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.

Imagining a trans-inclusive Stonewall

“The meeting actually went pretty well, didn’t it?”

I heard a number of variations upon this statement echo around the pub we gathered in yesterday evening, as some 40-odd trans activists digested the day’s work. There was an undertone of incredulity: most of us had managed our expectations carefully in advance of the day. This was due in part to the fractious nature of trans communities, but also stemmed from our difficult history with Stonewall.

Back in 2008, many of us had been present at a loud, colourful demonstration outside the Victoria and Albert Museum as it hosted the annual Stonewall awards. We were there to express our displeasure at an organisation that didn’t simply exclude trans people, but seemed to keep making mistakes that caused harm to us.

A lot can happen in six years. Change has come from two directions: from continued external pressure from trans people, but also from a genuine willingness to reconsider matters from Stonewall following a shift in management in February.

In this post, I outline the themes and outcomes of a meeting held on Saturday to discuss potential options for trans inclusion in Stonewall. I will repeat some of the points made by CN Lester and Zoe O’Connell in their accounts of the day, but recommend you also have a look at what they have to say. For an idea of what is at stake, I recommend posts by Natacha Kennedy and Kat Gupta, as well as my previous writing on the topic.


A meeting with trans activists

The meeting – held in central London – was attended by a large number of trans activists who had been directly invited to the event, as well as three cis attendees: new Stonewall CEO Ruth Hunt, Jan Gooding who is Chair of trustees for the group, and a facilitator (who, incidentally, did a very good job).

A number of us felt that a more open meeting or more transparent means of securing invitation would have been beneficial. I’ve made my own views about this clear (particularly on social media) but in this post I will focus upon what we actually achieved, and what will happen next.

The event was in some ways quite diverse, and in others ways very limited in terms of representation. There were a wide variety of experiences represented, and views from across the political spectrum. There were a great range of gender identities represented, although a particularly large part of the group were trans women. There were attendees from across England and Wales, with James Morton from the Scottish Transgender Alliance present to talk about the situation in Scotland (where Stonewall is an LGBT organisation). The group was overwhelmingly white. There were a number of disabled people present, but not many with experiences of physical impairment.

Several commentators have stated that Stonewall were responsible for the make-up of the meeting, and therefore could have made more effort in terms of inviting a diverse range of participants. This is true, but I feel that trans activists also need to step up and take some responsibility here. Most of our loudest voices are white trans women like myself. We need to keep our own house in order: by reaching out to communities of trans people from under-represented groups, by “boosting the signal” and talking about the work of trans people from under-represented groups, and by ensuring that it’s not just us with places at the table.

It’s worth noting that this event was framed by Ruth as one part of a far wider consultation on Stonewall’s future engagement with trans issues. If you’re trans please ensure that your voice is heard in this. You can do so by writing to Stonewall here, or by emailing: trans@stonewall.org.uk. There will be more about the next steps of consultation later in this post.

The meeting ultimately had two purposes: to move on from the problems of the past, and examine potential options for future collaboration between Stonewall and trans communities.


An apology from Ruth Hunt

The day began with a refreshingly honest admission of fault on the part of Stonewall from Ruth. She offered a point-by-point account of how Stonewall has let trans people down over the past few years, and offered both apology and explanation for these incidents, as well as an account of how these are now being addressed.

This was not the main focus of the day, instead clearing the air from the start to enable a productive discussion. However, I feel it is important to provide a public record of this session: if we are to collectively move on from the past, then we need to remember that Stonewall has demonstrated a commitment to change.

