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!

Stonewall U-turn on award nomination and marriage; demo called off

The annual Stonewall Awards take place tonight in London.  For several weeks it looked like there might be a repeat of scenes at the same awards ceremony in 2008, when a loud, vibrant protest against the organisation’s institutional transphobia took place.  However, the demonstration has been called off by organisers.

A number of important events influenced this decision.  The most noteable include Stonewall’s announcement that they will in fact campaign for equal marriage and their withdrawal of transphobic journalist Bill Leckie from the list “Journalist of the Year” nominees.

Meanwhile, “Fit” writer Rikki Beadle-Blair has offered an extensive apology for the inappropriate portrayal of trans issues on the wall of the Facebook event page for the demonstration.  Stonewall themselves have not offered an acknowledgement of (let alone an apology for) the offence and potential harm caused by the DVD, but Beadle-Blair’s willingness to accept his mistakes and engage with the trans community on such issues in the future is very encouraging.

As such, it was broadly agreed by many activists that the threat of protest has achieved a great deal on this occasion.  By calling off the demonstration, LGBT and queer activists have recognised the successes we have achieved by kicking up a fuss over these issues.  We should, however, continue pressuring Stonewall to revise their broadly inappropriate approach to trans issues.

“Fit” comes under further criticism

Events have moved pretty rapidly since I wrote my previous entry about an inappropriate scene within a DVD produced and distributed by Stonewall.

Natacha Kennedy wrote an article on the Guardian website for Comment is Free, in which she addresses many of the recent missteps from Stonewall.

Interestingly, a user under the name of “Stonewall UK” responded to her article in the comment section, stating the following:

Just to clear up a few inaccuracies in this article:

1) Stonewall categorically does not oppose same-sex marriage. We’re currently analysing the results of a consultation with thousands of our supporters on our priorities, which we’ll be reporting back on. These include tackling homophobic bullying in schools, ensuring gay asylum seekers get fair case hearings, and whether the term ‘civil partnership’ should be changed to the word ‘marriage.’ Civil partnerships offer exactly the same rights and responsibilities as marriage – including the right to have a ceremony in a place of worship (Stonewall lobbied for this in the Equality Act 2010). We recognise there are a range of issues on this subject and we’ll be reporting back on our supporter survey soon.

2) It is untrue to say Stonewall does not allow trans people to join. JessicaReed is right to ask – trans people who are lesbian, gay or bisexual are – of course – represented by Stonewall. Anyone can join Stonewall. As a charity it is our objective to represent lesbian, gay and bisexual people. When we were set up in 1989, there were discussions around whether Stonewall should also represent trans people, and it was decided that, for lobbying purposes, the two issues were separate. In England and Wales, there are very effective trans lobbying and campaigning organisations – including Press for Change and The Gender Trust to name but two – who represent trans people and who Stonewall keeps dialogue open with.
In Scotland, Stonewall represents LGBT people because historically there were gaps in provision for trans people when it was set up. There are of course now several organisations campaigning on these issues in Scotland, which we feel is important in progress towards full equality.

3) FIT, Stonewall’s anti-homophobia film for schools, has in fact already been sent to every school in Britain (in February this year). This is public knowledge. It’s also public knowledge that this is an anti-homophobic bullying resource, fitting in with Stonewall’s charitable objectives to tackle homophobia and campaign towards equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual people. We, of course, support equality for trans people and we beleive the trans campaigning organisations are doing very effective work on this, which we fully endorse.

A pretty damn good response to this can be found here on the Why The Silence blog.

I find it pretty telling that in point three, Stonewall don’t even really address the criticisms made by Natacha.  Yes, the DVD has been out for some time (given the issues with it, that’s not necessarily a good thing), and yes, it’s focused on homophobia.  So why have a trans bit at all?  Why “support” our equality and undermine it by being stupid and Othering when talking about our issues?  Why state that trans organisations are doing very good work in the area when – if you had a clue – you’d realise that they have barely any funding at all?  We’re weakened, not strengthened by being divided in this way.

