Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Intersectional Feminism 2016: Addressing the TERFs Through The Conversations Project 2016

It's an amazing feeling when you receive your first feedback regarding a published blog post or article, especially when that feedback comes from an academic that you particularly admire. John Stoltenberg, radical feminist, gay man and lifelong partner of trans-supporting radical feminist Andrea Dworkin who has written books to help critics understand rape culture and the need for men to disavow traditional patriarchy within traditional gender boundaries decided to get in touch with me after reading my Transfeminism blog post
 (http://sasssvensknorsk.blogspot.co.uk/2016/08/transgender-activism-and-feminism.html) to highlight the current work he is engaged in, i.e. the creation of a dialogue space between trans feminists, mainstream feminists and radical feminists about "what it is to be a woman" and to try and develop intersectional narratives that can be used practically to argue for the improvement of  all women's rights in 2016 and beyond.

The Conversations Project launched on January 1st is an attempt to debunk the myth that radical feminism has always taken issue with transactivism, a myth that seems to perpetuated by mainstream media's obsession with a minority of radical feminists who seem to hate trans women; The Advocate article gives the example of Germaine Greer's comments on Caitlyn Jenner after she was named Woman of the Year by Glamour - suffice to say that she went back to her "castration" and panto-dame arguments she's espoused for decades and added in a tough of dogue to make it appear "funny". Bit warped but if cocker spaniels are her thing I hope it doesn't shit on her crappy drab dress sense ;) Because obviously she cares far more about physiological features than about emotional feelings or any notion of gender as they currently stand. Ah well :)

The spark that created the Conversations Project was as the result of a conversation between Stoltenberg and transfeminist Cristan Williams in 2014 after Williams made a comment after reading Stoltenberg's essay on Andrea Dworkin Andrea Dworkin Was Not Transphobic a sentiment I share after having read some of her work and analysing her words within my context of feminist rhetorical engagement with trans issues. They'd never met or heard of each other before but after numerous critical exchanges it was decided they needed to highlight the fact a positive transinclusive radical narrative had existed in second wave feminism all along. The Conversations Project is wide ranging and takes into account voices from a range of contributors, both historically and contemporaneously including queer theorist Judith Butler and Catharine M. McKinnon. The aim of the project is to generate "reasoned discussion" that is "informed by historical evidence", allowing for easy curation of content. The resources are designed with easy searchability in mind for students and researchers and includes glossary, suggested readings and a historical timeline documenting the development of radical and intersectional transfeminism. There's also a quarterly journal planned and a book-length collaboration of essays. All sounds excellent for any student of feminism!

Yet even before the conversation has properly begun the Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminists (TERFs) had slated the project as undermining "true" feminist discourse by allowing "biological" men who had never and could never experience period pains or lookism to join the conversation in the first place. For example, Wendy Lev on a Facebook response to an Advocate article introducing the
Conversations Project has claimed transwomen are "misogynist, lesbophobic and discriminate us to no end" whilst ending her comment with "Use your brain, lefties". This goes to show that radical feminist discourse has been taken over in part by conservative women who fear widening of gender definitions.  It also demonstrates a rather distinct lack of awareness of transwomen who become lesbian post-transition because they were in love with a straight/bi or lesbian woman prior or during their transitioning process. Gender and sexuality are inherently separate concepts even if they link up at times, so to say that the only types of transwomen who are acceptable are those who want to be lesbian is rather shockingly divisive! Transwomen who were initially perceived as gay men prior to transition are not the enemy. We do not hate women! Many of us have best friends who are women and some have had children through surrogacy. I may not want children or have engaged in sex with a cisgendered woman but that does not mean I hate them!

A lot of fear about giving transwomen a voice within the history of the feminist movement seems to come from Lesbian feminists who don't seem to want to relinquish their control over the mainstream narrative. They say feminism is only a "female organisational tool" but they never really seem to argue how they are going to use it effectively to benefit everyone's lives. Now I am sure there are a minority of even transwomen who send disgusting rape and mutilation threats to Lesbian feminists because they disagree with their point of view and are just generally disgusting trolls that need to be reported. Death threats should never be acceptable as a form of debate, even on social media platforms. And such cases have to happen because they come up on mainstream feminist threads on a regular basis. Hence why I can see why some feminists demand safe spaces that can only contain women biologically born as women, if that's who they are comfortable supporting their point of view. Does that mean that transwomen can only have trans safe spaces in which to voice their feminist narrative, despite the fact that most issues that affect biologically born women affect transwomen as well? I just don't believe any group deserves to own an entire critical narrative, choosing who they accept support and criticism from based on their physiological characteristics.

