort amongst Western commentators in response to a demand for the death penalty for rapists from many protesters. To this I have two responses: firstly, it’s not our job to tell campaigners in India how to fight their battle. And secondly, the Indian anti-rape campaign speaks with a plurality of voices, not one voice – see, for instance, this argument against the death penalty from a number of women’s groups.

I’d like to finish this piece by quoting a powerful article from The Hindu. Urvashi Butalia argues that rape culture is all-pervasive, and that in order to destroy rape culture we need to make changes on every level of society.

It is important to raise our collective voice against rape. But rape is not something that occurs by itself. It is part of the continuing and embedded violence in society that targets women on a daily basis. Let’s raise our voices against such violence and let’s ask ourselves how we, in our daily actions, in our thoughts, contribute to this, rather than assume that the solution lies with someone else. Let’s ask ourselves how we, our society, we as people, create and sustain the mindset that leads to rape, how we make our men so violent, how we insult our women so regularly, let’s ask ourselves how privilege creates violence.

It is important we raise our collective voice for women, but let’s raise it for all women, let’s raise it so that no woman, no matter that she be poor, rich, urban, rural, Dalit, Muslim, Hindu, or whatever, ever, in the future, has to face sexual violence, and no man assumes that because of the system and people’s mindsets, he can simply get away with it. And let’s raise it also for men, for transgenders, for the poor — all those who become targets of violence. Let’s not forget that the young rape survivor in Delhi was accompanied by a friend who too was subjected to violence and nearly killed. Let’s talk about him too.

Butalia’s approach reflects that of intersectional Western feminism: in particular, some of the ideas popularised through the Slutwalk and Reclaim The Night movements. This does not mean that Western ideals are the “best”. Instead, it suggests that rape is an international problem to which we must seek international solutions. We in the West would therefore do well to listen more to our sisters in India and beyond.

Dear MRAs: don’t get your knickers in a twist

Dear person who found my blog through the search term “kill all males plan blog feminazis rule radfem“,

Yes, some radical feminists aren’t particularly in touch with reality. Some of them even genuinely appear to hate all men.

But seriously, chill out. What do you think they’re going to do – launch a series of major cyberattacks from Radfem Hub, eventually crippling the world’s telecommunications system before instituting a new matriarchy in the resulting post-apocalyptic chaos?

The vast majority of feminists want to make the world a better place for everyone. They’re not out to get you.

Stay paranoid if you want, but this paranoia really is your fault and your problem. Have fun!

Regards,

A feminist.

Trans Grrrl Riot, part 2: why sing “Rebel Girl”?

Shouting is fun

I’m in a band called Not Right. We’ve been “together” for a little over a year now. I often describe the music we play as “riot grrrl”, because I feel inspired by the ideals and music associated with the term. My bandmates have a somewhat different relationship with “riot grrrl” to me; we’re all pretty cool with this multiplicity of positions.

Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” was the very first song we learned together. At the time, this seemed like a pretty straightforward decision, as it’s a really “easy” piece. But the more I think about it, the more I feel that it’s very interesting that we play this song.

Why riot grrrl?

There’s a fair amount of talk about the idea of a riot grrrl revival floating around the Internet, with an apparent increase in interest from 2010 or so. At the same time, there are words of caution from those involved in the original riot grrrl movement: a recent example can be found in this interview with Kathleen Hanna, published just last week.

She says:

Everyone is always asking me, “How do we restart riot grrrl?” And I’m like, “Don’t.” Because something’s organically going to happen on its own; you can’t force it. Who wants to restart something that’s 20 years old? Start your own fucking thing.

A more nuanced analysis can be found in a blog post from 2010 at Side Ponytail:

I feel like there’s been a lot of talk about how “original” riot grrrls are protective of/territorial about the riot grrrl movement. That they are, perhaps, trying to keep all of the riot grrrl for themselves. I don’t think that is true AT ALL. In fact, I think that they are working to encourage parties who are interested in riot grrrl by telling them, “You are already valuable and should be doing your own thing,” and I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that message. I think they’re also working to make people who weren’t a part of the original riot grrrl scene more cognizant of some of riot grrrl’s troubled history in the hopes of preventing a scene that blindly and unintentionally reproduces those same failings. While many people speaking out in the interests of having a riot grrrl revival have indicated that they are aware of these issues, there seems to be a general consensus that “we’re all more educated now and these things won’t be problems anymore,” which is an approach that really worries me.