To be perfectly honest, I feel the inappropriate part of the DVD speaks for itself:


 

Stonewall inappropriately address trans issues in anti-bullying DVD

Stonewall and its representatives have been taking increasingly bizarre decisions in recent months.  I recently wrote about the furore caused by Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill’s surprising comments at the Liberal Democrat party conference, where he argued against campaigning for equal marriage.  Since then, a number of heated exchanges have taken place between the organisation and its critics: a good summary of some of these can be found in the Why the silence Stonewall? blog.  Meanwhile, the charity’s attitude towards trans issues has been questioned once again after the organisation nominated a transphobic journalist for its Journalist of the Year award (hmmm, this sounds familiar), whilst at the Labour Party conference Summerskill claimed that Stonewall has been in talks with ministers and officials about potential amendments to the Gender Recognition Act in relation to civil partnership.

This last point is particularly strange.  Why are Stonewall – an organisation who are so very keen to exclude trans people and remain LGb only – involved in trans lobbying?  Don’t get me wrong, I’m in favour of any move towards Stonewall becoming an LGBT organisation at the very least (more on that later), but surely if they’re engaging in this kind of deeply important, high-profile lobbying on our behalf then they should damn well let us be a part of their organisation and officially campaign on our behalf.  Otherwise, who knows what the heck they’re saying?  For that matter, what right do they have to speak for us?  Shouldn’t we be able to speak for ourselves?

It may well be the case that the “large” trans organisations (which, in the broad scheme of the third sector, really are very small) don’t have the power to push a trans-positive agenda on the scale they’d like to and have somehow managed to rope Stonewall into helping us out.  For me, this is a perfect argument in favour of a united LGBT alliance, rather than separate groups where the LGb inevitably gets the power and the T ends up left out in the cold, despite our ultimately similar interests.

This brings me nicely onto the main subject of this blog: another instance of Stonewall deciding that they’re going to speak out about trans issues.  On this occasion, they demonstrate how attempting to speak for someone else can backfire magnificently.

Earlier this year, Stonewall sent out a copy of “Fit” to every school in Britain as part of a wider campaign to tackle homophobic bullying in schools.  On the whole, the DVD – like the rest of the campaign – is admirable in its aims, scope, and general thoughtfulness.  This is something which they’ve (almost!) done really well.  However, for some incomprehensible reason the people who put together the DVD decided that it would be appropriate to include a brief discussion of trans issues.

The main content of the DVD consists of a story about sexuality, identity and bullying, involving a fairly large cast of teenagers who attend a 6th form college.  This central narrative is split into a number of smaller stories, each focusing based around a particular character; the brief discussion of trans issues takes part within one such story.  In this scene, Lee – a tomboy who has previously discovered that her best friend is gay after following her – attends a gay youth group for the first time.  Whilst she is there, the following discussion takes place:

Male 1 [is talking about his mother]: “She keeps saying: ‘but you don’t look gay’. I think that she wishes I was a tranny, so then we could be girlfriends.”

[group laughs]

Lee:  “What’s a tranny?”

Female 1:  “It’s short for transgender.”

Female 2:  “I know this one! Transsexuals are people who want a sex change, tranvestites are people who dress up as the opposite sex.  Drag kings and queens – well they dress up for a living!”

[group applauds]

Lee:  [looks confused] “I need to take some notes, has anyone got a pen like?”

[Lee is given a pen]

Lee:  “So what’s a transsexual?”

Female 3:  “Boys who feel more like girls and girls who feel more like boys.”

Lee:  “Transvestite?”

Female 3:  “Well, they feel content with their born gender, but prefer to wear the clothes of the opposite sex.”

Lee:  “So am I a transvestite?”

Female 2:  “No. Lots of girls are tomboys when they’re young, then they grow out of it.”

Female 4:  “I didn’t! I’m a total boy and I love it!”

Female 2:  “…and I’m not a boy, I like being a girl.”

Female 4:  “…and that’s fine too! Look, there’s as many way to be a girl as there are girls.”

[The conversation then turns to the issue of gay marriage. The group seems to be broadly in favour, and they think civil partnerships are an unfair compromise.]

[Edit: the inappropriate scene can now be seen here on Youtube]

In a different context – let’s say a random TV drama – this scene would make me cringe a bit but I wouldn’t think much more of it.  After all, general cluelessness about trans stuff is pretty much par for course, and in the broad scheme of things this particular instance isn’t so bad.  Within the context of a DVD that seeks to tackle homophobic bullying, however, this is completely out of order.

“Fit” handles homophobic insults and the common negative use of words such as “gay” in a pretty nuanced manner, putting all kinds of nasty language into its characters’ mouths and then carefully demonstrating how this impacts the beliefs and actions of others.  At the same time, you learn how gay teenagers might think and feel through empathasising with gay characters.