A key accepted argument within radical feminism is a desire to "abolish gender"; they want to free women from the shackles of labelling and destroy the stereotypes. Hence to them transwomen are only reinforcing the existing binary existence of gender because they are using surgical procedures to try and achieve a state of physical femininity that they find beautiful rather than trying to degender their own bodies. It'd be great to live in a world where the only labels we need to use were our names that we could choose for ourselves. I have to ask does the process of surgery actually create a "woman" for them physically when radical feminists like Greer say they are "castrating themselves" because they cannot handle the physical features of manhood? Seems a bit hypocritical to me. These TERFs want to degender and yet ascribe gender at the same time. If we really wanted to abolish gender let everyone engage in the discussion!

Another interesting dimension to the argument is whether men should be allowed to engage in feminist discourse in any way. Megan Mackin has posited that academics like Stoltenberg have "appropriated feminism, women's oppression and Andrea (Dworkin)'s voice" and that act has left feminism open to "being discredited by those who find women irritating" because they challenge male entitlement. Essentially men who use feminist ideas are "fetishizing" them and transwomen are also doing this to gain advantage and be accepted more easily. So when I was "presenting" or being perceived as an effeminate gay male I wrote my University essays using feminist ideas to ridicule male satire and to highlight the Establishment etiquette rules that Jane Austen and Aphra Behn wanted to get their readers/audience to challenge through appreciation of their texts. Was I also appropriating feminist voices to do this? What about now that I have "come out" as a transwoman? Can I still be accused of appropriation? I believe men have a place within feminist discourse, particularly if they help to contribute new ideas as to how to help to reduce rape rates or to improve representation within boardrooms and the debating chamber of the House of Commons.

Transfeminists and activists need to do their part to dispel some of the myths perpetuated by TERFs. Some TERFs hate the term itself being used because they see it as derogative and "misogynistic", so perhaps using a different term such as "trans hating radical feminist" or "Biological Radical Feminist" might make them feel better. It's true there are trans people who are rapists and probably use their transitioning process to rape women within their own spaces. But there are women who pretend to be men to rape women too. There are even lesbian radical feminists who are rapists. Let's not pretend that there aren't rapists within certain communities because no matter how you label yourself, whether through gender, biology, sexuality, political/theoretical association, I can guarantee you there is at least 1 person that self-defines that way who is a rapist.  Not every transfeminist wants to invade biologically born women's only spaces, especially when it comes to issues of domestic abuse and sexual assault. Trans people do need treatment too when they are victims of domestic abuse. Charities cannot turn their back on them just because they were not born biologically female. Perhaps there needs to be segregated units for those women who would be afraid of engagement with trans women if one had abused them in the first place. But let's not pretend the only domestic abuse victims who need our help are cis gendered women!

Feminism has had a bad press in the past thanks to a select group of individuals who decided to hijack the ideology and focus on trying to posit crazy futures where men are downgraded to the status of baby making semen dispensers and trans women should be seen only as part of the supporting act within the movement if allowed to express an opinion within it. Now I can imagine that some TERFs will say "oh we're being misogynistic" because we're highlighting them for serious critique. If feminism, especially radical feminism is to make it's mark in the 21st century, we have to move away from endless semantic smackdowns and an overfocus on the theoretical rather than practical applications.  There are many men and women wishing to be part of the movement, so let's be inclusive, compassionate and collaborative to reach workable solutions that can make a difference to everyone's lives. Such as helping protect funding for domestic abuse charities, improving Sex and Relationships education for secondary school students and to be supportive by encouraging, not shaming Muslim feminists who are trying to push for reforms in the Middle East and Asia to secure voting rights or abortion rights for those women who have been sidelined for many generations. TERFs have to be willing to work with us to achieve a compassionate sense of Feminism; if not, they may not be the best advocates to take our cause forward. "Deeds, Not Words" was the war cry of Emmeline Pankhurst and the Suffragette movement; maybe it's time to take on this banner once again and prove feminism has something valuable to offer: Hope, not Hatred.