[…]

I’m also a little bit troubled by the general attachment to the riot grrrl name. To me, at this point in time, such an attachment suggests more of a brand name identification than anything else. I can be a girl, play a guitar, make a zine, write letters to friends, engage in community building, etc. all without calling myself a riot grrrl. Naming something is a very loaded act and I wonder, if we’re all so aware of riot grrrl’s problematic history and the bad baggage that the riot grrrl name often carries for working class girls, pocs, and transfolk, why we want to carry that name over into a movement that is supposedly more inclusive and aware.

Okay, so here’s the deal. I’m a white, middle-class trans woman in my mid-20s, writing in 2012. I never had the opportunity to get involved with riot grrrl because I was way too young. But, in spite of its problematic elements (including cissexism and transphobia) I still find the history of riot grrrl, the music, the language, the very sense of challenge inherent in the term itself, deeply inspirational.

I look beyond riot grrrl. For years I’ve been inspired by contemporary female-fronted heavy metal bands such as The Gathering and Within Temptation. I’m also into acts who pre-date riot grrrl, like Joan Jett and Girlschool. But in riot grrrl I find that perfect meeting of punk spirit and feminist politic in the context of furious riffs and brilliantly ragged vocals.

Riot grrrl is fascinating because it was, in a sense, a small local scene that hit well above its weight in terms of international influence. Feminist musicians all around the world remain inspired by it. And in light of this, I do think that it’s possible, and positive, to “revive” riot grrrl: in fact, the revival is well underway, and we are doing it differently.

Riot grrrl in 2012 remains feminist, DIY, largely (but not entirely!) punk. But it’s now international, facilitating conversations between female musicians around the world: a great example of this can be found in the free compilations released by the Riot Grrrl Berlin collective. The political focus has shifted towards an intersectional feminism that takes account of diversity along axes such as race, dis/ability, gender identity and sexuality. We are doing our own thing, but we want to call it “riot grrrl” because of the inspiration we take from the music of a particular time and place.

I’d like to think that most of us are aware of the imperfections as well. We know that riot grrrl didn’t get it right. We know that we’re not going to get it right. Being aware of these limitations is the only way we stand a chance of gradually becoming more awesome over time.

Why Rebel Girl?

As a trans woman, I’m also very aware that both the original riot grrrl movement and many of the original riot grrrls weren’t particularly trans-friendly. Bikini Kill lead singer Kathleen Hanna hasn’t exactly got the greatest record on this front either. So why do I want to sing her song?

For me, “Rebel Girl” is punk as fuck: it’s ridiculously catchy and very powerful (both musically and lyrically) because of its simplicity. It’s accessible for both listeners and musicians (including those musicians who are literally just starting out, as I was last year). If you play it with passion, it can sound fantastic even if you’re technically not particularly great as a singer or on your instrument.

That girl thinks she’s the queen of the neighbourhood
She rides the hottest trike in town
That girl she holds her head up so high
I think I wanna be her best friend yeah

As a woman, I feel that I have the right to claim this song; I have always been inspired by the strength and achievements of my feminist sisters. As a trans woman, I feel that it’s productive to claim art with a problematic history and make it my own.

Rebel girl, rebel girl
Rebel girl you are the queen of my world

“Rebel Girl” becomes about my own relationship with riot grrrl: I celebrate how the song has inspired me. Even better, there’s some pretty blatant subtext acquired by the lyrics when sung by a trans person.

Rebel girl, rebel girl
I think I wanna take you home I wanna try on your clothes oh

I further identify with the song as a bisexual woman, and as an activist. When Not Right play “Rebel Girl”, I feel a connection between queer past and queer future.

