I’m posting this on behalf of all the members of The F Word blog collective.
UPDATE: The Feminism in London organisers have now contacted us to clarify that the workshop is open to trans women, contrary to what we were initially told. This decision was only confirmed on Monday and it appears there has been some miscommunication as to what the policy was. Feminism in London have amended their website to confirm this, and apologised for not making it clearer earlier.
We are pleased to hear this, but do stand by our assertions that the organisers of all feminist events and groups need to ensure – from the outset – that trans women are explicitly welcome in spaces designed for women only, and that simply stating that a space is ‘women only’ is inadequate.
We recently advertised this Saturday’s Feminism in London conference on the blog. Noting that some of the workshops were advertised as ‘women only’ we contacted the organisers to ask whether this included trans women, and were informed that the workshop on rape and sexual violence would be for ‘female born women only’.
We are extremely disappointed by this decision, and felt it was important to raise our concerns publicly, both to warn trans women that Saturday’s conference is not a safe space for them given the transphobic attitudes on which this decision is based, and to challenge this kind of transphobic thinking within feminism.
There are two issues to be raised here. Firstly, excluding trans women from women-only space is no more than transphobic discrimination. The arguments against including trans women in these spaces are rooted in the belief that trans women are “really men”, and should therefore be excluded on the same grounds as cis men in order to create a “safe” space for cis women. This denies trans women’s lived experience as women. Faced with both sexism and transphobia, trans women are particularly vulnerable to violence, and excluding them from a support group denies them access to potentially valuable help in dealing with abuse. There are currently few firm statistics on violence against trans women, but at least one study found as many as 50% of trans people in the survey had been raped/sexually assaulted by a romantic partner. Yet by excluding trans women from what is meant to be a “safe” space for women, the ‘female born women only’ policy implies that trans women are the perpetrators – not the victims – of misogynist sexual violence.
The exclusion of trans women from women-only spaces creates a hierarchy amongst women, where trans women’s safety and needs are viewed as less important that cis women’s. This perpetuates the discrimination trans women suffer in all areas of our transphobic society. We strongly believe that feminists should be working to end all forms of discrimination, certainly not encouraging it in our own spaces.
The second issue to be highlighted here is that the term ‘women-only’ is in itself exclusionary. In a society where most people deny that trans women are really women, the term ‘women’ essentially defaults to ‘cis women’. Unless it is made explicit that trans women are included in feminist spaces for women – either by stating that trans women are welcome or expanding the ‘women only’ definition – trans women will have no clear idea as to whether the space in question will have an inclusive or hostile atmosphere. After all, ‘women only’ has been used by cis feminists in the past to exclude trans women while maintaining an external image of inclusiveness
This isn’t to say that having a ‘women-only’ policy is necessarily indicative of conscious anti-trans women discrimination – I can put my hand up right now and say that I’ve organised ‘women-only’ spaces in the past without considering this issue – but unconscious discrimination based on ignorance can be just as harmful as conscious discrimination, and it would take very little effort on the part of cis feminists to change our practices and ensure trans women are explicitly included in groups and events designed for all women. Trans women shouldn’t have to take a gamble with their comfort and safety every time they attend a feminist event.
We hope that the organisers of Feminism in London will rethink both their ‘female born women’ policy and their attitudes towards trans women. Changing the labels on feminist events is just the first step: as long as the attitudes that lead to the implementation of ‘female born women’ (or ‘women born women’) policies exist, trans women are not going to feel welcome in feminist spaces.
This is really sad for us as F-Word bloggers, given that members of the blogging team attended and enjoyed last year’s conference, are planning to go to this event, and support the idea and organisation of a feminist conference like this in London. Members of this collective are also longstanding members of the London Feminist Network which has organised the event. This isn’t a case of talking from outside in, or trying to undermine anyone else’s hard work organising such a big event, but urging members of our own feminist community in London to make sure that the landmark feminist activist conference in the capital is an inclusive and safer space for everyone.
This is the kind of thing which has held back the success of women’s liberation movements and feminist movements for years; we don’t want that to happen again, we want to be able to move forward and have forums like Feminism in London to talk and address the crucial issues which will be raised at the event.