London’s Reclaim The Night march has a complex relationship with the issue of trans inclusion in women’s spaces. Detractors often accuse the event – organised by the London Feminist Network – of being open only to “women-born-women” (i.e. cis women, but not trans women). The truth, however, is somewhat more complicated.
Leaflets for the event describe the march as “women-only”: a term which, on the face of it, has a quite straightforward meaning. However, trans women have learned over the years that “women-only” all too often actually means “cis women only”: we are used to being regarded as “men” within feminist spaces in general, and radical feminist spaces in particular. As such, we ask for clarity from groups that support trans inclusion. This clarity doesn’t have to include a hefty statement, and can involve a simple phrase such as “including trans women”. In a perfect world, this shouldn’t need doing, but unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world. Alternative solutions include the use of phrases such as “self-identified women” and “self-defined women” when describing who an event is for. These are clumsy, awkward terms, but they do a job that needs doing.
Several organisations (such as the NUS Women’s Campaign) advertise Reclaim The Night as being open to “self-defining women”. However, there is no such clarification on any of the official literature from London Feminist Network. The group is prepared to informally respond to some inquiries about the issue, and confirm that trans women are, indeed, welcome on the march. These informal assurances are never followed up with any official clarification.
The lack of an “official” or explicit position on this issue may seem like a minor problem, but several factors ensure that it is actually quite important. The first of these is the aforementioned history of trans-exclusion within women’s groups and women’s spaces. This is compounded by the transphobia present within London Feminist Network, where comments about trans women “really” being men and jokes about burly trans women “protecting” the march from cis men go unchallenged. London Feminist Network have also previously invited transphobic journalist Julie Bindel to speak at a rally following Reclaim The Night in 2007, and have demonstrated in support of Bindel’s nomination for Stonewall “Journalist of the Year” award in 2008. Moreover, anecdotal accounts within the trans community recount physical assaults upon trans people by cis feminists at past Reclaim The Night marches in Oxford and Birmingham. This history has led to the accusation that London Feminist Network deliberately operate a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding trans women at Reclaim The Night, and the belief that by not making their position clear on the issue they appease transphobic elements within the group.
It is no wonder then that a number of trans feminists have called for a boycott of this year’s Reclaim The Night march, a call echoed by cis allies. I understand and respect the position of these women: after all, London Feminist Network still have not made it clear that trans women are welcome in a formal context. However, I feel that this is not necessarily the best solution to the problem.
Critics of Reclaim The Night and the London Feminist Network compare the situation to that at events such as the infamous Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, where trans women are explicitly banned from attending. However, the situation is not so clear-cut at Reclaim The Night. The issue is not one of explicit exclusion: it is one of non-explicit inclusion. Indeed, a number of trans women known to me regularly participate in the London march, and are open about being trans when doing so.
Moreover, Reclaim The Night is an important and worthy cause. As London Feminist Network explain,
The Reclaim The Night march gives women a voice and a chance to reclaim the streets at night on a safe and empowering event. We aim to put the issue of our safety on the agenda for this night and every day.
Reclaim The Night protests gendered violence against women. It protests the terrible rate of rape convictions and the fact that women are most likely to be attacked by men. It raises awareness of the horrifying number of sexual assaults committed against women.
Critics often point to statistics that demonstrate men are more likely to be subject to assault on the streets. I acknowledge that this is the case: however, why is it that women and girls are constantly told not to walk the streets at night, and why is it that so many of us are brought up with this fear of doing so? Reclaim The Night is a powerful counter-demonstration against this idea, with thousands of women marching together down the streets of London. It’s a powerful visual image, and gives participants a powerful feeling of unity and strength.
Trans activists and queer feminists are liable to question the protest by pointing to the instability of “woman”. This critique has led to the establishment of “mixed” Reclaim The Night marches throughout the United Kingdom, and I believe that these are positive and important events. However, there is still an ideological value in woman-only marches. Patriarchial institutions ensure that women may be afraid to speak out, or find it hard to make their point in male-dominated spaces. “Woman” may be a socially constructed category, an artificial amalgamation of many very different individuals, but it also has a powerful social reality. Individuals are discriminated against in the workplace, at home and in the streets for being women. Misogyny does not take theories of social construction into account.
I feel this latter point has important consequences for what we mean when we talk about trans inclusion. Thus far, I have referred to trans women within this post, because historically the debate about trans inclusion has been centred around this group. However, there are many genderqueer and otherwise gender-variant individuals who effectively live as (and hence receive discrimination as) women, and there are many who define themselves as women in some sense even as they consider themselves to be trans/genderqueer/gender-variant. Trans inclusion should therefore be about the participation of all women who are trans, and not just transsexed women.
I feel basing participation at women’s events upon “self-identity” is an imperfect solution to the issue of who should be included, but it’s the only fair way forward. Ultimately, it has to be up to an individual whether or not they “self-identify” as a woman, and the category boundaries will remain fuzzy. However, the experiences of those women’s groups and organisations that rely upon identity rather than gender policing indicate that cis men don’t tend to use this policy as an excuse to turn up at women-only events!
There are, therefore, a number of serious issues with how Reclaim The Night London is organised and promoted. However, the event remains an important one, and there are powerful arguments for it remaining a women-only march (it is worth noting that there is also a demonstration that takes place for allies, and a mixed rally and after-party after both events).
This is why I believe that a visible trans presence at this year’s Reclaim The Night march is important. I feel that the case for boycott is not clear-cut, and that the protest is an important one that deserves as many women attending as possible. The call for explicit trans inclusion must remain loud and clear, but a visible trans presence at the march can be part of that message. I strongly encourage all and any women who are trans to join the trans presence at the march. This presence is intended to support the broad message of Reclaim The Night, protest the lack of clarity on trans inclusion and raise trans feminists concerns: for instance I personally intend to march under a placard denouncing the fact that it is now legal to eject trans women from women’s shelters and rape crisis centres.
Together we can build a united women’s movement. I hope to see you there!