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).

 

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.

Shameless self-promotion!

I found myself in a studio recently with my Not Right bandmates, recording a number of the songs we’ve written together in the last year. The resulting EP is pretty rough and ready, but we feel it sums up pretty well we are as a band right now.

If you like angry female-fronted punk and/or music with trans themes, you might enjoy it!

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?

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!