Some of the issues discussed by Ruth included:

  • Nominating transphobic individuals for awards. This was acknowledged as a mistake, and we were assured that nominees are now scrutinised more carefully (not just for transphobia).
  • Insensitive use of language in Fit, Stonewall’s video resource for schools. Ruth explained that the inappropriate section has been removed from the DVD.
  • Stonewall’s campaign with Paddy Power, who were severely rebuked by Advertising Standards Authority for a transphobic advert in 2012. Ruth noted that Stonewall is now using its relationship with Paddy Power feed back on advertising they consider to be offensive (interventions which are not just limited to addressing homophobia) which has resulted in a number of changes being made.
  • Stonewall representatives speaking out inappropriately and/or not speaking out on trans issues whilst lobbying Government and MPs. There’s a long and complex history here that I’m not going into in this post: suffice to say that one aim of Saturday’s meeting was to ensure that this is done better in the future.

There was also significant evidence that Stonewall is undergoing major institutional change in regards to trans issues. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that Ruth had emphasised seeking a solution to the organisation’s difficult relationship with trans people when applying for the position of CEO, and that this was viewed favourably by trustees who considered her job application. Trans employees of Stonewall are reportedly more likely to be “out” and feel comfortable speaking about trans issues and concerns.


What’s on the table?

We then moved onto the main point of the event: to discuss proposals for a new relationship between Stonewall and trans people. There were four options for us to consider in group conversations, with attendees also encouraged to suggest any additional solutions that might not have been considered.

The options were:

  1. A fully inclusive LGBT Stonewall, which considers campaigning on trans issues to be a full part of its remit.
  2. Stonewall becomes nominally LGBT, but also funds and provides resources and guidance for the creation of a new, effectively autonomous trans organisation to work on trans campaigns. This organisation will eventually become independent, but can work closely with Stonewall.
  3. Stonewall remains LGB, and provides grants for a number of trans organisations so they can do their own campaigning work.
  4. Stonewall remains LGB, and works to be better ally.

Ruth explained that option (4) was not really favoured by Stonewall, particularly given the appetite for a closer relationship amongst many trans activists. The general feeling of the room reflected this, and we focussed our discussion upon the first three options.

Option (3) was largely rejected also. Criticisms raised included concerns about who would get the money, the impact of competition between smaller trans organisations, about what the conditions might be for such grants, and the amount of money and energy that would be spent by both Stonewall and trans groups on managing the system and applying for grants – money and energy that could be better spent on actual campaigning. Ruth further pointed out that Stonewall doesn’t actually have a lot of money to spare, outlining how money is currently spent on Stonewall’s employees and existing campaigns.  If the grant scheme was to go ahead, then there would likely be a knock-on effect on (for instance) campaigning in schools, and Stonewall might need to apply for extra money from funding pots that are already used by trans groups.

Options (1) and (2) both had great deal of support from within the room. Several groups suggested variations upon an “option 1.5” that sat between the two – proposals included the creation of a “trans department” within Stonewall, and semi-autonomous “sibling” organisation linked permanently to Stonewall.


Outcomes

There was a pretty clear consensus on the following points at the end of the day:

  • Barring the unexpected (e.g. widespread opposition from trans people contributing to the public consultation) Stonewall will become an LGBT organisation, in one form or another.
  • Any eventual solution should provide for joint ‘LGBT’ campaigning on shared issues, such as homophobia and transphobia in schools.
  • Any eventual solution should provide for campaigning on trans-specific issues, such as on relevant legislation (e.g. the Gender Recognition Act and amendments to the recent Marriage Act) and on addressing issues with health care.
  • Future campaigning work must be intersectional, recognising the diversity of trans experience in areas such as gender identity, race, disability and age.

 

What happens next?

  • The public consultation will continue for several months. If you’re trans, please make sure your voice is heard!
  • There will be further meetings held with people from under-represented groups. This is a vital opportunity to address the problem of diversity at Saturday’s meeting. Stonewall are planning meetings with people from a number of groups, including intersex people as well as trans people of colour, disabled trans people and young trans people. If you want to attend one of these meetings, please contact Stonewall: trans@stonewall.org.uk
  • There will be a formal proposal for trans inclusion in Stonewall made in January 2015 in the shape of a report. This will then be consulted upon internally (i.e. within Stonewall) and externally (i.e. amongst trans people).
  • A final decision on the future of Stonewall should be made in April 2015. If this involves full trans inclusion and/or the creation of a new trans group, this will take several months to implement.

