Yesterday, I came face to face with transphobic feminism.
Sometimes those demonstrating this behaviour are known as TERFs: Trans-exclusionary Radical Feminists. Whether you feel this is a label that should be applied or not, the nature of what I encountered was loud and public transphobia, and it made me really, really angry.
For information, I am a cisgender, white, able-bodied, middle-class woman. Parts of my identity (both seen and unseen) mean I have struggles as a result of the world’s systems of oppression, but there are MANY aspects of my identity that give me huge privileges in the world.
After giving a brief ten minute talk on Sunday afternoon at Feminism in London 2017, alongside a panel with several wonderful people (Yvonne Michele, Gemma Welsh, Dr Lilia Giugni, Jessica Rowson, Charlotte Baker) who had done the same, there was time for questions. Our topic was ‘Teaching Equalities’. After some thoughtful questions for other members of the panel it was my turn.
A white woman, sitting near the front with a notebook, told us that she was seriously concerned by my use of the phrase ‘self-identifying women’ in explaining who is on Fearless Futures’ school programmes. She felt the proliferation of this language in education spaces was unsafe for members of the female sex. As, when members of the male sex decided to identify as female, they would invade women-only spaces as self-identifying women, and members of the female sex (I’m using the repeated language of the questioner here) would feel violated, threatened and their consent would be undermined.
I felt hot and my hands began to shake slightly. I have struggled at times to fully understand issues surrounding trans-inclusivity and I am by no means well-informed. I am still learning. So for me, this felt like a lot of pressure. Not to say the ‘right’ thing, but to say something which fairly represented the views of Fearless Futures on this topic, but more importantly that gave voice to the struggles of trans women as best I could when they were not represented on the panel.
I answered directly. Fearless Futures do not debate whether trans women are women. I continued: The notion that trans women are somehow immune from violence is a nonsense — the abuse and aggression they face represent the deepest levels of patriarchy and misogyny that have affected all those who identify as women for hundreds of years. The regulation of women’s existences, is rooted in patriarchy — to have womanhood, in whatever form, is an unsafe experience. Trans women are as deserving of safety as any woman.
The idea that having a vagina somehow makes me more deserving of safety than another woman because she was born male, seems to me yet another manifestation of systemic attempts to police what it is to be a woman or a man and reinforce the binaries in which we find ourselves entrenched and trapped.
Thankfully the other members of the panel were fantastic and added their own voices to our collective rejection of this trans exclusionary comment. And we moved onto the next question.
Nearing the end of the session, our chair was left with limited time, so she began to ask the members of the panel to summarise their learnings. She was interrupted by another woman, sitting a couple of rows behind the original questioner. She shouted at me, pointing, and accusing me of not even looking at the original questioner and not having the decency to answer the question. She said she wanted to have ‘this debate’.
My question in this seeming quagmire of opinions is: what debate?
There is no debate to be had about what notions of womanhood make a person with a vagina more of a woman than a person without. We have constructed ‘womanhood’ from our ideas about femininity, none of which are innate. ‘Biology’ does not mean that I deserve dignity and safety more than someone without a vagina.
Nearly half of trans pupils surveyed by Stonewall have tried to take their own life, and 33% are not able to be known by their preferred name at school. This shows the danger trans young people face. It is injustice and inequality.
Lauren was not safe the day she was surrounded and her skirt forcibly removed by boys from her school so they could see her male genitalia.
What it is crucial we all understand here is that transphobia is not limited to the feminist camp in which I was speaking on Sunday last. It pervades our popular culture, it intersects with racism and exists in our workplaces, our schools and our public institutions. Although that was my first encounter with TERFs specifically, hatred of women (misogyny) and patriarchy are the underpinning principles of both sexism and transphobia.
Transphobia is the starting point in this post for what exists within myself and the world around me. Whilst you might not be as vocal as the women I refer to, these perspectives lurk in casual ‘jokes’ and gendered attitudes that need to be challenged. To educate yourself further, read this.
One day, I hope we will be liberated from patriarchy, and other structures and systems of oppression. This will be a day to be celebrated. However, I can assure all people out there that it will never come, unless we stop calling for ‘debates’ about womanhood, and have compassion and love for all those who struggle against misogyny for dignity and safety.
Edited: I have edited the title of this post. Originally, my title suggested that the behaviour and views belonged specifically and only to the group represented on Sunday. Through the thoughtful labour of Gemma Welsh I have reworked the title to reflect my opinion that firstly, these views are not only held by so-called ‘radical feminists’ and also that it is the transphobia itself that i want to take issue with.