Transphobia in Feminist Spaces (Comic and commentary)

// 24 November 2011

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The following is a guestpost by Oxford-based cartoonist Kay Ri who attended Fem 11 with mixed views about the content and direction of some of the sessions.

When I attended the London Feminist Network workshop at Fem 11 on 12th November, the last thing I expected to feel was alienation from the movement. The workshop was entitled “Our Strength, Our Space: The Importance of Woman-Only Organising”. My anti-essentialist views, desire not to be judged based on my downstairs plumbing, and preference to be in a space that would more readily welcome male White Ribbon Campaigners before female Tea Party members, had naturally primed me to be unsupportive of restricted organizing except in certain circumstances such as safe houses.

In fairness to the presenters, they raised a number of excellent arguments in support of their view. But when someone asked about welcoming trans* women, we got in a little bit of trouble. Gender trouble. The facilitator swept this rather important question to the side, claiming that there wasn’t time to go into that. What?

I won’t repeat here the arguments for including trans* women in women-only spaces, as I’m sure you readers are familiar with the debate. My personal reasons for supporting inclusive spaces are more ‘slacktivist’ than activist; it’s just not cool to draw those lines in the sand, and I’m not bothered. The above cartoon outlines some of the other responses I heard from my feminist peers, one of whom spent the last ten minutes of the workshop burrowing in my arms as if we could protect feminist intersectionality from transphobia with hugs alone. The highlight of the workshop was when one commenter exclaimed “Women’s only spaces are essential”. Essential indeed.

Now, if a kickass, old-school feminist wants to sit me down and talk for ninety minutes about their views, I am more than happy to listen. I genuinely love hearing from the second-wavers, hearing about their experiences with this kind of organising. But framing a workshop as a participatory discussion and then proceeding to “have time” for all the supportive comments and “not have time” for all the challenging ones, is dishonest. Frankly, if I was interested in manipulating a so-called open discussion to silence marginalised perspectives, I’d go back to my work in international development.

Comments From You

Lucy // Posted 23 November 2011 at 7:29 pm

It is totally unsurprising that LFN has again been involved in organising an event that included transphobia and transmisogyny. It would be nice if they would either a) aggressively root out transphobia and transmisogyny in their events by doing things like including trans women feminists as organisers or at least consulting them, or b) just admit flat out that they are transphobic and transmisogynist and have no interest in being otherwise. The game they play now whereby they claim to not be transphobic and transmisogynist but obviously are is hurting feminists, especially trans women feminists.

Caitlin Gwynn // Posted 23 November 2011 at 8:28 pm

THANK YOU FOR SAYING THIS. I was also at that workshop, and was pretty shocked to see how quickly the question of transgender issues was brushed aside. Unfortunately, it seems to be a bit of a common occurence at feminist events lately…it’s encouraging to see these sorts of issues dealt with more regularly on The F Word though, so hopefully this will raise awareness.

anywavewilldo // Posted 23 November 2011 at 10:22 pm

I’d be happy to do the 90 mins – I’m [as my tag implies] an any-wave feminist. I was a young second waver, older than many third waver and I’m still waving. I’m happy to be a radical feminist as well as an anarcha feminist – because radfems were originally the most anti-essentialists on the bloc/k by far.

I was sceptical for many years about the ability of people leaving assigned male gender to get as far as a female gender precicely because I saw gender as so socialised in childrearing… i’ve changed my views over time as I think the trans liberation movement has also changed. I now think the most influential trans theorists are like Julia Serano, women who were radicalised by losing male gender power via transition.

I have to be totally honest and say I mourn many people leaving being female who I feel could have, like the butch dykes of the past, just shown the world many new ways to be women. See I often find pro-trans discourse [esp. from cis identified folk] more essentialist than anarcha rad feminism… I wanted to change the whole gender world and rip it into tiny useless bits – I meet lots of folk who code gender in ways that seem to me to be cutting out lots of ways to be a non-gender-behaviour-as-assigned-woman for example [but wtf, trans people are not doing the worst things to hold up gender binaries by a long shot]

