Beyond the TERF Wars

For the past couple of years, I have been working quietly on a new edited collection with my colleagues Sonja Erikainen and Ben Vincent. It is titled TERF Wars: Feminism and the fight for transgender futures.

Cover of the Sociological Review Monograph: TERF Wars.

TERF Wars is being published as part of the Sociological Review monograph series. This means it is available digitally as a special issue of the century-old journal The Sociological Review, and will also be available to buy as a reasonably-priced paperback book.

Digital special issue
(available now with a subscription to The Sociological Review)

Paperback pre-order
(UK only for now – more and better links coming soon!)

Read the Introduction for free

Our aim has been to provide a critical, scholarly response to the growing circulation of both “pro-trans” and “anti-trans” ideas within feminism, especially in the academic context in which we work. As the “trans debate” has grown ever more extensive and complex, newcomers often express confusion around why this has happened, what the fiercely contested language actually means, and how it has all become so polarising.

The collection therefore addresses a range of issues, including (but not limited to) definitions of sex and gender, trans/feminist histories, racism, autogynepilia, “rapid-onset” gender dysphoria, detransition, access to public toilets, and contestation over the “TERF” acronym (“Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism”) itself. We have been privileged to work with a range of amazing authors, including Jay Bernard, Lua da Mota Stabile, Jen Slater, Charlotte Jones, B Camminga, Rowan Hildebrand-Chupp, Florence Ashley, Julia Serano, María Victoria Carrera-Fernández, Renée DePalma, Emi Koyama, Cristan Williams, and Sally Hines.

I am proud of what we have achieved, and hope the collection will serve to move some of these debates forward. However, I also believe it is important to emphasise that trans people face far more significant issues than debates within feminism.

I have long felt that the “TERF wars” are a distraction from the endemic discrimination and gross inequalities faced by trans people in all areas of public and private life. There is a reason that my own research and activism has focused primarily on healthcare, both before and during the editing of this collection (which I have very much treated as a side project). Arguing with strangers about sex and gender on Twitter won’t reduce waiting lists or stop doctors from sexually assaulting patients. Equally, it becomes harder to concentrate on the task in hand when vicious anti-trans columns are constantly published in the mainstream media, and when your research plans are derailed by a malicious Freedom of Information requests from anti-trans campaigners hope to access your work emails.

There is no easy solution to this conundrum. However, I urge readers to consider how they, personally, might aim to move beyond the TERF wars. My main hope for this edited collection is that will be helpful for people to better understand this particular realm of transphobic discourse, and to counter harmful and inaccurate arguments. Having done so, I urge you to turn to the real tasks of trans liberation: fighting sexism, racism, and ableism, protecting personal autonomy, building collective solidarity and mutual aid networks, providing services to our communities, and imagining new worlds.

QUEERPOCALYPSE

QUEERPOCALYPSE

Today is Trans Day of Visibility, apparently. I have felt very strange about this day since it became a Thing over the last decade, as visibility is double-edged sword for many of us. With visibility comes community, and increased access to trans and queer arts, culture, politics, ideas. But in the last few years this has met with a cultural and ideological backlash. We are more visible to those who hate us, those who fear us, those who would cause us harm.

Last year I wrote some lyrics about this dichotomy, which are now part of a new song from noise/punk band Dispute Settlement Mechanism. It’s called Queerpocalypse.

 

One of the great things about being in a band is that the process of creation is always  collaborative. I like that this enables us to express ourselves, be that as queer, as trans, as woman, as people, in different ways that come together as a whole. Communicating through riffs and percussion which tell their own stories alongside lyrics and vocal performance.

This, at least as much as my research and formal writing, is the visibility that matters to me in 2020.

I fear your hate inside
I fear the turning tide
I fear your time will come
I fear you think you’ve won

moral panic
moral panic
moral panic
moral panic

you fear with desperate pride
you fear the turning tide
you fear our time will come
you fear that we have won

well guess what?

this world is ours
this world is ours
this world is ours
this world
is ours

Queerpocalypse is available as part of the compilation album Songs From The Vaults. All proceeds from digital sales of the album (available from £5) go towards supporting important Coventry venue and community centre The Tin Music and Arts through the COVID-19 crisis.

Fighting back in the precarious academy – FWSA address 2019

On 16 October I spoke at the 30th Anniversary event hosted by the Feminist and Women Studies Association UK and Northern Ireland (FWSA). This is the text of my short talk.

Thank you for having me, I am very honoured to be here today.

I was invited to speak about doing feminism in the academy through my research on trans experiences. I am a trans woman known for my research on trans health.

I am interested in how discourses of consent, autonomy, sex and gender circulate between patient communities, activists, and professionals, and how these are shaped by power relations. I also work on new approaches to healthcare that might centre patient knowledges, rather than patriarchal medical authority. At present, I am part of an international study of pregnancy and childbirth among trans men and non-binary people.

