There's nothing radical about transphobia

by Laura // 17 May 2012, 22:40

Tags: conference, exclusion, feminism, gender, not in my name, radfem2012, radical feminism, transphobia

Trans feminist fist symbolLike many of you who have been discussing the issue on Twitter and Facebook today, I was angered to learn that a new UK conference for radical feminists, RadFem2012, is not only playing host to a well-known transphobe, but is actively excluding trans women from attending.

The conference is open only to "women born women living as women". Now, I personally support and fully appreciate the value of women-only space, but that space has to be open to all self-defining women. Excluding trans women from an event that aims to build an "anti-oppressive movement for the liberation of all women from patriarchal oppression" is bitterly ironic.

Trans women suffer horrifying levels of violence, abuse and discrimination, fuelled not only by the fact that they are women, but by the refusal of the vast majority of the cis population to acknowledge and respect their identities. The organisers of RadFem2012 have actively chosen to align themselves with this majority, and in so doing are complicit in trans women's oppression. Radical? Feminism? I think not.

Then there's Sheila Jeffreys, who thinks that "transgenderism" is:

...a practice in which persons who do not adhere to the correctly gendered practices that have been placed upon the biological sex are considered to have something called Gender Identity Disorder and they're expected to cross over into the other sex. Not criticize the gendered system as it exists, because that's unthinkable but to make some kind of "journey" by mutilating their bodies and taking dangerous drugs for the rest of their lives in order to supposedly represent the opposite sex.

The same Sheila Jeffreys who has been invited to speak at a conference where discussion will be "rooted in the realities of women's lives". Are we sure this isn't Irony2012? Because if Jeffreys and the conference organisers could bring themselves to listen to trans people's stories, to try and understand or empathise with the realities of their lives, they would realise quite how ridiculously facile and patronising the above argument is.

See, when I was little, I didn't like girlie things. I thought I would rather be a boy. But do you know what I did? I ignored or worked through the girlie things and got on with my life on my terms.

Which is far, far, far easier than going through what trans people go through and putting up with the shit they have to put up with to enable them to live their lives as the people they know they are. Clearly there's something much more significant at play here than not wanting to adhere to "correctly gendered practices", otherwise why choose the hard path?

Personally, I don't care what that something is. The fact that some people know they are male or female regardless of the sex they were assigned at birth is enough for me, because I respect other people's lived experiences. I don't want to sit around "critiquing" trans people's identity because - aside from the fact that this basically boils down to a disgusting debate on whether people have the right to exist - as a cis person I'm in absolutely no position to understand. And, quite frankly, it's none of my business.

What is my business, as a feminist, is standing in solidarity with my trans sisters and fighting the system that oppresses all of us. A system of which the term "women born women" is very much a part.

Boycott RadFem2012.

Further reading:

You can't smash patriarchy with transphobia

Trans Feminism: There's No Conundrum About It

Rethinking Sexism: How Trans Women Challenge Feminism

Responding To The Feminist Anti-Transsexual Arguments

Where did we go wrong? Feminism and trans theory - two teams on the same side?

Comments From You

Helen G // Posted 17 May 2012 at 22:52

Well said, thank you.

cathryn // Posted 17 May 2012 at 22:56

Anyone who is concerned about exclusion policy and choice of speakers of the #Radfem2012 conference can contact Jim Walsh, Chief Executive of South Place Ethical Association, Owners of the Conway Hall venue, on jim@ethicalsoc.org.uk

Feminist Avatar // Posted 18 May 2012 at 02:38

They appear to have removed this definition of women-only from the website (or at least I can't find it), which is perhaps unsurprising as this would be discrimination under the equalities act.

Laura // Posted 18 May 2012 at 08:15

It's here: http://www.radfem2012.com/participants.html (end of second para).

sian norris // Posted 18 May 2012 at 09:14

It makes me so angry. I would have loved to have gone to a woman-only (for all self defining women) radical feminist conference. The subjects being discussed are exciting and vital and important.

But i won't be going because of this blatant discrimination.