It’s important to note that this is not a process that can take place overnight! The process of consultation is lengthy in order to take on board the views of as many trans people as possible. We have such a range of perspectives that there is no chance that everyone will be happy, but the aim is for change to be trans-led, and to reflect the desires and interests of as many people as possible.

Once the consultation ends, its results cannot be implement immediately either. Stonewall may need to revise its priorities and work plans, and Ruth noted that a full-scale programme of training on trans issues and awareness will be necessary for the organisation’s staff.


Personal reflections

I feel positive about the future. There is so much unnecessary suffering amongst the trans population that allies are vital, and Stonewall could be a particularly large and powerful ally.

I believe in diversity of tactics to bring about change, and Stonewall takes a particularly centrist, “insider” approach to this. It is vitally important that Stonewall is never the only voice in LGBT activism, and that other groups continue to take more radical approaches to trans campaigning. It is also important that we remain capable of critiquing Stonewall, and holding it to account. Ultimately though, I’d rather be a critical friend than an entrenched foe.

Statement of trans-inclusive feminism and womanism

Several individuals have been working hard over the past couple of weeks to put together an international statement supporting trans inclusion in the struggle for women’s rights. The publication of this statement comes as the inclusion of trans people within feminist and womanist groups is once again under question, and as trans concerns gain an increasingly public profile.

I was honoured to be asked to sign this statement. I feel it provides a timely response to the aforementioned issues, as well as a recent radical feminist statement on trans exclusion, and the forthcoming publication of Sheila Jeffreys’ new book.

I stand fully behind the statement, and am also heartened by its international scope. As I write this post, the statement has been signed by 150 individuals and 8 organizations — from 13 countries.

However, I feel it is worth noting the anglo-centric nature of the statement. That is somewhat inevitable given that this is a debate happening largely within the English-speaking world. Still, it would have been good to see signatories from the United States and United Kingdom note their country of origin; at present, I feel that signatories from outside these countries are singled out as unusual through the highlighting of their national location. I hope that this disparity and US/UK-centrism might be addressed in future efforts.

I have reproduced the statement below, and encourage others to disseminate it further.

 

A Statement of Trans-Inclusive Feminism and Womanism

We, the undersigned trans* and cis scholars, writers, artists, and educators, want to publicly and openly affirm our commitment to a trans*-inclusive feminism and womanism.

There has been a noticeable increase in transphobic feminist activity this summer: the forthcoming book by Sheila Jeffreys from Routledge; the hostile and threatening anonymous letter sent to Dallas Denny after she and Dr. Jamison Green wrote to Routledge regarding their concerns about that book; and the recent widely circulated statement entitled “Forbidden Discourse: The Silencing of Feminist Critique of ‘Gender,’” signed by a number of prominent, and we regret to say, misguided, feminists have been particularly noticeable.  And all this is taking place in the climate of virulent mainstream transphobia that has emerged following the coverage of Chelsea Manning’s trial and subsequent statement regarding her gender identity, and the recent murders of young trans women of color, including Islan Nettles and Domonique Newburn, the latest targets in a long history of violence against trans women of color.  Given these events, it is important that we speak out in support of feminism and womanism that support trans* people.

We are committed to recognizing and respecting the complex construction of sexual/gender identity; to recognizing trans* women as women and including them in all women’s spaces; to recognizing trans* men as men and rejecting accounts of manhood that exclude them; to recognizing the existence of genderqueer, non-binary identifying people and accepting their humanity; to rigorous, thoughtful, nuanced research and analysis of gender, sex, and sexuality that accept trans* people as authorities on their own experiences and understands that the legitimacy of their lives is not up for debate; and to fighting the twin ideologies of transphobia and patriarchy in all their guises.