This research stems from my wider interest in gender, sexuality, and power relations within institutions. I have published empirical work on equality schemes in Higher Education, focusing specially on Athena SWAN. My research with Charoula Tzanakou shows how Athena SWAN places a burden on the very women it is supposed to help, through expecting them to participate in the extensive work of self-assessment.

I also have been involved in anti-casualisation campaigns, especially while working on hourly-paid contracts for six years at the University of Warwick. I feel it is important to recognise this as feminist academic work too, an argument I expand on shortly.

I am very often invited to speak about trans health. At least as often, I am invited to speak about being a trans woman.

I am very rarely been invited to speak about my wider feminist research or activism.

I know why this is. While our numbers are growing, there are very few trans people and especially trans women working in universities. I am used to being the only visible trans person in the room. I am painfully aware that I am frequently present as a token. I am also aware that if I am not present, often no trans voices are heard at all, let alone trans women’s voices.

I know it is important to talk about how a vast majority of trans staff and students face substantial barriers in Higher Education. These include rigid administrative procedures, plus high rates of verbal abuse, physical and sexual assault. I know it is important to talk about how transphobia is tied closely to misogyny, racialisation, ableism and class, and how the challenges we face are especially compounded for trans people who face intersecting forms of marginalisation, such as Black trans women and disabled trans people.

I know it is important to talk about how we currently face an unpreceded rise in open transphobia. Cis academics talk about stripping our legal rights in public lectures and newspaper columns. Trans studies scholars face constant abuse and harassment on social media, malicious freedom of information requests, and threats of legal action. I know it is important to talk about how anti-feminist talking points from the religious right, such as the supposed threat of ‘gender ideology’, are laundered through anti-trans groups.

Still, there are times I want to talk about other things.

There are times I want to talk about being a woman more than I want to talk about being trans. There are times when I want to talk about solutions as well as problems, about collectivity and solidarity rather than division.

New postgraduates frequently ask me for advice on surviving in departments where they are the only out trans person. My advice is always the same – build alliances across difference. You may be the only trans PhD student, but you will certainly not be the only student who faces marginalisation.

To quote Patricia Hill Collins: “Who has your back, and whose back do you have?

In 2015 the University of Warwick faced scrutiny over TeachHigher, a proposed wholly-owned subsidiary designed to facilitate the outsourcing of teaching at universities. These proposals were defeated by organised resistance within numerous academic departments, led primarily by casualised staff.

Our campaign relied on recognising how the economic precarity of casualization is also about the myriad ways in which many of us are additionally oppressed. As my comrade Christian Smith passionately argued, “TeachHigher is sexist, and TeachHigher is racist”. We knew that women and people of colour are disproportionately represented within the pool of casual labour on which our institutions rely. We knew that increased casualization only exacerbates conditions in which those who are already the most privileged are most likely to thrive. This was a feminist campaign, an anti-racist campaign, a campaign about class, a campaign against ableism, homophobia and transphobia.

In my department, where over 40% of teaching was undertaken by people on hourly-paid contracts, we organised a teaching boycott. None of us would sign up to teach the following year unless the department took an active stance against TeachHigher. This could only work if all of us agreed to openly sign a letter announcing the boycott – otherwise, we could be played off against one another. It took many careful meetings and discussions to organise. Many of us relied on this work to pay our bills, and in some cases, look after families.

In response to our letter, the Head of Department disparaged us in a departmental meeting, calling us “childish”. He proposed replacing our labour with PhD students from other universities. He said we would never win, that the university would never back down.

A week later, the university backed down.

So how do we claim space for feminism in the precarious academy?

By remaining aware of our differences, working with and across them to build alliances.

By campaigning through formal and informal unions as well as our research.

By speaking out and supporting our colleagues, especially if we are in a more secure position than them.

The university is not built for us. We know this in our hearts when we see the statues and paintings of worthy men around campus. We know this in our bones when we the climb steep steps to lecture theatres designed to centre a patriarchal pedagogy. We know this in the sharpness of our breath when men known for sexual abuse talk over us and claim responsibility for our work in departmental meetings.

It’s time for change on our campuses. Let’s make that change together.

EHAOIH6W4AAdiCi.jpg

Concerts in Coventry: 24th June, 29th July

I’m involved in organising two exciting events at Coventry’s Tin Music and Arts over the coming month.

This coming Saturday sees the return of feminist club night Revolt, complete with bands, DJs, spoken word, zines and our Feminist Library. I’ll be opening the night with my band Dispute Settlement Mechanism.

For tickets and more info, click here.

Revolt #10
On Saturday 29th July we’ll be treated to a performance by CN Lester, who will be performing songs from their new album Come Home and reading from their great new book Trans Like Me.

For tickets and more info, click here.

CN Lester.png
Entry will also be available on the door on a donations basis (suggested donation £5, but no-one will be turned away for lack of funds).