Monthly Archives: September 2014

Trans Safe Feminism

Next Saturday, I am pleased to announce that there will be a meeting on “Trans Safe Feminism” in Nottingham in which we will be exploring how, if not making feminist spaces entirely safe, we can at least make them safer.

In lieu of this week’s post, I’d like to invite readers to peruse the materials I’ve put together, with a lot of help and consultation, on the accompanying website, linked to above.. This is a free resource and you are welcome to use it and share it. Any and all feedback is entirely welcome, via comments below or the contact form, and please do contact me if you would like to be involved in the meeting.

tsf3

 

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Nottingham Women’s Conference – Update

I decided to write an update as my other blog about the conference has started to be shared in the run-up to the event. I sincerely hope it has the desired effect of deterring people from becoming invested in a “fight” against what is happening there. It’s clear to me now from last year’s events that good feminists can be easily duped by insider/outsider dynamics – the people shouting at the door will always be perceived as the real threat, and those “inside” will rally together – even if in peace-time they would not have agreed with each other. The cracks that are beginning to show in the discourse then get papered over.

I honestly believe we should stand back and patiently wait for the cracks to reveal themselves. The influence of transcritical feminism over the conference is not sustainable because the ideas do not hold water, they are currently propped up by the sense of a perceived “outsider threat” that motivates people to pull together and not engage their critical thinking skills.

On the Conference’s Facebook page there is now the statement “The conference organisers are upset and concerned that rumours/lies are being spread about this year’s conference not being open to Trans women. The FACT is the conference is open to all women and we hope that you will support us in sharing this fact with anyone you hear saying otherwise.” Later in the thread, they refer to “forces at work” and “facing a lot of adversity” – all of this supports my assertion that an attempt is being made to make members of the feminist community feel threatened and under attack. Whether consciously intentional or not, this approach could have two outcomes:

  • It could encourage those connected to or attending the conference to listen less to the outsider voices of trans people, who are being painted as the wolves at the door (rather than the beggars at the door we actually are).
  • Those involved might instinctively rally around somebody who is perceived as sufficiently powerful to repel the “invaders”. We make different choices of leader in war time than in peace time, so fabricating a war provides opportunities for a certain type of leader.

I have not personally seen or heard of any rumours or lies about the conference, although certainly people are talking about it, and its loose connections with Femifest’s particular brand of trans-antagonistic radical feminism. It would be so easy for mischief-makers to fabricate a story in order to further the perception of a “trans threat”. I think I would have seen and quashed any rumour that the conference is trans exclusionary, had there been one going around.

Although I’m sure whoever posted the comments above on the NWC page was sincere in believing them, there’s a possibility they have been manipulated. And whatever the truth about someone somewhere having either a) “lied” or b) more likely, made an honest mistake about the conference’s policy, I have a problem with how it’s reported. Using the NWC facebook page to stir up a sense of threat from the trans community, would seem to me a small abuse of power by those within the institution towards those outside of it. It is a particularly sensitive issue because of how quick and willing to think badly of trans people many non-trans people still are. There is a positive eagerness in some circles to hear the latest scare story and I have seen wholly apocryphal tales about trans people spread like wildfire many times during my years involved with women only spaces.

If you go onto the NWC facebook page, there are other hints that the politics of the conference are trans-ignorant if not transcritical. I picked up on their use of Sheila Jefferey’s favourite term “transgenderism” (My response – the word “deliberately insinuates that being transgender is a political movement, ideology or practice rather than something you fundamentally are”). I also had a discussion with them about “women’s health” as a subject for the conference’s women only space. Many of us know that transcritical activists use the idea of “women’s health” to try and and show that trans women are not “real women”. Of course in doing this they also marginalise trans men and genderqueer folks who sometimes have the same gynaecological needs as cis women but don’t identify as women.

I still cannot work out whether I was hearing a genuine intention to do better in the response to my query, or merely being pacified, but I will for now assume the former and let everyone know there is hope, even if we have a long way to go. I will keep people posted if anyone from the conference gets back to me or makes an effort to be positively involved with the “trans safe feminism” project and upcoming meeting. What I would like to hear from the conference is “we got a lot of things wrong this year, and acknowledge our need to learn from the trans community”.

We have a long way to go before trans people in all our diversity will be comfortable to attend the appropriate feminist spaces, and meanwhile the trans community will continue to be the beggars at the door, and continue to be painted as a “menace” to give those inside an excuse not to consider us.

Update – I have not edited the above since being banned from the NWC page for trying to challenge what I see as further provocation on the page. In my comment I requested that the NWC committee commit to further training around trans issues. I am left wondering why there were so few transgender voices on the page, other than the voices of that rare breed of trans person who aligns with transcritical feminism. I long for a day when we can engage in a balanced, empowered discussion where we are all insiders and nobody is left shouting (or in my case, weeping) at the door.

What does dysphoria mean to me?

It took me a long time to come to the decision to transition, even though I have been out at home and work as transgender for over a year. I spent a lot of time asking would transition be right for me, whether I am “trans enough”, feeling like I was in a no person’s land.