And anyway, didn't de Beauvoir say 'one isn't born woman, one becomes one'?

Which makes the idea of 'woman born woman' even more lacking in sense!

If anyone wants to organise a radical feminist conference that is open to all self defining women then sign me up. We need to have these discussions without excluding those who are harmed by the violence of patriarchy.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 18 May 2012 at 09:55

Ah, see it now! Thanks. It's against the law, and if someone felt discriminated against because of this, they would be within their rights to complain and even sue. As well as breaking the law in terms of directly discriminating against transgender women, they are also breaking advertising law by putting this on their website.

LUVM // Posted 18 May 2012 at 10:21

And the owner of the venue is a man, too? Honestly. ;)

Eleanor Saunders // Posted 18 May 2012 at 10:36

Incidentally the text on their website initially said "We ask that RadFem 2012 be respected as a space where biological women living as women are able to meet" before it was changed to "a space where women born women living as women are able to meet". I suppose the latter is slightly less nonsensical, but obviously no improvement.

I initially thought the conference was arranged by LFN as they shared it on their facebook page, but apparently it's "a team of volunteers independent of any one organisation'"

Joanna W // Posted 18 May 2012 at 12:14

SECONDED. Spot on, Laura.

Datch // Posted 18 May 2012 at 13:33

I don't understand why concerns about the exclusionary policy and speakers should be addressed to the owners of the venue. Surely they should be addressed to the people organising the conference who will have formulated the participation policy and invited the speakers?

Karen Hanna Kruzycka // Posted 18 May 2012 at 13:47

I'm not keen on complaining about this on the grounds of legal discrimination, because presumably a man could complain on the same grounds about any feminist event that is a women-only space.

I'm much happier with the idea of the boycott, because the organisers will need to understand that feminism as a movement is for all women. Change should come from within, if possible. Hope that makes sense.

Hannah Wright // Posted 18 May 2012 at 15:18

Datch - I agree that complaining to the owners of the venue may not be the most effective means of protesting (although they do have a reputational interest in the content of the events held there) - but equally I don't think the organisers will particularly care about our objections - they will have had this debate hundreds of times and probably expected a backlash. I feel like pressure from the venue could be more effective (though also wondering if there would appetite for a protest outside the event...)

I sent an email to the venue and this is the response I received:

Dear Hannah,

South Place Ethical Society has a policy of non-discrimination regarding our own events and programme. As a registered charity, we pursue an ‘open to all’ policy to enable anyone who wants to come to our events this level of access.

However, as a self-sustaining functioning venue, Conway Hall, we support the charitable activities of South Place Ethical Society and the associated costs of running a venue by letting out our rooms to hirers. Where necessary, we seek advice as to the content of the events if we feel it is prudent to do so.

In the case of the RadFem 2012 event on the 14th and 15th July, we have discussed with the organisers their wishes regarding any perceived restrictions to those attending. Essentially, these ‘restrictions’ are in place to ensure that due consideration is given to the vulnerable groups attending and that the programme across the week-end will actually be addressing.

Kind regards

Dr. Jim Walsh FRSA

Chief Executive Officer

Laura // Posted 18 May 2012 at 15:57

That vulnerable groups argument works if we're just talking about excluding men. But trans women?! They would be the vulnerable group in the context of this event, because they are oppressed by a cis-dominated society, as women are oppressed by a male-dominated society. It makes no sense.

What exactly do these people think will happen if trans women are included in women only space? If anything, a trans woman would be more likely to be harmed than a cis woman, given the likelihood of transphobic cis people being present.

Valerie Keefe // Posted 18 May 2012 at 16:35

I always find the 'born women' metric especially willfully stupid. We're a sapient species with sexually dimorphic midbrains that are non-neuroplastic at birth. Trans women were born women, have been women their whole lives, and are living as women today. Coercively assigned sex at birth has nothing to do with that.

Essentially, they want not only to discriminate against trans women, but to degender trans women with misleading advertising.

sian norris // Posted 18 May 2012 at 16:57

Laura - i completely agree!

