Fighting for an inclusive feminist movement
By Kathy Newnam
Around 350 people attended the Feminist Futures Conference, held in Melbourne on May 28-29. Before the conference, there was heated debate on the conference Facebook page about the panellists for the conference, much of the focus being on the inclusion of Melbourne academic Sheila Jeffreys in the program. The opposition to Jeffreys was based upon her extreme transphobic campaigns, as well as her leading role in campaigning against sex workers. A number of other speakers were also opposed on this basis.
Jeffreys was originally on the program, but after a great deal of opposition, the collective agreed to include on the feature panels a number of other speakers, including a representative of the Australian Sex Worker Association, Scarlet Alliance and Still Fierce, Melbourne (a collective that campaigns for the rights of sex and gender diverse people). Upon this announcement, Jeffreys withdrew from the conference, because she was unwilling to speak alongside a trans man. A counter-conference of around 50 people was organised, at which Jeffreys spoke, dedicating her entire speech to vilifying transgender and transsexual people.
Jeffreys and her “radical feminist” supporters cry foul about their increasing isolation within the feminist movement. But the reality is that they are not socially isolated; in fact it is their anti-trans* and anti-sex worker campaigns that get them the most coverage. It is very difficult to argue that Jeffreys - a tenured professor and published author - is hard done by. It’s not hard to get a hearing when you are backing the exclusion of the already oppressed and marginalised.
What Jeffreys and her supporters don’t talk about is the reality of transgender and transsexual oppression. A report by the WA Gender Project details part of this reality from a 2006 study:
* 26.5% of transgender men and 33.3% of transgender women fear discrimination to the point that they modify their daily lives.
* 73.5% of transgender men and 69.7% of transgender women report experiencing personal insults or verbal abuse.
* 29.4% of transgender men and 46.9% of transgender women report experiencing threats of violence or intimidation.
* 11.8% of transgender men and 18.2% of transgender women report experiencing a physical attack or other forms of violence.
In other studies, these figures are even higher. This is the reality that Jeffreys and her supporters ignore. Just as reactionaries have argued for decades that sexuality is a “choice”, the “rad-fems” posit that being trans* is a choice. Further, they argue that trans* women are “invading women’s spaces” or that trans* men are selling out or trying to “escape” women’s oppression. It’s all 100% vile and thoroughly reactionary.
They enforce the oppression of trans* people and try to prevent the feminist movement becoming an ally in the fight for liberation. This exclusion has a long history. Susan Stryker’s book Transgender history gives a detailed account of this exclusion in the US. As recently as 1999, there were attempts to exclude trans* women from the Network of Women Students Australia (NOWSA) conference in Australia.
The impact of such exclusion can have extreme consequences for already oppressed and marginalised people. It has meant that even when the transphobia and transmisogyny are not openly expressed, the movement for many years has been largely silent about the oppression of trans* people. In large parts of the movement, there is an extremely low consciousness about trans* oppression or awareness of the history of the trans* liberation movement. This is also the case within the movement for LGBTI rights – where the TI is very often a very misunderstood add-on.
I would argue that the same is the case within the socialist movement in Australia, where until recently the defence of the rights of transgender and transsexual people has been primarily limited to occasional support for the inclusion of trans* women in the feminist movement.
This low level of consciousness explains the significant “middle ground” in relation to the debate over the inclusion of the likes of Sheila Jeffreys within the movement. On either side, there is simply no room for compromise: trying to convince Sheila Jeffreys about trans* rights is about as fruitful as trying to convince Tony Abbott about abortion rights. On the other side of the debate, there is no room for compromise in the opposition to this bigotry. But there is still a middle ground, represented by the liberal sentiments expressed by many people before the Melbourne conference that we should “have the debate”.
It is instructive to see the different response to another speaker who was originally on the platform of the conference, Melinda Tankard Reist. Tankard Reist is a conservative Christian anti-abortion campaigner, one of the leading figures in the new anti-abortion tactic of taking on a “pro-woman” or “feminist” guise in their campaigning. When her record was pointed out to the conference collective, they quickly withdrew the invitation.
While there is widespread understanding of the importance of a woman’s right to abortion, the different response to Sheila Jeffreys and other speakers with a consistent record of campaigning against trans* people and sex workers came down to the simple fact of a low level of awareness, education and consciousness about the rights of trans* people and sex workers. That is what explains the middle ground, and it is also why the growth of trans* liberation campaigns and the increasing organisation of sex workers have sped up the isolation of the likes of Jeffreys.
Tactics for the movement
But in trying to win that “middle ground”, tactics must also be instructed by an understanding of the history of exclusion. The rights of trans* people and sex workers have not only been overlooked by the feminist movement, but have been actively opposed by a significant section of it. Voices from within these communities have been excluded or silenced within the movement. Even where there is formal inclusion, if there are speakers at a conference who condemn you and your very existence from the platform, you are not going to feel welcome.
So when people argue that the likes of Jeffreys should be included in order to “have the debate”, they are not only legitimising her bigotry but are also enforcing the exclusion of those who are the target of that bigotry. There are not many people who want to sit through a debate about whether they have a right to exist and be themselves. The “inclusion” argument actually hands victory to the voices that already have power in society and further marginalises people already marginalised. This also means that the debate is not going to be very real, because it is heavily weighted against the oppressed.