By contrast, the tokenistic discussion of trans issues takes place in a setting where there are apparently no trans characters (Lee remains a tomboy of sorts throughout the narrative and her sexuality is somewhat ambiguous, but at no point is it seriously implied that she identifies as trans in any way because of this).  We are portrayed as an alien “Other”, a topic of discussion  which cis characters claim they know all about even though they get it wrong.  And no-one addresses these mistakes at any point.

To the trans reader, said mistakes may be pretty obvious, but this might not necessarily be the case for cis readers.  As such, here’s a brief low-down of some of the issues:

1) “Tranny” is very much a contested word.  It’s commonly used as an insult by tabloid newspapers, idiotic bloggers and random arseholes on the street: as such it has a similar sting to words such as “faggot”.  It’s a word with a lot of power to cause pain: something that simply isn’t acknowledged when a character in “Fit” blithely asserts that it’s “short for transgender”.  Which it isn’t, anyway…it can be levelled at pretty much any given trans (or trans-looking) target, although transfeminine individuals tend to suffer from this most commonly.  There are trans people who reclaim “tranny” as a positive identity.  I personally support this, although I wouldn’t do so myself. However, I think it’s always important to be very aware of context when such words are used.  Putting them randomly in the mouths of cis characters in this way is pretty damn inappropriate.

2) “Fit” demonstrates the complexity of sexual identity, showing how gay (and straight!) people all look different, act differently and have different interests.  It even acknowledges (a little) that bisexuality exists, which has to be some kind of achievement for Stonewall.  However, the brief descriptions of trans identities are incomplete, insufficient and somewhat inaccurate (try telling a trans guy that he’s a girl who feels like a boy and he’ll probably tell you to where to go).  Moreover, these descriptions are binary-centric and fail to account for the further complexity of transness.

3) Where are the trans characters?  As previously explained, this discussion pretty much consists of cis people talking about trans people…in complete contrast to the rest of the DVD, which is all about allowing the voices of gay people to be heard and their experiences to be seen.

I’m very much in favour of Stonewall becoming an LGBT organisation.  LGBT people have many differences (and that doesn’t just refer to trans people being different to everyone else: gay men and gay women have some different issues, bi people have different issues again…) but there is a lot that brings us together.  We have a shared history, and broadly shared experiences of discrimination and “coming out”.  Looking at some of the other materials from Stonewall’s anti-bullying kit, I saw how easy it would have been to build in trans issues.  Like gay children, trans children in schools are often bullied for appearing to subvert gender norms, are likely to feel isolated and alone and have difficulty explaining their identity to others when seeking help.  Gay, bisexual and trans issues in school really are often quite similar, and we’d surely be better off pooling our knowledge and expertise to work on resources such as that produced by Stonewall rather than having separate LGB and T packs (on those very rare occasions where a trans organisation can afford to produce such a pack, that is).

What I’m certainly not in favour of is the kind of nonsense found in “Fit”.  What gives Stonewall the right to exclude trans people from their organisation and then turn around and decide that they’re going to campaign ineffectively and inappropriate on our behalf, without our input?

As such, I’ll be demonstrating against Stonewall duplicity in London on 4th November.  If you’re free and can make it to the protest, I hope you might be able to do so too.

(demo link for those who don’t use Facebook)

Stonewall Chief Executive claims that marriage equality is too expensive

Ben Summerskill: Stonewall not fighting for gay marriage because ‘it could cost £5 billion’

This one leaves me utterly flabberghasted, even in spite of Stonewall’s long history of questionable positions and decisions.

The organisation has done some really good work in terms of raising awareness; opposing homophobia in schools, in the media, and in sport; and lobbying politicians.  However, they also have a nasty habit of gobbling up a vast proportion of the funding available to LGBT organisations, pushing aside or ignoring local groups who are already working on particular issues, and toadying up to government representatives and corporate interests.

This is the organisation that charges a huge amount of money for inclusion in their ‘Diversity Champions‘ programme for employers (which can’t do many small businesses and public sector bodies any favours), ignores input from those effected by many of their schemes (e.g. LGBT student societies were entirely sidelined in a recent guide to gay-friendly universities), and insists that it’s still entirely appropriate to campaign as an ‘LGB’ organisation (despite the fact that most of the issues they campaign upon impact trans people, and they’re getting all that ‘LGBT’ funding!)

