RadFem and transphobia

Submitted by Matthew on 6 June, 2012 - 4:59

RadFem 2012 (14-15 July) is billed as the place to explore “the realities of women’s lives”.

There’s plenty I could say about how and why I disagree with RadFem 2012’s politics — it’s anti-porn, anti-men, anti-sex worker, and more. But something else stands out, and is making many feminists (justifiably) angry.

The conference slogan is “women together for liberation”, but on closer inspection what they mean is “women born women living as women” (an amendment from earlier “biological women”).

“This isn’t transphobia!” cry RadFem 2012 organisers — it’s not about excluding some people but “assert[ing] our right as women to organise a women only space”.

Women’s Fightback agree this is an important right: autonomous organisation for oppressed groups can be key to raising demands, tackling prejudice, building confidence and making the whole movement more accessible. Some of our spaces are open to everyone (our “Is this as good as it gets?” conference last autumn; this paper; our blog) but some are women-only (our monthly London discussion group).

There’s one big difference, however: we allow people the freedom to define their own gender!

RadFem 2012 define gender through biological essentialism. What’s between our legs when we’re born defines us for the rest of our lives. And there I was thinking feminism was about challenging strictly defined gender roles and assumptions based on our bodies.

Key RadFem speaker Sheila Jeffreys is an advocate of “lesbian feminism” (lesbianism as a choice to resist men’s control over our sexuality) and separatism. She also argues that trans people reproduce oppressive gender roles by mutilating their bodies and taking dangerous drugs.

Is this charge of reinforcing gender stereotypes fair to trans people? In a way, it is true. Many feel gender as a continuum and don’t place themselves in one of two strictly defined places (some people even move around that continuum). But, more important, don’t we all reinforce gender roles in one way or another?

I’m female; I think of myself as a woman; I like dresses, high heels and make-up — am I guilty?

Why are trans women (or men) more responsible than others?

Like all women, trans women experience discrimination and inequality as women. They also face higher rates of violence; difficulty accessing appropriate healthcare; loss of family support; limited employment opportunities; greater challenges in personal relationships; and often, as a result, higher rates of substance misuse and self-harm. 34% of adult trans people in the UK have attempted suicide.

The basic question is: do we think that the way gender functions in this society to create expectations, stereotypes and pressure is bad? Yes.

Would we like to live in a different society where people felt free to define themselves by their interests, abilities, actions and personalities (or perhaps not at all)? Yes.

Do we think we can get there by making people feel guilty and denying individuals already experiencing immense social pressures, the right to their own identity? No!

Some radical feminists are shifting on this issue: this year the London Feminist Network-organised Reclaim the Night march allowed trans women. This is a welcome move.

RadFem’s stance has got many feminists fired up, with Facebook groups springing up, such as Feminists and Allies Against Transphobia, and people coming together on a mailing list to discuss action. Some are calling for a boycott of the event or having an alternative teach-in or protest outside the venue.

The organisers expect a big turnout. RadFem 2012 might attract a layer of women, new to feminism, who aren’t so aware of these debates.

We should be prepared to engage with and relate to these women to show them that there’s nothing feminist about transphobia, or any other kind of prejudice.

To join discussions on this issue, email women@workersliberty.org for contacts.

Update: Conway Hall have cancelled RadFem’s booking at the venue, saying “we are not satisfied it conforms with the Equality Act (2010), or reflects our ethos regarding issues of discrimination”.

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