Jamie // Posted 18 May 2012 at 17:49

When your beliefs more closely match that of the religious right, it's time to stop calling yourself "radical".

LazyJay // Posted 18 May 2012 at 19:50

Can I just add it's especially offensive that they have invited someone to speak on "gender and queer" issues while at the same time prohibiting those who are most intimately concerned by it? It's as patronising and indefensible as a panel of men debating female health issues.

While I can understand that hardcore feminists and lesbians might have trouble grasping the hard-to-describe feelings of a trans person (we had a conference at the local lesbian bar; they tried hard but it really was a foreign concept), this deliberate discrimination is both hurtful to us and damaging to all.
Most trans people are feminists, after all. We know what it's like to be a woman, no matter what our genitalia.

Brian Berk // Posted 18 May 2012 at 19:51

Oh dear lord, I'm so angry I can barely breathe. My only contact with radical feminism has been online stuff, and I assumed that it was fringe stuff, but they apparently have enough support to hold a conference in a totally legit setting (fuck Conway Hall, by the way). This is absolutely disgusting.

cathryn // Posted 18 May 2012 at 22:35

Hannah.. I got the exact same reply, it makes me wonder if he even bothered to read my email?
Laura.. I agree, the reply would seem to suggest that none of the isssues being discussed have any bearing on trans women.. because, of course, they are never involved in the sex industry or have suffered violence, have they!
I also note the talk on "Radical feminist critiques of gender and queer theory" It just seems to me that the organisers have promoted the 'vulnerable groups' reason to enable a platform for Jeffreys and others to give their trans critical views without recourse to debate or fear of contradiction

romseygirl // Posted 19 May 2012 at 00:18

When the other speakers are announced it might be worth contacting them and respectfully asking them to boycott the conference? As well as making sure that we publicise the fact that the conference excludes trans women as widely as possible so that women can make an informed choice about whether they want to attend - when I first saw the conference I thought 'great, a radical feminist conference!' & might have signed up to it if someone hadn't posted this article on Facebook

Feminist Avatar // Posted 19 May 2012 at 04:22

As I understand the law, in a case like this event, a man may well be able to make the case that he is discriminated against by not being included. It is not against the law to have same-sex events, but you have to be able to 'objectively justify' it, and usually in terms of benefit/disadvantage to the service user (so it's an exception usually used for healthcare and accommodation services, where a female service user is viewed to be able to legitimately object to being seen naked by a man or vice versa, and so single-sex services are ok). If you are a registered charity, you can also provide single-sex services as long as "it is done to prevent or compensate for disadvantage linked to the protected characteristic [in this case gender]". However, as Radfem are not registered charity (or do not make that clear on their site), they don't have this justification. They could still try to make it under the first section by arguing that it disadvantages women as the service user and that may well be fine (certainly lots of similar events have got away with this, although I'm not sure if it's ever been legally challenged).

However, their approach to transgender women is still illegal. The law pretty much requires that transgender people are treated as the sex they present as, except for in some very specific circumstances. Once more, you have to be able to 'objectively justify' exclusion and for reasons not based on prejudice, and you have to do it on a case by case basis, so you cannot have a blanket exclusion. The guidance that accompanies the law says:

"Where a transsexual person is visually and for all practical purposes indistinguishable from someone of their preferred gender, they should normally be treated according to their acquired gender unless there are strong reasons not to do so.

Where someone has a gender recognition certificate they should be treated in their acquired gender for all purposes and therefore should not be excluded from single sex services."

And, as someone who has worked in domestic violence refuge provision, we were (rightly) required to provide services for transgender women and did so (and without any complaint), as did the rape crisis centres in the same area as us. So, given that other organisations who work in this area have made these adjustments, I'm not sure why Radfem can't or how they can justify not doing so in legal terms.

