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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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt