I’M struggling. For the last few years, whilst my feminism has evolved, I’ve felt very sure of my politics and how the language I use has a profound affect on how ideas are transmuted within and outwith this group. I have been tone policed and contemporaneously policed my own language. Each prompted instance has been a learning experience, for the better. I’ve taken it on the chin and used it as an moment for introspection to better what I write. Until now.
Vandalism of the Vancouver Women’s Library
This week, for the first time, I felt completely hobbled by that language and utterly unable to respond to a news story that caught my eye. The aggressive behaviour intimidation and vandalism at the Vancouver Women’s Library opening. On the library’s opening night, a group of protesters from Gays Against Gentrification behaved aggressively and thuggishly towards library organisers and attendees, asking women to out themselves if they were involved in sex work (a profoundly unfeminist act). They defaced books with wine and tore down posters. They used their bodies to stop women entering the library and set off the fire alarm. Days later the same group came back and vandalised the bathrooms with spray paint.
The right and wrong way to protest
Why did GAG protest the library? Because the organisers are radical feminists, and radical feminist discourse is often trans-exclusionary. Transphobia and transgender inequality are serious threats to the safety, life chances and indeed lives of transgender people. This is something we as feminists in the progressive movement must continue to work for justice around. We want no one to be unsafe.
Here is where you lose me – when did working for justice involve taking your fight to a library? There is productive protest and there is assholery. I’ll leave you to categorise it. The women’s library is a community resource for all women – all people in fact – and depends on the unpaid work of volunteers and donated books. The protesters have legitimate issues, but their approach is inexcusable. Nothing about this was positive. They could have donated books to the library to pluralise the offer. They could have entered into a respectful discourse. They could have not poured wine all over the fucking books just because they disagree with them. Ideas need to be challenged and disrupted in a way that doesn’t make you look like an idiot.
I tweeted a picture of the graffitied bathroom along with a link to donate to the women’s library for repairs. This was met with questioning as to why I was supporting an organisation that had been violent to trans women. I deleted the tweet, did some further investigation, and continued to think about it for the rest of the day. Had my objection to the vandalism of a community space been a transphobic act? Could I condemn the misogyny I witnessed whilst still supporting the inclusivity of trans people in feminism? What’s the magic ratio needed to express the appropriate amounts of criticism and alliance?
Despite being sex-positive and pro-sex worker’s rights, I still felt I didn’t have the language to tackle this adroitly. I felt lost, but also viewed this as an opportunity to ask questions and learn, so I went to Twitter for advice. I got answers, good ones, but I came away feeling more unsettled than before. A persistent theme was that many were struggling with how to balance condemnation of an individual act whilst not sounding the TERF klaxon. It seems even when you’re careful, there’s still a seriously high chance of language that is perceived as indelicate or downright phobic.
The price of admission for intersectionality
Over the last few days, I’ve wrestled with the idea of ‘the group’ we call feminism. My feminism has been intersectional without question – but I’m no longer convinced that’s a helpful praxis. Intersectionality whilst questioning is surely a healthier and more dynamic way to embrace that framework?
I remembered a lecture by University of Maryland’s Professor Patricia Hill Collins (author of Black Feminist Thought, and many other books on Black feminism) at Cambridge University on Black Feminism as a social justice project. This was the first time I’d experienced something that exposed a weakness in what I had considered (naively) the perfect answer that was intersectionality. Professor Hill Collins argued that in some respects the academy actually works against feminism – in particular Black Feminism. Under the banner of intersectionality, the price of legitimation is leaving your experiential knowledge behind “unless it’s in the service of other paradigms”. The particular voices, wisdom, experiences and freedom struggles are disappeared into the group. Claims can then be made on behalf of the group, whilst ignoring the heterogeneity within.
That’s not to say that intersectionality is not a good tool. It’s the best we have, but we have to evolve our thinking constantly, and continue to interrogate it as a framework. We can embrace and practice intersectional feminism – we must – but we must also work to make sure we don’t disappear the voices within it. As we move to becoming more intersectional, we work to make sure that we don’t make assumptions on behalf of the whole and must also seek the lived experience of all women as valid sources of knowledge.
Are we losing the language of biology and erasing women in the process?
After too much Twitter chat, too much Googling and some active listening to people who know far more than me, I still feel unsettled. Are we losing the language of biology in favour of protecting the group at all cost?
The Midwives Alliance of North America has removed use of the words ‘pregnant women’ in favour of pregnant people in its core competencies, and the British Medical Association has advised doctors to do the same.New York Abortion Access Fund no longer talks of women. As a left-leaning liberal feminist, my immediate reaction to anything Breitbart considers news is to rail against it, but I do think this is worthy of further discussion. My and others feeling conflicted shows there’s a job of work to do to for many feminists to get the right handle on this issue.
Of course gender-varient patients can menstruate, become pregnant and give birth, and that the process for them comes with an extra level of disadvantage and discrimination – particularly where this intersects with race, class, ability and other identities. Trans people already experience significant barriers to healthcare access and reduced outcomes compared to biological women. As the American College of Nurse Midwives says:
As many as one-fourth of gender variant people avoid health care services due to concerns about discrimination and harassment.2 HIV infection within the gender variant community is 4 times the rate of the general population; rates of drug, alcohol, and tobacco use, and depression and suicide attempts are also higher.2,3 These outcomes disproportionately affect gender variant people of color.
There are serious issues here. What have traditionally been called women’s health services must develop and bring understanding of gender identity, expression and discrimination into health care so that it serves all those who rely on it.
Removing the word women and biological language from discussions of female bodily reality seems dangerous. Refusing to acknowledge the female anatomy, reproductive capabilities and sexuality has long been the work of the patriarchy. It seems we had a few golden decades of acknowledgement, and could wear our lived experience of bodily womanhood proudly – but now we have to drop that language in favour of the group. Even with logic in the driver’s seat, it’s hard not to feel this particular aspect of womanhood is being erased with uncomfortable echoes of patriarchy past. As Roe v. Wade sits under a sword of Damocles and the reproductive rights of American women face four years of lockdown, I’m thinking about Professor Hill Collins’ analysis, and am concerned that if we lose the language of biology we dilute our fight. Our experiences are valid and our struggle is real too. I hope that common sense will prevail and that we can find a way to use the language of distinction without it being seen as a discriminatory act. We’re all fighting against the same system. Our enemies are not each other.
But I can’t help but feel we’re willingly Voldemorting our vaginas in the name of the academy – and I’m worried they’ll be forgotten about again. So the question for you all: how can we balance being powerful trans allies and maintain the distinctiveness of our own voices?