Transphobic feminism ignores the identification of many trans* and genderqueer people as feminists or womanists and many cis feminists/womanists with their trans* sisters, brothers, friends, and lovers; it is feminism that has too often rejected them, and not the reverse. It ignores the historical pressures placed by the medical profession on trans* people to conform to rigid gender stereotypes in order to be “gifted” the medical aid to which they as human beings are entitled.  By positing “woman” as a coherent, stable identity whose boundaries they are authorized to police, transphobic feminists reject the insights of intersectional analysis, subordinating all other identities to womanhood and all other oppressions to patriarchy.  They are refusing to acknowledge their own power and privilege.

We recognize that transphobic feminists have used violence and threats of violence against trans* people and their partners and we condemn such behavior.  We recognize that transphobic rhetoric has deeply harmful effects on trans* people’s real lives; witness CeCe MacDonald’s imprisonment in a facility for men.  We further recognize the particular harm transphobia causes to trans* people of color when it combines with racism, and the violence it encourages.

When feminists exclude trans* women from women’s shelters, trans* women are left vulnerable to the worst kinds of violent, abusive misogyny, whether in men’s shelters, on the streets, or in abusive homes.  When feminists demand that trans* women be excluded from women’s bathrooms and that genderqueer people choose a binary-marked bathroom, they make participation in the public sphere near-impossible, collaborate with a rigidity of gender identities that feminism has historically fought against, and erect yet another barrier to employment.  When feminists teach transphobia, they drive trans* students away from education and the opportunities it provides.

We also reject the notion that trans* activists’ critiques of transphobic bigotry “silence” anybody.  Criticism is not the same as silencing. We recognize that the recent emphasis on the so-called violent rhetoric and threats that transphobic feminists claim are coming from trans* women online ignores the 40+ – year history of violent and eliminationist rhetoric directed by prominent feminists against trans* women, trans* men, and genderqueer people.  It ignores the deliberate strategy of certain well-known anti-trans* feminists of engaging in gleeful and persistent harassment, baiting, and provocation of trans* people, particularly trans* women, in the hope of inciting angry responses, which are then utilized to paint a false portrayal of trans* women as oppressors and cis feminist women as victims. It ignores the public outing of trans* women that certain transphobic feminists have engaged in regardless of the damage it does to women’s lives and the danger in which it puts them.  And it relies upon the pernicious rhetoric of collective guilt, using any example of such violent rhetoric, no matter the source — and, just as much, the justified anger of any one trans* woman — to condemn all trans* women, and to justify their continued exclusion and the continued denial of their civil rights.

Whether we are cis, trans*, binary-identified, or genderqueer, we will not let feminist or womanist discourse regress or stagnate; we will push forward in our understandings of gender, sex, and sexuality across disciplines.  While we respect the great achievements and hard battles fought by activists in the 1960s and 1970s, we know that those activists are not infallible and that progress cannot stop with them if we hope to remain intellectually honest, moral, and politically effective.  Most importantly, we recognize that theories are not more important than real people’s real lives; we reject any theory of gender, sex, or sexuality that calls on us to sacrifice the needs of any subjugated or marginalized group.  People are more important than theory.

We are committed to making our classrooms, our writing, and our research inclusive of trans* people’s lives.

Signed by:

Individuals

Hailey K. Alves (blogger and transfeminist activist, Brazil)

Luma Andrade  (Federal University of Ceará, Brazil)

Leiliane Assunção (Federal University of the Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil)

Talia Bettcher (California State University, Los Angeles)

Lauren Beukes (novelist)

Lindsay Beyerstein (journalist)

Jamie “Skye” Bianco (New York University)

Hanne Blank (writer and historian)

Kate Bornstein (writer and activist)

danah boyd (Microsoft research and New York University)

Helen Boyd (author and activist)

Sarah Brown (LGBT+ Liberal Democrats)

Christine Burns (equalities consultant, blogger and campaigner)

Liliane Anderson Reis Caldeira (Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil)

Gloria Careaga (UNAM/National Autonomous University of Mexico)

Avedon Carol (activist and writer; Feminists Against Censorship)

Wendy Chapkis (University of Southern Maine) – “I don’t love the punch line ‘people are more important than theory.’  More to the point, it seems to me, is that feminist theories that fail to recognize the lived experiences and revolutionary potential of gender diversity are willfully inadequate.”

