TERFs uprising: Trans exclusionary radical feminists gatekeeping womanhood
By: Iris Lee
I am worried about attending my first International Women’s Day march. What will the public on the train think of me? My hat is emblazoned with a scribbled slogan that reads “feminism without trans women is not feminism.” Looking back, I shouldn’t have even worried about stares from TERFS on the train, because there was much worse to come at the march.
A contingent of sex worker and trans exclusionary ‘feminists’, known as SWERFs and TERFs, have organised a contingent to pour out their bigotry at the march. It was only the night before that the march’s organising collective put out a statement in support of sex workers and trans women.
Of course, this statement was too little and too late to be effective. The contingent were even able to push their signs near the speakers at the start of the march, and had a presence during sex worker activist Jane Green’s speech.
But it was not just this small contingent in a sea of thousands that caused ripples. Whenever a pro-trans chant began, it was automatically reverted back to the same monotonous chant about sexism. My long-running sense of trouble with feminist practice in left and radical spaces was living out before my eyes.
It seemed that the mostly white cis feminist crowd could not imagine solidarity outside their own experience. While most of the people there would likely say they were ‘trans inclusive’, does this mean they are actually changing how they describe the world and position themselves within it? Why were there so many signs that equated womanhood to the possession of a particular set of genitals? Why were trans chants over-ridden?
The problem with ‘trans inclusive feminism’ is that its premise is still based on cis supremacy. It’s the cis women who are centred in this idea of feminism. It reminds me of a comment a cis women friend of mine made when I came out to her: that I’d “joined the club.” As if trans women and femmes, and gender non-conforming people, are an accessory and an addition to the club of feminism.
The writer Sarah Schulman in her book Ties that bind on familial homophobia discusses how homophobia is not actually a phobia but a pleasure system enforced by straight society. In the same way, my experiences of transmisogyny aren’t necessarily a ‘phobia’ cis women have of me, but a way of making themselves feel superior, or have more power, in a system they benefit from.
In the following week after International Women’s Day, I attended an event by Loving Feminist Literature. The event was held next to a glitzy outfit of Victoria University, with a focus on influential women. They profiled everyone from business bosses, a former politician, activists and an author. What seemed missing was a sense of collectivity instead of individualism.
The event caught me off-guard. Despite the event being entitled Decolonising Feminism, they gave the platform to an upper middle class white cis lesbian speaker, Barbary Clarke, who made a number of deeply hurtful anti-trans comments, which particularly targeted trans women.
I wanted to interject but I did not and at first none of the dozens of cis allies in attendance did either. I was sobbing in rage. I felt like, and probably was, the only trans femme in the room. The main source of contestation to this speaker eventually came from a Black non-Indigenous person, which led to the proceedings finally being halted until she was asked to leave. Throughout all of this, no platform was given to trans people.
It wasn’t enough for those with a platform after to merely say that the comments were wrong and that trans women are women. The damage was done and the suggestions to move on from the hurt or unite in feminist love were disappointing. It’s as though feminist spaces cannot see how policed the genders of trans and gender non-conforming people already are.
Any sort of feminism that is actually already trans, instead of inclusive, can’t just be white trans feminism either. As a white person, I benefit from the white supremacy that formed a violent gender binary order. Colonisation violently disrupted many egalitarian gender relations and colonisation continues through the high rates of harm faced by Sistergirls and Brotherboys on their stolen land.
Trans women of colour Sylvia Rivera is quoted in Queens in exile explaining it was only after 1974 that a division between trans women and radical lesbians developed. This is the same moment white gay men and others sold out the queer political movement to become straight acting and gain mainstream respectability. It was trans women of colour like Sylvia Rivera who fought for our liberation.
Yet the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spiked to the spotlight recently to claim “trans women are trans women”, but not actually women, like cis women are, because supposedly trans women are socialised as men. What her comments and my other experiences have in common is how they centre cis women at the centre, with the power to police the borders of gender, particular womanhood.
Having debates framed around policing the boundaries of womanhood inevitably polices trans women’s bodies. A fuller discussion of gender, and dismantling institutions of violence such as settler colonialism, are completely side-tracked. If the left and radical spaces continue this sort of ‘feminism’, then backlashes against marginalised people, will become even worse.
Iris Lee is a writer and activist based in Melbourne / Kulin nations land. She has written for The Lifted Brow and presents on 3CR’s Queering The Air.