I’ve gained all my most important lessons in feminism in women only autonomous spaces. I think that without males present women can beging to feel like people – and then look at the other parts of the racially structured capitalist patriarchy thet divide us. I think women only space is a huge and complex contradiction to the anti-female solidarity of patriarchy – although all is not cool with power at all in sisterland. I find mixed gender feminist spaces bland and unadventurous – but I also find most 21st century activism a bit wishy washy and dominated by middle class post thatcherity individualism and the politics of nice.

with love,

Anywave Willdo

e lesion // Posted 24 November 2011 at 12:46 am

It’s just so utterly gutting that trans women, many of whom come well aware of the devastating impact of sexism and ready to sit silently and centre the voices of cis women, are still not welcome in feminist space. I know dozens of feminist, activist women excluded due to this. When will it change?

Quinn Capes-Ivy // Posted 24 November 2011 at 12:56 am

“claiming that there wasn’t time to go into that”

Not enough time? Not enough bloody time?! The answer should simply be “yes, including trans women”. What the fuck else could there be to “go into” for crying out loud? That answer, that one little line, speaks volumes. It says that this issue, which should be a simple matter of saying yes, is complicated because there are “reasons” to say no. For fuck’s sake. I’m disabled, and if I asked if disabled women were included in a women-only space and got told “there’s not time to go into that” I’d be fucking livid. But I bet they wouldn’t say that. They’d say, immediately, that of course disabled women are welcome, because they’re women. Complicating things by not giving a straightforward yes is to say that trans women are not necessarily women. Christ.

Helvetica // Posted 24 November 2011 at 1:32 pm

I don’t quite remember it that way. Obviously it was agreed that the workshop was a safe space, so I’m not going to detail anyone’s comments on a public website like this. However, the few women who had attended to challenge their own objections to woman-only space were given plenty of time to talk.

It was a self-selecting group, based on the premise that women-only spaces were a good thing, and not a debate, so the majority of people were for it.

Perhaps because of the woman-only group, there was a dynamic where a great effort was made to allow as many people as possible to talk. Perhaps this, along with the fact that the majority attending were in favour of women-only spaces, would explain the comments being mostly supportive.

I found the talk very useful. All the feminist groups in my local area are mixed, and the discussions (as with most mixed discussions) tend to be dominated with men. It’s not necessarily their fault. It’s how the majority of men are socialised.

I would like to start a group where women can come together for consciousness-raising discussions without men. I think there is a different dynamic in a woman-only space.

It was only an hour’s talk, and I enjoyed hearing other women’s experiences and ideas. It was facilitated in a way that allowed the most participants to speak, which I am grateful for.

Helvetica // Posted 24 November 2011 at 1:56 pm

Also, I don’t know if you recall, but the intention was for there to be more small-group work, but the workshop leaders on either side asked us to be quiet within 5 minutes. It would seem that sisterhood is noisy as well as powerful.

Saranga // Posted 27 November 2011 at 11:48 am

Good article. I attended fem 11 (but not that session) and heard about the transphobia through the day, via twitter. I came away feeling that I have no interest in a movement that doesn’t support all women, including trans women.

Holly Combe // Posted 28 November 2011 at 3:07 pm

@Helvetica. I wasn’t at the workshop but I have to admit I initially blanched at the notion that “the few women who had attended to challenge their own objections to woman-only space were given plenty of time to talk” as it suggests such time was reliant on being willing to tow the line and accept one’s position as being in need of conversion. But -as you say- this was “a self-selecting group based on the premise that women-only spaces were a good thing” so I ultimately agree it wasn’t unreasonable for that principle to be taken as a given in that space. However, provided “women-only” isn’t just a smokescreen for “FAAB women”, I see no reason why welcoming trans women would be framed as something there “isn’t time” to discuss. In an ideal world where transphobia and cissexism didn’t exist, the obvious reasoning would be that such inclusion would be automatic but we’re clearly not there yet so it seems to me that such a question was reasonable.

“I often find pro-trans discourse [esp. from cis identified folk] more essentialist than anarcha rad feminism…” (anywavewilldo.)

I agree insomuch as there are indeed plenty of cis people out there who are very invested in gender stereotyping and therefore seem to like to force trans people’s experiences into safe little boxes that uphold their values. (Just look at the typical media coverage of trans people’s stories!) However, it seems to me that this is not genuinely pro-trans discourse anyway.

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