Jan Clausen (writer, MFAW faculty, Goddard College)

Darrah Cloud (playwright and screenwriter; Goddard College)

Alyson Cole (Queens College – CUNY)

Arrianna Marie Coleman (writer and activist)

Suzan Cooke (writer and photographer)

Sonia Onufer Correa  (feminist research associate at ABIA, co-chair of Sexuality Policy Watch)

Molly Crabapple (artist and writer)

Elizabeth Dearnley (University College London)

Jaqueline Gomes de Jesus (University of Brasilia, Brazil)

Sady Doyle (writer and blogger)

L. Timmel Duchamp (publisher, Aqueduct Press)

Flavia Dzodan (writer and media maker)

Reni Eddo-Lodge (writer and activist)

Finn Enke (University of Wisconsin, Madison)

Hugh English (Queens College – CUNY)

Jane Fae (writer and activist)

Roderick Ferguson (University of Minnesota)

Jill Filipovic (writer and blogger)

Rose Fox (editor and activist)

Jaclyn Friedman (author, activist, and executive director of Women, Action, & the Media)

Sasha Garwood (University College, London)

Jen Jack Gieseking (Bowdoin College)

Dominique Grisard (CUNY Graduate Center/Columbia University/University of Basel)

Deborah Gussman (Richard Stockton College of New Jersey)

Dr Sally Hines (University of Leeds)

Claire House (International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, Brazil)

Astrid Idlewild (editor, urban historian)

Sarah Hoem Iversen (Bergen University College, Norway)

Sarah Jaffe (columnist)

Roz Kaveney (author and critic)

Zahira Kelly (artist and writer)

Mikki Kendall (writer and occasional feminist)

Natacha Kennedy (Goldsmiths College, University of London)

Alison Kilkenny (journalist and activist)

Matthew Knip (Hunter College – CUNY)

Letícia Lanz (writer and psychoanalyst, Brazil)

April Lidinsky (Indiana University South Bend)

Erika Lin (George Mason University)

Marilee Lindemann (University of Maryland)

Heather Love (University of Pennsylvania)

Jessica W. Luther (writer and activist)

Jen Manion (Connecticut College)

Ruth McClelland-Nugent (Georgia Regents University Augusta)

Melissa McEwan (Editor-in-Chief, Shakesville)

Farah Mendlesohn (Anglia Ruskin University)

Mireille Miller-Young (University of California, Santa Barbara)

Lyndsey Moon (University of Roehampton and University of Warwick)

Surya Monro (University of Huddersfield)

Cheryl Morgan (publisher and blogger)

Kenne Mwikya (writer and activist, Nairobi)

Zenita Nicholson (Secretary on the Board of Trustees, Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination, Guyana)

Anne Ogborn (frightening sex change)

Sally Outen (performer and activist)

Ruth Pearce (University of Warwick)

Laurie Penny (journalist and activist)

Rosalind Petchesky (Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, and Sexuality Policy Watch)

Rachel Pollack (writer, Goddard College)

Claire Bond Potter (The New School for Public Engagement)

Nina Power (University of Roehampton)

Marina Riedel (Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil)

Mark Rifkin (University of North Carolina – Greensboro)

Monica Roberts (Transgriot)

Dr. Judy Rohrer (Western Kentucky University)

Diana Salles (independent scholar)

Veronica Schanoes (Queens College – CUNY)

Sarah Schulman, in principle (College of Staten Island – CUNY)

Donald M. Scott (Queens College – CUNY)

Lynne Segal (Birkbeck, University of London)

Julia Serano (author and activist)

Carrie D. Shanafelt (Grinnell College)

Rebekah Sheldon (Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis)

Barbara Simerka (Queens College – CUNY)