I would also add that the volunteers at Radfem should seriously reconsider, if not because they care about transgender women, but for their own self-interest. When you discriminate, it is not just your organisation but you individually that can be held liable. This means that you could be individually sued and, if you lose, would have to pay compensation and legal costs. Volunteer organisations are particularly vulnerable to having their members be individually sued as there is often no limited company or charity as barrier, and so no defence that they were behaving 'as instructed by the company'. Moreover, they almost never have insurance to cover legal costs or losses. Just because you aren't paid or your intentions are 'good' doesn't mean you don't have to follow the law, and ignorance of the law is not an excuse. This latter part I feel strongly about because I have both worked and know many more people who do work in the 'Third Sector' and it seriously worries me how many people in this area don't realise their legal obligations and behave accordingly, often because they see themselves as volunteers, not professionals or businesses.

If you want to read more: http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/advice-and-guidance/new-equality-act-guidance/equality-act-guidance-downloads/#Guidance_for_service_users

Gwen Clark // Posted 19 May 2012 at 10:40

Thank you for writing this. Reading some of the recent attacks on transwomen by so called radical feminists has me questioning their identity as being radical as well. If you develop a philosophy in the 70's that is unchanged 30 years later how is that still radical? Trans women have changed, gay and lesbians society has changed, queer culture has emerged, all of society has changed but this philosophy has not and is stuck back in a 70's timewarp. Moreover in resisting change the once radical culture has by all appearances become reactionary and alignes quite well to conservative thinking.
Reactionary Feminist Conference? Perhaps a better description.

Lisa Egan // Posted 19 May 2012 at 16:45

I slightly think that a boycott will be pointless. If you're not there your voice isn't heard.

Turning up and protesting loudly at every possible opportunity about discrimination will be far more bothersome for the organisers.

Adventures and Japes // Posted 19 May 2012 at 17:05

Twisty Faster from I Blame the Patriarchy blog is the most rad-fem of all the rad-fems I know. And she says transwomen are women and that this debate is distasteful.

So, I think it's the organisers missing a trick rather than rad-fem philosophy.

Dorothea // Posted 19 May 2012 at 17:09

This was the first time I had come across this debate within the feminist community, and I was genuinely curious about what constitutes 'womanhood' in their definition, so posted these questions:

What do #radfem2012 think defines being a woman?Periods?Pregnancy? Not all women have those..

Surely most 'women's issues' are more social than biological, and equally experienced by trans women? #radfem2012

To which I was greeted with:

Gallus Mag ‏@GallusMag
@dorotheainrome #radfem2012 Oh leave the females alone why don't you. We have a right to our space and our voice. Piss off.

which hasn't really encouraged me to engage any further with their viewpoint! And are they implying I'm not female? That would be news to me!

Vicky // Posted 19 May 2012 at 17:52

In the blog post that Laura links to, a trans woman has challenged Jeffries' views in the comments, only for the blog owner to start telling her with authority exactly what her feelings mean and why she feels the way she does.

Stripped down to the bare ugly truth, this is what supposedly 'radical' opposition to trans women means: a belief that cis-gendered people know more about trans reality than trans people do, and a refusal to accept that trans people can possibly be qualified to speak about their own experiences. Trans women need educating...by cis women. And in case they do something really dangerous (like opening their mouths) they need to be kept out of conferences organised by said cis women, who will talk about them and talk at them, but not with them.

Looks familiar, doesn't it?

Beverley B // Posted 19 May 2012 at 18:31

The term 'Women-born-women' makes no sense, either. Women aren't born women, they're born girls! Whoever heard of a baby woman?

Jane Fae // Posted 19 May 2012 at 19:13

Laura,

really pleased to read this, for two reasons...both to do with your upending some fairly clichéd arguments that keep being trotted out in this area.

First is the rationale why peeps are trans (or gay, or whatever). You suggest that that's a "so what" issue and i so agree with that. It seems that according to minority taste and interest it is either a useful tactic to claim some degree of genetic determinism/ essentialism (lgbt) or not (women). That's often in response to reactionary arguments about how some aspect of gender, sexuality or identity is not "normal".

Persoanlly, i have never seen the need for that argument. Our rights as individuals come from the fact we are human beings: and we each demand equal respect for ourselves and our personal identities, no matter where those came from.

