Esther Townsend examines the politics behind RadFem 2012
If you’re looking for a weekend of “women-only, radical feminist mobilising, theorising, socialising and connecting” RadFem 2012 (London, 14-15 July) is apparently 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 actually 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; our paper; this blog) but some are women only (our monthly London discussion group). There’s one big difference though – we allow people the freedom to decide on their own gender!
RadFem 2012 define gender through biological essentialism i.e. 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 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 all trans people? In some ways, it is true, yet many feel gender as a continuum and don’t place themselves in one of two strictly defined places (some people even dare to move around that continuum). But more importantly – 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? (Some feminists might say so!)
So why are trans women (or men) seen as more responsible than the rest of us? 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; additional challenges in personal relationships; and often, as a result, higher rates of substance misuse and self-harm. 34% of adult trans people have attempted suicide in the UK.
It basically comes down to this – do we think that they 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, who already experience 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, although RTN have been publicising RadFem 2012 and its “amazing line-up of speakers”. They’re keen to point out it is not an LFN conference and “not all radical feminists agree with one another on everything” but one trans woman has already commented on Facebook that it makes her feel differently about attending RTN.
RadFem 2012 has certainly 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 altogether, others for writing open letters to the conference organisers or having an alternative teach-in or protest outside the venue. Today NUS Women’s Campaign put out this statement condemning the conference’s transphobia.
The organisers seem to be preparing for a big turnout – I’d imagine trying to argue and debate with many of the organisers is an uphill struggle but it’s possible that 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.
If you’re interested in joining other feminists in discussions around this – get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org We’ll be posting any update on the blog here too.