When she talks, I hear the revolution
In her hips, there’s revolutions
When she walks, the revolution’s coming
In her kiss, I taste the revolution

The song is also a magnet for lesbionic dancing

There’s more than one studio version of “Rebel Girl”. The differences lie mostly in the recording quality and performance style, but there’s also variation within the lyrics of the third verse. One version labels the titular girl a “slut”, another calls her a “dyke”. At queer events, I’m more likely to sing the latter line. In the light of contemporary political commentary over slut-shaming, I also like to sing the former. This ambiguity fits well with the song’s popularity as a cover: there is no absolute, authoritative version. And that’s as it should be.

That girl thinks she’s the queen of the neighborhood
I got news for you, she is!
They say she’s a slut, but I know
She is my best friend, yeah

I believe that any girl can be a riot grrrl. When I sing “Rebel Girl”, I reclaim a version of riot grrrl for here and now, and for some of those who were marginalised the first time around. Maybe you can find a similar power in such songs?

Trans Grrrl Riot, part 1: Was riot grrrl transphobic?

Edit: 27/11/18.

This post remains remarkably popular! I want to leave it intact because it reflects my perspective as of 2012. However, as trans people and cis women alike face attacks from a resurgent fascism, I continue to believe in a politics that allows for people to learn and grow beyond the prejudices (inadvertant or otherwise) and mistakes of their earlier selves. I therefore feel it important to acknowledge that Kathleen Hanna has explicitly and consistently expressed support for trans rights in recent years, and for this I am grateful.

I also remain a massive Bikini Kill fan.

~

Original post:

Bikini Kill

Bikini Kill

I love Bikini Kill. I love the uncompromising power of their music, the feminist rage in their lyrics, their wider political approach. Bikini Kill who inspired me to finally pick up the bass guitar that had sat forlorn in a corner of my room for several years, and Bikini Kill helped me believe that I could make music.

I realise it’s a bit of a cliché, but they’re the band responsible for getting me into riot grrrl, and from there  began to explore feminist punk music (including that from contemporary UK bands) more widely.

I wanted to be a riot grrrl too, and was sad that the original movement faded away back in in the mid-1990s, well before I was ever aware of its existence.

Trans invisibility

However, riot grrrl doesn’t necessarily have the best reputation amongst trans people familiar with its history. I haven’t come across an account of (or by) a single trans woman who was involved in riot grrrl during its early 90s heyday. We weren’t the only ones to be marginalised either. The original riot grrrls may not have all been as middle-class as the mainstream media would like to make out, but the scene appears to have been predominantly white.

I haven’t come across anything particularly transphobic  within those 1990s riot grrrl recordings and writings that remain in circulation on the Internet today. Still, various high-profile individuals made their views entirely clear through their involvement with the famously trans-exclusive Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (also known as “Michfest”).

Trans exclusion

In 1999, controversy erupted after queer punks The Butchies played Michfest. Butchies frontwoman Kaia Wilson had previously been a member of riot grrrl band Team Dresch, and at the time was also running Mr Lady Records jointly with Tammy Rae Carland (a zine editor, spoken word performer, and subject of the Bikini Kill song For Tammy Rae).

A number of trans activists approached Mr Lady Records, asking the label – and its bands – to boycott Michfest. Wilson released a statement claiming to support trans rights, but also backing Michfest’s “womyn-born-womyn” policy. A 2010 interview suggests that she has not changed her views on the matter.

In 2001 and 2005, feminist electro-pop act Le Tigre were similarly criticised for playing Michfest. The group were fronted by Kathleen Hanna, former lead singer in Bikini Kill. Like The Butchies, Le Tigre were a sort of post-riot grrrl act: they came into being after the original movement faded away, but have become associated with riot grrrl in the minds of many both because of their politics and because of the involvement of particular musicians. Le Tigre were at one point signed to Mr Lady Records, although the record label dissolved in 2004.

Le Tigre don’t seem to have been in the slightest bit apologetic about playing Michfest. The argument was once again that womyn have a right to organise autonomously, with the unspoken proviso that trans women are (obviously) not womyn. Of course, this perspective couldn’t possibly be transphobic, what with all the gender-bending the band indulged in.

