Trans people and the current feminist movement

Don't be fooled: feminism is about exploring gender, not policing it.

An international movement is building that links trans liberation with feminist organising. Based around activism and campaigning on grassroots issues and connected through social media, it draws on a rich history of queer and feminist theory while avoiding the binary, male-female thinking which has made some parts of the feminist movement hostile to trans people. For those more interested in the commonalities between feminist and trans campaigning, a host of Tumblrs such as the Trans Women's Anti-Violence Project and Facebook groups such as Feminists Against Transphobia and Feminist: Discuss are creating both transgender space that is explicitly feminist, and feminist space that is explicitly trans inclusive.

The need for such spaces is far from academic, and social media has given rise to street-level organising. As austerity systematically targets marginalised people and decimates the resources aimed at reducing gender inequality, transgender and feminist movements are finding common ground in campaigning around domestic violence, street harassment and reproductive rights, all issues that directly affect women and trans people. For Caitlin Hayward-Tapp, one member of the Brighton Feminist Collective, a focus on transgender was always important.

"One of the things that we were very clear on was that we wanted it to be a trans inclusive feminist space. We've worked quite closely with Brighton Pro-Choice; trans men also get pregnant and need abortions too. We organised the Brighton Reclaim the Night; trans inclusivity was a driving force behind organising that march. Street violence is a huge issue for trans people and women in general," she argues. The group takes its methodology from the second-wave feminist model of consciousness-raising and grassroots campaigning.  "We meet every week; half of our meeting is an activist session where we decide what kinds of campaigns we want to get involved in, and the other half is a discussion. People bring their own knowledge to the group and offer to lead discussions on race, or on rape culture, and we'll spend an hour thrashing out ideas as a group. We're not a women-only space, but if we were, we would be for self-defined women; the idea that trans women aren't women is hugely difficult for me. It's not feminist to say you have to have a certain kind of biology to get involved in our activism."

Ariel Silvera, feminist trans activist and writer, was born and raised in Argentina but has spent the last 10 years campaigning in Dublin's feminist scene. She addressed Dublin's enormous 2012 Rally For Choice, discussing the reproductive rights of trans men, to a rapturous reception. "I have had to do a lot of educating [as a trans woman in feminist circles] but there hasn't been resistance. I've had a long involvement with the Irish pro choice movement, it's kind of where my feminist roots lie," she says.

Though Silvera says there's not yet an explicitly trans-focused feminism in Ireland, she feels that the priorities of Irish feminism leave little room for policing trans people out of feminist campaigning. "In England in the eighties when [feminists] were having wars over kink and porn, Irish women were trying to smuggle condoms from Northern Ireland, trying not to get sent to Magdalene laundries, and trying to escape husbands they could not divorce. In Ireland divorce was illegal until 1995 and homosexuality was illegal until 1994. Who has time to be transphobic?" She laughs. "[In Dublin currently] there are more trans people who are feminists, outspokenly and publicly so, and there are more feminists who are willing to engage in trans issues."

This movement, then, is political in the strictest sense: a natural congruence of the interests and concerns of oppressed people at a time when those concerns are pressing. Trans and genderqueer people have worked within and alongside the feminist movement for more than 40 years, and though their work has too often gone unrecognised, feminist theory has at times drawn deeply from their thinking and experiences to explore non-binary concepts of gender. Although the new resources are based online, centred around the borderless world of blogs, email lists and Facebook groups, this is as much the feminism of Judith Butler or Joan Nestle as it is the feminism of Julia Serano; feminism which explores non-essentialist readings of gender and sees complex oppressions at the heart of women's experiences.

At a demonstration this week against the Observer's decision to publish Julie Burchill's scathing dismissal of trans people, people of all genders and ages gathered to protest against transphobia. "I'm here in solidarity with my trans brothers and sisters," says one older woman in the Guardian's video of the event. "Feminism is about working for equality with all minorities and marginalised people."  Hayward-Tapp agrees: "The levels of transphobia in this country and internationally are so enormous that as feminists we have a responsibility to address this. It would be completely wrong for cisgendered feminists to say "this is our space". All oppressions need to be addressed, not just gender but race and class and disability and sexuality. With that mentality it's always important to make sure that trans people are included in our feminism."

Petra Davis is a queer feminist activist and writer.

Supporters of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender groups wave a huge rainbow banner as they march at the University of the Philippines. Photograph: Getty Images
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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.