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.

Reclaim the Night London to become explicitly trans-inclusive

A rather good article explaining why cis women need to actively oppose transphobia within feminism was published on The F-Word a couple of days ago.

This piece was written by Ray Filar, a member of the steering committee for Reclaim the Night London. The organisers of this annual demonstration against sexist harassment and violence have long maintained a studied ambivalence on the subject of trans inclusion. To my pleasant surprise, the article announced a welcome change in policy:

Every year, the women-only march Reclaim the Night London is questioned on its attitude towards trans women. As one of the members of this year’s steering committee, I’m pleased to say that it will now be made clear on our website that Reclaim the Night welcomes all kinds of women, whether trans, cis, disabled, of colour, lesbian, able-bodied, white, bisexual, Muslim, Jewish, straight or otherwise.

This new approach is echoed by the Reclaim the Night London Facebook page, which includes a picture of last year’s trans inclusion bloc amongst the small number of images used to promote this year’s event. On a more personal note, I’ve also been asked to DJ at the demonstration after-party for the second year running, and I’m not exactly silent about my own trans identity!

So, we’ve “won”, right? Well, not quite. Filar’s post continues:

But the discussion is far from over, and it is a small and rather pathetic step for a group which officially acknowledges that trans women are just as welcome as cis women, but doesn’t really want to say so openly. We still have to appease the transphobes. Their voice is small, but by god it is vocal. The committee that finally agreed to welcome trans women on our website, (but not our flyer, oddly) was split down the middle; a small minority expressed opinions that would make even David Starkey blush.

We still have a long way to go before we eradicate transphobia within the women’s movement. Nevertheless, I feel more progress has been made than Filar perhaps realises.

From a trans perspective, one of the biggest problems with Reclaim the Night has always been that organisers and volunteers who said that they were trans-positive never seemed prepared to actively oppose the transphobic attitudes propagated by their peers. This situation finally seems to have changed, with the shift in policy indicating that a critical mass of cis feminists have decided to act like true allies and stand up for trans inclusion. There’s a lot still to be done, but we’re getting there.

Cis and trans feminists alike need to keep up the pressure in a sisterly fashion. To that end, I hope to see more trans and genderqueer women at this year’s Reclaim the Night march: let us never forget that we fight for trans inclusion within feminism because we ultimately seek to smash patriarchy!

I wrote about why individuals who identify at any intersection of “trans” and “woman” should consider participating in Reclaim the Night last year. This post included a brief discussion of gender policing and genderqueer inclusion.

Why I will be at Reclaim The Night in London this Saturday

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!

A Trans Presence at Reclaim The Night London

The annual Reclaim The Night march takes place in London this weekend, on Saturday 27 November.

A number of trans activists have launched a Facebook group to promote a trans presence at the march.  Since the group is currently private in order to avoid potentially outing anyone, I’ve offered to replicate the information from that group here for individuals who might not use Facebook or be able to access said group.

This group is for anyone who exists at the intersection of “TRANS” and “WOMAN” who wishes to participate in the national Reclaim The Night march in London this year. 

This group is also for ALLIES who wish to support us.

We are not always welcome at women’s events, and are often excluded from women’s spaces. Reclaim The Night is meant to be open to “ALL” women, but the official literature does not make it clear that women who happen to be trans, genderqueer or otherwise gender-variant are welcome.

Rather than boycott the event, we propose taking to the streets, and peacefully marching alongside our sisters at Reclaim The Night.

We march because violence against women is endemic in our society.

We march because rape conviction rates are shockingly low.

We march because the harassment of women in the street is an everyday occurrence.

We march because intersecting oppressions mean that some women are particularly at risk (let us not forget that the majority of known trans murder victims in the west are black trans women).

We march because cuts to everything from education to legal aid will disproportionately affect women: particularly those women who have been subject to violence.

We march to oppose the closing of shelters and rape crisis centres.

We march to oppose the fact that it is legal to discriminate against women who are trans and/or genderqueer in shelters and rape crisis centres.

We march because misogyny and patriarchal transphobia are our real enemies.

We march because we should never have to feel afraid on the streets at night.

We ask that the organisers of Reclaim The Night acknowledge the continuing transphobia within women’s movements.

We ask that, in the light of this, the literature advertising Reclaim The Night makes explicit that we are welcome.

We deeply respect the arguments of those trans women and cis allies who have called for a boycott of Reclaim The Night, but wish to take to the streets and march with our sisters.

We wish to note that many women’s groups who participate in Reclaim The Night (such as the NUS Women’s Campaign) are explicitly trans-inclusive.

We ultimately wish to move beyond the “trans wars” and participate in the women’s movement without our transness having to even be an issue.

We ask trans (and trans ally) participants to respect the aims and intentions of Reclaim The Night. There is a separate protest and a mixed rally and after-party at which all are welcome, but the march is for those who identify as women. The manner and nature of this identity is, of course, your personal decision and understanding.

Reclaim The Night London exists to protest against – and raise awareness of – violence against women. Organisers explain:

“In every sphere of life we negotiate the threat or reality of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment. We cannot claim equal citizenship while this threat restricts our lives as it does. We demand the right to use public space without fear. We demand this right as a civil liberty, we demand this as a human right. 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 and every night and day.”

http://londonfeministnetwork.org.uk/events/reclaim-the-night/

Please share suggestions for banners and placards! Some ideas we are thinking about include:

“Women who are Trans – Marching with our Sisters”

“Women who are Trans and Genderqueer – We’re victims of the Patriarchy too”

“We Need Access To Shelters”

“We Need Access To Rape Crisis Centres”

NUS Women’s Campaign No-Platforms Transphobic Speakers

The NUS Women’s Campaign passed a motion at its annual national conference today to ensure that it never again offers a platform to transphobes.

The clauses ensuring this read are copied out below in full.

That the women’s officer or members of the committee shall not share a platform with Julie Bindel or others transphobic speakers.

The NUS Women’s campaign shall not offer a platform to a transphobic speaker, nor shall it officially support any event that does.

The motion makes an example of Julie Bindel, a journalist who has frequently written articles attacking trans people, amongst others. A couple of years ago, the NUS Women’s Officer found herself in the difficult position of sharing a platform with Bindel at the rally following London’s Reclaim The Night march. The new policy means that similar incidents should not happen in the future.

The motion, entitled “T is NOT for Tokenism”, also calls for a broad discussion with trans students about how best to advertise NUS Women’s events in a trans-inclusive fashion, and ensures that the NUS Women’s trans caucus is open to FtM spectrum individuals who “experience discrimination rooted in their having been assigned a female gender role” or “their being perceived as women”.

The NUS Women’s Campaign is already inclusive of trans women. Policy passed in 2007 ensured that campaign events are open to all women on a self-defining basis. There is a trans representative on the Women’s Committee elected by members of an autonomous trans caucus at the campaign’s annual conference. This year’s event featured a workshop exploring links between LGBT activism and feminism, and another discussing the role of trans people in women’s spaces.

Other significant policy passed at the conference included a call for greater representation of black women within the campaign (the vote for which followed a dignified protest the previous evening by most of the few black women present at the conference), a condemnation of sexism from student marketing “specialist” NUSSL, and continued support for pro-choice organisations, sex workers’ unions and groups fighting against the exploitation of women’s bodies in the media and Student Unions.