There’s also lot of talk on the Internet about Hanna also supposedly writing transphobic essays during the 1990s, but I’ve yet to see any evidence of these (and it seems I’m not the only one).

It’s interesting that Le Tigre (and, through Hanna, Bikini Kill) remain implicated in all of this, whilst The Butchies, Mr Lady Records, Tammy Rae and Team Dresch do not. As of 2012, trans activists and allies are still quick to condemn Bikini Kill as “problematic” in Tumblr posts and blog comments. This is no doubt down to the wider media profile experienced (although not necessarily enjoyed!) by Hanna and the various bands she’s been involved in. Wider criticisms of transphobia and cissexism within riot grrrl seem confined largely confined to blogs written by somewhat disallusioned veterans of the original movement.

Meanwhile, whilst Hanna doesn’t seem particularly keen to explicitly distance herself from her past actions and/or comments, she does seem to have quietly moved on, at least somewhat. In more recent interviews she can be seen praising “trans activism”, and earlier this year one fan reported receiving an interesting letter about the matter.

…So?

What does this mean for Bikini Kill? Not a great deal, in my opinion. Kathleen Hanna – a woman whose relationship with the media has always been complex – is not a perfect human being, and has said and done some fairly awful things. Her implicit support of Michfest in particular was never acceptable. She appears to be increasingly aware of this, and has clearly made some moves to educate herself. Still, an explicit acknowledgement of her past cissexism would certainly be welcome.

However, Hanna is in no way the totality of  “Bikini Kill”, let alone “riot grrrl”. As her bandmate Tobi Vail pointed out:

We are not in anyway ‘leaders of’ or authorities on the ‘Riot Girl’ movement. In fact, as individuals we have each had different experiences with, feelings on, opinions of and varying degrees of involvement with ‘Riot Girl’ […] As individuals we respect and utilize and subscribe to a variety of different aesthetics, strategies, and beliefs, both political and punk-wise, some of which are probably considered ‘riot girl.’

The very rifts that fractured riot grrrl also gave it strength, for there was no one dogmatic, overriding ideology to bind it. Kaia Wilson, Tammy Rae Carland and Kathleen Hanna were not the movement. As a young woman looking back at a feminist movement I never had the opportunity to be involved with, I’m left with the impression that riot grrrl did not wholly welcome trans people, but did not intentionally reject us either (in spite of the backwards attitude of certain participating individuals). And of course, this situation wasn’t really good enough, but it’s nowhere near as bad as it could have been.

The future

Fast-forward to 2012, and the idea of riot grrrl is once again gaining a certain cultural currency. The mainstream media are arguably rediscovering riot grrrl in the light of Pussy Riot’s magnificently brave actions of personal resistance, but new bands and collectives have been springing up around the world at an impressive rate for the last two or three years.

Doll Fight

Riot grrrl never really went away: whilst former members of the original movement founded started new bands, new record labels, and new approaches to opening up underground music to girls and women (such as Ladyfest and Girls Rock Camp), there were always individuals and bands who clung to the label. Recently, the idea of a “riot grrrl revival” has blossomed into something more vital on a local, national and international level.

In the UK alone there are now local groups such as Riot Grrrl Birmingham emerging; frequent local events such as Riot Grrill in Leeds, Pussy Whipped in Edinburgh and Riots Not Diets in Brighton; and a whole host of new bands, many of whom communicate with one another through means such as the Riot Grrrl UK group on Facebook.

And one of the many wonderful things about all of these groups is that they’re all explicitly trans-inclusive. They’re not only drawing upon trans language and symbolism: they also see trans struggle as feminist struggle. These are groups that seek to understand cissexism and binarism, groups that talk about supporting CeCe McDonald in the same way that they talk about Pussy Riot.

Similarly, the international music compilations released regularly by the Riot Grrrl Berlin collective explicitly welcome trans artists, and ban transphobic language. There are even (shock, horror) riot grrrl bands with trans members emerging.