The organisation’s name couldn’t be any less appropriate. Stonewall was a riot in which some of the most marginalised gay, lesbian, bi and trans people (e.g. drag queens, butches, prostitutes and homeless street kids) took a stand against institutional bigotry and discrimination.  To name an assimilationist, corporatist, trans-exclusive organisation after this event seems like some kind of sick joke.

Ben Summerskill – the current Chief Executive of Stonewall – seems to embody everything that is bad about the organisation.  I was able to attend a Parliamentary Committee briefing last year where representatives of LGB, trans and feminist organisations gave evidence in relation to the Equality Bill, and was deeply shocked to hear some of Summerskill’s arguments:

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): This is really to Stonewall. I wondered what concerns Stonewall might have, if any, about the new disparities that will be created by the Bill—for example, in terms of harassment, the exclusion of sexual orientation. I would like your views on that.

Ben Summerskill: I can certainly say on the issue of harassment we are not convinced that there is a need for protection in this area. Members of the Committee who have dealt with Stonewall in the past will know that we tend only to ask for things where we can provide hard evidence of need, and we tend then only to ask for prescriptions that might put things right.

Lynne Featherstone’s face was a picture; I think she hardly expected a representative of Stonewall to claim that that there was no need for protection against harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation when the proposed Bill saw fit to (rightly) include such protections on the grounds of other ‘diversity strands’, such as race.

Summerskill was also quick to defend Stonewall’s decision to nominate Julie Bindel for their ‘Journalist of the Year’ award. He ultimately admitted on a number of occasions that this nomination was pretty disrespectful towards trans people (others who have issues with Bindel, such as many intersex individuals and sex workers, didn’t get a look-in) but claimed that un-nominating her would ultimately be far too dramariffic. Yeah, right.

Given this noble history, I wasn’t too surprised to hear that Summerskill doesn’t believe in fighting for marriage equality.  After all, Stonewall were quite content to compromise on civil partnerships; they didn’t seem to think there was a chance of achieving full marriage equality…and so didn’t bother fighting for it.  It was, however, the sheer audacity of Summerskill’s arguments that shocked me.

I understand those who believe that marriage is an oppressive, patriarchal institution (an example of this position can be found here).  Moreover, the experiences of the LGBT lobby in the USA demonstrate that equal marriage campaigns can be a massive drain on resources that keep activists from addressing more urgent issues, such as everyday violence on the streets, queer poverty or homelessness.  Summerskill apparently drew upon both of these arguments, but in a somewhat confused and contradictory manner.  If Stonewall believes that marriage equality campaigns are a drain upon resources, why did they bother campaigning for civil partnerships?  Moreover, since when did Stonewall take a radical feminist or queer stance on anything?

I personally believe that the oppressive nature of marriage is a contingent and historical situation rather than a necessary one: it’s possible for there to be a tradition which celebrates a relationship in an open, non-prescriptive fashion.  Moreover, if married individuals are to be afforded certain benefits or privileges by the state, it’s important that all relationships are afforded equal recognition as long as this questionable system of privileging remains.  The current system in the UK, whereby separate institutions of marriage and civil partnership exist for ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ couples, merely enforces the idea that ‘gay relationships’ are that much different to ‘straight’ ones.  And that’s before we get on to the massive complexities caused by the Gender Recognition Act, which forces trans people to divorce or annul their partnership should they want to acquire a Gender Recognition Certificate (lest we end up with a gay marriage or a straight civil partnership!) Marriage equality will mean that trans people can just get married without having to worry about their own legal gender status and how it relates to the legal gender of their partner.

The really impressive bit, though, is where Summerskill argues that marriage equality will be ‘too expensive’.  Since when did equality come with a price tag?  Since when was it acceptable for a civil rights organisation to throw up its hands and say “sorry guys, we’re in recession right now, we’ll just have to wait until the economic climate is more appropriate for our liberation”?

I’ve heard a whole load of people argue that Stonewall does not represent them, particularly in recent months days hours.  I’d like the join them.  As a trans person, Stonewall officially doesn’t give a damn about representing me…however, as a bisexual individual, they’re meant to be acting in my interests.  I don’t see that happening any time soon, and therefore would like them to stop pretending that they’re campaigning for my rights when they seem so keen to do the exact opposite.