Gwendolyn Ann Smith (columnist and Transgender Day of Remembrance founder)

Kari Sperring (K L Maund) (writer and historian)

Zoe Stavri (writer and activist)

Tristan Taormino (Sex Out Loud Radio, New York, NY)

Jemma Tosh (University of Chester)

Viviane V. (Federal University of Bahia, Brazil)

Catherynne M. Valente (author)

Jessica Valenti (author and columnist)

Genevieve Valentine (writer)

Barbra Wangare (S.H.E and Transitioning Africa, Kenya)

Thijs Witty (University of Amsterdam, Netherlands)

Groups:

Bishkek Feminist Collective SQ (Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia)

House of Najafgarh (Najafgarh, India)

House of Kola Bhagan (Kolkatta, India)

Transgender Nation San Francisco

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!

Review: the Trans Tent at Notts Pride

Cross-posted from my band’s blog.

I’ve never been to a Pride event quite like the one in Nottingham.

I’m used to large inner-city affairs bounded by concrete, in which ordinary revellers festooned in rainbow clothing rub shoulders with extravagant drag acts, corporate floats, angry activist types, and a whole host of questionable human adverts employed by the big clubs. Vibrant street discos in which almost exclusively male DJs pump out the dance music that’s become synonymous with the scene, lesbian singer-songwriters singing quietly from small tent in a car park, community organisers and charities getting a word in edgeways whenever they can, and that same guy in the flat cap selling whistles on every corner.

I’m also aware that some Pride events are far smaller, less extravagant affairs. Pink picnics in town and city centres, small but powerful marches in areas of tension, and club collaborations between established scene names.

Nottinghamshire Pride was something else entirely. Placed slap-bang in the middle of a massive field, it was more akin to a (largely) family-friendly music festival, albeit one that happened to be really gay. There were many different tents, every kind of act you might imagine, and barely any of the corporate nonsense I’ve come to associate with Pride.

I normally object stridently to the idea of paying for Pride, but at £1 per head the entry cost struck me as entirely reasonable for all. And with an estimated 20,000 visitors, it’s a pretty good way to raise large amounts of money whilst minimising the need for dodgy sponsorship deals.

It was the most chilled-out, friendly and diverse Pride event I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending.

View from the Trans Tent.

We spent most of the day at the Trans Tent, so the content of my review reflects this. The very idea of a Trans Tent was pretty exciting given how marginalised trans people tend to be within the wider LGBTQetc community. Recreation Nottingham – a local support and social group – successfully won both the tent and a pot of money for performers after approaching the Pride organising committee, and proceeded to book a wide range of acts featuring both trans people and allies.

Things didn’t quite run according to plan on the day due to various delays, technical hitches and the like, but the Trans Tent was ultimately a triumph. Every performer was brilliant in their own way, and impromptu stage manager Jennifer of Single Bass did a great job of keeping everything running.

And so without further ado, and in (broadly) chronological order, a review of the acts I managed to see

Solo singer-songwriter Single Bass performed a number of short sets throughout the day. Her songs were accompanied by fluid, evocative basslines rather than the typical acoustic strumming you might expect from such an act. The material was gentle but fun, soft yet strident.

El Dia performed feminist poetry and hip-hop that explored her identity as a queer woman of colour. Her powerful, punchy words tackled the complexity of femme power, gender politics and race in a world full of both oppression and potential.

Elaine O’ Neillwas on form, delivering a typically warm and witty series of poems that examined the intricately silly ways in which trans people (and the process of transition) are understood by the wider world. As always, her puntastic take on the relationship between doctors, surgeries, surgeons and hospitals was a particular delight.

Lashings of Ginger Beer Timeare always a lot of fun, and their three sets during the afternoon were no exception. Highlights included the cabaret act’s tuneful skewering of of Gok Wan, and the sight of Margaret Thatcher performing the Evil Charleston. Unfortunately the orientation of the stage and less-than-intimate environs of an open tent meant that the group’s performance had considerably less emotional impact than I’ve experienced on previous occasions. Nevertheless, they rose impressively to the challenge.