This goes against one of the most important tenets that we should be advocating and fighting for within the feminist movement: that it should be about empowering the oppressed and building unity.
The opposition to the likes of Sheila Jeffreys and her supporters within the movement is growing. At the conference there was a strong contingent of trans* people, sex workers and their allies organised through the “Feminism is for Everybody” (FIFE) collective - complete with high-vis vests with F.I.F.E. emblazoned on the back. These are very important steps on a far too long road toward ending the exclusion of trans* people and sex workers. The basic premise “FIFE” strengthens the feminist movement immeasurably. It breaks down the divisions within the movement and it also destroys the bullshit idea that men are the enemy.
In this context, the SlutWalk movement has arrived at a very important time. The SlutWalk movement is explicitly pro-sex, pro-sex worker, pro-queer and pro-trans*, and the platforms of the protests have reflected this inclusiveness.
The protests that have been held around the country have put the issues of sexual assault and victim blaming on the agenda and mobilised the largest feminist demonstrations for over 10 years. There were 2500 people at the Melbourne protest (May 28), 400 in Brisbane (May 28) and 1000 in Sydney in the rain (June 13).
Yet, the SlutWalk movement has faced opposition among the radical feminists. This has developed on the same political basis as the bigotry toward trans* people and sex workers. The debate specifics may be different, but the line-up is the same.
On one hand you have the sex-negative essentialists, and on the other hand you have the sex-positive camp, which operates on the premise of “Feminism is for everyone” - including those who identify as sluts. The opposition from radical feminists, such as Gail Dines, is not about the use of the word, but about the concept that it defines - of women being out and proud about their expression of sexuality.
It’s important to understand that these are the real lines of debate, because some people have been confused by the arguments in relation to the use of the word “slut”. One socialist writer in Green Left Weekly even argued that the use of the word meant it was a “moral dilemma” for her to attend the demonstration.
But the real lines are not about a word. There is no legitimate debate as to whether the meaning of words can change their social meaning (even if the dictionaries are often slow to catch up).
Slut has been used in many communities for over 10 years as a term to describe, and take pride in, the expression of a particular form of sexuality (however defined: e.g. someone who has consensual sex with many people or someone who wears a particular form of dress).
There are many people who are out and proud sluts, so to declare, as one socialist group did at the Melbourne SlutWalk, that “no-one is a slut” is just ignorant and exclusionary (and it is especially bizarre to carry a banner that says “no-one is a slut” ahead of a march in which there are literally hundreds of women proudly emblazoned with the word). Such an approach puts them on the wrong side of the debate.
What is most refreshing and inspiring about the SlutWalk movement is that people are in motion for women’s rights. When people are in motion, much of the bullshit and bigotry is swept aside. The debates will still need to be had, but with thousands of people taking to the streets, those who are in the sex-negative camp are being left out in the cold, and that is a very good thing. The protests have been inclusive, and the impulse to action is definitely there. Feminism is being put back on the agenda in the only way that counts: out on the streets in collective action.
Meanwhile, the greater the isolation of the anti-sex worker, anti-trans wing of the “radical feminist movement”, the more they expose the reactionary nature of their political project. While most people were clear about the exclusion of Melinda Tankard Reist from the Melbourne conference, some “radical feminists” continued to defend her even after she was no longer on the platform. Sections of this movement have been collaborating with these anti-woman reactionaries for some time. The “radical feminist” publishing group in Melbourne, Spinifex Press, allied with Tankard-Reist in Victoria in 2008 during the parliamentary debate on abortion laws, campaigning for compulsory counselling before women could access abortion.
In September leading activists in the “radical feminist” group in Perth, ROAR, have organised a conference titled “SCUM Radical Feminist Conference” to “celebrate and re-member the life and work of Valerie Solanas and other radical feminists”. SCUM was a piece by Valerie Solanas written in 1967; it stands for “Society for Cutting Up Men”. To herald this as some sort of manifesto for the movement is utterly reactionary and runs completely counter to the interests and needs of the feminist movement as a whole. Not only does it add to the misunderstanding of what feminism is about, but allowing this sort of rubbish to go unchallenged taints the whole movement with the bigotry they express. That’s why feminists should unequivocally oppose this sort of rubbish being organised in our name.
It would seem that the more inclusive the feminist movement becomes, the more reactionary this section of the “radical feminist” project becomes. Socialists have to take sides in this fight. There will be time enough for other debates and discussions within an inclusive feminist movement, but right now we have to side absolutely unequivocally with those who are fighting for an inclusive movement, a movement that speaks out for the rights of trans* people and sex workers.
We can also learn a lot from the courage of people who are willing to put themselves on the line within the feminist movement to fight for their right to be there, people who have already made a crucial contribution to making the movement what it should be: a social force for the liberation of all.
[This article is based on a workshop at the Marxist Education Conference in Brisbane organised by the Revolutionary Socialist Party on June 11-13. Kathy Newnam is a long-time activist in the women’s liberation movement.]
By Kathy Newnam