Second, thanks for the reverse tomboy story. One of the constantly irritating themes to turn up on tabloid (and even Grauniad) comment pages from time to time is the narrative about how "i used to be a bit girly/boyish when i was young...but _I_ never saw the need to transition".

To which the simple answer is: quite. Maybe that ought to be a clue (to the person expressing that view) that there is a world of difference between someone who plays with or challenges gender norms...and someone who feels profoundly at odds with their assigned gender.

I'm talking less and less about my own journey now...but a couple of out-takes. Once i knew that i could transition, it was not a matter of "if": it was an absolute, unremitting "when", which i would have fought for against almost any odds. Not a comparison, so much as a simile: i suspect, without personal experience of same, that the sense is not unlike the way some individuals feel when they decide it is time to have children. Overwhelming.

Second, as you note, there is a lot of pain associated with that decision. Psychological, emotional and yes: very physical, too. Perhaps my most physically painful life experience to date happened about a week after surgery: a "minor complication" which had me screaming in agony...and needed an urgent trip back to theatre to sort out.

And was it worth it? Yes. A million, million times yes. I am still to this day filled with joy at a birth mistake put right...can add a little skip into my walk down the road, just proud to be a woman.

Humbled, too, by the fact that so many brilliant women, feminists and occasionally not, are perfectly happy to accept me as i am now.


anywavewilldo // Posted 20 May 2012 at 01:08

"See, when I was little, I didn't like girlie things. I thought I would rather be a boy. But do you know what I did? I ignored or worked through the girlie things and got on with my life on my terms.

Which is far, far, far easier than going through what trans people go through and putting up with the shit they have to put up with to enable them to live their lives as the people they know they are."


Really?

We need to stop this bullshit view that trans* trumps cis

trans* experience is hard but non-gender conforming women of all assigned gender are punished by society. Viciously punished.

Are you telling me a mouthy butch AFAB dyke gets more slide from the patriarchy than a gender-conforming, passing trans* woman? Are you telling me the average uppity feminist gets slide because she 'worked through girlie things'. IT IS NOT A COMPETITION

Radical feminist *critique of gender* is totally legitimate from a theoretical point of view. Radical feminism is gender-atheist.
Online feminist discourse is norming to a point where we are accepting ideas of what is 'feminine' and what is 'masculine' in very essentialist ways - and it's creating this bizarre idea that life is a cakewalk as long as your assigned gender at birth 'matches' your self-gender.
Gender is a prison, gender is a system of domination, gender is a social construction that oppresses women and trans* people because they're situated as lesser than default-humans i.e. men.

Whatever you think about this particular conference or it's policy there is no excuse for such dangerous and naive positions on gender and its role in women's subjugation.

Amber // Posted 20 May 2012 at 15:16

"space, but that space has to be open to all self-defining women.
Excluding trans women from an event that aims to build an
"anti-oppressive movement for the liberation of all women from
patriarchal oppression" is bitterly ironic."

Also extremely sexist.

Danielle // Posted 20 May 2012 at 19:07

Greetings from across the pond,
we had similar problems recently in Vancouver (http://www.xtra.ca/public/Vancouver/Lus_womenbornwomen_policy-7281.aspx) and though we were offered legal means to settle things, the tactics chosen were community building. We called public meetings and invited our allies from feminist organizations to join the conversation, and worked on an education/friendly pressure campaign, and it succeeded (http://www.xtra.ca/public/Vancouver/Womenonly_pharmacy_reverses_policy_excluding_trans_women-8271.aspx). I'm not sure if it would work there, but it is worth trying. You have an opportunity to educate most of the women's community before they go to this event. If it can be done with some success, the dinosaurs will be exposed for the haters they are. Having a teach in with allies outside the conference on privilege and process might change a few minds. Good luck.

