The Women’s March Movement Is Trying — But Still Struggling — To Center Trans Voices

Katelyn Burns
Nov 3, 2017 · 7 min read
Adapted from flickr/Kimika Ying

The Women’s Convention showed me that organizers are committed to inclusion —and that they still have a ways to go.

WWhen the Women’s March happened in January, the imagery of the pink pussy hats and the rhetoric surrounding vagina- and-uterus based definitions of womanhood were found to be a somewhat unwelcoming environment for trans people, and particularly the trans women who wanted to march. In Washington, writer and transgender activist Raquel Willis had her microphone cut for time midway through her speech at the Washington, DC march after several white cis celebrities were added to the speaking engagement at the last minute. After that centering of white cis voices at the original march, the Women’s March organization needed to do better by their trans sisters.

Enter this past weekend’s Women’s Convention in Detroit, hosted by Women’s March organizers, where I was invited to be on a panel titled “Not all pussies are pink and not all women have pussies,” billed as an open discussion on how the feminist movement can be more inclusive of trans people. (Disclaimer: The Women’s Convention paid for the author’s flight and hotel.) I went with an open mind and a mission to speak my truth to those in attendance — but I couldn’t help but wonder how welcome my presence as a trans woman would be, or how inclusive of trans people the conversations generated at the convention might turn out.

According to organizers, planning for the convention was guided by the organization’s unity principles, including a call to be fully supportive of LGBTQIA people.

“We firmly declare that LGBTQIA Rights are Human Rights and that it is our obligation to uplift, expand and protect the rights of our gay, lesbian, bi, queer, trans, two-spirit or gender non-conforming brothers, sisters and siblings. This includes access to non-judgmental, comprehensive healthcare with no exceptions or limitations; access to name and gender changes on identity documents; full antidiscrimination protections; access to education, employment, housing and benefits; and an end to police and state violence.”

Yet despite this commitment to uplift queer voices, many queer attendees I spoke with at the convention expressed disappointment in a general lack of queer programming. Encouragingly, a smattering of queer panelists spoke about general issues through a queer lens. The first day of the convention, I attended a “Fighting for Survivors of Sexual Assault in the Age of Betsy DeVos” panel that featured not only Rose McGowan and Amber Tamblyn, but also Jay Wu, communications manager of the National Center for Transgender Equality. And trans activist Lilliana Reyes was a welcome sight on multiple panels, including an early Plenary on Saturday morning in the main hall that was attended by, it looked like, about a thousand people.

But out of over 125 panels, only two — including my own — directly addressed queer-related issues.

According to Women’s March Deputy Communications Director Sophie Ellman-Golan, who is queer herself, “…with limited time there are certain things that wind up being prioritized, and that is a result of what you think of first. So that’s not an excuse; you still make choices.” She went on to mention that she personally would have liked to see a panel on the domestic violence bisexual women face, and another on lesbian culture more generally, among the many other queer-related issues that could have been featured in the conference’s programming.

In the end, as with anything, it’s all about who is making those choices — and unfortunately, organizers have a ways to go on that front. There are no trans employees working for the Women’s March, and no board members who are trans. There are very few openly queer folx involved either. All of this showed in the convention’s programming.

Late into my first day at the convention, I sat for awhile to rest my feet from walking around in heels all day, and the older black woman next to me struck up a conversation. Her name was Evelyn, and she was attending the convention from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. I had to out myself as trans to her when she spied my “Speaker” credential and asked about my panel, but she didn’t have any sort of weird reaction to my disclosure, and we were both genuinely interested in learning about our different experiences.

My experience with Evelyn was indicative of how my weekend at the Women’s Convention went when interacting with the general attending public. I got the sense that trans issues is a topic that attendees are genuinely interested in learning about and supporting, a fact that was confirmed by the full room that turned out to watch my panel with writer Raquel Willis and activist Lala Zannell, two amazing black trans women.

The author, far right, with Raquel Willis and Lala Zindall at the Women’s Convention in Detroit.

The panel itself ran long, but most of the audience stayed in their seats rather than leaving to attend another discussion, asking detailed questions about how to be a better ally to the trans people in their lives. This was encouraging, but also indicative of how and why the conference could’ve done better; people clearly want to hear queer perspectives on queer issues, and an event like this could’ve easily offered more of that.

My hope is that, in the future, the Women’s March movement will do more to address trans issues. There are myriad topics that would be of interest to a predominantly cis audience, like a panel on trans/cis relations, or on the sexualities of trans people from a trans perspective, or even on how transness complicates gendered privilege levels. I’d personally love to see a panel discussing how transmisogyny is an outgrowth of misogyny as a whole, as well as a panel for trans masculine and AFAB nonbinary people to discuss how to make repro health spaces more inclusive.

Throughout the weekend, I was encouraged by March officials to give honest, if tough, feedback on their efforts towards trans inclusiveness. I think organizers have a commitment towards inclusion, but without measurable actions, like hiring trans people to help with organizing, they’re at risk of coming off as exploitative of trans issues that just so happen to be a hot political topic at the moment. You can talk all you want about supporting trans people, but without hiring people from the community most hard hit by unemployment and poverty, especially trans women of color, that talk becomes lip service.

Supporting trans issues has become another way to resist Trump, given the administration’s multiple attacks on the rights of trans people, but there’s still no place for trans people to consistently find work even in the most liberal of organizations. I still remain skeptical that the feminist movement will continue their tepid support for trans people once the bogeyman in the Oval Office is long gone.

Organizers have a commitment towards inclusion, but without measurable actions, they’re at risk of coming off as exploitative.

That being said, I received positive feedback from the trans attendees I met at the convention, including a young Michigan trans woman who specifically attended to participate in an Emily’s List training for future political candidates. Emily’s List has made recent headlines for recruiting tens of thousands of women interested in running for office on many different levels, and I was happy to see a trans woman among those receiving such valuable training.

Still, despite the positive experiences of individual trans people at the convention, many trans women remain skeptical of their place within the Women’s March movement, given the heavy links between vaginas and uteruses among the march participants in January, and the lack of trans voices among Women’s March organizers and leaders.

I asked Ellman-Golan directly what she would say to those feminists who would exclude trans women from womanhood. She replied:

“If you are not for all women, than you actually don’t have a place in feminism. If you are not for all women, your feminism literally means nothing. If you’re only for women like you or for women that fit in your belief system or that fit your idea of what womanhood is, you’re not actually for all women. Therefore there’s not space for that. There is absolutely not space here for women who are going to tell other women that they’re not women.”

It was an encouraging statement from an organization that trans women have been reluctant to fully trust. But I question how trans issues can be effectively top-of-mind in a movement that lacks a single trans voice. And while my experience at the convention was promising in many ways, I still wish trans issues had been featured more prominently in the programming.

The Women’s March is learning — but it’s not quite there yet.

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Katelyn Burns

Written by

Trans woman, parent, New Englander, feminist. Follow me on Twitter @transscribe

The Establishment

The conversation is much more interesting when everyone has a voice. Media funded and run by women; new content daily.

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