Dieselpunk singer-songwriter Dr Carmilla forsook her normal electric instrumentation for a compelling set of originals and covers on a very shiny ukulele. The dark, evocative tone of her tunes translated surprisingly well to the bright sound of her instrument. Notable moments of genius included a re-imagining of Radiohead’s Creep (“Because I’m a crip…”) and a thoroughly original Rickroll.

Exciting items on the merch stall.

Our own performance was meant to take place near the start of the afternoon (following Elaine’s poetry) but for various reasons we had to rapidly re-arrange everything, and ended up playing two sets.

The first took place around mid-afternoon. We rapidly set up the stage, performed the world’s fastest line check, prevaricated a little over whether or not to swear in front of a potential all-ages audience during our cover of Repeat, and then blasted out a wave of messy noise.

It went pretty well, with an additional benefit of the increased noise drawing in a larger audience. Some got into it; others others seemed to stare in a state of mild confusion. We couldn’t have asked for much more!

We originally assumed that we’d be taking to the stage again shortly afterwards and effectively play the second half of our set. However, it turned out that a whole bunch of acts had to leave early, so we agreed to stick around for the rest of the afternoon and effectively provide the stage’s closing performance.

Sadly we missed a few acts whilst grabbing a much-needed bite to eat: amongst them was the Sensational Sally Outen, who has always made me laugh hysterically whenever I’ve had the pleasure of seeing her live. I could hear her inhuman dinosaur shrieks emerge from the tent in the distance as I queued for jerk chicken.

We returned in time for an astonishingly powerful poetry reading from Roz Kaveney. She opened with an epic account of the Stonewall Riots, reflecting upon the motivations and actions of those who were there and those who might have been there; expounding upon the context of lives both known and unknown in a more difficult, more brutal world. Roz then read a couple of poems about her cunt (and to think we had a brief moment of concern about swearing…). She explored the feeling of feeling, the very experience of living through radical surgeries before growing into your remoulded skin.

A later, second set from Roz was more relaxed, more comedic, as she performed a number of delightfully dirty poems about sex as seen largely through the prism of age. I was familar with much of the material, having previously read many poems on Roz’s LiveJournal, but it was a delight to see it performed live.

George Hadden played a good acoustic set, tales told with feeling. His music was great for a sunny afternoon, and a relief of sorts from the heavy material on offer from some of the other acts!

Fellow punk band Trioxin Cherry also took to the stage in acoustic format as a stripped-back two-piece. Their material was a lot of fun, and certainly a lot more polished than our own! Of note was their cover of a song by The Creepshow, a band favoured by Snowy.

The final performer prior to our second set was Jessie Holder of queer feminist opera group Better Strangers. Now, opera really isn’t my thing, but I’ll readily admit that this was a very special performance. Singing to a backing track, Jessie explored the inherently queer complexities of classic roles, bringing an appropriately different performance to Pride.

We then dived back on stage for our second set. We decided to treat it as an entirely separate performance, writing a new setlist and bringing back a couple of songs we’d played earlier that day.

We were more relaxed than earlier and I think we benefited from this, with our playing more cohesive and direct. Particular highlights for me included a well-received performance of new song This Revolution, the collection of stereotypically lesbionic ladies who turned up to dance during our cover of Rebel Girl, and the amused reaction of the police officers who wandered over during Tory Scum.

There was also this gem of a comment from a friend:

‘Lady at Nottinghamshire Pride walking away with her 6/7 year old son: “So what have we learnt today darling? Tories are scum.”‘

As we packed away our equipment we got a taste of the variety elsewhere on the festival site, as furious folk-punk fiddling erupted from the nearby (and somewhat inaccurately named) Acoustic Stage. The culprits were the incredible Seamus O’Blivion, who I wish I’d had the time (and energy!) to see properly. I’ll certainly be looking into their music.