Laura // Posted 20 May 2012 at 19:12

@ anywavewilldo - I agree that gender stereotyping is extremely harmful and I didn't mean to imply that it's easy to be non-gender conforming. As Jane Fae mentions below, I was trying to tackle this widespread assumption that being trans is an extreme and unnecessary reaction to disliking traditional gender roles. When I talked about my experience being easier, I was referring to my own personal childhood dislike of certain gendered expectations, the kind of basic things that people talk about when they ask why trans people can't just ignore gender stereotypes rather than transition. I wasn't trying to set up a competition or hierarchy between trans and cis people.

Louise N // Posted 20 May 2012 at 20:40

Thankyou for this.

It's been really amazing to see the response from our cis allies against transphobia from parts of the radical feminist community.

Jessica // Posted 21 May 2012 at 16:46

Then there's Sheila Jeffreys, who thinks that "transgenderism" is:

...a practice in which persons who do not adhere to the correctly gendered practices that have been placed upon the biological sex are considered to have something called Gender Identity Disorder and they're expected to cross over into the other sex. Not criticize the gendered system as it exists, because that's unthinkable but to make some kind of "journey" by mutilating their bodies and taking dangerous drugs for the rest of their lives in order to supposedly represent the opposite sex.

Sheila Jeffreys, gotta love it. As a trans woman, let me respond to that lovely quote of hers:

The only person who expected me "to cross over into the other sex" was me. No one pushed me on it, no one made me do it. I got the money, I paid for it. I might half believe an argument like that if someone else were paying for it.

Mutilated? You betcha. I couldn't be happier.

Taking dangerous drugs? I'll answer that question with a question: Since when is estrogen dangerous? Half of the world's population seems to be just fine with the stuff. You wanna know what I don't trust? All the anti-depressants and xanax and the other stuff psychiatrists tried to get me to take-- including haldol. Hell no.

Do I (supposedly) represent the opposite sex? Ummm, no. I don't consider myself a representative of all women-- no one elected me and I'm not a pompously arrogant windbag. I'm happy enough that "woman" is a term that's representative of me and that other people recognize that.

Anna // Posted 28 May 2012 at 10:44

In the 1990s I lived in Melbourne, and studied then worked at the University of Melbourne, where Sheila Jeffreys teaches. I participated in a number of events with her, putting the trans point of view across, and countering her fatuous arguments. I have to say, I believe the woman is fixed in her ways and impervious to reason. I found it a very corrosive experience trying to counter the malign influence of her, Janice Raymond et al. Their coterie is like a cult. It's based on blind belief. My suggested strategy is to ignore them. Controversy, and publicity make them stronger and win them more converts. Better to ignore them, and let them suffer the fate that they fear most, irrelevancy. It's certainly what they deserve.

ashleec // Posted 29 May 2012 at 11:24

In Vancouver (Canada) trans exclusion from so called 'feminist' organisations has been struggled against by feminist activists for some time - including the other day: http://vancouver.mediacoop.ca/blog/flux/11077

Roz Kaveney // Posted 31 May 2012 at 11:51

Heads up that Laura is being slagged off for this post On the anti-trans website GENDERTRENDER by the moderately noxious DavetheSquirrel http://gendertrender.wordpress.com/2012/05/30/women-up-north-feminist-conference-protested-no-platformed-for-scheduling-a-female-only-survivor-of-sex-abuse-workshop/#comments

I don't particularly recommend anyone check it out - it's the usual abuse of so-called libfems coupled with some anti-trans rant, but just so people know that anyone trans or allied is liable to be targetted for unpleasant abuse. Worth knowing next time they throw a pity party about the more ill-advised things people on our side say

Laura // Posted 31 May 2012 at 11:58

Thanks Roz. We "No platformed" them!! Hilarious! All I did was post an apology for advertising the conference before I realised they had a trans exclusionary policy for some workshops.

doobedoo // Posted 12 June 2012 at 09:58

I am a marxist feminist and I find it absolutely disgusting how these so called radical feminists can do this. I have like most women experienced sexism in my life, but this is nothing compared to what transsexual people of both genders have to go through on a daily basis. I am horrified at whats being done in my name.

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