The take-home message from last year’s Nottingham Women’s Conference was surely that, if the event were to be repeated, much more effort needed to be made to consult different groups and be open-minded, inclusive and balanced from early on in the planning.
The uncomfortable drama of last year’s conference was triggered by current sex workers not being given a voice in the content related to sex work – this long but excellent blog from local feminist Uncharted Worlds explains further.
When I saw that they had booked Julie Bindel as a speaker for this year’s conference, I realised if lessons had been learned, they were the wrong lessons. I am not qualified to discuss sex work, but I suggest that choosing a speaker with a history of a similar kind of problematic commentary around sex work is rather provocative after the events of last year.
In addition, the booking of Bindel speaks to a systemic issue with the conference that marginalises other groups as well. Bindel has historically been called out for problematic comments about transgender people and bisexuals, and my personal reaction towards hearing her name associated with the conference was, “I will not be safe there”. I know I am not the only person having this reaction. This, of course, is the easiest way to exclude people – not to actually say “you’re not included” but to make the space uncomfortable, a little like making sure the chairs only fit cisgender bottoms.
Transgender people are likely to feel unwelcome because Bindel is “transcritical” – she feels entitled to speak for and about transgender lives, rights and surgery in a disparaging and dismissive manner. To be clear, Bindel apologised for the worst of her comments about transgender people, made in 2004, but to this day she continues to speak against us being given access to medical treatment. This is comparable to a man speaking on the subject of a woman’s right to abortion.
Bindel, as a Guardian columnist, has a strong platform for her views and her “brand”. Intersectional feminism would hold that it is simply unacceptable to use your power to undermine the rights and the voice of one of society’s most vulnerable minorities. It would say that it is for transgender people themselves to work out where they fit in relation to feminism, how to integrate theories about gender inequality and social construction within their lived experience of being transgender, and how to negotiate the power structures of the medical profession and “Big Pharma”.
Trans feminists are aware of all these concerns and are having a vibrant, radical discussion – it is not for others to impose their views from a position of superiority (and often surprising ignorance), nor to ensure that their negative opinions are heard above those of transitioning people themselves.
Bindel, in an interview with Paris Lees in 2013, identifies herself as fitting the description of a transgender person, presumably as a means of avoiding the accusation of cis privilege. However, cis and trans are not binaries but a continuum; just as South American people may experience racism but should not speak for African people, gender non-conforming people who are comfortable with their birth sex assignment do not have the same experiences as many other transgender people and cannot speak for them.
Bindel will talk at the conference of her experience of being “no platformed”. Although we have been assured she will not speak about trans people, calls for her to not be given a platform at certain events were connected to her transcritical views. It is hard to see how Bindel will not seek to convince listeners, as she does in the above interview, that she is being “silenced” by transgender people – that is, that she is the victim and they are the threat. The perception of transgender people as a threat could, of course, lead to further oppression and marginalisation. It is an easy way to hold back a civil rights movement; to constantly highlight the worst behaviour of some activists.
It is important to highlight the economic, institutional and academic power of folks like Julie Bindel, Sheila Jeffreys, Germaine Greer, Janice Raymond, Julie Birchill and other transcritical feminists. Whilst women’s rights have a very long way to go, we should not be blind to the fact these individuals are now inside the system (or cis-tem, if you like) and have a certain amount of institutional power. As such, I think it is for these individuals to reflect more on how they silence other voices than on how they are silenced.
There will inevitably be a twitter storm over this. A lot of frustrated, marginalised people are likely to get angry and some may say things they regret. Somebody, somewhere may well say “f*** off and die” or something similarly unhelpful in a heated moment and then it will go down in cistory that transgender people (all of us) make credible, violent death threats and cannot be trusted.
All this drama is so predictable it’s almost as if it is being orchestrated. It looks like shock doctrine; a way of stirring people up and manipulating them in order to gain power and control. The controversy will no doubt sell plenty of tickets, but please remember that it is as fabricated as the “War on Terror”.
Meanwhile, folks like myself are genuinely triggered into a trauma response, because every time stuff like this happens, trans people get more marginalised within feminism, and our social support, the thing that is intimately connected to our mental wellbeing, lessens. I personally would rather devote my time and energy into dismantling patriarchy than feel sick with worry about whether it’s ever going to be safe for people like me in feminist spaces in Nottingham.
I need to be allowed to speak up and say I don’t feel safe in any space that allows a platform for transcriticism or notorious transcritics. I have stated my reasons for this previously. These imperious and damaging ideas have enough of a platform – I cannot go online without stumbling into them. Ignoring and sidelining the views of powerful people with Guardian columns is not “silencing” anyone, it is redressing a massive power imbalance.
That being said I am not going to engage in campaigning against Bindel’s invitation. Partly because it is too traumatising, but also because it would appear to be exactly what is being invited, and I do not want to serve an agenda that seeks to marginalise trans people even further.
I urge the intersectional feminist community and all elements within it to ignore this provocation – a lot to ask, I know, but please don’t feed this monster.
What I am interested in doing is getting together with other (non-transcritical) feminists in Nottingham and discussing how we can make Nottingham’s feminist spaces safer for transgender people. A meeting, led by Nottingham’s Intersectional Feminism group, will be happening in October. Contact me if you’re interested (go to the “about” section of this blog), and let’s build a more collaborative future built on consciousness raising and self-reflection. There’s work to be done here, but it isn’t going to happen on Twitter.