Last week I was finally sure of my way forward; I changed my name to Sam, change my title to “Mr”, came out to the world yet again, referred myself to the gender clinic. I feel better than I’ve felt in a very long time. But I realise that, while suffering from what is currently known as “gender dysphoria”, I’ve never really tried to explain to people what that means to me.

At its most basic, I simply cannot live with the category that society placed me in when I was born. Cis people feel more comfortable having a legal and social label that is related to their genitals, whereas this categorisation causes trans people great distress.

Does that mean I think I was “born with a male brain”? Er, not really. Humans have been designed by evolution to be uniquely adaptable; our brains develop as much after birth as before, meaning we can “download” our social and physical environment and adapt easily to the changing world we’re born into. We are not, contrary to popular belief, stuck with whatever our distant ancestors adapted to in terms of social roles.

But do I think something made me think of myself as male from the get-go? Yes I do, and that’s a whole different thing, because once you understand that a young trans person instinctively sees themselves as different to the sex assigned to them, you can start to understand what it is that makes them accumulate the social conditioning of the opposite sex. I naturally followed male cues, male instructions, male rules. I ignored female ones. I was effectively socialised male, particularly when I was young. I cared about guns and bullets and hated dolls not because of something innate and natural in me but because of the way society socialised me to fit the male role. If that didn’t happen, if we didn’t have a sense of self, for whatever reason, that filters and mediates the societal messages we get, well then I guess we’d all be walking gender stereotypes.

So what’s natural, and possibly innate, about me is simply the sense of self that initiated all this male socialisation. Fundamentally, and for reasons I do not fully know, I think of myself as a male and always have done.

I think it’s also important to note that people around me responded to my “boyishness”, and that reinforced it – so they weren’t just treating me as a girl, they were also treating me as a boyish person, and a gender non-conforming person. My socialisation was completely different than that of a cisgender girl.

Trans people’s socialisation is not straightforward

So when people say trans folk were socialised as their assigned sex, that’s just not true. I may have experienced some sexist treatment for being perceived (in some ways) as a girl, and considerably more cissexist treatment for being non-conforming, but I also experienced a lot of approval for my “masculine” traits and behaviours; I definitely absorbed the message “I am masculine and masculine is better” – I also developed ideas about femininity being more artificial and inferior. Of course it felt artificial to me because I wasn’t orientated that way, but now I can see that my own way of being, my own attitudes and behaviours were just as artificial, just as constructed, albeit constructed with a built-in notion of male superiority.

So, I hate it when folks say all people with vaginas have some sort of shared experience of womanhood that trans women never had. Trans women have a shared experience of womanhood that is a mystery to me – they have thought of themselves as female and absorbed the according social instructions.

I, on the other hand felt like an imposter, an infiltrator in girls’ and women’s spaces, and a lot of gender conforming girls and women shunned me for my “male energy”. I was an outsider; I fought long and hard to fit the category “woman” and I absolutely don’t believe I should have been shunned from it. Nor should I have had to spend so much of my life changing myself to try and conform to society’s ideas about what a woman should be. I understand and empathise with gender non-conforming folks assigned female at birth fighting to be accepted, included and recognised as women.

But being part of the lesbian community healed that wound for me – I was accepted as a woman, and my difference was embraced. I am glad I had that experience so that I know I am not choosing my current path for cisnormative or heteronormative reasons. But in order to reinforce that sense of belonging to the arbitrary category “women”, the lesbian community erases a deeper dialogue about transgender experiences.

I am what I say I am

As someone who has a fundamentally different socialisation experience from both cis men and cis women, but is forced to live in a world where cis people dominate the discourse and dictate the terms of our lives, I feel very strongly that only I can choose where best I fit in this false and imperfect system, and how best to deal with my situation. If I say that “I am a man” this does not mean I think I don’t have a vagina, it means that “I am a man” is the statement that best describes who I am in a world that has categorised everyone for the comfort of cisgender people. Equally, if it felt comfortable for me to do so, it would be just as valid for me to identify as a woman. Only I get to decide this, because only I am inside my own head and body.

In reality, I remain genderqueer – a person with an identity too complex to insert into a neat binary, but the binary is here and I have to deal with it whether I want to or not. And believe me, the gender and sex binary mutilates me in ways no surgery ever could. If I choose to take hormones or have surgery to ease my distress, that should not be anybody’s business but my own. Nor should transition be seen as something so very huge – HRT and reconstructive surgery are routine things; what really feels huge to cis people is the challenging of sex assignment as the natural order of things.

And to be clear, I do not believe that giving children the burden of a legal and social status according to their genitalia is “the natural order of things” – it’s just a tradition we go along with without thinking.

There’s another side to this. My need to stand in my power as a masculine person and not duck the issue by pretending to be someone I’m not. It has been incredibly hard for me to admit my maleness, to accept that if there is a “male gaze” then like it or not, I have it. I have experienced huge amounts of shame and denial about this. I cannot say that I “want” to be a man, but I am finally ready to admit and take responsibility for how much of a man I am.

Many other cultures treat what we call transgender people as spiritual and important. Alternative perspectives in society can often be hugely positive if we don’t try and co-opt or erase each other. To me, we are all interrelated, all of us who transgress gender rules and norms. Not the same, but natural allies. We should be working together to dismantle all aspects of gendered oppression.