We should learn from the past, but not be bound by it. Trans-inclusive riot grrrl is finally here. Let’s make the most of it!

There’s something oddly reassuring about Radfem Hub

A (cis, feminist) friend of mine posted in horror on Facebook this afternoon. Said friend had just visited Radfem Hub for the first time. “UNBELIEVABLE,” she exclaimed.

I’m fairly certain I had a similar reaction when I first went to the site. It’s always unpleasant to stumble across a series of staggeringly unpleasant attacks upon your being and personhood; as such, I recommend that any readers approach Radfem Hub with extreme caution.

At the same time, I don’t find it particularly threatening any more.

I mean, let’s take a look at what Radfem Hub actually stands for. It’s described as “a radical feminist collective blog”, and as such you might expect to find articles on all kinds of different subjects related to patriarchy and the oppression of women. Instead, the current front page of the site displays article after article dedicated to the evils of trans people, trans activists, trans allies, and the insidious influence of trans ideology upon the wider feminist world. You have to scroll way down the page before there’s even mention of a pro-choice agenda and a now-obligatory potshot at  50 Shades of Grey*. And then the transphobic posts start up again.

Radfem Hub isn’t really a radical feminist site. It’s an anti-trans hate site.

I don’t say this because I’m interested in redefining radical feminism. I say this because, surely, a radical feminist site – even a radical feminist site populated by transphobes – would have something else to talk about beyond hating on trans people. There are so many other things to worry about in the world! I mean, take for example the London Feminist Network yahoo group: it’s pretty clear that trans people aren’t welcome there unless they toe a particular line, but the group’s members at least have far more to discuss than whatever it is we’ve done to annoy them lately. In contrast, the population of Radfem Hub seem to have little to do other than hate on trans people.

Ultimately, it’s not that threatening. Sure, the actions of those such as bugbrennan (who has a nasty habit of publicly outing trans people) are pretty disturbing, but the site itself is bound to only ever appeal to a small group of bigots. There’s no way it’s going to appeal to the radical feminist mainstream, who are way too busy tackling stuff like the gender pay gap, capitalist exploitation of women’s bodies, nasty propaganda from “pro-life” groups and the like.

In a way, I’m reminded of The Christian Institute. This lot are a non-denominational group who state that they exist for “the furtherance and promotion of the Christian religion in the United Kingdom”.  Their actual activities seem to consist largely of posting homophobic witterings on the Internet and shouting in vain at the government to do something about that awful homosexual agenda.

The Christian Institute cast their net a little wider than Radfem Hub (going for Muslims and pro-choice activists almost as much as they go for LGBT people) but it’s pretty obvious what they are. They’re a hate group. And as such, they’re never going to gain too much sway within the world of mainstream Christianity, even as the Catholic and Anglican churches desperately try to block the government’s plans for the legalisation of gay marriage.

So here’s the thing. As long as groups like Radfem Hub and the Christian Institute remain dedicated to hate, they’re only going to gain so much traction. I’d be much, much more worried if they had much to say on issues that might actually interest anyone beyond their core audience.

* For the record, I agree with Radfem Hub that 50 Shades of Grey is deeply dodgy, although I dislike their predictable “kink is necessarily bad!” approach to the issue.

Passing as cis: why I’d love to stop shaving my legs, but don’t

Several months ago, a friend of mine sent out message inviting participation in a new feminist video-blogging project. This seed of an idea grew into Those Pesky Dames, in which five women say awesome things about body autonomy, self-care, inspirations, intersectionality and pop culture. And then this week, the Dames stepped beyond the realm of YouTube (and Facebook, and Twitter and Tumblr…) to appear on the good ol’ fashioned television.

You can watch them talk about body hair on Cherry Healey: How to Get a Life for the next couple of weeks (it’s available on BBC iPlayer until Wednesday 18th July).

The Dames’ contribution to the programme is fantastic: they talk about how body hair is entirely natural, and shouldn’t be regarded as unfeminine. Why should women have to spend hours shaving in order to conform to the beauty myth? Why should we feel bad about baring our natural fluff in public? And why regard hairy women as unhygienic, but not hairy men?