Apparently our set was filmed, so I’ll see about linking to that when it appears online!

NUS Women’s Campaign recognises gender complexity

I have a special place in my heart for the National Union of Students Women’s Campaign. The Campaign is (broadly speaking) a truly inclusive, progressive body. I met some amazing women and learned a great deal about the contemporary feminist movement during three years as an elected volunteer on the Women’s Campaign national committee.

However, I was disheartened to hear about the Campaign’s poor record on trans issues in the past year; most notably, a female-assigned genderqueer committee member’s very place in the Campaign was called into question after they explained to other committee members that they do not exclusively identify as a woman. The poor manner in which this democratically elected representative was treated flew in the face of both the spirit and the letter of trans-inclusive policy passed in 2009.

I therefore find it heartening to hear that NUS Women’s Conference 2012 today passed new policy to ensure that this never happens again. Delegates voted unanimously for a motion that will change the Women’s Campaign standing orders in order to permanently clarify the membership of this autonomous liberation campaign.

The motion, entitled “Gender complexity and inclusiveness in the NUS Women’s Campaign“, notes that:

That not all those who are oppressed as women necessarily identify exclusively as women, or would choose the word ‘woman’ or ‘female’ to encapsulate their gender identity […]

Whilst the NUS Women’s Campaign does not have a large amount of explicit policy on issues specifically related to people with complex gender identities who self-define into the campaign, it has a duty to make its spaces safe and welcoming for them.

The following is therefore added to the Women’s Campaign standing orders:

The NUS Women’s Campaign is open to all who self-define as women, including (if they wish) those with complex gender identities which include ‘woman’, and those who experience oppression as women. The NUSWC affirms that self-definition is at the sole discretion of the individual in question.

This really should have come about without an individual being treated poorly, but it’s great to see Women’s Conference so ready to address the Campaign’s mistakes. Full credit to everyone who voted through the change!

Student medics push for trans on the curriculum

We seem to be quietly creeping towards a better situation for trans health.

There’s clearly a major problem. The Home Office’s informal e-surveys of trans experience indicated that the realm of “health” is a key concern for a great many of us, with almost half of respondents saying that they did not think their GP was doing a “good” or “excellent” job in addressing their health needs. Meanwhile the 2007 Engendered Penalties report (created by Press For Change for the Equalities Review) notes that 1 in 6 of respondents reported experiencing discrimination from medical professionals.

Issues of health access aren’t limited to those problems created by the referral and treatment process for medical transition. Many of us are still being treated inappropriately because we are trans, regardless of what treatment we’re seeking at any given time.

It’s heartening then to (finally!) see increasing willingness to do something on the part of medical professionals. Zoe O’ Connell describes the positive outcomes of a recent meeting between trans activists and the General Medical Council. And at the other end of the professional “scale”, last week saw the publication of an article in the Student Lancet calling for teaching on trans issues within the medical curriculum.

The Lancet article isn’t the intervention of one isolated student medic. Its author informs me that there is widespread anger (yes, anger!) about the lack of LGBT material on the curriculum amongst her peers at Warwick Medical School. They’re particularly unimpressed with how trans people are treated. The students in question feel they should be taught properly about all issues they might encounter as doctors, and are taking action to ensure this actually happens.

The staff-student liaison committee reps in my year have decided they want to push having teaching on LGB and especially T stuff added to the curriculum,” explains my informant. “I bashed out a quick petition over breakfast and floated it round my lecture theatre to collect signatures for them so they had a bit more clout – so they now have a petition signed by over half of my cohort telling them they should be teaching trans stuff.

Of course, this is just one small step towards the provision of appropriate health services for trans people. As the Student Lancet article concludes:

“I feel that this is a change which is urgently needed at an institutional level rather than at the level of individual medical schools. Only by taking a unilateral approach will we ever manage to change the perception of the NHS as a discriminatory institution. In order to effectively treat transgender individuals we need to prove to them that we are worthy of their trust.”