I was so happy not only to see my friends on TV, but to see them discussing a vital feminist issue. Michel Foucault came up with this idea known as “governmentality” to describe the relationship between individual people and social rules. We enforce social norms through self-governance, tailoring our actions and behaviour to uphold the status quo. We police our own conformity through the application of self-esteem (when we conform) and shame (when we fail to conform). I felt that the programme beautifully highlighted the governmentality at play in the maintenance of female body hair: our self-esteem depends greatly upon our lack of hair, and when our legs or armpits are hairy in public we feel shame. In this way, women come to enforce sexist ideals of appropriate female behaviour. We can escape by embracing an alternative, feminist ethic of selfhood whereby shaving is not required. I went to bed reflecting happily upon this liberatory potential.

The next day was warm and sunny, and I planned to see my friends in town. I pulled on my shorts…and then took them off again and wore jeans instead, because I didn’t want the world to see my hairy legs. My boyfriend insisted that my short, very thin crop of leg hair wasn’t even visible and that it really didn’t matter. The rational part of my brain agreed wholeheartedly. I still couldn’t do it.

A great part of this response was no doubt down to your bog-standard governmentality at work. I was ashamed at the thought of being an Inappropriate Woman, and tailored my behaviour accordingly. Knowing that you’re a sucker in this way only gives you so much power! But there was an additional element at play: my fear of not passing.

I feel that being trans greatly complicates body hair issues. I don’t really fear being read as different or somewhat deviant, and happily flaunt my subcultural identity as a rocker on an everyday basis. I don’t worry too much about looking feminine or conforming to female stereotypes. But at the same time, I don’t want anyone thinking I’m not a woman, and I certainly don’t want anyone thinking I’m a man. I spent 18 years of my life being read as male, and those 18 years were quite enough.

My fear is not that people will look at my hairy legs and think “urgh, a hairy woman”. My fear is that people will look at my hairy legs and thinking “urgh, she’s actually a man!” This is somewhat irrational given how well I pass as cis, but the fear is real, and powerful.

The problem is that passing as a cs woman is important to me. Not because I think it’s better to look cis than trans (I most certainly don’t!) Not because I aspire to some outdated, patriarchal ideal of womanhood. It’s because I hate being heckled on the street, and I fear the violence that can come with transphobic responses. I realise that I’m deeply unlikely to suffer an assault in broad daylight in my home town, but past experiences of violence – however minor – can exert a powerful control. I aim to pass for my own mental and physical well-being.

And so I shave my legs and my armpits when I think they’ll be seen in public, because I’d rather be seen as an Acceptable Woman than not be seen as a woman at all.

The thing is, I hope this might change with time. At the start of my transition, I used to wear eye make-up and straighten my hair daily. I used to shun baggy clothes, instead aiming to highlight what curves I had. As time has gone on, I’ve become more and more relaxed about my appearance. This is partly because I’ve become generally more chilled with time: I’m no longer bothered about people who know me being aware of my trans status, and this blog is hardly anonymous these days. But it’s also because of the impact of hormones, meaning that I pass more easily as a cis woman regardless of how I dress. I now wear make-up and dress in a more feminine manner on special occasions, when I want to put on a certain appearance: in this way, I’m now doing these things for me, rather than for others.

One of things I really like about the kind of feminism espoused by Those Pesky Dames is that it leaves room for all these complications. There wasn’t really time for an exploration of this in How to Get a Life, but it’s all there in their vlogs. They argue for a feminism in which you shouldn’t have to shave your body hair…but you should be able to if it’s the appearance you’re going for. A feminism in which you don’t have to wear make-up, but should feel empowered to do so on your own terms. A feminism that accepts that some of us really want to escape the governmentality that leads us to shave our legs, but for now, we remain constrained.

As such, I’m going to keep shaving my legs, despite acknowledging that (in my case) I’m not really doing it for me. Meanwhile, I’m going to celebrate the achievements of those who aim to break down this norm.